The third installment in our ‘How I was radicalized’ series comes from Okwute Ekwensu. His powerful account describes the experience of leading a criminal life that led to incarceration, followed by his radicalization in prison. Okwute lives in the Twin Cities and is involved in the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).
How I was radicalized (Part 3): The Making Of A Politicized Prisoner
by Okwute Ekwensu
The following is a brief account of how my lifetime of experiences with the prison industrial complex transformed me into a politicized prisoner and anti-capitalist revolutionary.
I grew up in a quiet, majority white suburb about a mile outside the Twin Cities. My mother is a public school teacher from rural Minnesota and my father is a Nigerian immigrant whose childhood was disrupted by the Nigerian-Biafran civil war. I was raised in a relatively comfortable middle class family along with my younger brother. Though I may have not realized it at the time, being one of the few Africans in a majority white neighborhood and school made me somewhat of an outcast. Before the end of elementary school, I was well aware that I was not white and would be viewed and treated differently as a result.
Being a relatively isolated youth in white suburban Minnesota began to influence my worldview. In school, teachers have lower expectations and are quicker to take disciplinary actions when it comes to black children. Another downside to being a racial outlier in my community was the attention I got from police. Beginning at the age of 12 or 13, stops and searches became frequent. Occasionally, police contact escalated to instances of brutality. I think the main cause for this was that being a black person in a neighborhood in which the vast majority was white, I was always spotted by police and looked out of place in their eyes. Many times entire working class communities of color are criminalized. In my neighborhood, police occupation was not as intense, but the spotlight was on me because I appeared to be “out of bounds”, which raised suspicion from law enforcement personnel who had a habit of racial profiling. I was viewed as a threat who must be in the neighborhood to steal, do graffiti or sell drugs. Several times I came home to my parents upset after experiencing police harassment or brutality, only for them not to believe me. “You must have done something wrong!” they would say. The naïve trust my parents had in police and a post-racial America was not helpful in preparing me to navigate society as a black man.
Consistent negative interactions with police instilled an anti-authoritarian mentality in me. Distrustful of those appointed to uphold the law, I began to question the legitimacy of law itself. In my high school years, I experimented with drug use, and then began participating in criminalized economies. My illegalist activity developed until I carried out an act of gun violence over a conflict in the drug trade. I was captured a week after this incident and sent out-of-state to a reform school. This is where I got my first taste of the real world. Strict rules were harshly enforced with beatings from the staff, which at times were severe. I don’t think one kid passed through that place without being beaten on at least one occasion. Most of the other juveniles placed there were black and from local poor and working class neighborhoods. In addition to the constant threat of abuse at the hands of staff, I had to hold my own against other residents as well, due to being from out of town. Over the course of 15 months, these harsh experiences instilled a defiant street mentality. Correctional institutions claim to force individuals to reflect on their wrongdoing, but many times incarceration only leaves people feeling like the victims themselves and they wholeheartedly embrace the criminal identity that society has already branded them with.
After leaving the juvenile placement, I was put on a form of supervision where the length of surveillance is extended from ages 18 to 21, and an adult sentence to the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) is executed if probation is violated and revoked before that time. For many young people, this type of sentencing ensures the jump from the juvenile system into the the adult prison system.
After getting out, I was even more disconnected from my community and school because I was seen as a dangerous criminal by adults and my peers. This led to my closest group of friends becoming those who I had experienced the torment of confinement and abuse alongside in the juvenile system. Up until this point, I had been straddling two worlds. Now, my family, peers and teachers knew what I had been doing. The stigma of a felony conviction and adoption of a criminal identity, as well as a group of friends I had come to closely relate to due to the ordeal we endured side by side in placement led to a transition from a rebellious kid to a more developed criminal committed to street life. School and work no longer appealed to me. Both had come to feel very similar to juvenile detention. With a new network of friends throughout Minneapolis, I re-entered the drug economy and took part in the violence which seems inevitable in that world.
One of the places I used to spend a lot of my time was a condemned apartment building that myself and some others occupied to sell drugs out of. One individual who was associated with a particular off-shoot of the Nation of Islam used to come there, buy a bag of weed, and sit and talk with us while he rolled it up and smoked it. We were not really interested in what he had to say, but since he was spending money, we let him hang around. After some time, his ideology began to catch on with some of us. For the first time we were thinking about the white supremacist power structure. Although I disagree with this brother on a whole lot of topics today, I appreciate his dedication in coming to engage with us in a place where nobody else would, and for providing a spark that was a major step in my political development.
Just before my 21st birthday, my probation was revoked due to an illegal firearm possession case. This landed me in the Minnesota DOC. During my time in prison, I began to self-educate a lot. The most influential author that I read was George Jackson. His anger, militancy, condemnation of the prison system, imperialism and sense of urgency in overthrowing capitalism resonated with me unlike anything else I had read up to that point. After that, I continued learning about the origins of the prison industrial complex in slavery, and the huge industry it has become. Most crime occurs as a result of economic need. The casualties of capitalist society are swept under the rug and subjected to slave labor, to the detriment of the entire working class. I became aware of the need for revolution.
Since returning from prison I have become active in organizing with the IWW- Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. I knew I wanted to do prison work and this project appealed to me because we aim to bring labor struggle inside prisons, giving incarcerated people the power to fight back against this modern system of slavery in order to improve conditions. Most incarcerated people respond to being caged in one of two ways. Some accept the justice system’s narrative of a complete emphasis on personal responsibility, that they are anti-social, immoral, dangerous people that society must be protected from. They react by trying their best to conform. Others embrace the criminal identity and continue to risk returning to prison. I think there is a third response, which is to know your enemy and commit to fighting systems of oppression that will continue to hurt us all until we do away with them entirely.