By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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Diane Lefer sometimes goes out in public dressed as a Guantánamo prisoner as a form of protest. Once, she found herself with her hands in the air and two guns pointed at her head after she was mistaken for a terrorist by the police. She is the author of the short-story collection California Transit (Sarabande Books) and collaborated with theater artist and therapist Hector Aristizábal on Nightwind, a play about his arrest and torture at the hands of the U.S.–supported military in Colombia. She lives in Los Angeles.
When you sit down with the Bloods and the Crips as Bloods and Crips, you just reinforce the symbols and ethos and dynamics of the gang. You need to take them as individuals and talk about their leadership in the neighborhood, their roles as men in their community, and what they can do to reduce the violence. You get them to take on responsibility. Then you have them at the table as community leaders — not gang leaders. The gang doesn’t get mentioned.
Really, unless you’re from one of the targeted immigrant communities, you have no idea what’s going on there. Streets are empty. Stores and businesses are closed because people have been detained or deported, or their customers have disappeared, or residents are just afraid to go out. These used to be bustling, vibrant neighborhoods, but if you don’t live there or have reason to visit, you would never know the impact homeland-security policies have had. In the two months following September 11, more than twelve hundred Muslim, Arab, and South Asian men were rounded up for indefinite detention. Then, starting in September 2002, there was “special registration,” where noncitizen males from Islamic countries were required to register with the INS.
For a long time, during the dirty war in Colombia, when my friends were being shot dead all around me, my goal was just to survive. But after I was tortured, my goal changed. It was not just to survive, but to live a meaningful life. Sometimes, in the ordeal, we find the seeds of our identity.