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Ryan Lee Wong and Christopher Soto are two writers and organizers whose debut books address policing and incarceration in the landscape of Los Angeles, where they are both from. Wong’s book, Which Side Are You On (Catapult), is set against the backdrop of the first Black Lives Matter movement and follows a young activist trying to understand the BLM movement as it relates to the 1992 uprising against police brutality in South LA. Soto’s book, Diaries of a Terrorist (Copper Canyon Press), is a poetry collection that begins on a local scale, denouncing the police’s murder of their neighbor in California, and it ends on a philosophical meditation about what constitutes violence and how we respond to it outside of punitive frameworks.
Both writers have strong ties to faith: Wong is a Zen Buddhist who lived for two years at a temple outside New York, and Soto was raised Catholic and is currently researching pre-colonial spiritual practices in El Salvador. This conversation interweaves faith, abolition, and writing, and how they strengthen each other.
Ryan Lee Wong: One part of abolition that’s always moved me is its creativity: that is, when someone says, Well, how would society function without police or prisons? This shows the possibility for imagination—that one can imagine a world kept in line without guns, a world without massive cages. So abolition forces us to use our creativity, to imagine different ways of being together.
How has abolition informed your creative process?
Christopher Soto: I think that’s right. Abolition is a practice of imagination and of faith. Abolition necessitates a poetic leap into the unknown. It is a way of saying, I know a better way of living is possible. Let’s work towards that. Many people are afraid to discuss abolition because they have been socialized into equating the police with their personal safety. Thus, to question the police is to question their most fundamental survivalistic instincts. With this in mind, I try to name policing and state violence as also a threat to one’s personal safety since it involves kidnapping and human caging at best. It involves extrajudicial murders so often. Then I try to get people to think about non-punitive ways that we can address violence, move towards healing and end the cycles of retribution. I’d love to also hear about the relationship between policing and your faith.
RW: I was introduced to abolition around the same time I began Buddhist practice, and the Black Lives Matter protests were all around us, and I was starting to realize that these police killings were not accidents or blips that could be solved by body cameras, but very much part of a long and intentional design. Both helped me hold the long view: abolition goes to the root causes of violence, to systemic racism and poverty and geography and how that sets up violent situations between police and community; Buddhism gave me the framework of suffering and liberation from suffering, that we must care for what’s in our minds and bodies in order to be free, or else we will unconsciously end up repeating the same cycles.
Someone asked the Buddha about being a just ruler, and he told the story of a ruler whose towns were being attacked by brigands. His spiritual advisor told him not to punish and execute the brigands, but instead: “To those in the kingdom who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle, let Your Majesty distribute grain and fodder; to those in trade, give capital; to those in government service assign proper living wages. Then those people, being intent on their own occupations, will not harm the kingdom.” The Buddha adds that once this happened, “the people, with joy in their hearts, playing with their children, dwelled in open houses.”
In short, the way to end social violence is to provide people with what they need to live. If we want to dwell in open houses, we have to get to the root reasons people would create unsafe situations, we have to look at scarcity.
How does abolition intersect with faith for you?
CS: It’s been years since I’ve been a practicing Catholic, but I still love to speak about Christ with my friend and poet, Alysia Nicole Harris. In relation to abolition, we have spoken about John 8: 3-7, which reads:
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
Alysia Nicole Harris and I chatted about these verses as a moment where the punitive and retributive law of the state was brought before Christ and he was asked to respond. In this moment, Christ did not choose retaliation and punishment; instead, he spoke in a manner that made the group interrogate the sin within themselves first. I’d love to hear what you think the possibilities are for an interfaith dialogue around issues related to policing.
RW: First, it’s hard for me to picture an abolitionist way of being together that doesn’t reconnect with and draw from our pre-colonial and pre-modern inheritances. And so even though religion is bound up with colonialism and modernity, these teachings on how to be with each other are over two thousand years old.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Buddhism and Christianity emerged within a few hundred years of each other, these two faiths oriented around love and community. They were both addressing the social harms of their day: empire and poverty and stratification of wealth, the early versions of what we’re facing today. Both were radically non-punitive and against domination.
What opportunities do you see for interfaith dialogues around abolition and policing?
CS: Faith has been tied to my activism for years. I first started teaching poetry to incarcerated youth at Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center in Downey, California, over a decade ago with an organization called MATFA (Mentoring a Touch from Above). This organization was founded by Melanie Washington, whose child was murdered and in response she chose forgiveness and to mentor incarcerated youth instead. This decision was informed by her Christian faith.
Then years later, I was working in development with Equal Justice USA, which is part of the national movement to end the death penalty. We had an Evangelical Network and had a program called Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. This organization considers itself “big tent” and really tries to speak across differences to coalition-build. As someone who is interested in building momentum and moving towards a post-carceral world, I think there are a lot of opportunities to continue working with faith-based organizations. From Los Angeles to San Salvador, I still see so many faith-based organizations involved in protecting human rights and supporting incarcerated people. I think it’s worth considering how we can build bridges and work towards abolition together too.
Can we talk about coalition building across race, too? We’re Latinx and Asian American here talking about abolition; how does this cross-racial approach to addressing policing function in your work?
RW: The reason I started this novel was actually witnessing a disaster in cross-racial solidarity. In 2014, Peter Liang, a Chinese American cop, shot and killed a young Black man named Akai Gurley in a public housing stairwell. Liang was indicted, and pretty soon thousands of Chinese Americans started pouring out in protest supporting Liang, saying that he was being used as a sacrificial lamb, that all the other cops, who were white, walked without an indictment. I was doing some volunteering with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, and a lot of us watched with shock and horror. Here I was, going to teach-ins. I was learning about Yuri Kochiyama and her work with political prisoners and how she introduced Malcolm X to the hibakusha (the survivors of America’s atomic bomb), which helped globalize his politics. Then there was the Liang/Gurley trial, which showed me what a bubble I was in. Those teach-ins were essential, and I’d wanted Asian America to be politically mobilized, but never anticipated it would be in support of a police officer.
I thought of my mother who had done work between Black and Korean communities in 1980s LA. For years, she’d convene storekeepers and community leaders and try to get them to cut through the antagonisms fueled by the popular media or mutual stereotypes. It was very door-to-door, person-to-person organizing. Then, in 1991, there was the famous case where Soon Ja Du shot and killed Latasha Harlins, which came to symbolize all the tensions between Korean storekeepers and the Black and Latinx people who lived in the neighborhoods where they opened their stores. This all came to a head with the Rodney King acquittal and the uprising that followed, where Korean businesses burned to the ground and Korean merchants armed themselves with AK-47s.
In both of these instances, it seemed pretty clear that the poverty and trauma bred from American racism were putting pressure on communities of color, placing them in competition with each other. I needed to understand how to break that cycle, or else it seemed clear we would keep getting caught.
The first step actually seemed to be learning more about myself, my community. Because one of the ways white supremacy works on Asian America is continually eradicating our histories. We aren’t told about the roots of Asian America being in radical politics; we are told to forget the wars and colonization that brought us here; we are encouraged to become neoliberal cogs, to ‘succeed’ in a supposed meritocracy that is actually built on scarcity and exclusion. I didn’t know my own history, my own position within this systemic violence. And how can you be in solidarity without knowing that?
Only after I could answer those questions for myself could I start to, say, draw parallels between the US war machine in Asia and Central and South America, or to talk about how Black liberation and Asian spiritual practices have drawn from and built upon each other to produce powerful social movements.
How did you come to a cross-racial understanding of this work?
CS: As a Central American from Los Angeles, I feel like my participation in the BLM movements was pretty easily understood. Black and Brown communities have both been speaking about police harassment and racial discrimination here for decades. You have mentioned the riots that occurred in Los Angeles in 1991 around the police abuse of Rodney King. In Los Angeles, there were also the Zoot Suit Riots that happened in 1943, where Chicano and Latino people were stripped and beaten by US sailors, and this abuse was enabled by the police. I feel a lot of Black and Brown solidarity in Los Angeles when discussing issues of policing and racism. For example, after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, there was the murder of Andrés Guardado weeks later by police in Los Angeles. People that I marched with at the BLM protests were also showing up and marching next to me in honor of this Salvadoran youth that was murdered too. It’s getting me emotional now, it means a lot to me. Black and Brown communities in LA continue to build liberation movements together here. Many abolitionist coalitions in LA are also speaking against immigration detention and deportation, too.
During the BLM protests, I was not thinking about Asian American activism too much. But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic there was a lot of activism done to address anti-Asian attacks that were happening from New York to San Francisco. I remember we chatted then and I was trying to fill in a lot of the gaps in my own knowledge about Asian American activism. You were telling me about cross-racial solidarity between Latinx and Asian American communities during the Delano Grapestrike during the 1960s. I began to hear histories about UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center showing solidarity with UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, which was speaking against the university’s holding of indigenous people’s remains decades ago. These two research centers continue to support each other’s activism to this day, most recently working on the Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative. I began to learn more about ways that the Asian American communities have showed up for cross-racial solidarity and I began to critique more heavily the anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity that I saw in my Latinx communities too. The movements of the past few years have really helped me unpack a lot.
Before we close, I want to ask about your current relationship to Buddhism. What are the next steps you want to take related to your practice and abolition?
RW: I’m now the administrative director of Brooklyn Zen Center, and one of the programs we’re going to launch soon is an interfaith conversation on abolition, particularly around mass incarceration. We’ll show a few films and then have a conversation between our community and the Episcopal church where we’re housed. My hope is to engage both communities into awareness and action, and to approach some fundamental questions of our traditions: what do the scriptures and dharma say about these violent systems? In America, the Christian right dominates the conversation around faith and social engagement. That has to change. Faith is one of the strongest ways to organize a community, and so there’s huge potential there for collective action.
CS: I think that’s a beautiful place to wrap up — reflecting on faith as a way to organize communities. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Always lovely, dear friend.