By MATT HARPER
“All I have is a voice to undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice…
We must love one another or die.”
– W.H. Auden “September 1, 1939”
Recently I interviewed General Dogon from the Los Angeles Community Action Network, who was raised on the same Skid Row streets he now defends. As a man who has waded through the waters of an addiction fueled by poverty, racism, and a culture of disposability, it did not take long for him to become a victim of our structural sins: mass incarceration and the “War on Drugs.”
Despite the unrelenting obstacles put in his way and the countless opportunities stripped from his neighborhoods, or maybe because of them, Dogon grew into a prophet of justice, a teller of hard truths. Unlike the prophets of old like Job, who sewed sackcloth on his skin and laid his horn low in the dust (16:15), Dogon has chosen a clipboard and bullhorn as his tools. His story and wisdom offer profound insights, both about the complex systems around us, and the betrayal of people and institutions tasked with taking care of our communities. More importantly, his story and wisdom model what we, also, are capable of.
Our earliest formations do not set most of us up for success. Too many of us maneuver our lives without a true sense of who we are or where we come from. Racist histories, stolen lineages, toxic anesthetics become the offerings of power and its many systems. This loss of rootedness and knowledge is the foundation upon which Dogon and many of us are deceived into the trappings, values, and escapes of empire.
This grand deception has one intention: an exploitation that concentrates resources and power into the hands of a few. The Thirteenth Amendment did not change who reaped the benefits of slavery. As a ward of the state, Dogon’s care was never prioritized over the profit that could be made from him.
It is no surprise then that Dogon rebelled nor that his “disobedience” was deemed to be “in need of correction.” After one conflict during one particular prison sentence, Dogon was sentenced to five years in the hole at Corcoran’s Security Housing Unit. His life changed forever amidst that community of political prisoners.
Sometimes we are not ready to change. When another prisoner offered Dogon a book about Black history rather than a “shitkicker Western,” Dogon got mad. Boredom led him to crack the cover; a perusing of the pictures led him to dive into the text. Seeds planted deep and long ago bloomed in that new soil: “I didn’t know what or where that road would go, but something told me to follow it.”
When we finally see the need for a new lens through which to view the world, we get to decide how we will respond. Dogon reeducated himself, voraciously consuming books, even skipping out on yard time to dive deeper into things he had never considered: “I was just dogmatically into it, I couldn’t stop, it was like I had a new birth” he reflected.
And thus transformation calls all of us to live in our world anew. When Dogon finally returned to the general population years later, he moved as a different person. No longer interested in simply passing time or wasting energy fighting the wrong purveyors of violence, he committed to a new regimen: purging that which no longer served him for that which serves everyone.
Dogon began educating others around him. As a member of the Black Guerilla Family, he committed to taking people under his wing and motivating them to be a positive force by getting involved, joining community organizations, and supporting others. In addition to the mentoring and relationship work, Dogon also grew his capacity to challenge institutions. He studied the California Department of Corrections handbook and learned how to write complaints. He read law books and started documenting violations of prison infrastructure, practices, and guard behavior. He sent these to the warden, to the director of corrections, even to Human Rights Watch. The more Dogon pushed, the more he was threatened to be sent back to the hole.
“I don’t care where you send me,” Dogon told the guards. “I am going to speak out and tell the truth and I don’t care if you like it or not. I am not here to tell you what you want to hear; the truth is that you have human rights violations in this prison.”
Dogon continued to represent the interests of the incarcerated during his 12 years in prison. But trying to advocate for the rights of the people without getting lost in the politics of prison was a difficult task: “Sometimes we would sit down at the table with the administration to iron out problems, but often I wanted to be like Jesus and kick the whole table over.”
His early release could have tempted Dogon into prioritizing his own stability, but seventy days into his parole at the Harbor Lights rehab facility on Skid Row showed Dogon that his sobriety, though deeply important, could not become the sole focus of his life.
Dogon chose the uncertainty of the streets instead, despite knowing our society had never built the structures to honor the full needs of people like him. And as he navigated downtown L.A., he came into conflict with the priorities, tactics, and inhumanity of the Central City Association’s Business Improvement Districts. Facing their calculated efforts to wipe away the old community so as to make a new downtown for a new gentry and for capitalism, oppression bred resistance for Dogon.
However, one does not simply have to be at the knuckle’s end of our systems’ fists to cultivate an ethos of solidarity or to foster a practice of resistance. A person’s ability to speak truth to power and sustain themself and build momentum in their prophetic witness alongside the discarded “grows out of the fight,” Dogon assured me. “Out of our everyday struggle. It grows out of seeing people that are fighting with you fall dead trying to get over the mountaintop.”
As the witness of prophets like St. Oscar Romero makes clear, the more time we stay in intimate relationships with disposed people—the more we hear their stories, witness their struggles, and allow our hearts to break with theirs—the more we will see the connections to our own lives. The more we see our bound interests, the more boldly we will resist and the less we will tolerate the violent antics and misguided self-interest of politicians, businesses, church leaders, and property owners. The more we learn what pushing on these broken structures and corrupted people can do, the longer we will remain committed to this shared struggle. And rest assured, the longer we stand with the most outcast people in our world, the more we will understand which paths will get all people free.
When I watch the coroner picking up the bodies of our unhoused neighbors, five a day because of the violence that has been forced upon them, the failed nature of our policies becomes real, Dogon assured me. When I watch the criminalization of poverty and the ballooning numbers of new homeless, nothing else makes sense but prophetic honesty. The obstacles are not diverse political affiliations but lies and obscured priorities.
There is only one theologically appropriate response to a City Council that creates motions that criminalize poverty so that business can run “as usual.” We claim our power and use our voice. We “refuse to accept anything that will cause more deaths of my friends, our neighbors,” Dogon asserted. “If you don’t say anything, what will happen? Nothing will change.”
Since we are going to mow the lawn, Dogon added, “I believe in fully cutting the grass. We cannot accept half truths or leave a problem half solved. When you chop it all down you don’t have to come back later because you already did it, it is already done.” Seeing how our elected leaders love to wheel and deal for major donors and those with powerful rolodexes, we can’t leave our community to be sold down the river when greed gets its hands on our interests. There is no room for bargaining when five people die a day. “Which side are you on?” Dogon posed. And more so, “All that shit that you leave undone is what may come back and take you out.”
Whether through the lived experience of being the primary target of these systems, or because we have cast our lot with the dispossessed, we must expand our ability to see with clearer vision. If there is one thing shared by prophets it is their uncanny ability to see complicated realities and decipher the deepest truths there. Every day we must resist simplistic answers and deepen our political analysis. We must move with skepticism of those who hold an unequal amount of power and resources not because they are not reflections of the Beloved, but because unequal power and resources are the result of sinfulness.
Tragedies like houselessness do not come out of nowhere, nor are they the fault of any one individual or single structure. The deeper we understand the factors and players that lead to it, the intentional structures and intersecting forces that make it inevitable, and what is gained from its presence, the more we will understand how to end it. The systemic responsibility for this problem far exceeds that of individual actions; the counter-narrative wastes our time and keeps us from our most effective, comprehensive solutions.
How many of us truly understand the ways that city hall, law enforcement, and our criminal courts work together to harm our community? How many of us are committed to really seeing how the business interests of Los Angeles are the primary cause dictating the direction of the policies that get written, enforced, and weaponized against our communities? When developers fund the war chests of politicians, how can we believe that our collective wellbeing will be prioritized? When private property becomes more protected than individual human survival, how can any of us stay silent?
Prophets like General Dogon know that it is a misguided analysis that refuses to draw the connection between others and ourselves. It is foolish to believe our house can be in order while our neighbors’ fall into disarray. It is arrogant not to see how the chaos of others’ lives is directly linked to the flood of resources and opportunities stolen for ours.
When Philip Alston, the U.N. Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, visited Dogon and the rest of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, his assessment was clear: the only thing keeping the unhoused of resource-rich L.A. in squalor is political will. “That’s it,” Dogon remembers him saying. “It’s not an issue of resources, it’s political will. All you have to do is do it.”
Dogon walked in the front door of LA CAN almost twenty years ago, but his commitment transcends employment. He has made it his daily mission to practice what he preaches: to walk with people, to hear their stories, to stand with them as they face the violence of city departments and business interests. He bangs on city hall’s doors and confronts the hypocrisy of politicians.
Too many have learned that conflict is disrespectful and un-generative, that there is a “proper time and channel” for redress. Those who have had to be the primary victims of these systems know there is no time like now, no more proper channel than truth telling, and no one but us.
Had Dogon been convicted 27 days later in the early 90’s, he would have fallen victim to the three strikes law and we would never have seen him again. Instead of hunkering down, he straps up his boots each day to enflesh Gospels he does not religiously subscribe to. If he can, why won’t we? Will we love one another or will we die?
Matt Harper is a Los Angeles Catholic Worker community member and co-editor of the Agitator.