I don't believe cages help us heal. I think we find ways—because we're magnificent beings. I don't think being tortured helps us.
Hurt people hurt people. That's not an excuse for harm, but it fuels much of the criminal legal system.
At 19, Marlon Peterson was the lookout for a robbery in Manhattan. He was unarmed, but four people were shot during the robbery and two of them died. Peterson spent a decade behind bars.
He writes about those years, and the childhood that preceded them, in his new memoir, Bird Uncaged: An Abolitionist's Freedom Song.
As a young teen, Peterson was a self-described nerd—a Jehovah's Witness and valedictorian in eighth grade.
But he was growing up a young Black man in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1980s and 1990s—the height of the stop-and-frisk era.
He also endured a sexual assault at age 14, and an accidental shooting.
Those traumas stayed with him—I made my own choices, he tells New Thinking host Matt Watkins, “but I also did not choose to experience the type of things I experienced.”
Peterson now works to ensure fewer young people go through those experiences, and to build responses to the cycle of trauma they can initiate that don't involve putting people in cages.
Peterson is the founder of the Precedential Group, a social justice consulting firm, and founding coordinator of Youth Organizing to Save Our Streets, one of the Center for Court Innovation's violence interruption programs. He is also a member of our advisory board.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: A lot of the book it seems to me, at least in the early parts, is about hiding: you hiding who you were, and you hiding some of the bad things that happened to you as a young person. But then in the book, you tell it all. Is that really the journey that you most wanted to tell?
Marlon PETERSON: It's the journey that came out. In the ideation phase of this book, I knew a couple things. I knew that I needed to tell a story that was bigger than me. I knew I wanted to tell a story that illuminated prison, but didn't center prison, the physical prison.
And I knew I wanted to write an honest book. I think for the most part, at least professionally, as an advocate, as a strategist, or what have you, people know I went to jail, that sort of stuff. But I think people know the polished me. I mean, I've written about different things before, and I've spoken about things, but it's still a polished part.
And I think sometimes that gives a misconception that, one, prison worked. That it gives this conception that people go there, that those of us who've gone through certain situations, who've maybe gone through various types of prisons, or lived in certain types of communities, had these similar... or sexual abuse, all those sort of things, that the past doesn't impact the present.
And I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to write something dishonest, because that's not true, it's not true. And we all hide in various ways. Some of us don't choose to write about it or talk about it, and that's fine. That just happened to be a gift or skill that I like, and writing does a lot for me. And so I decided to let it out that way.
But I want people to be truthful, because I think that's the only way we get to some of the things, get to the type of answers to things, and our problems that we are striving to get, even in the policy world.
WATKINS: You said something that struck me about wanting to tell a story that was bigger than you. What was that bigger story, bigger than you, that you wanted to tell?
PETERSON: I think that we're all dealing with these things. And that you don't need to go through incarceration to feel some of these feelings. And that incarceration is just the most visible display of human trauma and hurt.
I always say this about my time inside: I fell in love with humanity through experiencing people in prison, because I saw people at the absolute worst, and I understood—being around them in conversation, they sleeping in the bed next to me, or above me, below me, wherever we're at—I got to understand that they were more than whatever it is that they were there for. And that developed a love for me, it developed a love for humans, and the humans that we hate the most.
WATKINS: The epigraph of the book is, "I don't believe in cages of any kind." Before you get to the literal cage of prison, did it feel for you like you were inhabiting several cages growing up? Your parents are undocumented Trinidadian, so there's a cage there, you're a young Black man, as we said, height of the stop and frisk era, your behavior is getting criminalized left and right. Is that what you mean about not believing in cages of any kind?
PETERSON: Absolutely, I mean that in a literal way. But all these other things were happening. And these things create cages for us as people in our own families, in our household, in our schools.
And when I say by cages: the things that prevent us from being the most liberated versions of ourselves. Being liberated from trauma that happened to us. All of us—that we all can sit down in one room and talk about trauma that we've hidden, or we committed. And those things impact people.
And then there's the most extreme one, prison. I don't believe cages in any way help us heal. I think we find ways as humans—because we're magnificent beings—we find ways, whether through being in community with other people, therapy, whatever it is, religion, whatever works for you. But we find it that way. I don't think being tortured helps us.
WATKINS: Another cage of a sort you mention several times in the book is masculinity and having to perform a certain version of that. What role did that play in your story?
PETERSON: Everybody talk about the neighborhood, the old neighborhood. You hear a lot of people who "made it," they talk about the old neighborhood. And the old neighborhood usually is riddled with a lot of love and joy—joyful experience. But it's also riddled with a lot of harm and hurt and brutal shit.
And in some ways, we are required to survive, you got to be a little tougher, you got to perform that. You got to make sure that other men, other people, don't see you as somebody that you can be preyed upon. It's like some regular primal shit. And I get it. But I also know that that is not who I wanted to be. It's who I felt like I had to be.
I always give the example, you see a little child, you want to cuddle, and kiss, and play on the ear, and you're tickling, and all that sort of stuff. And by the time they're as young as 12, 13, 14, 17, whatever it is, he, and even she, or they, potentially could be this rough person—in some ways, trying to act tougher than the next person, because they feel they got to survive because of some experiences that they had or saw. And they're no longer that person you want to hug, and kiss, and whatnot. They may scare you now. And they may intentionally make you scared of them too.
The harmful parts of our masculinity, Let me just say that, the harmful parts of our masculinity comes out even more so. And we got to perform it for each other, because we think we need to survive. And when you doing it not because you want to, but because you think you have to survive, it's like you being in a cage.
There was some shit I had to do in prison, not because I wanted to, but because I had to survive, I had to not communicate with people, I had to have a stoic face, I had to show no emotions. I didn't want to do that, but I had to perform that. It was a performance. And it worked, it worked.
But I'm just saying that with masculinity, the harmful parts of masculinity—people call it toxic masculinity—there are parts of it that we don't want to be, but we feel we have to be it, to survive. And now to me, that's suffocating.
And sadly, so many of us, when you think about gun violence—I know you want to talk about that at some point—but when we think about violence in our communities, that's people trying to breathe gasps for air.
WATKINS: In terms of thinking about making decisions for other people rather than for ourselves, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the robbery that landed you in prison for 10 years as a very young man. You were just a lookout on that robbery. But four people end up getting shot, two of them died. You wrestle with that really openly in the book. Looking back on it now, how do you understand what led to that decision for you?
PETERSON: I always think back to the... Just, it's funny, you caught me at a time—literally, I just got off my Zoom call with my therapist, so you caught me at a real vulnerable time.
WATKINS: All right.
PETERSON: No, it's all good. It's all good.
Yeah, I think the sexual assault that I write about in the book, had nothing to do in any sort of literal linear sense with the robbery I was a part of five years later. That moment fucked me up. I can't say it no other way—it fucked me up, in a way that only I could see it.
WATKINS: And you weren't sharing it with anybody. You didn't tell anybody about it.
PETERSON: I didn't tell anybody until I was already in prison, facing the life sentence at the time. And going back to that cage of masculinity, I didn't want people to think I was soft, I didn't want to think at that time—because I was homophobic as a kid—I didn't want nobody to think that I was gay, because it was a man that assaulted me. So, I was like, "I can't tell nobody about that." I don't want nobody making fun of me, and all that. So, I just kept it.
And so, by the time the opportunity for a robbery had happened... I mean, I was shot a year before I was robbed. It might have been by a friend, but I was still in that place. I went from this honorable, smart, nerdy, Jehovah Witness kid, to now, this kid who's out here just wading in the wind.
Without giving any excuse—I'm not trying to say in any way that this happened, so that's why I wanted to be robbing people. No, I chose to be a part of that. But I also did not choose to experience the type of things I experienced. And I didn't know how to react to it. And I reacted to it in a way that wasn't helpful to people.
But I was around people, and I was around people that at certain times I felt safe around and could protect me. Or not even protect me but made me feel like I wouldn't be preyed upon, and the certain mindset that came along with that.
And so, I put myself around a different type of circle. And that's what we did in that circle. These things aren't hard to happen, particularly when you're in an environment where a lot of people are going through the same type of hurt and harm but not telling anybody. The reason why I grapple with it so much in the book, because I grapple with it so much in life.
One of my first jobs when I came home from jail was to work with the CCI program, SOS. I was one of the first three violence interrupters that they had. And that's when nobody knew what a violence interrupter was. And I would go to these shooting responses, organize these shooting responses, be with family members who were killed, I mean, who had lost family members, go to hospitals, or go to people's homes... I was in that. And I would be like... They wouldn't know who I was, or my... They wouldn't know my history necessarily, they may have known I went to jail.
But I can literally remember being at shooting responses, and at these public vigils where we're lighting candles, and all this sort of stuff. And in my mind, I'm like, "Somebody else had to go through this because of me."
And that's me. Nobody knew that. I remember Ifé Charles who works with the Center, and she was so great, I considered her a big sister—she was so great at interacting with people in the community.
And I know so many times where she'd be like: When we light this candle, or whatever, say that name of that person who you may have lost. And I would say the name of the people who were lost, who were killed.
WATKINS: In the robbery you were a part of.
PETERSON: In the robbery. I would say their names, because I didn't kill them, I didn't shoot them, I didn't have a gun. But I know I'm associated with it. And I know that to this day now—2021—that they may think about that, and they would know that my name is associated. They don't know who I was, or my background and whatever. They just know that I was a part of that, and I know that. I know that.
And so that grappling, that... I'm at a place where it no longer overwhelms me. But it used to. And that's why I had to... I wanted to address that in the book, because often times, I think people think that for those of us who may have been formerly incarcerated, and committed harm, or we're doing all this sort of stuff, and maybe even achieving some level of success from the work that we get to do, that in some way, we've just dismissed the past. The past happened, I'm fully aware of it. And I wanted people to see that. I wanted people to understand that.
WATKINS: In some ways, a lot of the work that you've done on yourself to be the person, I mean, the really impressive person you are today, happened in prison. But it's pretty clear you don't buy into this: prison is a place to go for redemption. You went in there, you're 19 years old, and you're there for 10 years. I mean, having had that experience, what do you think prisons are for? Why are they the way that they are?
PETERSON: I think prisons are what we do as society to... We sacrifice people for the façade of safety and order. And what I mean by that is that—I often make this joke... Not make this joke, but allude to this joke, reference this joke. We all have been to the play, we've heard comedians, and we've joked with our friends and what have you: "Don't drop the soap, you go to prison…dot, dot, dot." We make these jokes. And I have too—I'm not knocking you, I'm not one of these people judging you for making a joke, whatever.
The point I'm getting to is that, we are subconsciously, at the very least, subconsciously, but I think most of us are consciously aware that people are harmed in prison, on a very carnal level. We are aware of it. And yet, so there's a part of us, a cognitive dissonance that happens that says that, "Well, maybe they deserve that, and that will make them better."
Prison is what we know how to deal with people who have broken the social contract. That's what we have it for. And that has expanded into all types of things, beyond just homicide and sexual assault to all types of things.
But in terms of the utility of prison, there's a utility in isolating people who might be a danger to others. But the idea that... Everybody going to space now, right—Bezos, everybody going to space. If they found some people and came back to Earth, and they saw prisons as the idea of how we fix the problems in society, they would probably be like, "How is that possible? These are where all the hard things happen, all the most horrible things happen in concentrated spaces.” And that's where we want to fix society.
And going back, Dostoevsky always said that, "You can tell the degree of a civilization by entering its prisons." And then so it makes sense when we look out in society, and the levels of violence that we have in our societies. We live in one big ass prison.
WATKINS: But you write that over your time in prison, you became less confined by your confinement. How do you understand that? What was behind that?
PETERSON: I said before that me being around people, and struggling with, and overcoming my biases and prejudices towards different types of people—not only about race, but also religion, personal background, gang affiliation, all those types of things, I had biases and prejudices towards people. And I learned their humanity.
And that opened me up to things about me that I needed to reckon with. And I think when I really started intentionally helping other people inside, in the various ways I was able to, I saw a freedom in that—there's more to life. And particularly, I want to say it's particularly... In the book, I write a lot about the programs that I did or was a part of when I was upstate.
But even before I was sentenced, I mean, I wasn't involved with a lot of... There were no programs or anything like that down here—Manhattan House [of Detention], Rikers Island, all that sort of stuff. But people knew I had some level of intelligence. I would help people out with writing letters, or whatever it was. And that helped me. That helped me in the sense that I was being useful to somebody.
It gave me a way to be out of here. I wasn't just a throwaway person. Prison tells you you're a throwaway person, particularly when you're facing a life sentence, you're throwaway. A life sentence means we threw you away. And we can justify that or not. But life sentence means that you have been thrown away from society, and that's what I was facing. So yeah, so just being able to be of use to other people, I think really was the way in which I was able to not be confined by the confinement.
WATKINS: I was struck by something else in the book—the way you write about America, and the founding of America, and the big lie, in a sense, it's founded on: the exclusion of Black people, of women… And we're talking now about what aliens would think about if they came and saw our prisons. And you write that you aim to be a better unAmerican. I'd love to hear you explain that a bit.
PETERSON: Yeah, I feel like I should get that as a T-shirt. Getting to the core of who we are as individuals, as I tried in this book, I try to model in the book, the core of my best possibilities, and the core of my worst possibilities, and be open about that. And then choose—choose to be the better part.
And when thinking about America, what we tend to do, even now, with the public debate around critical race theory, we are choosing not to accept the worst parts of us. It's a convenient… It makes us feel better culturally, but we're losing out on the opportunity to, in so many ways, to appreciate... Yeah, appreciate the worst parts of us and not choose to do it again.
I don't want to be like that. I'm American, I was born here, of course. I brag about Brooklyn all the fucking time. Brooklyn happens to be—even though we like to call Brooklyn, the Republic of Brooklyn—but Brooklyn happens to be a part of America. Of course, I love this place! But I don't want to be like it. And I think we need to figure out how to be less like how it has always showed itself up to be.
WATKINS: In terms of not repeating the worst parts of ourselves, again and again, there's this spike in gun violence that's happening right now in cities across the country, and we're seeing the same kind of debate about what to do about it that we've seen before in this country. But first, I'd love to hear from you what you think is behind the spike that we've been seeing now.
PETERSON: Our custom in America is that every summer, violence spikes. That's a custom, right, if you look at the data. That's sadly our custom. I'm not saying that just because it's our custom we're supposed to be okay with it. I'm just saying that, that's the evidence.
The second thing I want to add to that is that, when you think about the spikes in gun violence, there's also then been a spike in gun purchases. There's been a spike in that over the pandemic. And I always think about, imagine that, during a health pandemic where people are dying, the thing that people bought more of in this country were weapons.
We've got more guns than people in America. Yeah, guns don't kill people, people kill people. I get all that shit. The point I'm saying is that there's a commitment to something that kills. So, I'm just saying, why do we think that people in the hood ain't going to do it too? Why do we think that? Why do we expect people, Black and Brown people in the hood, to be better than America?
And I want to add on some real things. Over the pandemic, it's a couple things: one is, people are all dealing with the heightened stress and anxiety of people dying, their aunts, their uncles, their mom is working extra hours at the clinic or at the hospital, there's less money in the household, there's more people cramped, schools, people aren't really in school, even though there's remote learning, as a parent, parents know that remote learning is stressful, they don't know what the hell going on. So, I don't know what you think… The kids don't know what the hell going on.
And now they're outside, they have all these beefs, they’re on social media. And now they have access to weapons along with all of the anxiety, and stresses, and depression that adults are dealing with. And now, so “you outside now. Now I can see you, we outside, now we can do it.”
And it's just all these anxieties that people don't think kids got to deal with. Kids dealing with it too. The pandemic ain't just because... Just because the older folks are the ones who are catching it and dying from it—more vulnerable from it, let me say that, vulnerable to it—doesn't mean young people aren't dealing with it. I dealt with hard stuff, and I didn't know what I was doing. What do you think these kids are doing?
WATKINS: Yeah, and then I mean, we're hearing... I mean, in response to the "what do we do about this?" question, we're hearing renewed calls of: “we need more police, we need more punishment, we need more incarceration—that's the answer to this.”
PETERSON: Listen, I think that, once again, it's our reflex. And I understand it, first of all, that we want to do something. And so, I get it. I understand as a human that these things are hard to hear, and see, and experience, and witness. So, we want something to happen right away—stop it now. I get that.
Particularly here in New York, right, the beginning of 2020 was bail reform. I remember within a couple of weeks of bail reform, they said bail reform ain't working. Fine, whatever. Not fine, but I get that.
We are in a place where more people are thinking about ways of dealing with community issues that aren't just how we've done it in the past. Whether it be abolition, whether it be defund, whether it be community. We are literally trying to think about different ways of handling these things so that we don't repeat the same trauma.
And in this year-and-a-half to two years of people just saying it... Things haven't really been fully implemented in a lot of places. There might have been money allocated, but it hasn't really been fully allocated. We're not giving two years for these things to work. But yet somehow, we also know that policing hasn't worked since whenever. But “two years, and we had a spike, and y'all didn't stop the crime in your community? It ain't working!” You got to give it... Why won't we give us the same grace?
I think we're in a place, Matt, where I think that... I said this to someone recently that I think as policy makers, but definitely as citizens here, it's great that people in community are more invested in figuring out ways to deal with the problems in our communities without the reliance on outside forces. That's what we want! That's community efficacy where there are more people saying we can do it. And we are figuring it out. But we want people to be engaged. That's a democracy!
And that's what democracy is. The people are figuring this out. And I just want people to just in some ways give grace to the fact that there's so many people—formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated people, people who never had incarceration experience—all trying to figure out ways where we can create safety in our communities and longevity that doesn't require us sacrificing our sanity.
WATKINS: Based on your experience as a young man, I mean, do you think fear of punishment, deterrence really has any effect on the decision-making that mostly young people—that's who we're talking about—that mostly young people are making like, "Oh, well, bail reform has changed this, so therefore, I'm going to do that"?
PETERSON: When you're young and when you're in the moment you're just trying to figure out the moment. And yeah, you know that you can get arrested, and yeah, you know... I mean, things like bail reform, nobody know what the fuck that is. They're just like, "Oh, word, son. Word, I ain't going to..." They don't know, right. That's not in the decision-making process. They're not thinking about that, they're not the mob.
They're thinking about the moment. And what our job, what our work, or the work of people who are committed to healing and helping and preventing harm, harm from these young folks that they have to heal from later, it's to be able to get to them in these moments, or before they get to these moments. It doesn't matter, they all know you can go to jail. I knew I could go to jail. Ain't nobody, “you know, people don't usually go to jail for robberies.” No, we knew that! Or you got a gun, but people don't usually go to jail for guns, even though they stopping us every day on the street when we ain't got nothing.
We know that, it's just in the moment. It's kids. But kids are reacting to trauma, and kid shit, and adolescence, wanting to fit in, and all that. And just the options for rebellion are way more egregious now.
WATKINS: I want to switch gears radically for a second here, and ask you about steelpan, the steel drum, and the role of that for you as a young person, and I think still today. Could you talk a little bit about what that's brought to you?
PETERSON: That's my peace. Even as a kid, that was peace. I think my father played in Trinidad as a young man, and here, my older brother, older sister, they played, and I followed tradition. I mean, I didn't always realize it was a tradition, I just felt like it was just what we do.
But it's something about being lost in it that always mesmerized me, even in that teenage years when I was going through things, I would leave my block, and I would... Because where we used to practice would be either in Flatbush, or other places, and I lived in Crown Heights. But wherever we were, it took me away. Every night, you go there every night from about 6:00 or 7:00. And sometimes be either 15, I was super late, I'd be coming home 12:00, 1:00 in the morning.
So it was also like... But I was safe, and I was doing something that gave me literal peace of mind. And even while I was inside, it's interesting, there was sometimes, depending on what jail I was in, the little radio that we had had a Walkman, I could get a signal where I would hear some of the pan, right. That's the only time I would hear it. And that would take me away from prison, right. It would literally take me out of... Not literally, but figuratively take me out of there.
So even as an adult, I still play now, it's a safe space for me, it's like writing. I'm not the best pan player in the world, I ain't trying to... Don't think I'm going to come out and do a solo at the next event. But as a part of a band, I get to dance, and sway, and be lost in it.
You see, when I talk about interventions in the moment, about kids, that was... It wasn't an anti-crime intervention. But it did... I never got into problems when I played pan. And Flatbush wasn't a safe area either. It was crazy, the 67th precinct, one of the worst precincts in the city in terms of violence, violent crime.
But in that space, it was an intervention for my everyday things. It met me in the moment of all my trauma and took care of me. And that's what I mean, trying to find ways to meet these young folks. Different ways—steelpan for me, some people it's music, some people it's ball, some people it's rap. Whatever it is, I don't know. But it gave me a sense of peace, and I think that's what we all tend to want, particularly when we have so much chaos around us.
WATKINS: In the book, you're recounting toward the end of your time in prison, you say that you were in the process of becoming whole. And I'm just wondering where you feel you are now in relationship to that goal.
PETERSON: I think I'm in a good place. I would say when I finished writing that book, literally when I pressed enter, when I pressed enter to my editor, I cried, and I felt like a weight was lifted. I finally let things out. The book starts off with the chapter ‘Hiding,’ and the last chapter is ‘UnAmerican and Free.’ And I didn't know that it was going to end up that way. It just turned out like, "Oh, shoot, this is how it is."
But in terms of whole, I think being whole is a lifelong process for one. But I definitely think I'm much more aware of the tools that I have at my disposal. I think sometimes, particularly growing up, you don't have the tools, or obviously you haven't lived enough life. And then definitely, you may not know how to identify it, and definitely how to use them. And I think I'm way more aware of the tools at my disposal to deal with harm and trauma.
Because the trauma didn't go away. It didn't unhappen. This shit happened. And it still lingers in various ways. But I'm aware of the tools that I have to be able to cope with it in a better, more healthy way. I know the people around me, I know that people care for me, I know people feel I'm deserving.
I know that I am deserving. I know that things that happened to me were unfair. I can say that out loud—some shit that happened was unfair to me. And that's a part of my process. I'm definitely in a much better place. And thank you for that question. Thank you for that question.
WATKINS: Well, thank you for that answer and, Marlon, thank you for this interview. I really appreciate you making the time. And congratulations again on the book. And yeah, I can't wait to see what you do next with the book, also with your work, and I look forward to reading more of you in print. So, thank you so much.
PETERSON: Well, whatever I do is going to be for-people work. So as long as I can keep impacting people's lives in a positive way, I'm looking forward to that. And thank you for this time.