After the third inmate asked my housemates and me if we were waiting for Paul, it occurred to me that it was because we’re Asian. “You waiting for Paul?” one of the inmates from East 33 asked us. He was re-lacing his shoes, because before arrest, the guards take your shoelaces so you don’t hang yourself with them.
“He the Asian dude?” another inmate asked. “Yeah. First day in jail, he beat up six black dudes in one headlock. We call him the lion.”
“No,” inmate #2 corrected, as if he was the one to rename orange chicken “General Tso’s.” “Lion tamer.” We knew they were bullshitting. We laughed, but our capacity for humor was limited, after spending up to 17 hours driving to and waiting at the Santa Rita Jail, where Paul was taken to after police arrested him for blocking off the interstate 880 in Oakland. It was during the March 4 protests against the UC fee increases. This was the third time in three days that we drove from Davis to Dublin to visit Paul, but because we were turned away each time during his visiting hours, we had yet to see him. As more of the inmates whose charges got dropped earlier that day in Oakland got released, I was surprised at how friendly everyone was. I felt like I was picking up kids from summer camp. Except at this summer camp, the counselors beat you, feed you at breakfast at 3 a.m. so you don’t sleep and flash lights down your mouth to look for hidden razors beneath your tongue.
“My cell-mate is having a nacho party this Tuesday for New Year’s,” Frankie, a friend who had just gotten out of Santa Rita during winter break for a protest, told me when I asked her if she was scared to be locked up with all the felons and murder-charged inmates in the Bay Area. Paul had a similar take. When I asked him after we drove him home, he said he felt way more comfortable with the other inmates than around the guards. At first, he was apprehensive. On his first night there, a Mexican guy told him, “You know the rule is that the first night here, you have to take a shower.” Paul went and took a shower, and the whole time, he kept looking over his back with his fist clenched in case anyone came in. Nothing happened. The next day, he found out the Mexican guy was part of Norteños, a Latino gang in Northern California. It turns out over half the population of the Santa Rita Jail are from gangs. The first night, one of the leaders of The Others – a group of ethnic minorities who formed against the white supremacist groups in the jail – followed him and asked him where he was. He told Paul right off the bat that he should sit with him at the dining commons. Since Paul was the only Asian there, he agreed because he didn’t want any trouble. “I heard that a week before I got there, there was this guy who said he was too old to join, and so The Others jumped him,” Paul said. “I didn’t want to end up like that guy.”
Inside the gang, they have certain rules to enforce the community. One rule is that you’re not allowed to eat until all of The Others have sat down at the table. One of Paul’s cellmates started eating ahead of time, and he was ostracized for the rest of his stay there. This isn’t unlike a fraternity that has you shave your head before initiation, or a sorority that teaches you a secret leprechaun dance that you must promise never to repeat outside of its proper ceremony or a Christian church that submerges you underwater for a few seconds before you can write your name under the membership list.
If you shut up and play by the rules, you pass the test. If you don’t, you don’t get protected. While we were waiting for Paul, our housemates and I were talking about whether or not he’d change. It happened when he got arrested last fall during the Mrak 52 protests. When you and others go through an intense, traumatizing experience, the common experience forms a community. And before culture, before ideology, before ritual, it’s that shared experience that forms the collective identity. At home, Paul showed us the jail clothes he walked out with, which looked like a blue potato sac thrown over his shoulders. Frankie was there, and she said the uniform was bringing her flashbacks. I watched as he turned around in the blue robe of an ex-convict, and at times, I thought I was looking at Paul. At others, I was looking at someone quite different.
GEOFF MAK is leaving the realm of the online only. He’ll see everyone in print next quarter on Tuesdays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.