Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
Living in a prison town takes on a whole new meaning when your family members are incarcerated just down the road. Manuel Vidal shares his experience trying to fit in here and his political awakening as an advocate for “collective liberation.”
I’m a first generation US citizen. It’s weird when I say that because my family is indigenous to this continent. I don’t think indigenous people can ever be “illegal.” They should be free to travel and not be stopped or arrested as outsiders, but they aren’t. I recognize the privilege that comes with my US birth certificate that isn’t afforded to others like me.
I was born in San Diego County. My family moved here to be nearer to my stepfather and other family members who are incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison. Most of the men in my family are in prison. When I was younger, my family would have to travel the whole state, every month, so that we could visit them.
But when I was about 15, we moved here to make it easier and safer for us. I’m 18 now. When I first got here, I thought Del Norte County was like Forks in the movie Twilight. A lot of trees and forests and cold. I was an inner city kid, so seeing what a redwood looked like was amazing. And it is cold for me all the time, even in the summer when it’s sunny. When I first moved here, I was freezing. The air was so moist. I thought I was going to die of hypothermia, and all these folks were running around in short-shorts and flip-flops playing disc golf. It was crazy!
I’ve been here about three years, and I’m just starting to feel like I belong. It’s very white and conservative, so being a person of color, I didn’t think of it as home. When I first got here, I worried about how people might treat us. I worried that some redneck would run over my family. I would get dirty looks a lot, and I felt scared. I still worry sometimes.
This is a prison town. Most of the COs who keep my family members incarcerated are also my neighbors. When I was younger, I would go into a convenience store and see a CO, and I would
immediately tense up. Because I knew what they could do—what they could do to my family—to my father and other relatives who are incarcerated at Pelican Bay just a few miles away.
I know who the COs are and the COs know who I am. They’ve known me for a long time. They saw me grow up, coming to the prison every month even before we lived here. My experiences
with COs have not been very positive. When I was younger and we were still driving up from San Diego, they could make our lives hell if they wanted to. And they often did. During visitor hours, after we’d come so far, they would often make us drive back to our hotel and change our clothes and make us put on khakis. They could be very strict with the dress code if they wanted to. Sometimes we felt like we drove sixteen hours just to be harassed.
During my time in high school here, there would be moments when a friend I’d made would get picked up by his dad out in front of the school—and then we would never be friends again. His dad knew me from the prison, knew I was related to an inmate, and must have told his child not to hang out with me anymore. Most of these friends were white. The COs are mostly white
men. The inmates are mostly men of color. And—for them—I was just a person destined to repeat the cycle and become an inmate myself. This just added to the stigma I experienced.
Most people still don’t know I have family members who are incarcerated. This isn’t something I’ve talked about a lot, even in my organizing work. Growing up here, friends would ask me why I moved here. I had a list of answers I used to deflect from the truth. I would sometimes just say, “The prison.” Then they would say, “Oh, snap! My dad works at the prison, too!” They didn’t realize their dad oversaw my dad in this prison-industrial complex. I never said, “Oh, snap! Your dad is making tons of money off black and brown bodies—my relatives!” But I could have. It would have been true.
I hate to admit it, but I had all these excuses I would use for why we moved here so that I didn’t have to explain it to people. I caught myself self-censoring for my own protection, and later, to comfort people. People don’t want to know a guy who works at College of the Redwoods has incarcerated family members. I don’t usually talk about it. Even in the youth leadership activities I participated in, even in the Youth Training Academy, I didn’t want anyone to know. I rationalized that I had all these cool opportunities I was being exposed to, and I didn’t want to blow it. There were kids whose parents were CO’s, and our groups got involved in these deep discussions about racism and safety and inequity, and I had to share space with them. It was uncomfortable. They would make comments about people who had been incarcerated—and I think sometimes they knew about my family—but I couldn’t just lash out and be the stereotype
they expected me to be: the crazy and angry and reactive person of color. I was silenced before I opened my mouth to share my experience.
The way people talk here about inmates is very hurtful and disturbing. They call them “bad guys” and “monsters,” and that’s not even the worst of it. I’ve heard them say things like, “Man, if it wasn’t for my job, I would just put a bullet in every last one of them.” Really? You’re talking about mass murder and your job is to protect the safety of the men incarcerated? I want to say, “That’s my stepdad you’re talking about!” But I don’t.
It’s ironic, because a lot of these COs are bullies. They bully each other and they bully the inmates. But in high school, their kids get bullied. I protected their kids from being bullied. I protected their kids despite the fact that they weren’t providing basic protection
for my family. You asked me when I started to understand the prison-industrial complex and the school to prison pipeline. You know that I studied the subject here at the college and in the Youth Training Academy. But I understood it long before moving here simply by seeing the cycle so many of my family members went through. Every single man in my family has been in prison. And I knew so many people in inner city San Diego where it was like, “Wow, your family
member is in prison, too?” It’s scary how common it is for people of color. It’s an untold truth that we’re caught up in a huge system of injustice, and it makes me feel so hopeless sometimes. Fighting to change this system—to dismantle this system—it’s a big job.
I still don’t feel fully connected to this place. But through my community organizing work, I realize that I need to claim the space, to say “This is my Del Norte.” And I don’t just think of this
place as my training ground anymore.
One of my favorite mentors is Gracia Rojas from True North Organizing Network. She’s this bad-ass woman of color. I learned so much from her. I would think I understood racism, and then she would blow my mind. She reminded me that, as a man of color organizing against racism, I have to combat the patriarchy as well. It’s not just one issue. All of these issues intersect.
Sitting with my friends, Gracia and Jacob Patterson, I’m starting to get it more. This revolution will be all-inclusive, will be wheelchair accessible. It will love its trans community, will be welcoming to all undocumented communities, will be led by indigenous
With this current administration, it’s scary. It feels like a lot of the work has been in vain. We’ve gone back so much. It sucks, but deep down, I’m not too surprised. I know the injustice this country is capable of. The well-meaning liberals were surprised when Trump won. But I knew. It’s like this: the rule for me has always been, don’t drive in a car with a lot of other brown people, right? And my white friend is along for the ride. And we’re pulled over, and my white friend is surprised. And he starts arguing with the cop, and he’s upset. But we’re all like, “Dude. We were expecting this.” He’s getting a taste of what it’s like. So Trump? We were expecting this.
Looking at the prison system, we’re trying to fix a wheel that’s already broken. We’re trying to fix a shitty wheel. Law enforcement isn’t used to help people. It is used to enforce policies and rules and regulations to protect its own system. At one point, it was plain old slave patrol. So trying to fix an agency rooted in racism sounds crazy. In my eyes, that’s not going to work. It’s an inherently racist system. There are no good cops. The positions make shitty, racist people when they’re in it for long enough. Police officers and correctional officers, those are positions that maintain the status quo. And the status quo is harmful to communities of color.
I think that’s what most people don’t understand—we have these people advocating that “blue lives matter.” There is no such thing as a blue life, a blue person. They’re talking about an occupation. Having a particular occupation doesn’t make you more deserving of life than Philando Castile, or Sandra Bland, or Trayvon Martin. And the list goes on and on and on.
Law enforcement today is the new Klu Klux Klan. I mean, there may be that well-meaning good-old-boy from Kansas who goes into law enforcement because he wants to help people, but being in the training and in those tense situations just feeds into the shootfirst- and-ask-questions-later thinking that hurts communities of color.
One of the experiences I had that helped me understand what we’re up against was when I went with a group of friends to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It was overwhelming and traumatic. The camp was amazingly structured, probably because there were so many community organizers involved. Lots of people came to offer up skills and trainings, like how to be peaceful, how to respect native space, how not to appropriate native culture, and how to be on the front lines of the protest. We were even trained on what to do if you get pepper sprayed.
The first night was one of the most violent nights there. At Backwater Bridge, we came face to face with paid mercenaries representing the corporation, and we heard they were advancing and going to take over the bridge. So we went out there to stop them, to be a blockade. They met us with brute force. We were pepper sprayed, shot with really big rubber bullets, and exposed to flash grenades. We were sprayed with ice cold water, too. Seeing my friends in danger was terrifying. It was a night filled with violence.
Again, I wasn’t surprised that law enforcement was doing this to a group mostly made up of people of color, but it was terrifying to have my fears reaffirmed.
Being an organizer, I’m part of a long lineage of ancestors who were bad asses. We’ve done it before, and we’ll keep on doing it. I was afraid, but I tried to be mindful that I shouldn’t be. The fear is just part of a colonial mindset. After all, I had nothing to be afraid of. I was not the one building a pipeline across sacred ground. Even though we were being painted by Fox News as crazy protesters who wanted to see the world burn, the truth was that we were there to protect the same clean water that law enforcement officers needed, too.
One of the many takeaways from that one night was not worrying about being afraid. I reminded myself that Malcom X, Richard Aoki, Caesar Chavez, Angela Davis and others were probably afraid, but they didn’t let it stop them. I wasn’t going to let it stop me, either.
But coming back from Standing Rock was strange. When I was there, I was in a war zone. Helicopters were flying over the camp 24/7. We couldn’t sleep properly. We weren’t eating. We were at a constantly high level of anxiety and stress. Coming back home from that trauma was hard because my friends all dealt with it differently. I would hear a little sound in my room, and I would wake up thinking police were coming to get me. It was heavy. Being here, it’s so white and I felt so out of place. I remember a law enforcement officer here asking me if I was okay, and I just broke down in tears. I thought, “You are capable of doing so many bad things, Mr. Police Officer.” I still have a lot of things to deal with, coming back. I still have nightmares about being on that bridge.
I want people to understand the collective liberation of our communities depends on our being intersectional with what matters. We can’t get to the place we want to be unless we acknowledge our biases and unpack them. And I think that’s where I get stuck the most. Being in white spaces does not help at all. Here in the organizing work, most of the people are white. At the college where I work, most of the people are white. A lot of the people around me are white. I can’t escape it. Yesterday, I was having a mini-panic attack. I couldn’t get away from it. Take a look at our city council, our local officials, our school system. This isn’t to say that every single white person is bad, but every single white person who has power doesn’t realize their privilege. How do you dismantle these systems that are so embedded in Del Norte County? How do we get all communities to see this—to come to understand that, yes, we all have our privileges? That’s the work.
—September 15, 2017