• The Multiple Worlds Issue

    Vikki Law

    The Multiple Worlds Issue
    Vikki cover

    Meet the anarchist, prison abolitionist, author, editor, and mother who became an activist after being arrested for armed robbery at age 16.

    Vikki Law

    Victoria Law, who goes by Vikki, is an anarchist, a prison abolitionist, a freelance writer, author, editor, and a mother.

    Vikki grew up in Flushing, Queens in the 80s and 90s, and at the age of 16, she was arrested for participating in an armed robbery. After avoiding a jail sentence on probation, she became a prison abolitionist and writer. She is a rare individual who has made a career writing about women’s prison organizing and resistance after seeing her social circle trapped in the prison-industrial complex. She’s the author of the book Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2009) , and co-editor of Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities (PM Press 2012). She’s a regular contributor to Truthout and BitchMedia, where she covers mass incarceration and women’s prison issues, among other things.

    I met Vikki at the social center and former squat ABC No Rio on New York City’s Lower East Side in early December, the day after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo and a night of spontaneous protests caused chaos on the streets of New York City.

    In the introduction to your book Resistance Behind Bars – The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, you talk about getting arrested at age 16, and that being an moment that contributed to you becoming a prison abolitionist. What were some of the conditions leading up to that? What was the path to you starting to think critically about prisons?

    I was born in Flushing, Queens, and grew up in Forest Hills. Forest Hills is a place usually thought of as fancy houses and rich people. But there’s a dividing line at 71st avenue, and on the other side there are many smaller, connected houses, often inhabited by immigrant families who moved here to buy their first house. So the part of Flushing where I lived was full of people of different races and cultures.

    One of the funny things about the New York City school system is that, even if you’re a couple of blocks away from a high school, it may not be the high school you’re zoned for. You might be zoned to go to a totally different school. My mom didn’t have the kind of social capital that would have enabled her to navigate these social and political systems. She didn’t realize she should be asking people how to make sure I went to the school two blocks away from my house.

    So I went to Hillcrest High School, which is in a section of Jamaica that is predominantly people of color, predominantly low-income. The school itself is massively overcrowded. Outside the school, what used to be a track is littered with crack vials and occasionally bullet casings, so nobody actually goes outside for gym. It’s the kind of school where a lot of students don’t see the point to engage, they don’t feel like they need an education. It was a great recruiting ground in the 1990s for a lot of the street gangs. Gangs would send somebody in to recruit, or they’d have one of the students recruit. They’d be like, “Do you really wanna do this? Or would you rather make a few hundred dollars at night?” To most teenagers, the answer is pretty clear. Of course you’d rather make a couple hundred dollars in the night rather than sit in a classroom where nobody cares. Maybe be able to buy a new pair of sneakers and have some money leftover to give to your mom who’s working two jobs. Be able to take your girlfriend out. Be able to hang out with your friends and not have to be like, okay, “Who’s gonna buy the hamburger this time so all five of us can sit at McDonalds?” At that age, you don’t think, “Oh wait, I might get arrested, and I might spend a lot of time in prison, and it’ll fuck up my life forever.”

    One thing that’s perverse about New York City is that supposedly we can’t afford quality education for everybody, but we do have money for an entire jail – Rikers Island. Rikers Island is right by La Guardia airport, just across the Rikers Island Channel. It’s an island that’s devoted to mostly pre-trial detention, people who can’t afford bail, and people who’ve been sentenced to less than a year. So this is where we put our resources. And this is where a lot of my friends ended up.

    I was dating a guy who was in a gang, and he convinced me that it would be a fine idea to participate in a robbery. Me being 16, there was no disclaimer that I might get arrested, I might go to prison. It’ll be easy, he said. This was a guy who’d already been in jail and had been to prison upstate, so you’d think he’d have an understanding of the risks. The plan was to go in, rob the place, our friend waiting outside in a car. I was the one with the bag, and it had a gun inside. He pulled out the gun and robbed the cashier. The cashier totally freaked out. When we go outside the car is gone, because our supposed friend had taken off. And then the cashier was outside on the street, screaming she’s been robbed. A group of people started to form, and started chasing us all around. Eventually we got arrested.

    I spent 48 or 72 hours in jail, in central booking. Because I was 16, I wasn’t allowed to mix with the adult population, so they put me with the other people who were under 18. Until recently, when you go upstate, they’d allow you to mix. But now, under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, 16 and 17-year-olds have to have their own separate space so that they can’t be prayed upon by older people, supposedly. So I was stuck in a tiny little cell. I don’t want to glamorize it, it was a pretty dismal experience, but it also wasn’t the worst awful thing to be in a cell for 48-72 hours, given that people spend years, if not decades, in cells.

    Then I got out. Luckily for me, because I was 16, because I had good grades in school, because I was small, because I was Asian – the combination of all of these factors led the judge to adjudicate me as a juvenile rather than as an adult. In New York State, once you’re 16, you’re considered an adult in the criminal punishment system. This means they will charge you as an adult unless you can argue that you should be charged as a juvenile. New York is one of two states – the other one is North Carolina – that does that automatically. In other states, the prosecutor has to argue that they should be able to charge you as an adult.

    Because the judge is willing to let me get adjudicated as a juvenile rather than as an adult, I was able to plead out and get five years of probation. But had I been, say, a C-student, or dropped out of school, had I been larger, had I been darker-skinned, had I been black, the judge might have decided differently.

    Around the same time, a lot of my friends dropped out, joined gangs, got arrested, went to jail. They were sent to Rikers Island and I started visiting them. That’s how I started understanding more about jail and prison. Just going to Rikers, meeting the same women over and over in the waiting room, meeting at the bus stop, getting to know them. They’d ask me, “Who are you here to visit?” and we’d start talking. Unlike the taboo among those incarcerated, there’s no taboo among family members or loved ones preventing them from telling you what their man is in for.

    If you ever go to visit somebody at one of these facilities, you’ll end up waiting several hours for your one-hour visit. You’re just sitting there, waiting, without anything to do. It’s not like they have a TV set like in a doctor’s waiting room. You have to lock up all your things in a locker, so you can’t bring anything. But you’ll be surrounded by other people coming to visit. So you turn around and you start talking to people.

    I got to hear a lot of stories about people getting locked up. Nobody was Jeffrey Dahmer or Bernie Madoff or any of those horrible people you read about in the newspapers. They were all in for drugs, some dumb gang thing, some dumb property thing. Around the same time, I decided to start reading about prisons and incarceration. Nobody had ever talked to me about jail or prison before. Even in the gangs, it was never talked about. You don’t lure somebody into a gang by saying, “Here’s the flip side: you might go to prison.” They’re just like, “It’s a great life. You get money, you don’t have to do much.”

    Were there other people around you that were starting to interrogate the socio-economic and political conditions of the prison system?

    Absolutely not. Now, you can go online and find people talking about it, which is great. But in the early 1990s there was no ‘online’. Or if there was, low-income kids of color in crappy schools didn’t know about it or have access to it.

    After I got out, I was determined not to end up in that situation again. That you’re on probation for five years means that if you get in trouble again, you’re not only looking at the new charge, you’re also looking at the old charge coming back up. That’s when I started reading about prisons.

    I really liked to read before I started hanging out with that group of friends, who all disapproved highly of reading because it reminded them of school and a crappy education. I had friends who, if I was reading a book, would take the book and throw it on the floor. They thought books were a waste of time, and they’d laugh if one of their girlfriends started talking about going to college. It was a really anti-educational setting, where school has done nothing for us, so therefore we act very badly when people do anything that reminds us of school. But with most of my friends locked up, and me not wanting to get in trouble, I started going to bookstores.

    I started coming into the city and going to places like St. Mark’s Bookstore, which is a fantastic bookstore. It’s independent, stocks things that are interesting, and they actually had a section about prisons, which the local Barnes and Noble probably didn’t have.

    I found books about prisons. Everything I read corresponded with everything that I was going through, in terms of my friends feeling like they didn’t belong in school, that school wasn’t offering them a better life, being recruited into gangs and underground economies, getting arrested ... Or being targeted by police just for being a young person of color hanging out in the street in this supposedly affluent neighborhood.

    It was an eye-opener for me to realize that this isn’t just something that has happened to me and my friends, and that lady and her son, and that girl and her boyfriend. I started to connect the dots and see a system. It became so obvious to me that prisons don’t keep anybody safe. That’s not what they are for.

    When did you start coming to ABC No Rio?

    I had read about ABC No Rio on and off once I started reading again. Going to places like St. Marks Books, I’d pick up the independent publications that used to exist, or pay a dollar for this magazine or that zine. People kept mentioning ABC No Rio. I remember coming here for the first time when I was 16 or 17. My friend’s band was playing here, and I just remember being really unimpressed with the place. This was before I knew anything about it. It was just a venue my friends were playing at. It was an all-ages space, so they could play here. I had no idea of things like DIY, the difference between community-run spaces and commercial spaces. None of this was in my consciousness at the time.

    A couple of years later I came back here and started doing Food Not Bombs. I met more people who were involved in the space, some of the people who were living upstairs, squatting the upper floors at the time. And that’s when I started feeling a sense of a welcoming community. I started understanding that this is place where you can bring your whole self in, not just the part of you that’s smart and likes books, but also the part that gets into trouble. Or, you don’t have to bring in just the part of yourself that likes to get into trouble, and leave the part that likes books at the door. It took me a while to grasp that. I was used to leaving parts of myself at the door. You go to school, and you don’t cause trouble, you hang out with your friends and you don’t read books. But here, you could have opinions about things. You could even say, “I don’t know very much about this, how can I learn more?” and that was also okay.

    There were a couple of people who really took me under their wing and always invited me to things. They made an effort to make me feel invited and welcome.

    Did you experience any friction between your old life and social circle in Queens and the new one on the Lower East Side? Were you able to connect these two worlds?

    Well, my previous social circle got locked up, so there was no hanging out with them. When they got out, a lot of them would just focus on their lives. By that point I was pretty settled into my new life as a prison abolitionist. Also, there was no longer this luxury of time that we had when we were younger, of being able to spend five hours at McDonalds until they threw us out, and then go sit in the park. Having been dealt a criminal record, they had to work so much harder to even get to that barely-scraping-by point than they would have before. I lived and hung out in the city, and they lived in Queens and were busy looking for work, reconnecting with families and loved ones, and it just wasn’t a priority to get together and reminisce over what we used to do.

    Your work focuses on women’s prison organizing and resistance and, more generally, how issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class intersect within the prison system. At what point did you decide to make these issues the focus of your work?

    I got my bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College. As I was finishing up at Brooklyn College, I took a course on civil rights and black liberation with an amazing professor named Jeanne Theoharis. I did an independent study with her where I looked at prison organizing and prison activism. I kept reading about the 1960s and the 70s, George Jackson, the Black Panther Party, the Angola Three. But what’s happening after Attica and all these uprisings? What’s happening after the social justice movements of the 1970s were totally crushed and shut down? What connections are there with people inside right now? What are people on the inside doing, how has it changed? I was interested in these questions.

    At the end of the semester, I looked back and realized that almost everything I’d researched and written about was about men. There was very little talk about what women were doing. Anything written about women focused on women as subject to sexual abuse, or their role as mothers, but that was about it.

    The prison literature at the time was like a bookshelf, and all the books talked about men’s prison experience as the universal prison experience. All the way down at the very bottom in this tiny little section covered in cobwebs were the couple of books about women in prison. There was one called Battered Women’s Justice which I think was buried in the domestic violence or sociology section, but it was really about women who had been incarcerated for defending themselves against abuse, and what they were doing inside prisons. It covers the first successful campaign to get mass-clemency for women incarcerated for killing their abusers. That organizing isn’t talked about in any of the other books. It’s not even mentioned.

    Identifying this void led me to doing research specifically around women’s prison organizing and women’s prison resistance.

    Today, I see more coverage of how women are also targeted by police, the different ways in which they are targeted by both state violence and interpersonal violence. But there wasn’t anything like that back then.

    You founded the zine Tenacious: Art & Writings by Women in Prison, you’ve written books published by PM Press, you write a lot for Truthout and BitchMedia. These are all very different outlets that reach very different kinds of audiences. How did you find yourself at each of them?

    It’s actually funny. I didn’t train to be a journalist. I actually had no idea what I was gonna do with all this information I’d collected on the conditions inside women’s prisons and women’s activism and organizing. I wrote my paper and turned it in. Jeanne Theoharis gave me an A and said, “Why don’t you go to grad school?” But at the time, I’d just had a baby. I thought, maybe when my kid is ready for school herself. But by the time my kid was ready to go to school I no longer wanted to go to grad school.

    Already when I was eight months and three weeks pregnant, Jeanne Theoharis asked me to do this other independent study about women’s prison resistance and organizing. I was like, I don’t know, I’m about to have a baby. She said, “Well, I think this is really important, I think your scholarship is important. If you do this, we will meet at your convenience, you can bring the baby with you. I will hold the baby while we go over everything, it’ll be fine.” And she really made it so that it was accessible for me to do it. But she also said, “I’m not letting you do sloppy research and sloppy writing just because you have a baby. I will be understanding if you can’t make it because you or the baby is sick, but I will hold you to the same academic standards as I would hold anybody else. I will make it so that you as a new mom can participate in this.” That was a huge boost, because most people in academia would not have reacted that way.

    During the course of my independent study, I’d reached out to all these different women in prison and started correspondences with them. I wasn’t gonna drop them just because my paper was done. I kept up with it, and they kept sending me information: clippings of articles, news stories, and so on.

    For example: In 2007, the Colorado legislature passed a bill that allowed Colorado farms to hire prisoners. They would pay the prison $8 an hour, the prison keeping most of it. The prison used some of it to pay for the guards that escorted the prisoners, and the people doing the actual work of picking or mowing or weeding got a very small portion. But it was still the best paying job in the prison.

    They started with the medium to minimum security women’s prison, because those are the women they felt were least likely to get into trouble and cause an embarrassment. It made a little bit of news in the local newspaper for that prison town, but it didn’t make national news. I found out about this because women in that prison sent me articles about it, and then explained how it affected them on the inside. The problem was, all of a sudden, the farm work had taken priority over everything else.

    If you didn’t have clearance to go work on the farm, if you had a violent crime for example, they wouldn’t let you go work on the farm. If you didn’t qualify, you were in danger of being transferred to some other prison so they could transfer somebody to that prison who did meet those qualifications. So a hodgepodge of transfers started. Women who met the criteria but were in the prison’s educational programs were told that they had to go work on the farm instead of being in their educational programs. I found out about all of this from the women who wrote me. They also told me about the ways they tried to organize around the housing, or the educational programs. Even if they weren’t successful in shutting down the farm program, they were able to at least get some of the ways that it impacted them alleviated.

    I would just keep getting information like that, which accumulated over time. I didn’t know what to do with all this information, so I just put it in a folder. It didn’t occur to me that I should write about it.

    In 2007 I met Ramsey Kanaan, the founder of a new publisher called PM Press. It was really new – when they published my book, I was one of their first 20 books. I’d mentioned to a couple of people that I was thinking about writing a book, and he’d found out about it through a friend.

    I went to this party because I knew he was going to be there. Except I’m an awful socializer, so I think I was just standing by the snack table, because that’s just where you go when you don’t have anyone to talk to. Ramsey walked up and asked me what I was working on. I told him I was doing research on resistance and organizing inside women’s prisons. He was very interested, and told me to send him a sample chapter and a manuscript outline. I did, and he responded right away, saying he wanted to publish it. It was a really positive experience for somebody who hadn't thought about training to be a journalist or a nonfiction writer.

    Later on I went on a book tour with Jordan Flaherty, who is one of the editors of Left Turn and who had written a book about resistance and organizing in New Orleans, and Jesse Muhammad from The Final Call, who’d done a lot of work on the Jena Six case in Louisiana. When we were in Arizona, Jordan told me he was going to meet with Leslie Thatcher from Truthout, and asked me to come along. We were staying at some cute little cabin in this rural area outside of Flagstaff. I said, “I think I’m just gonna stay here and read a book.” I don’t know if he was worried about leaving me in this cabin by myself or what, but he convinced me to come with him. So we go and meet with Leslie Thatcher who’s really nice and wonderful.

    Eight months later, somebody tells me about this farm in Arizona called Martori Farm that’s using women prisoner labor, and that people are getting really sick from the work. So it’s not just that people are getting shifted around; the farm conditions themselves are horrible. They are working in hundred degree weather in the sun and it’s only a matter of time before somebody dies. It’s like slavery all over again, but now it’s sanctioned because it’s prison labor.

    I’m like, alright, I should write about this. At this point, I was writing a little here and there. I email Leslie to ask if she knows of a place that would like to publish it. I had no idea what places in Arizona would be sympathetic to the story. She responds saying that Truthout will print it, just send it along. At the time, Martori Farms were the sole supplier of melons to Walmart. So this was not some small family farm. This was a large operation.

    Shortly after my story gets published, Martori farms announced that they were not going to use prison labor anymore. They said it was because the cost was too high and they were going back to using immigrants. I don’t know how great that is, but people come to the US seeking these awful paying jobs because they’re still better than no jobs or awful paying jobs in Mexico.

    A year later Leslie Thatcher asks me to become a regular writer for Truthout. It really was just this weird opportunity. They set aside one of their regular paid slots for me every month. This was great, because it allowed me to start figuring out how to do journalism. It also allowed me to make connections with other folks. They were really good at guiding me, telling me things like, “Hey, you need to go and ask the Department of Corrections for a comment.” Things that someone who comes from an activist background and isn’t a trained journalist wouldn’t think of doing, because you know these people are going to lie anyway. I learned how to tell a story, how to do it in a compelling way.

    I mostly write about prison issues, because this is what I know about and who I have connections with. In 2011 I started covering the first round of hunger strikes in Pelican Bay from the recent spate of hunger strikes. I wrote to some people in prison, I reached out to some groups I knew in California, asking who they suggest I talk to. They connected me with family members. Fast forward three years, and I’m still in contact with all these family members. If something is about to happen, they’ll let me know. Sometimes I can just call them for a comment, which is really wonderful. Some of us are in texting contact. It has allowed me to develop longer-term relationships with people doing this kind of on-the-ground work. And also develop a kind of trust where they realize I’m not going to twist their story, or demonize their loved ones. They know what my work is like so they’re okay connecting me with other people in their network.

    Going to Bitch was a separate idea. A couple of years ago, when my daughter was in 6th grade, she got really into dystopian fiction. She kept coming home with a different book every day, which is fantastic. But I started to realize that all the covers were of white people. I thought, where are the people of color? And where are the girls of color?

    For her birthday, I go to Books of Wonder, the children’s bookstore on 18th St, right off Union Square [in Manhattan]. It’s an amazing bookstore. Apparently they allow their staff to borrow books and take them home so that the staff knows about the books. I’m standing there, looking at the teen section. My eyes are glazing over the shelves, and I’m a little overwhelmed. A clerk comes up to me and says, “What are you looking for? Do you need any help?” And I say, “Yes, I’m looking for dystopian books for my eleven-year-old.” As she’s about to pull out some books, I continue “ ... with a girl of color as the main character.” She stops and she turns around and looks at me – she’s another woman of color – and says, “Oh I hear you, I totally hear you.” And then we’re both looking stupidly at these shelves.

    That conversation stuck with me. I thought Bitch Media would be interested in having a blog series about what happened to the girls of color in dystopia. Like, did a plague wipe them out? What happened here? Did they all get killed? Why is this never mentioned?! I pitched it to them and they said yes.

    The blog series pushed me to look deeply at girls of color in dystopia – they were pretty hard to find. When I was done with that series, the web editor of Bitch Sarah Mirk asked me to stay on as one of their political writers. I write things like “Remembering the Black Women Killed by Police”, which I wrote after the murder of Michael Brown. Other times I try to bring race into the conversation about women and feminism. Or to bring women’s issues into the conversation about racial justice and police brutality. And sometimes they ask me to cover something. I wrote a piece about privacy and revenge porn laws that Sarah pitched me.

    I enjoy having that reach, bringing issues about prisons and racial justice to people who read about feminism. Things that are not typically considered “feminist issues”. But there has been much more coverage of prisons in Bitch lately so now they see it as part of their focus. One day, Sarah showed me this graphic she’d designed that says “prisons are a feminist issue”.

    Similarly, I enjoy having that reach to the readers of Truthout, who I assume is typically read by people who may not think about issues from a feminist lens. If they think about prisons – if they think about prisons at all – they think about men.

    As a freelance writer, it seems a big portion of the work is to manage your own time. You don’t have the same structure as someone who goes to an office, can take secret coffee breaks and be paid the same amount. Your income and your future depends on you setting up the structures for yourself. Do you like working that way? What have been some of the challenges?

    Early on, one of the challenges was making people who had never freelanced before understand that being a freelancer did not mean that I could just hang out whenever. I think that’s a common misperception. People are like, “Can you deal with my plumber?” Or, “Can I drop off the kids with you?” Sure, I may not have an office, but that doesn’t mean I’m just hanging out, drinking coffee. One of the challenges at first was setting that boundary and holding it. Because a couple of times I’d be like, okay, I haven’t seen my mom in a while, I’ll go have lunch. Of course that would be the day that the Massachusetts Senate decided to pass a groundbreaking bill. Had I been at my computer, I would have seen that in my feed and been able to jump on it right then, and not four hours after it happened.

    The fact that I write about what I’m passionate about is a good thing. That means that the hardest part for me is figuring out who I’m going to pitch what to. I enjoy connecting with people who are impacted by prisons, whether it’s formerly incarcerated people or their family members. I enjoy writing about struggles that aren’t written about. And I enjoy developing relationships. These are things that I enjoy and that I don’t mind doing. The hardest part for me is getting out there and figuring out what a publication usually writes about. How to tailor what I’m passionate about to what they identify as their focus.

    But sometimes things just throw you for a loop. Yesterday, I finished one short piece and I sent it off. And then I started to work on the second piece. I realized there was this webinar I also wanted to check out so I was multitasking, trying to write this piece, listening to this webinar. Half-way through the webinar I look through my twitter feed and see “non-indictment for Daniel Pantaleo” – the police who killed Eric Garner. At that point, everything just shuts down. I mean, I wasn’t hopeful about an indictment – they didn’t indict Darren Wilson. I’m also not hopeful about the criminal punishment system in general, especially not for black families who’ve lost a loved one to state violence. But you still feel punched in the gut. Even if you don’t believe that prisons are the answer, you want something to happen. So everything shut down, and I still have this piece I need to write. I definitely have those moments when it’s like, I’m not doing anything. Maybe I’ll go to a protest.

    Over the last couple of years, it seems the internet has started to fill with rage bait – articles that are written solely because they will make people angry and will trigger the impulse to share them on social media, which means more ad dollars for the publisher. These stories are often more sensational than informative or thoughtful. At the same time, this trend corresponds with more people becoming disillusioned with the police, which is perhaps a good thing. What do you think about these tendencies in internet culture? What possibilities do you see opening up as more and more people express anger at racist policing?

    I think one of the valuable things about sharing these stories is it allows them to get out there, which may shift the narrative from always describing it as an individual problem. Darren Wilson as an individual problem. Daniel Pantaleo as an individual problem. With this barrage of stories, people are starting to see it as more of a systemic problem.

    One of the challenges for people doing the organizing, and people like myself who are doing the reporting from a left-leaning, abolitionist perspective is to make sure that it doesn’t become about reform, or body cameras, or calling for more African-Americans on the police force, or a better complaint review board. No, this is a systemic problem because we have this inherently flawed system that from the get-go has had police to brutalize black and brown bodies, trans people, marginalized people, and so on.

    The challenge is to make sure that this doesn’t get gobbled up by people who don’t believe these issues to be inherent to the system. People who think the system is “broken”. No, the system is doing what it is meant to do.

    I’m hopeful about this renewed attention – and this outrage! It was cold last night, but thousands of people went out, and spontaneously stopped traffic. To have thousands of people saying “enough is enough” is exciting. Especially on the heels of the Darren Wilson verdict.

    If you were to recommend a book right now, what would it be?

    Maya Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out – Why prisons don’t work and how we can do better. She talks about all the fucked-up ways that prisons destroy communities, destroy individuals, destroy families, and the toll on family members that try to be involved. She also talks about family members organizing. And the second half covers transformative justice techniques – different initiatives for alternatives to arresting people, suspending them, or giving them some other criminal punishment.

    Is there any project you want to plug?

    Since we’re sitting here, I’ll plug ABC No Rio. It was a pivotal place for me to develop as a prison abolitionist, and somebody who could think outside the box, somebody who was comfortable being my full self. For the longest time I didn’t tell anybody I’d been arrested or that I was on probation, because I was sure people were going to look down on me, or use it against me. Right now, ABC No Rio isn’t the most physically welcoming space – it’s a hundred-something years old tenement building that was never meant to last this long. It was meant for some slum lord in the 1800s to make a lot of money off immigrants and then peace out with his money. But we’re in the process of tearing down the existing building and constructing a new facility that will be more comfortable and welcoming, which is exciting.

    ABC No Rio is a space for people to come and meet each other, to learn new skills or brush up on old skills, come together and share ideas, while being accessible and affordable. Hopefully it will continue to be a place where people who don’t feel they belong in other places can bring their whole selves in.

    There’s another thing I like to tell people who are not parents. ABC No Rio was really important to my political development. But when I became a parent, what was also important in allowing me to stay in these spaces and movements was the amount of support that people gave me as a new parent. Who knows if I would have developed as a writer and as somebody who reports on prison issues without that support. I might just have said, screw it, I’m gonna go to business school and become some middle manager somewhere, because that’s how I’m gonna take care of me and my kid. It’s important that people think about not just how to welcome new people, but also how to enable each other to keep participating, keep showing up.

    To find out more, you can follow Victoria Law on Twitter, check out her website, and buy her books from PM Press.

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