This article began 44 years ago. I’m not quite sure of the date and time, but I do know where it began: 113 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago 10, Illinois, the basement of the worst precinct jail house in Chicago’s police department – in 1950.
The reason I don’t know the day, date or time of day is I was recovering from the most thorough ass beating of my 16-year-old life.
For several months that started during the holidays in1949, myself and two other people had been engaged in a series of hold-ups. I was 16 years old and the smartest, baddest, toughest mother-fucker on the near north side of Chicago. The near north side was brimming full with smart, bad, rough mother-fucking 16-year-olds. But me? I had a mission. I wanted to be loved and feared. I wanted to be bad and respected. I wanted to be cool to the brothers and hot to the sisters. Yeah, we used those terms then, too.
I knew I was smart. I was too damn smart for school. In fact, since my 16th birthday in August I had all but stopped attending school. And bad? Hell! The only son-of-a-bitch badder than me was dead.
I was so bad that by my 16th birthday I had broken, or somebody had broken, my two arms three times. There were few parts of my body free of stitches. I had been cut or stabbed several times. I had been beaten and hit with baseball bats, bicycle chains, sticks and bricks – and shot at.
So here I was, 16 years old, beat to a pulp and feeling like a stuck pig. I was sick, broke, hungry and hurting. I was lying on a cold steel bench in a cold, wet, dark jail house feeling like a stupid piece of shit.
It was while I was lying there that I began, in my mind, writing this article. The article I was writing in my head had several different titles, but one common, recurring theme in all the titles was the word "gun." I didn’t always know why the word "gun" had to be part of the title, but still the word "gun" or "weapon" would not go away.
I have known the answer to this seemingly perplexing question of "the gun" for over 40 years, but have just recently seen the need to address it. The simple answer is: It was having and using a gun that caused me to be in that fucking jail. And having that gun and using it the way I did caused me to damn near get dead from that police ass beating. That’s the simple answer.
IF ONLY …
The other answer, which is absent much of this bullshit and pompous self indulgence, is what this article is about.
From the time of my arrest, in March of 1950, until my release in December of the same year, I met and interviewed hundreds of arrestees, prisoners, convicts, inmates, cops, guards and sundry other jail house people in several jails and prisons and courts and lock-ups.
In 1950 the death house was located at the Cook County Jail in the heart of Chicago. During my many months of residence at that institution, I was housed on the tier where those who had received life sentences and death sentences received their visits. Those of us who were housed on this tier – if we cared to and if the condemned men cared to – often had opportunities to converse and often for relatively long periods of time.
At the time of these conversations, I did not view them as either educational or enlightening. I was simply curious and this was a way to pass time. But I did talk with these men, and I did listen.
This is what I learned: of the dozen or so men that I interviewed who were awaiting death dates, all but two had used a hand gun or shot gun or rifle in committing the crimes for which they were accused.
All the condemned men at the time of the crime were under age 40, most were under 25, and at least three were under 20. One was 16. Of these dozen or so condemned men, five were white, two were Native American; the others were black or Latino. None of the Latinos spoke English as a first language. Neither any of the Latinos nor any of the blacks had any college education. And only two of the blacks and one white had as much as some high school learning.
Few of the condemned men were either tall or stout fellows. Most of them appeared rather shy and resigned. Some cried often. Some never cried. All of them laughed, sometimes.
The conversations I remember most are those concerning the use of weapons. Whether the men I spoke with were sitting on death row or doing "small time" in the county or city jails or awaiting trial for some small infraction or doing big time, or thinking they might, the lament or regret I heard most, was: "If I just didn’t have that gun!"
Even if the disclaimer "guns don’t kill, people do" is true, here are some facts that are also true: It is people who pull the triggers and it is people who suffer and die. And when these guns kill and maim people, it is people who fill our jails and prisons.
Don Alexander, a writer and community activist living in Seattle, is working on a book about the effect of the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. He is also involved in the issues of welfare rights, environmental justice, and prison reform.