From Striking Back to Witnessing: The Freeing Power of Words

Jimmy Santiago Baca was alone in his cell at Arizona's Yuma Prison after the prison review committee had humiliated him by rejecting his request to be permitted to enroll in school to seek his GED. He began to think back over his life.  

He thought about how even as a child he had been shown no other option than simply "to take the hurt that came my way," as he writes in A Place to Stand. 

Soon, however, he learned not just to accept the abuse to which he was subjected. He learned, instead, to strike back against his abusers. 

While still a child, Jimmy discovered that such retaliation against those who abused him was "the quickest way to get rid of the pain, to show people that I was alive," as he describes it. So, like alcoholics who compulsively turn to the bottle to find temporary oblivion from their apparently irresolvable problems, Jimmy compulsively struck back whenever he was abused.

Yet, in the same way that alcoholics' drinking just makes all their problems worse, necessitating yet more drinking to find relief, Baca's striking back always engendered yet further abuse from his abusers, in retaliation for his attempts to retaliate against them.

Since his abusers always carried the bigger sticks, with the whole force of institutional "authority" behind them, Jimmy was destined always to be the loser at that game. Those same "authorities," in fact, benefitted from his very endeavors to strike back, since that just provided them with further "justification" for their ongoing and ever-escalating abuse of him.

However, that game of force, a game in which he was destined always to come out the loser, was the only game Jimmy had ever been allowed to learn. So he continued to play it. He'd never been shown any other option.

At least until that day in his prison cell, when he suddenly saw another way opening up before him.

Yuma Prison main gate

Yuma Prison main gate

Thrown into a prison cage once he was grown into adulthood, Baca had been eventually encouraged by his jailers themselves to have some hope of changing the trajectory of his life, as I have described in a previous post. However, when he followed his prison counselor's advice to reach out in that hope, he found that once again he had only set himself up for further abuse, this time in the form of the review committee's humiliating rejection of his request to be permitted to go to school.

Yet on that occasion, instead of reacting by striking back, Baca found another way. "This time," he writes, "I didn't lash out." Instead, he simply refused to acknowledge the authority of the review committee, and all the force it represented, to judge him.

That failure to strike back as expected "short-circuited everyone's expectation of how a con was supposed to act," Baca writes. What's more, "not doing what everyone expected turned out," he continues, "to be the most powerful thing I ever did."

By such not-doing, letting his in-action replace his previously compulsive pattern of re-action, Baca's simple refusal to "strike back" manifested genuine power--the power that makes possible and fills with capacity, as opposed to the pseudo-power of force that imprisons and de-capacitates. "It was at that moment, in the dark, in my isolation cell" he writes, “that a revelation struck me, the way lightening strikes ground in the night and reddens it. I knew why I couldn't get out of the chair, why I refused to work, why I stayed in my cell--in every muscle and bone of my body a tortured voice cried out that I could never again tolerate the betrayals that marked my life, stretching back to my earliest years.”

After that moment of enlightenment, that lightning-bolt of insight, Baca's reading and especially his writing--both of which he had taught himself to do in prison, just as Kevin Cooper would later teach himself to do in another prison in another state--became the lasting manifestation and enacting of his new-found freedom. They became the way he built a world for himself--and for all others like him.

"My writing became the receptacle for my sorrow," he testifies. "I wrote even when I didn't want to, because I knew that, if I didn't, my sorrow would come out in violence." It would spill out in the very violence of striking back, which always engendered yet further abuse and gave his life ever more completely over to the control of his abusers.

In his writing, Baca found a way to transform his sorrow itself not into violence but into witnessing. His writing bore witness against the very abuse to which he and all his fellow prisoners were constantly subjected.

When he is finally being released from prison, as he packs his few possessions in a box to take with him when he leaves his cell at last, Baca reflects again. "I was comforted by the thought that I was bigger than my box," he later writes of that time. He goes on:

I lived out of a box, not in one. I was what mattered, not the box. I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren't available or because they just could not get it together. My job was to witness and record the "it" of their lives, to celebrate those people who don't have a place in this world to call home. For those people, my journals, poems, and writings are home. My pen and heart chronicle their hopes, doubts, regrets, loves, despairs, and dreams. I do this partly out of selfishness, because it helps to heal my own impermanence, my own despair. My role as witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one.

A few pages later he adds: "Everything here [that is, everything in the prison into which he had been thrown] had weight and substance." It was heavy and over-heavy with the sense of its own self-claimed "authority" and the force it was able to exert.

"Yet somehow," Baca continues, "I had transmuted the barb-wire thorns' hostile glint"--like the glint of the thorns placed on Christ's head centuries before, I will add--"into a linguistic light that illuminated a new me. In a very real way, words had broken through the walls and set me free."

Baca's story of his imprisonment is, in fact, a demonstration of the total failure of the entire system of which prisons are a part. That is not a failure of that system to "serve" Jimmy or others like him, or the broader society of which they and all of us are a part. Rather it is failure of the system at issue to do exactly what it is designed to do, even if there were never any conscious designers. It is the failure to that system to disempower those to whom it applies itself. 

Jimmy Santiago Baca' story bears witness that the power of human beings cannot forever be disempowered, even by the most coercive system.

It always waits to be reclaimed, as he reclaimed it.

Protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam

Protesting the U.S. war in Vietnam