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Rage Behind Bars

June 23, 2002|JOE LOYA | Joe Loya is an associate editor at Pacific News Service. His memoir "The Parole of Buddha Lobo" will be out next year.

OAKLAND — I watched with interest the recent announcement of the arrest of Abdullah al Muhajir--born Jose Padilla--a U.S. citizen and former Chicago street gang member who converted to Islam and is now believed to have been plotting with Al Qaeda to explode a "dirty bomb."

He and I could have been good friends in prison.

Seven years ago, from my federal prison cell, I watched on television the destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. My first thought: "Good, the U.S. government needs to suffer some casualties in this war on crime. They need to learn that it ain't no fun when the rabbit's got the gun."

It was easy for me as a federal prisoner to affiliate myself with the enemy of my enemy. I justified Timothy McVeigh's murder of innocent people, thinking of it as "collateral damage." People of good conscience, I rationalized, used the same justification to blast the innocent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Prisons are full of political throwbacks who haven't seen freedom in 20 or 30 years. You see older men in a time warp, wearing widely flared bell-bottom pants that were fashionable when they were last out on the streets. Some prisoners' politics are similarly dated.

In federal custody, I was in a solitary confinement unit with a bank robber named Queito who fasted during Ramadan as an expression of solidarity with Palestinians. He wasn't Muslim, but in his mind the Palestinians had their homeland stolen and were oppressed in much the same way as Mexicans.

Queito fancied himself a Marxist revolutionary of the Che Guevara stripe. He was committed to a reconquest of the U.S. Southwest--the mythical birthplace of the state of Aztlan. He passed out Chicano scholar Rodolfo Acuna's book "Occupied America" to semiliterate Mexican gang members.

Back then, Acuna espoused the separatist gospel that "Anglo control of Mexico's northwest territory [the U.S. Southwest] is an occupation." In Queito's imagination, he and the Palestinians had a similar "stolen lands" quarrel with all colonialist governments of the world.

Once, while locked in my cell during the Gulf War, I heard an excited inmate named Toro yell out to Queito that he'd seen the war footage and that "we" were blowing the Iraqis away. "Who is the 'we' you are talking about?" Queito shot back. "You have solidarity with a government that has you locked in handcuffs right now?"

It would have been easy for Jose Padilla, doing time in Illinois, to become politicized by a radical leftist like Queito. No doubt he was preached to by some aging supporter of the Chicago-based Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), a Puerto Rican group that planted bombs to protest "the imperialist state" in the 1970s and 1980s.

Latino Muslims were common in prison. My friend "Panama" was one of them. He spoke in broken English, wore a traditional Muslim cap and prayed five times a day.

There reside in the Latino consciousness at least three historical grudges, three conflicting selves: the Muslim Moor, the Catholic Spanish and the indigenous Indian. You see the internal conflict manifested when the light-skinned, middle-class, Catholic Mexican American girl from Reseda goes to Stanford and goes indigenous, adopting a new Aztec princess name, Xochitl.

The old Latin American revolutionaries converted to atheism, but the new faux revolutionary Latino American prisoner can just as easily convert to Islam. In the end, both choices are a sort of adolescent rebellion against authority--in this case, the Catholic Church.

I understand that rebellion, the desire to highlight my indigenous roots over the conquistador in me.

There was a time in prison when I contemplated getting out and raising funds for Mexico's revolutionary Zapatistas by robbing American banks. I was a thief, but I wanted to be a criminal soldier with a cause, like Zapata and Pancho Villa.

U.S. law enforcement is partially to blame for the phenomenon of the street gang member dreaming of becoming such a warrior. Law enforcement has employed the metaphors and language of warfare to fight drug addicts and petty thieves. It was only a matter of time before simple thugs like me and Queito began to see ourselves at war with the U.S. government.

Although I am Mexican American, the FBI named me "The Beirut Bandit" when they were chasing me, because tellers said I looked Lebanese, or Iranian, or Pakistani. Like Jose Padilla, once upon a time I could have entertained the thought of lending criminal support to the Palestinians or other Arabs I resembled in appearance--and with whom I shared a grudge against the United States.

Today, Jose Padilla and I could no longer be friends. On TV, I saw the World Trade Center bombing and I felt sorrow for the gaping hole torn in the body politic. I was repulsed by the carnage because today my heart doesn't celebrate hate or mayhem. I'm no longer at war with the government--or with myself.

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