Warriors Without a Cause: A Letter to Young People, to all Gang Members, and to all Drug Dealers
Mukasa Afrika Ma’at
If you care about young people, if you know a young person who might have some challenges struggling through their teens years, if you are a parent having difficulty connecting with your child, if you are a teacher with students from the inner-city, if you are a young person angry at society, if you are a gang member, if you are an inmate, if you know someone who fits any of the above categories, if you want to prevent someone from becoming a statistic, this letter is for you.
I’ll begin this letter by letting you know that I have what you might call street credentials. I was born and raised in the most violent parts of the West and South Sides of Chicago. I come from a family of gangbangers, ex-cons, drug dealers, prostitutes, and drug addicts. I will not mention to what gang I was affiliated because some of you would not continue reading to get the message that follows. I represented on the South Side of Chicago. I got caught up in the glamour of the thug life when I was only a boy. I banged and sold poison in the community. I foolishly saw my brothers on the street as my enemies. I threw hands with the best, was feared, and was respected by many in the hood. I even held my own as I lived for some time in opposition territory. My little brother grew up in the joint. One of my uncles died in the joint. Another was beaten with bats in an alley and murdered because he stole drugs and money from dealers. My big brother drank up, smoked up, shot up, and snorted up. I saw my father when I was 11 years old for the first time. He was never in my life. He died from AIDS and used drugs his entire life. I would have shed tears if I knew him enough to love him, but I didn’t. My mother is mentally retarded, probably due to my grandmother’s alcoholism. Out of my mother’s seven children, only two of us were born fully normal because my mother drank 40 ounces like water while pregnant with me and my sisters and brothers. Her last child was still-born and I saw her turn up 40’s while pregnant with my own eyes. Once I snatched a 40 from her and threw it into traffic across the street. If I saw someone trying to get service from my mom or my aunt, I’d beat the living daylights out of them. Forget about a single parent home. I grew up in a home with no functional adults. I can’t tell you how many times I saw blood smeared on the walls of my home from family fights and family stabbings. I first went to jail when I was about 7 years old. Shattering a bus window, my best friend and I got chased down through the alley by detectives. He was later shot dead when we were about 15 years old. Almost nothing was normal about my upbringing. I’ve been shot at many times, been in gang fights and gang wars. By all accounts, I’m supposed to be a statistic.
Like many of you, I did enough dirt to get locked under the jail. I had priors for weapons and drug offenses. I only did a small bid in Cook County Jail because I pled guilty to burglary to an auto. I could have went down for physical assault and armed robbery. I wont give any more details. Unlike many of you, I dropped my flag in the County and was willing to go to the joint with no affiliation. As you know, affiliation means protection. I belonged to a gang that would kill you or violate you to near death until you wished you were dead for dropping your flag. Once in it, you were never supposed to leave. I was warned by old cats about how dangerous my decision was to my safety. I told them I had hurt too many people, been hurt myself, had too many family members hurt, too many friends hurt, saw too much hurt period to continue with that lifestyle. I was ready for whatever or whoever tried to come at me in jail or on the street. I was fed up and finished with the gang life. I got out on two years probation, which I completed. Looking back, my decision to drop my flag in County was dangerous, very dangerous, and I’m not saying drop your protection if you are in the joint or jail. One of my best friends was shanked in County and died, and another was shanked in the joint but lived. I am saying have a plan on your release. Have a plan never to go back. The joint is a revolving door, and straight up, most get caught in the door going round and round because they’re feeding addictions. Crack, dope, weed, you name it, a lot of old heads slanging because they’re feeding addictions. I know because as a teenager, I feed my own addictions.
Now, if that’s enough street credentials for you, let me get to my point. I was a warrior without a cause. You young brothers on the street are warriors without a cause. You talk and walk hard because you’ve developed street survival skills, but I know you hurt because I hurt. For those of you who are the most hardcore on the street and in the joint, you have to be willing to throw the hands up and throw down to fight with anybody at any time. Again, win or lose, you have to have a rep for respect and survival. That used to be me, but I know you feel pain because I felt pain. We all bleed, and we all hurt. We all have loved ones.
I’m supposed to be dead, in prison, an addict, homeless, or something else hopeless. Instead, I made a choice to change my life. I’m writing this to let you know you have a choice to change your life. Too many stray bullets have hit too many innocent victims, women, and children. Children are supposed to bury their parents, but too many families are burying their young, burying their babies. Too many people have smoked their lives away down crack pipes. Too many people have lost their lives before ever knowing their opportunities. Too many babies have had their lives taken away or deformed before they were born. Too many children grow up without both parents or no parents. I knew so many youngsters on the street that could have been absolute geniuses but dropped out of school, or got mowed down by bullets, or became prison numbers on some guards piece of paper. Too many young people could have been successful at whatever they wanted but have ended up in some street gutter nodding off dope or on some park bench hyped off crack. We gotta change this madness, this insanity.
When I got out of the gang, so many young brothers told me that they had much respect for my choice but that they could not do it themselves. They said that the gang was all they knew. They said that they couldn’t read and write to fill out an application but what they could do was cut, bag, and slang better than anyone. Running into these cats over the years, they’ve all had deeper regrets, more tragedies, and more pain for not stepping up to be men. They told me that the drug dealing, gangbanging lifestyle is the one thing that they could be proud of and that someone could look up to them about, but I told them and I tell you that it’s a dead end road waiting up ahead with some real sad times for you if you go that way. I left that life. I also know young brothers and sisters who left it. The hood has some stories that will never make the 10 o’clock news.
One of my good friends who I got into a lot of trouble with, he went down on drugs and weapons charges for a few years. He got out, manned up to his responsibilities, and he is a family man today. He’s a truck driver but makes a lot of time for his family.
I know an old cat who was addicted to dope for over 30 years of his life. One day, he told me, he got up from bed, looked around at all of the filth he lived in, and he decided on that day to change his life. He never went back to shooting up or smoking. He works in a college admissions office and makes sure students are on track with their lives.
I know a brother who went down for a ten year bid, got out of the joint, graduated college, got a job, and is a responsible man and father to this day. He works in education.
I know a sister who sold her body for drugs, used drugs since she was a teen. She lost her children to the system, got cleaned up, stayed clean, got her children back, and is a great mother right now. She works in the substance abuse field helping other women stay clean.
I can tell you about a lot of tragedies, of young people I know shot down, or people who smoked mickies and went on trips never to be the same, of people who went to the pen as teenagers never to see the light of day again. I can tell you tragic street events of my friends whose blood soaked the Earth. But I can also and would rather tell you about the lives of people who are in your shoes that made it. I can tell you about a girl I knew who was raped her whole life by her own father. She got the courage one day to send the pedophile to prison. She is now an educator touching the lives of other young women and young men. These are lives that are stories of hope. My life is a story of hope. Your life can be one of hope too – if you choose and all you have to do is choose.
I understand that when you come from a background like I do, the streets look real glamorous to a youngster. I grew up wearing $5 shoes with holes on the top and bottom. When I walked on a drug set, I saw teenagers with expensive clothes, jewelry, and rolling fresh cars and sounds. Unfortunately for many, that glamour might take a lifetime to get tangled out of, if they ever get out of it. Beneath the street glamour and glitter is a whole lot of hurt, a whole lot of tragedy. Some still choose that life even after they have grown up a little on the street and understand the consequences and dangers of the lifestyle. I will tell you that every last one of them who end up sitting in the corner of some dark prison realizes their mistakes. Every old head that’s been addicted, in their 50’s they realize that they wasted life. At the end of your days, you will either be at peace or tormented by your past decisions. You will either be remembered and loved or remembered by those who shake their heads in sadness at your name. If you’re a youngster, you got an entire life of opportunity ahead of you. If you’re one of those old cats, one of those street veterans, it’s still never too late to turn around.
I wouldn’t wish my background on anyone. Not many have fewer odds at success than what I had. However, I made it. I left the streets and gangs to go to college. No one in my family was educated. In the County, as a 17-year-old gang member, I began reading about Afrikan history. My substance abuse counselor became my mentor. He mailed me books on Afrikan history. I learned that my people built kingdoms and empires, among the first ever in the world. I learned about the great civilizations along the Nile Valley and throughout ancient Afrika. I had never known that Afrikan people had such a great history. When I learned about slavery, the Middle Passage, and segregation, I understood the origins of the Black ghetto. When I learned about the slave trade, I understood the origins of the drug trade. When I learned about the slave auction, I understood why Black families are torn to this day. When I learned about slave raids on villages kidnapping the young, I understood why Black youth are lost to this day. When I began to learn about my people’s history, I began to understand myself. As I learned about the attempted destruction of my people, I understood the self-hate and self-destructive behavior we exhibit today. The hooded Klansmen once rode horses through our communities, burned crosses, and terrorized our families. We’ve taken on the hatred of our oppressors and inflict destruction on ourselves. Instead of the Klan pulling us up trees or poles on ropes around our necks calling us “niggers,” we shot each other down in the streets and call ourselves “niggas” – the word isn’t in my vocabulary because it will never be a term of endearment, but I’m making the point. The net effect is still the same, hatred for Blacks and destruction of Black lives and Black babies. The more I would read, the more I wanted to learn.
As a misguided teenager, full of anger at society, looking for family in a street gang, full of hurt, I was a warrior without a cause. Youngsters who roam the streets today are warriors without causes. The youngsters who are in the revolving doors of prison are warriors without causes. A warrior without a cause quickly becomes a casualty of society. Prisons are profits for those who would surely bury us all in graves if they had a choice. You don’t have to be a statistic. You have a choice. You have a choice to be a warrior of righteousness, a warrior with a cause.
I have to also say a few words to young people who are not the most troubled, young people who are not the most at risk, but those who begin to mimic a lifestyle that does not fit their background because they are bored by being privileged, bored instead of thankful. I’ve also known what we called “wannabe gangsters” when I was growing up. These were kids who hung around us but they came from good homes, two parent homes, and were well taken care of. Count your blessings and stay out of trouble. A very good friend of mine, he was a “wannabe gangster,” at first at least, because his mother bought him the best clothes and the best shoes so that he could stay out of trouble and not sell drugs. A cop planted some rocks on him because he thought he was a drug dealer. He thought he was a dealer because he was always hanging around dealers. When the cop made the plant, my friend decided to rebel at society and his mother. Long story short, this kid from the good home, he went from being a “wannabe” to the real thing. He’d smoke more weed, sell more drugs, and get into more gun fights than anyone else. When I went to college, I spoke to him and was trying to get him to change his life. He respected me a lot, but it was too late. He was shot dead on his doorsteps. So, “wannabes” can end up being the real deal, with real and tragic consequences.
I went from being a dropout to a straight A student. I went from the gang’s roll to the honor roll. I went from jail to college. I went from drugs on the South Side of Chicago to Chicago State University. I went from being a master in street gangs to earning a Master’s degree. I went from being a misguided teen to educating other teens. I’ve touched the lives of thousands. I’ve inspired countless. I’ve given hope to people I don’t even know. I’m just one humble person. Imagine if many young brothers and sisters on the streets, in gangs, and in prisons decided that they can take their lives into their hands and make a difference in the world too. Imagine if they decided they do have a choice. We can change a generation. We can change not only our lives but also the future. I wish we could prevent murders before they happened. I wish so many of my friends were still alive. I wish more of us would do what we could to make a difference.
I am a faithful husband and a great father. I don’t drink or smoke anything. I don’t even eat meat, in part to exercise discipline. I live healthy and positive. I teach martial arts and self-defense to others so that we can hopefully have fewer innocent victims in this world. I’ve been a classroom teacher of students that have now gone on to college and are now in the work world doing great things. I am currently a Dean of Students in a grade school. I am an author and a community organizer. Our environments are not insurmountable roadblocks that will forever hinder us. We define who we are with our choices. Young brothers and sisters on the streets, in broken homes, locked up, on drugs, selling drugs, failing in school, all of y’all – you have a choice to be warriors of righteousness. With my background and what I’ve been through, if I can make it, if I can make a difference, so can you. Please spread the word.
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