So I have thoughts on Since I Been Down.
Corey Pittman was kinder to me than I deserved. Untreated trauma concerning physical violence, sexual abuse, and my grandmother’s violent death left me a radioactive sixteen-and-a-half-year-old who drank, popped pills, and mistook his mood swings for hardness. When I was less radioactive, Corey was very cordial to me; in that same spirit, he took me aside and told me to try to get my shit together. He reminded me that many people in this block didn’t have a mother like mine who climbed an agonizing mountain to get out of Hilltop. My presence, of someone who had chances to have a better life and came back to block to be this cyclone of uppers, Mogan David, anger, and sadness, made people mad at me. Pittman not only told me to straighten up my life, he indirectly saved it.
For two years, I started to make the best of my life. I stopped drinking, improved my grades, ran cross country and track, and began to improve my disposition. Before he went to Alabama State( and in the intermittent moments he came back), our paths would cross at the Mall and bus stations. He would make comments noticing my improvement. He had a sensibility of both sweetness and steel and a high achieving yet unpretentious sense of self that people gravitated to. When he was murdered less than 300 feet away from my grandmother’s house, I would ask God why he took him instead of a troubled sinner like me.
This was the Corey Pittman many people in my neighborhood and I knew. The Pittman the social justice world knows is a footnote in Since I Been Down, the documentary that profiles Kimonti Carter, the Blood who murdered him in 1997, and his productive acts teaching lifers critical thinking and social skills in jail. I’m not going to tell you that the documentary is without merit, especially in the bulk of the first third. Director Gilda Shepherd does a service by giving the painful history of Black Tacoma and the back-breaking legacy of redlining and racial discrimination. She also details how Los Angeles gangs made it an unbelievably frightening place to live.
I was also moved to tears by the details of Carter’s Young Life( In ways I unsocratically did not want to be). In 1987, my grandmother gave my desolate, overwhelmed mother cheap childcare and a family structure that helped her keep her job. I could have easily been in his same living situation if she didn’t. The cops that would round up, harass, and badger young kids like Carter were why I- after a few of the same brushes- got up at 4:20 in the morning to go to school in the suburbs and the reason I dressed like a diplomat when I did. My father would beat up preteen drug runners in the same side streets and corners Shepherd documented Carter Running as an all-but orphan. As terrorized and haunted as I was by the red in the blue in that neighborhood, I couldn’t help but see-saw the social bonding that the Bloods had with Carter and thought, “This is the first network of people that gave him anything.”
By the time Shepherd let officers John Ringer and Barry McColeman subtly indict themselves( in going through sets of Polaroids of 11 and 12-year-olds kids they had and talking about the carte Blanche they had To do Whatever they wanted to do), I began to get stirred by her case against the project industrial complex that haunted black Tacoma and so many inner cities across America. Since I’ve been down isn’t about that as it is a case for Carter and other prison lifers hours being society’s children. Integral in her argument is a montage that conflates Tacoma Safe Streets Marchers with Bill Bennett’s neoconservatism and Bill Clinton’s three-strikes law. For all my life, I knew the Hilltop Action Coalition to be a network where you could get food, necessities, and safe adults if you needed them. And now, on one of the most prestigious film platforms in the world (Sundance), they are painted as enemies of their people. Watching it, I felt my heart was sent straight to hell.
Watching how the movie turned into an infomercial for so many prison lifers who wanted forgiveness without mentioning what they did to their victims, I thought of all my friends and people who have been in the system. I’ve known people who just got caught up in that life but later rose to do beautiful things in their communities and Beyond. Yes, the prison system had little to do with their redemption. There was a redemption there, however, and their idiosyncratic stories involved a reckoning of what they had done and a complex Journey to grace. The nuances in the arcs of their lives had nothing to do with the radical chic boilerplate Shepherd presents in the bulk of this movie, in which prisoners are presented as healed citizens because of a series of books and classes with the demand that they be let out to be revolutionary heroes in society.
By the time Carter is refused a clemency hearing, the movie’s rhetoric descends into vicious rancor toward the victims of crime in Tacoma. Here is where my Socratic sensibilities stop. When my grandfather stepped in to be my father figure, he would take me to run errands for the sick and shut-ins that used to go to Bethlehem Baptist Church. The sick were usually people of a certain age and had certain health conditions. The shut-ins were people who had taken Jim Crow, northern discrimination, and the seasons in hell that Hilltop had in the 90s and couldn’t take any more pain mentally. Almost to a person, the death of Pittman was their breaking point. This community and my mother gave me everything good I have in my human core. I cannot tell you how mentally painful it is seeing them, in Since I Been Down, being slurred as the wretched of the social justice earth( and one of their biggest torturers being painted as more moral than them).