You Have To Be Intimate With Your Despair

Electronic voice: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”

Dylan Rodríguez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, is a founding member of the Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex organizing committee.  Here is the conversation he had with Viet Mike Ngo through the prison phone, originally printed in the book The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings.

Dylan Rodríguez: Mike, first introduce yourself to everybody.

Mike Ngo: My name is Viet Mike Ngo, and I’m a prisoner in San Quentin at this time, serving a life sentence for second degree murder. [Electronic voice: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”] [Dylan and I] first got introduced through mutual friends; through the Patten College Program here. I met them because I felt that their politics were radical enough to really attack the program. So they hooked us up because we were both Asians, and there wasn’t really many Asians involved with the college program…who were radical in politics and in thinking, and that’s how we got hooked up, and I think its important because there isn’t a voice for radical Asian intellectuals and activists, and that was the main reason, main reason we got hooked up.

Rodríguez: Now Mike, one of the ways that people talked about you before I even met you was that you were somebody that was inspired by a lot of radical intellectuals, including prisoners.

Ngo: Most definitely. George Jackson shaped a lot of my political theories and helped mold them the way my thinking is today. And so my, our mutual friends also told me that you were involved, or liked a lot of George’s writing, and or were interested in this type of political activity. That was another reason we got hooked up.

Rodríguez: Who introduced you to George Jackson?

Ngo: That’s a good question. I can’t say one person introduced me to him, but it was a, it was a growth process for me. The more I got involved in trying to understand my environment, the space I live in, the more I got involved with the history of prisoners and the history of the politics involved in prison. That’s how I got hooked up with George. But it all comes from the will to understand your environment and to understand in a critical eye. Not just take it for granted and go with the flow. You have to be critical about the space you live in.

Rodríguez: What provoked you to start reading George Jackson to start thinking about your environment critically?

Ngo: The first few years after I got locked up, I wasn’t really involved with anything political….And so I fell in with a lot of the gangsterism that’s involved in prison; the cliquing and the racial segregation of prison make up. Then I got in school. Fortunately, when I first came into prison, they had the Pell Grants still available for prisoners. That’s where we were paid, or we were allowed to be involved in college programs in prison. And through that process, I got indoctrinated into critical thinking…just thinking in general, and history, and what have you. So that started my thinking process. Then I got here from Soledad. I got transferred from Soledad to San Quentin and they started up a program here. This is after the Pell Grants were shot down. So they started up a new college program that ran on a volunteer basis. And a lot of the students came from UC Berkeley, the T.A.s, the professors, and UC Davis, St. Mary’s College. And these teachers that were, at least to me, in my point, were a little more critical of history and about the United States’ part in history, in prisons too. And, so this made me think a little more and the book that really started kicking me off was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That’s when there was a time of my growing process that I really started being critical about everything I was taught, and it really opened up my eyes in a lot of things. Also, the church and religious [beep] entrenched in prison programs in California, and I got involved in this too, when I first got here, and this indoctrination process of religion, and how that co-opts or really stifles the way we think critically. And it really all came to a head [beep] at the major starting points of my political or my radical politics.

Rodríguez: Your movement from Soledad to San Quentin…[“Your call will be terminated in two minutes.”]…follows a lot of the movement of radical prison organizers from the sixties to the present….Including George who was of course assassinated at the place where you’re currently incarcerated.

Ngo: Right. That’s why George impacted my life so much, because when I was reading it, I was thirty-one; his age when he died, and I followed his footsteps and coincidently, I went through the same process he did. I first got sent to Soledad, did time there, I did some funk there, and then went to the hole there, and was in the same wing he was in. Then I got shipped here to San Quentin. It was really a lot of coincidences and a lot of eye opening things that really caused me to think more deeply about my life and my role here in prison.

Rodríguez: Do you think about yourself as trying to move in that same lineage, that same intellectual, political lineage as people like George Jackson and others?

Ngo: Most definitely. Although the context is different from then to now, I definitely, at least I hope I even fill the shoes of what that means. But yes, definitely, I want to create [beep] changes in prison. [Electronic voice: “Your call will be terminated in one minute.”]

Rodríguez: Mike, before I ask the next question, maybe we should hang up and can you call me back?

Ngo: I’ll call you back.

Rodríguez: O.K. Call me right back. [Break]

Rodríguez: Mike, you there?

Ngo: Yeah, I’m here.

Rodríguez: O.K. Good. So we just finished talking about how it is that you struggle to work within that same, within that same tradition, the same tradition of activism and radical, intellectual work that people like George Jackson W. L. Nolen and Yogi Pinell, who’s still up there in Pelican Bay, and all these other people, and you were saying how you’re in a very different context than those people were thirty years ago….Thirty years ago, there was a critical mass of prisoners, prisoners of color [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”], black and brown prisoners especially, who were trying to educate themselves and were trying to mount both resistance and radical opposition to, not even just the prison regime, but to the structures of domination and oppression that define the United States. And you don’t have that anymore?

Ngo: Oh, it’s a total flip from the sixties and seventies. I still know some brothers here that were locked up then and they said they can’t even explain it themselves and they were involved with that process of this de-politicization of prisoners. They [beep] a lot of this process to the TV. Before, back in the sixties and seventies, we didn’t have TVs, and so people read. They read all the time, and during the political climate…

Rodríguez: Say, hey, Mike. Say that again to these students, man.
[both laugh]

Ngo: Do not watch TVs and read instead. But not just any reading. The readings that was going on in here were political reading. We were reading Mao. We were reading Marx. We were reading things that, thoughts that were contrary to the United States’ ideology. So it allowed us to be more critical of our space and where we live. And so when they brought the TV in, the books fell by the waste side. People don’t read anymore. And if they read, they don’t read anything about politics. They read about Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon. I mean, I’m trying to get the guys here to read, but they ask me for those books instead of others, and I try to throw my jabs and then shoot them something [beep]. But even then the reading level of my peers is really poor, and I don’t know how I can even start to tell them to read Marx or even George when they can’t read, or they can’t read well. So, it looks bleak, but at the same time, the people who are politicized, they’re very radical to me, I fell like they’re radical and they’re solid in their foundation, and I don’t worry about them switching in midstream….
But nearly everyone is ahistorical. They don’t want to look at history. And when they do look at history, they’re totally separated from it. They see no connection with themselves and history.

Rodríguez: One of the primary reasons that they might to abolish the Pell Grants for prisoners is precisely because of people like you.

Ngo: This is a great segue into what’s going on with me right now.

Rodríguez: Let’s talk about that.

Ngo: Me and about four other men here who are involved with the college program wrote a proposal, a very strong proposal, not even asking, demanding that we have freedom of speech in discussing issues in the program and what classes are taught.

Rodríguez: You had to write a proposal to ask for your freedom of speech in a college course?

Ngo: Right. Exactly.

Rodríguez: You know what? That sounds like the university too, actually. I should be quiet. [Ngo laughs.]

Ngo: So, these four or five guys who wrote this proposal asking for Ethnic Studies, more Ethnic Studies to be involved, asking to have freedom of speech as part of discussion on prison grounds and through correspondence, so we submitted this proposal to the volunteer facilitator in here and she disseminated it through the student body and it finally got to the administration. Well, the administration came and searched the five guys, four guys who were on this proposal cell, confiscated the personal letters their legal work, paperwork and then threatened to transfer us; threatened to retaliate against us for these, for the signatures on this proposal that we submitted. And this is, I don’t know if this is indicative of why they stopped the Pell Grants, but I know that historically, through the 1900s, that nationalist movements to get rid of imperialism in countries start with the leaders of the national movements being schooled in these [electronic monitoring beep] schools. So yes, I want the college program here, I want the Pell Grants to happen here, because it allows us to critically think of our environment and this process, it has a radical tint to it when we’re critical and it’s just so evident that the United States is not all peaches and creams.
[Both laugh.]

Rodríguez: But the point you’re making to me is very similar to the way that we would make arguments for things like Ethnic Studies departments and programs in the university setting in the free world, is that it offers us a space to actually struggle.

Ngo: Exactly. And it’s not all about how am I going to get a job. It’s a problem of how am I getting a job. It’s a process of how we shape how we get a job. It’s at the very foundation of our society. It’s not just about institutions and what kind of job can I [beep] paid.

Rodríguez: Right. [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”]

Ngo: It’s about training how I can think and how this affects my life and those lives of people like me.

Rodríguez: So thirty years ago, you had radical kind of semi-underground political education circles between prisoners that was happening totally outside the sanction of the prison. People were kind of getting together passing literature around, they were having conversations on the yard, between their cells, stuff like that.

Ngo: Study groups. They had, we had study groups.

Rodríguez: It was the same thing on the outside too. There were people who were doing political education, community-based political education, student-based political education, high school, elementary school, all the way on through, right. And then that gets crushed when they start assassinating people, when they start…


Rodríguez: Exactly. Yeah. COINTELPRO, and everything else, and then the way that they reform the prison is they create these college programs, right. And it’s supposed to “domesticate” you.

Ngo: Co-opts you. It co-opts to [beep].

Rodríguez: Yet a few people like yourself and like others actually take advantage of the college space to create a new front of opposition and radical resistance on the inside, intellectually and practically, which is why it is that you’re facing this stuff now with the Patten College Program.

Ngo: Man, that’s what’s happening. We’re trying to break containment and we’re being retaliated against for it, and it’s indicative of how prisons administrations work, how prisons work.

Rodríguez: With you now where they’re threatening to transfer you is that the person or people who actually chose to report you were not even prison authorities, they were actually civilians.

Ngo: That’s right. See, this is a volunteer program. So the person that actually runs this program is a volunteer. Who is a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. She reported another professor to the administration saying that this professor on his own time is supporting my case against San Quentin and CDC of racial segregation. And so she reported this to the warden and then the warden banned him from coming in.

Rodríguez: So the warden would have never known this if this civilian volunteer hadn’t done the warden’s job for him.

Ngo: Exactly. Now, the warden has full trust in her and the program.

Rodríguez: The problem of the reform mentality is that you actually become more protective of the institution you’re trying to challenge and the institution itself.

Ngo: Yes. [“Your call will be terminated in two minutes.”] You know, the issue of reform is a complex issue, but yes, that is a side effect of reform and I don’t quite know how to address that. I’m still struggling internalizing what that means, reform and revolution. But yes, that is a definite side effect.

Rodríguez: Lets talk about your writing, how you envision, or how you would fantasize political connections between people like you, right, and then the people who might be listening to this interview in this classroom. We started corresponding and I started looking at your creative writing and your kind of political polemical writing. One of the grounds on which we’ve tried to form a political and personal relationship is through correspondence and through writing. So maybe we can talk a little bit about this struggle between the free world and the unfree world.

Ngo: Right, and our relationship, and how they interact. O.K. [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”] I think on the individual level, I think we just have [beep] with each other. Not everyone in here has the same kind of…
I’m not at the same political level as others, so you can’t come in thinking that this is how prisoners are. You can’t stereotype prisoners to begin with, nor prisoners should stereotype people who want to get in touch with them. So just start off as friends, just people who write each other and get to know each other. But always be on a political tip, always ask questions and let them ask questions about you and what your role is and what do you do, and you know, and this automatically helps us to internalize how we are helping or hurting whatever cause or whatever lifestyle we’re trying to live.

Rodríguez: Well, Mike. You know what I’m thinking as you say that is that one of the strongest bonds that me and you have is the fact that we hate the state. When we actually get a chance to talk to each other in the visitors’ room, we’re always talking in hushed voices around those COs, because of what we’re saying to each other.

Ngo: Right.

Rodríguez: And I know that that’s the level at which I actually became your friend kind of immediately, was because I think we kind of sense from each other how much we hate this fucking country.

Ngo: Well, that was a big part of how we hooked up so quick.

Ngo: You have to read history and to understand the context that forms this place. Once you have a better understanding of that, then you’re going to say what we can do within the context of prison now, because it’s changed. So you can’t use the same methods as George did back then. You have to be more creative in trying to find new ways of promoting change. So, for those inside, always encourage, always help with the resources and what have you. With me, I started with writing. I felt my only weapon was writing; being critical about this place. Within my writing process I moved over to legal work, because I fell like that’s my next weapon. That’s the only thing I can do and do over and over again, and hurt the system. So, you have to be critical and for those on the outside, you have to think of ways to promote this critical thinking and create a thinking of how the people, how the organizations on the streets tackle the problems; social problems. By trying to change the laws by getting involved with politicians, by running for office, by having grassroots movement organizing. Those are ways of doing it….
We have to try to think outside of the box. That’s very important. I fell like I’m hurting these people because I thought outside of the box. What I’m referring to is that there are many policies and laws and just maybe conduce, the way we carry ourselves, we perceive that this is the way the law is. This is the way they enforce it. But if we think outside of the box and critique these laws and how they enforce it and these polices, we could try to pick out where these laws and politics are unconstitutional. This is how I’m hurting them now….
Language is very important in this because it helps form our mentality, our attitudes. If we always say we’re inmates and convicts, we always put ourselves in a power relationship that is legitimizing our captivity.

Ngo: They really don’t know what to do with me and my comrades right now. I mean, one minute they want to transfer us, another minute they tell us “we changed our minds,” because they don’t know what to do with us, because we’re thinking outside the box. We’re fighting. We’re actually standing up saying, “you know what? I have the right to challenge your policy, challenge the way you run things. Just cause you’re a pig and I’m an inmate doesn’t mean that I have to listen to what you say. That your word is law.”

Rodríguez: One of the themes that we’ve spoken to throughout this course is this notion Marilyn Buck articulates in one of her essays, where she used the phrase: “The right to struggle.” That seems a reflection of how reactionary the condition that we’re living in actually is, where people are not even talking about the right to eat, or the right to live, or the right to reproduce, or the right to exist. They’re talking about the right to struggle which means they’re talking about the right to struggle for those other rights. What you’re talking about, what you’re doing now, thinking outside the box, and acting outside the box is all actually above ground and perfectly legal stuff. And yet, people are having to fight just to do that.

Ngo: Hey man, the same things that the United States says about third world countries which have dictators, those are the same issues we’re going through here. It seems like they become more repressive when we try to exercise this right. Like with China and in Cuba, they say, “well, people can’t go out and speak their mind.” Well, that’s the same thing that’s going on here. We can speak our mind here, as long as it doesn’t threaten their security. Or it doesn’t threaten their ideology, or it doesn’t threaten their prisons. You can say whatever you want, but you can’t say it against them, basically. And so, yes, this right to struggle; we have to be able to voice our views, even if our views go up against those of our jailers.

I see my comrades sometimes. Like everyone, our energy is low. We lose hope sometimes and dwell in despair sometimes; a lot of times. But to me, I feel like you have to be somewhat intimate with your despair.
You have to understand it because it gives you a lot of strength; because once I no longer fear what these people do to me, I no longer worry about the repression they put against me when I struggle. When I exercise my right to struggle. So, I don’t want to dwell in my despair, but I have to be intimate with it ‘because some of my strength comes from this. So that’s what I can say about [beep]. If you fell like the odds are against you, that nothing ever changes man, that we’re fighting a mountain, always look at that and say, if that’s the case, we have nothing to lose. We have nothing to lose. And once you have that kind of mentality, these people start becoming aware of you, and you promote change this way. Yeah. That in itself is a win.

Rodríguez: I try to think the same thing; that the hope is actually in the struggle. It’s not even in the outcome.

Ngo: Exactly.

Rodríguez: It’s in the struggle.

Ngo: Exactly. [“Your call will be terminated in one minute.”] This is something me and my comrade talk about a lot. He thinks about strategies to hurt this place. And I’m cool with it because he knows the legal methods of doing it.

Rodríguez: Right.

Ngo: But I keep on [beep] that hey, you know, win or lose, it’s a process that we need to find some meaning to our lives. Me and my cell mate, my comrade that’s involved with this legal stuff that we’re doing, sometimes we sit at night, and after a hard week’s work where all our time is spent on research, typing things up, filing motions, doing 602s and the appeals and what we do in the future, sometimes we’re drained and we sit there in our bunks and we’re talking to each other of what our next strategy is. We ask ourselves, “Man, why are we even doing this?” And the answer we always get is that, hey man, we try to meanings of, right now, as it is, we think that we’re going to die up in here, because we have life sentences, the government isn’t letting no one out; that’s just the way it is.
So [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”], so the things that we’re doing, we’re trying to show our peers, and those people who love us, man, that our life is not wasted. That at least if we die, we’re going to die trying to change this monster. And really, in essence, that’s where all our energy and hope and despair and all of that comes from.

Rodríguez: And that’s the thing that I think separates an individual like you, from quite a few people who are locked into the logic of trying to just simply obtain their freedom; not even to escape, but just to be released from captivity.

Ngo: In some of my dialogues with my peers, this comes up because I’m so intimate with it; so during our political conversations, it automatically comes up. And they’re kind of taken aback by it, because they aren’t intimate with it. They have hope that they can get out of here, and in the back of my mind, I do too, but at the same time, that can’t take away from what we need to do here because of our fear of what they might do to us.

Rodríguez: If we take what you say seriously, then prison abolition is the only viable option.

Ngo: To me, if you’re going to understand the context, if you read into the history, how can it not be? At the very least, stop any new building of prisons. Stop the inflow of new prisoners. Stop a moratorium or any kind of growth of prison, at the very least. And we could have a better understanding, a grip on this, of what’s going on. But we have to admit…this is a monster man. If people can’t see that, and they don’t, all I can do is, sometimes is just put my head down and run with what I have man, because I look around and see what’s around me, I mean, I lose confidence. I lose faith in what I’m doing because it seems like I’m the only one. I’m the only one, and it’s ugly. That’s why it’s very important to find a group of people; comrades man, basically. You have to find people who love you man, and that’s the biggest problem in here in prison. If we had more access to people who think and feel like us…
It helps us do the work. Because we’re so isolated in here and out there at least you guys have the opportunity to sit down and break bread with each other….With people who love and feel the way you do….That’s where you get your energy from. We get our energy from our despair and our hate and a lot of things that have to do with love too, and love of wanting to live. But it’s overwhelming at times; so you have to use whatever advantages you have; and for a free person, that is your advantage. So definitely utilize it. That’s something me and my comrades dream of. We dream of being around our family members, or even around just our comrades who love each other so that we can get some energy back. We could know that, hey, we’re doing this not so that we have more time outside of our cell, or phone calls, or whatever; we’re doing this because, man, our children, the lives of our children are at stake…the future.

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