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On Violence, the Modern State and Exclusion

This is the story of the thing I am most ashamed of having done in my life. In Junior High and High School I was, shall we say, a powerful figure. Unchallengeable, quick to anger, good at making the right connections with the right people, raised with the backing of a mother who had all of those traits as well and who had developed connections. I was raised in a culture of violence. I’ve seen more stabbings that I can count, I got to be a very good street fight for my rather small stature. Violence was not just something that existed; it was part of a deeply ingrained culture, one that to this day I have a hard time shaking.

When I was 14, there was a house party. One of my girlfriends got drunk and disappeared. After her disappearance she came back out, and sobbing she told me that she had been sexually assaulted by one of the boys at the party, a new potential entrant into my social circle. I made some phone calls and the following Monday, he came up to me limping and bruised and apologized for his actions. I felt sick afterwards, that I had handled the problem through violence, that I had acquired enough power to send in my own enforcement. It scared me. It is a fact that to this day haunts because it reminds me that my gifts can be used for evil, that I have the potential to be not only evil but frighteningly destructive. I have to get up every morning and remind myself of this, which is why everything I do is a conscious and intentional act of good. This is the dark side of my intelligence.

I wish I could tell you that it stopped there, but during my senior year one of my girlfriends was being abusive to a rather popular friend of everyone. I received several phone calls from the other powerful girls in the school telling me they intended to beat her up to get her to stop. By this point, I had extreme loyalties to this girl, her mom was my second mom, she let me come to her house when I hadn’t slept for three days because of the noise, she took me to the SATs, and she did my hair for every single dance. I also didn’t want to perpetrate the cycle already mentioned. I told them that I understood their anger, but that hurting this friend would create problems for me. I told them I would “deal with her” myself, which meant having a conversation in which I told her that her behavior needed to be changed because it was both wrong and also because I couldn’t hold back the consequences for much longer.

People like me in poor areas are dangerous. I know every day that if I hadn’t gone to Stanford the alternative pathway was not just one in which I would be in poverty, but I also would have likely been someone with a lot of power and control in my neighborhood. I wouldn’t have been a stripper, I would have been a high level drug dealer. The smartest kids in the poor neighborhoods don’t just drown when they can’t get out, they continue to acquire power and become dangerous figures at a high level. It was to everyone’s benefit in America that I went to Stanford. Now I can use my skills for something positive. I don’t think I will ever be able to shake the guilt and sadness that I have over my actions at 14.

Everyone asks me about the violence in the poor areas and early in my Stanford career I didn’t have a good answer where the culture was coming from, but now I know. We were incredibly afraid of legitimate authority figures. Most of us kids get experience pretty quickly in dealing with the police. The police treated our entire neighborhoods like we were suspect and profiled us. Some of my friends experienced police brutality. Most of my friends (me included) had family members who had done time. Police and, in general the authorities in mainstream America, didn’t seem particularly interested in keeping us safe, it seemed that their goal was merely to keep us contained in our ghetto. We also got the message loud and clear that we didn’t belong to mainstream society. The hallmark of the modern state is that it has the monopoly on violence. When you exclude people from society, they will come to police themselves. We don’t call the cops because we don’t trust them, preferring to “deal” with our own. The War on Drugs is continuing to destroy whole communities, and as I learned at Stanford, those drugs weren’t going to the poor, we couldn’t afford them. My best friend went to a high school where half the kids grew up rich and the other half came from the projects, she would go to her friend’s house parties and there would be coke out on random pieces of furniture, those kids got to go to college, while my friends either ended up dead or in prison for far less serious drugs. Organized crime comes out of marginalized groups because there isn’t any legitimate pathway to acquiring wealth, or even at a really basic level, to support their families. I’ve met a lot of drug dealers and gang leaders in my life, every single one of them were family oriented people who had gotten into the business to support their families or to “get out” in the only pathway that seemed like a reasonable way to do that. Our elite do some horrifically violent things on a much larger scale, including police brutality and extending into foreign affairs, they just have ways of shirking responsibility. Since we were already excluded from the system, unless they wanted to use our bodies to make war, we had to create our own societies, our own structure, and our own ways of solving the problems. Every human being wants merely to be able to love and care for the people they love. I am not excusing the violence but I am trying to put it into perspective so that people can understand where this is coming from. The only way to stop the violence is to stop excluding people from society.

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