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In ‘Cuz,’ the story of a cousin’s tragic fate and justice system in crisis

Danielle Allen’s cousin Michael was convicted of attempted carjacking at the age of 15, spent nearly 11 years in prison and was murdered at 29. In her new book “Cuz,” Allen looks to her own family tragedy for a deeper understanding of gangs, American drug policy and the consequences of mass incarceration, predominantly for young, African-American men. The author sits down with Jeffrey Brown.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now a story of family and incarceration.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with this latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a story of one young man and a much larger system in crisis.

    At age 15, Michael Allen was convicted of an attempted carjacking. He was tried as an adult and spent almost 11 years in prison. What led to that moment and what followed, ending in his murder at age 29, is told in a highly personal memoir titled "Cuz."

    Author Danielle Allen was Michael's cousin. She's a classicist and a political scientist at Harvard University.

    And welcome back to you.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Thank you, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You clearly set out to write about someone you knew and loved, but also to frame him within this larger national issue. Is that a fair way to put it?

  • Danielle Allen:

    It is.

    My cousin had this tragic life. I had to understand why. What had happened to him, why did he end up dead, why was he in prison for so long? And I knew that digging into that story would also help me also understand what has happened so many young men, particularly African-American young men in this country in the last 20 years.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As we fill in his story, it's a very particular time and place, right? It is South Central L.A., the throes of gang warfare.

    It is the beginning of the war on drugs, the three strikes and you're out.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Yes. That was a terrible time.

    He was a kid. You know, ages 10 to 14 are very dangerous for adolescents. He had moved a lot, been in a lot of different schools, and he landed in Los Angeles as a stranger, and had to find a way to prove himself on difficult territory.

    And there is a rhythm where a kid starts to flirt with gangs. And they typically have their first arrest about 18 months after they start getting involved. And that's what happened to Michael. This attempted carjacking was his first arrest, his first encounter with a criminal charge, and so forth.

    And it's just — it's a terrible story of adolescence and its dangers.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But he confessed to other lesser crimes than this. Suddenly, he was…

  • Danielle Allen:

    He did.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Three strikes, and he faced very severe penalty.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Exactly.

    So, basically, in a single week, he seems to have done a number of things. So, when he did the attempted carjacking, his victim got his gun and shot him. And he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. And during that ambulance trip, he confessed to having also robbed people in the previous day.

    So he confessed to four robberies, in addition to the carjacking. So it was a spree. There's no question about that. You have to just admit that. It was a 15 year old doing this sort of thing for the first time. But he was tried as an adult, which led to a very lengthy prison sentence.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, there's a point in the story where you're writing about his life, and you say, "From here, any number of possible endings are still imaginable."

  • Danielle Allen:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Does it look like clear lines when you — did it come out that way?

  • Danielle Allen:

    Well, when you look back, you can make sense of it, right? That's why the book is called "Cuz." It's for my baby cousin, whom I love, I still love deeply.

    And the word also means "because," you know, because of this. This is what happened to him. And he was this bright, talented person. I really wanted to give his voice to the country.

    And so you want to look back and figure out, how could this bright, talented person who had a big family who loved him — and his immediate family was struggling, yes, but he had these aunts and uncles and cousins who all cared and were trying to help. So what could possibly have gone wrong?

    And it really is, I think, this moment, between 10 and 14, when his mother married. She married somebody abusive. Their lives are shot through with violence. And he kept changing schools repeatedly. And he was sort of a lost kid at a certain point. And I think then needing community in Los Angeles, the gang community, became what pulled him into the danger.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, of course, what is irrefutable is that once he was sentenced and in the system as an adult, that set the course for the rest of his life, which was short.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Right.

    So you have this terrible situation where young kids are kind of caught between a fight between these very powerful gang organizations on the one hand and a very powerful state on the other. And the state is fighting the criminal gangs, of course, but the nature of the fight is so violent and so brutal that young people get caught up in it, and the course of their life is set on a very dangerous path.

    I think of it as a degree-of-difficulty question. Michael is absolutely responsible for his own choices, but we have to consider the degree of difficulty that pertains to the choice set given to particular young people. And young men ages, again, 10 to 14 in the middle of a city, man, the choice set that we as a society have created for them is just horrible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When you put on your political theorist hat, looking at the national culture, as policy issues for this country, what was the biggest takeaway for you?

  • Danielle Allen:

    The thing that surprised me the most was that digging into this really led me to change my position on thinking about drug policy.

    So it's turned me into a person who thinks that the war on drugs is really at the deep-root heart of our problems. I think of the issue actually as a bit like family secrets. One of Michael's challenges was that the people around him who loved him didn't share enough, we didn't talk enough, and get the fragments that we all understood about his trouble on the table in order to help him.

    And I think our society faces a similar thing with the war on drugs. It pushes so much activity into secrecy that we can't actually address the trouble that young people are having. And I think we need to legalize marijuana and actually even consider decriminalizing cocaine and heroin.

    Decriminalizing is not legalization. That's an important distinction. But I do think we have to consider that as a way of trying to cure the society, give us a chance for being frank and honest with each other.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You changed your feeling about this?

  • Danielle Allen:

    Yes, yes. I mean, so I have been concerned about the war on drugs for a long time and the way it's been a driver of mass incarceration, but I was always a little bit betwixt and between.

    Drugs are obviously a terrible thing. They do terrible things to people. But the more I dug into this, the more convinced I became that the legislative choices that we made starting in the 1970s have built the world that we currently inhabit and all the dangers that confront young people, in cities especially.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, I just want to end with this idea. Since it was you telling Michael's story, it's inevitably a tale of two very different people, two very different outcomes.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Yes, well, different outcomes, but people who shared so much. I think that's what so painful about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, but when you think about the different outcomes, him ending up in the streets and in prison, and you as a very accomplished academic, and I know you were a scholar of Greek literature and tragedy, where these issues are explored all the time, right, about destiny, about character.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What do you come away thinking about how much we control our own destiny?

  • Danielle Allen:

    So, I do believe that I am where I am, you know, a whole lot of it's got to do with luck.

    So, there is, yes, questions of character and the resources that my parents gave me, but also luck and what the lord my God blessed me with. And there's so much that is beyond our control.

    There's a line from Charles Olson, "limits are what we live inside of," at the beginning of the book. And I think that's simply true. And we don't know when we're going to bump up against our limits.

    And, sometimes, that feels like an experience of fate. And then that's the challenge for our character, is to figure out how to wrestle with those limits when we bump up against them.

  • Danielle Allen:

    The book is "Cuz."

    Danielle Allen, thank you very much.

  • Danielle Allen:

    Thanks a lot, Jeff.

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