“I’ve never belonged in a democracy”

Part 2 of our interview with Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice

This week, Adnan Khan talks about why learning the legislative process is so essential to any advocate. He talks about why he loves writing and how it served as therapy from his first day in a cell at eighteen. He shares how “determination through spite” drove him to succeed, and how that spite evolved into empathy, healing, and understanding for those in his life who had hurt him—and more broadly for humanity. And he shares his hopes for his baby boy, who was born last year. 

If you missed Part 1, it’s here.

Michelle: You and your organization were instrumental in passing a bill that scaled back prosecution of felony murder. Could you share the big things you learned? What was the legislative process like and how does that inform the way you think about advocacy? 

Adnan: At that time, my incarcerated colleagues and I didn't know anything about the legislative process. I've never belonged in a democracy. I lived in one, but I didn't care about voting. Even if I got out, I thought, I would never be able to vote. 

While this law was being birthed, I learned about the process. Why is it called SB 1437? What’s the difference between a senator and an assembly member? How is a bill made or introduced? And then I learned, okay, there's forty senators in California and eighty assembly members. I learned about the stages of legislation. If it doesn't get past Public Safety, forget about it. Appropriations—you have to make a financial argument there. I learned how many people sit on committees, what their concerns are, what areas and demographics they represent. I learned how and where to build momentum in those districts. I just learned so much. Learning how to do meticulous advocacy and pinpointing strategy was crucial in my growth, and in our growth as incarcerated people. 

We got past the committees. Then the whole Senate floor voted. We needed a majority. What's a majority? Twenty-one out of forty. A simple majority. I learned those little things and then realized: Wait, it's not over. Once it passes the Senate, it goes to the assembly—oh shit, we have to do this again. [Laughter.] This time with eighty people. 

MK: I think most people—myself included—don't know a lot of this. 

AK: And why not? It's so crucial. Every single person should know this. On top of that, a lot of the process has to do with influencing public opinion, creating a conversation. Our bill is called the “felony murder rule”! Just the name is dangerous for legislators. But we created a buzz around it on purpose. We made it popular, talked about how atrocious [the existing law] is. We highlighted stories. A fourteen-year-old went into a house to burglarize it with friends who were older. He was so young that he saw candy in the kitchen and started stuffing his pockets with chocolate. He heard a commotion upstairs and ran away. And he got arrested for felony murder because someone ended up dying during the burglary. Stories like that. 

I found other people in prison who had been charged and sentenced under felony murder. I connected with outside family members who have loved ones serving time in other facilities under felony murder, so we could do advocacy together. That’s in part how it passed. 

So yes, the legislature did what they did—but the groundswell was us, meaning you and me: the community and family and impacted people and organizers. And it didn't just start from that one day when we decided to do the bill. It was that undercurrent of years and decades of advocacy and groundwork—of people who said, “We need to undo mass incarceration.” All the organizers, abolitionists, and people who had popularized this stuff for decades are the ones who built the foundation and the strength for us to even imagine this kind of change. 

Albert: Does that mean you're more hopeful about democracy than others, because you’ve made the structure work? 

AK: I’m hopeful about the concept of democracy. How America does democracy is much different—it’s rooted in white supremacy, including institutions like health care and education. It’s a cliché to say “power to the people,” but it’s literally true. We sometimes forget that legislators, elected officials, the police—they work for us. They're public servants. They're here to serve us. The power is not in them. Yes, they have power—but we give them the power.

We created buzz around felony murder, creating large coalitions and organizing together. We raised awareness and educated people. It was us that changed the law—not so much legislators. They did what we were telling them to do. By the way, we pay them—our tax dollars pay them. They’re our employees. Nothing is government-funded; I’ve tried to eliminate that phrase from my vocabulary. Everything is taxpayer-funded. We choose where the money goes.

MK: What’s your next pressure point? 

Our organization is focused on life sentences and extreme sentences. On our staff we have people who have committed homicide and people who have lost loved ones to homicide. Our staff works together. These extraordinary examples are constantly used to justify extreme sentences, but people who’ve committed the harm and experienced the harm have stories that police and prisons won’t share. 

When so much focus is on “nonviolent” low-level drug offenses and only letting those people out, that continues to strengthen incarceration. So our goal is to get to know the head of the monster: life sentences. That's where we want to popularize the conversation and what we want to break down.

So I say all that as a way to lay the foundation for our work on the gun enhancement bill. That's the first thing on our plate in California: we have legislation that gives an additional ten, twenty, or twenty-five to life for having a gun. Ninety percent of the people who are convicted and sentenced under the gun enhancement law are black, brown, or people of color; 10 or 11 percent are white. So it's not that white people don't use guns. It’s that they don't get the enhancement. Over forty thousand people in prison are serving these extra enhancement sentences because of firearms.

Our whole goal here is to introduce this bill. We can't get rid of the added time; we're trying to amend it in the legislature, which means we're breaking the ten-, twenty-year, or life enhancement down to one to three years, and making it retroactive. So that's our goal for now, until eventually we can abolish enhancements. 

Our broader work is shaping the narrative and creating groundswell. It’s not so much about guns as about enhancement. These are sentencing abuses. Why are we so fixated on numbers like ten or twenty years? What does that solve? What about those particular numbers makes you feel safe? Or how will that actually restore the person? Our whole thing is enhancements: we emphasize the severity of it, the abuse of it.

MK: We’re curious about your writing process. You’re clearly a creative person. What space do art and creativity have in your work? 

AK: I love writing. That was my therapy, literally the first day in a cell, when I was eighteen and arrested. I just started writing and I found therapy. And I still have a collection of my writings. That's my passion. I love words. Writing has given me a release. It's not so much to educate other people or share anything per se;  it's always been what I get out of it. 

AW: You’ve mentioned role models. Where or when would you say you had the first positive one in your life? Was it in prison? Or, to ask the question another way, how does an incarcerated person find role models? 

AK: Well, it's hard to even say “role model.” I understand the term to mean someone who has a positive influence. In prison it’s so complicated because most people can't walk that line of positivity. It's very, very difficult. I had a role model who was incarcerated in a level-four maximum security prison. He’d been there for over twenty years. He told me, “Make sure you read, make sure you study, make sure you take care of yourself, stay up on current events.” Then we had discussions about morality: Who are you? What do you consider right? What's wrong? He told me, “It’s your morality and your character that's going to help you survive this.”

At the same time, he also taught me how to make a knife. He taught me how to hide and transport contraband. I was young. If I didn't do those things, I wouldn't have survived my prison time, or it would have been much more damaging. I feel I somehow came out unscathed—I'm using that word loosely. I wasn't stabbed; I didn't have to stab anyone. I fully expected to, because of the violent environment I was in. So, again, it's so complicated to use the term “role model.” But given the context, given the environment, you could say I had multiple mentors who kept me afloat. 

MK: You and your partner recently had a baby. How has that changed you? 

AK: My son is thirteen months old now. Growing up, I always wanted to have kids. Even when I was ten or so, I thought: One day when I get older, I'm going to do it right, I'm not going to do it like you all, I'm going to love my kid. I'll never treat a child the way I'm being treated. And so my whole goal in life was to get married and have children. 

But once I was sentenced to life in prison, I was legally unable to have children. My dream was literally impossible. When I look back at some of my early writings, my journals are filled with fears that I’d never have kids.

Decades later, in 2017, California changed the law; people sentenced to life could have family visits. (They’re sometimes called “conjugal visits,” but I don’t like that term, because the media, especially Hollywood, associates it with the physical and sexual part.) But I didn’t want to have a partner who was pregnant alone while I was incarcerated. I always wanted to be there and supportive throughout the pregnancy.

After I was released in 2019, my wife and I sat down and asked ourselves, when should we have a child? It was just a blessing even to have that opportunity to think about the possibility. It was very emotional for me in so many ways. 

We planned accordingly. And when she said she was pregnant, I remember the raw emotion I had— I can't even describe it. It was almost like freedom day, the elation I had. I couldn’t believe it. And then obviously I experienced fears during the pregnancy—you want a healthy baby, you want to make sure everything is okay. And when the baby was born, I felt like I was living the dream—wife, kid, a home, health, and love. I'm living the dream and it's beautiful and it's full of love. 

AW: Do you think about the cultural, political, or religious identity you want your baby to carry on?

I learned my parents’ history as well as I could, and he’ll learn ours. He’ll learn that we met in prison, that we started an organization—and that we passed a law that vacated my life sentence, which made him possible. On top of that, he was born in LA in April 2020, right at the very beginning of the pandemic. At that time, there was a spike in cases in LA. It was dangerous. Just six days before he was born, I wasn’t allowed to go into the hospital because the rules were that only mothers could be in the delivery room. I don't know why, but they changed the rules just a few days later. When my wife gave birth, I was able to go in in a mask. We have pictures of us in masks when he was first born. Ten years from now, we’re going to be like, “Wow, Mom gave birth in a mask. What a time.” 

And not only was he born in the middle of a pandemic; a couple of weeks later, the murder of George Floyd further shifted the trajectory of what was happening in this country. The uprising happened. And we’re part of the social movement, our work or advocacy. We're in this. We're partners in it. We're coalition members of it. We're decision stakeholders in it. We're impacted by it. 

In terms of culture, I want him to speak Urdu and French, but I don't want to enforce that on him. My wife is quintessentially American. Her dad is Irish; he grew up in Ireland and left when he was sixteen and came to America self-made, so I’ve been learning about Irish history. He’s eighty-six and still has resentment towards some of the British. Her mother is French Jewish.

So here’s Aidan’s history: he's a quarter Irish, 50 percent Pakistani, and a quarter French Jewish. He carries all these histories within him. 

Albert, by the way, for some reason I’ve always loved history. I remember on one report card I had Ds everywhere—but an A in history. [Laughter.] I’ve always been fascinated by history. When I went to France, that’s what I wanted to learn about—world history, American history, personal history. 

AW: You seem to have a very strong sense of your own values and how you want to live. Can you talk about how you built that sense of yourself? What was it like prior to prison and how did it change there? 

AK: It's hard to pinpoint one moment in a fluctuating journey of learning. Trying to understand the mental, physical, emotional, spiritual self—all those things were a journey. Before I was incarcerated, I didn’t grow up around much positivity. My primary caregivers—my uncles, aunts, grandparents, mom, stepdad, biological father—never told me, “You're smart, you're brilliant, you're intelligent.” That didn't exist in my life. 

But I will say—ever since I was little, I’ve always believed in myself. I believed I could accomplish things. And, in part because I wasn’t valued, I wanted to prove something to people. Determination through spite drove me. That was the engine within me since I was a child. Even when I was homeless, I would tell my sisters, “I'm going to succeed, I'm going to become a multimillionaire. I'm going to prove myself to everybody—and I'm not going to give anybody in our family anything. The next time they see me, they're going to see me in a suit.” That was what I’d think about. 

During my incarceration, I grew and matured and healed. I understood and gained empathy for my family. I came to understand why my dad was the way he was, why he neglected me. I learned that when he was a child he lost his mother to cancer. At a very young age he had a stepmother who abandoned him and a father who abandoned him. I started to have empathy for his traumas. So my spite flipped into understanding and empathy. I wanted to break the cycle.

MK: How does one break the cycle? Is it through active practice? Is it through rituals? Is it through reading? Is it through practicing? 

AK: All of it. All of it. 

For those who missed Part 1, it’s here. Adnan talks about how studying the history of his parents’ native Pakistan helped him to heal relationships in his family. He talks about how how he survived as a homeless teenager. And he explains why rates of Asian American incarceration in California went up in the past three decades.

Some Links Related to Adnan’s work

  • Support the work of Re:Store Justice here

  • For more information on AB1509: The Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act, which aims to end the 10, 20, 25-to-life gun enhancement law and replace it with one, two, or three years, read Re:Store Justice’s policy brief

  • Here’s a video of Adnan explaining the felony murder rule.

  • And here’s a moving piece, “From Proximity to Policy,” which Adnan wrote about a friend who died of COVID-19 at San Quentin:

    We carry each other’s stories with us wherever we go [...] It’s not that I remember, it’s that I know. I know who was molested by their father, who was beaten with closed fists by their foster parent at 8 years old, and whose friend was shot and died in his arms at the age of 14. 

    Adnan continues: 

    I don’t have a work life that is separate from a personal life. Detaching the two feels immoral to me. I can’t clock out of caring about someone. Getting to know people comes with a burden. Especially in prison. Especially when leaving them behind upon your release. [...] 

    Our organization’s slogan is “from proximity to policy.” I feel safe around the people you might fear the most. It is my proximity that gives me access to empathy. Society and political leaders are tragically uninformed about people in prison, yet make deadly decisions based on their fears. Our obligation should be to know people in their totality, and only then can we create safe policies which address the needs of everyone.

Links for the Week

  • Read Priya Satia’s honest, searching essay on how she became a historian, part of a series by H-Diplo on “Learning the Scholar’s Craft.” Albert loved this detail of a formative class that he also took some years later:

    Given my lack of foundation in history when I arrived at Berkeley in 1997, Tom Metcalf advised me to take Margaret Anderson’s course in modern Europe, to learn the ropes, on the premise that European historiography offered the building blocks for the discipline. In class I was the one who asked questions that were weird then: why doesn’t François Furet talk about Algeria? I did not have imposter syndrome but was a true imposter, and this was somehow liberating.

  • We binged the second half of Lupin on Netflix during our jet-lagged stupor and loved it. In the New Yorker, Lauren Collins has a wonderful profile Omar Sy, the leading actor. This paragraph translates the charm of the show well:

    The world’s gentlest heist thriller, “Lupin” flatters Sy’s talent like a superfine merino. There he is, doing that nose-scrunch thing he does to express distaste, as if he’s smelled a dirty sock. Tossing carrots into a stockpot with warmhearted paternal swagger. Donning dentures and fake mustaches, reviving a kind of analog fun. Pilfering a Fabergé egg from the big-game-stuffed apartment of the widow of an industrialist from the former Belgian Congo, making a point about colonialism without having to make one. (And slipping in a shout-out to “Les Intouchables,” which also features a Fabergé-egg subplot.) Knocking a bad guy on his back and locking him in the supply closet of a moving train, but never initiating the violence or using a gun, because Sy has five children, ranging in age from three to twenty, and that’s not what he wants them to see on television, especially coming from a Black protagonist. If the antihero has dominated television in recent years, Sy is bringing back the gallant, mass-market leading man.

Book Club, Paradise Lost, Book IX: Friday, July 9 at 3 PM EST.

We had a such a fun time at the book club again, and we’re not quite ready to let Milton go. We’re going to have a follow-up conversation on Book 9 of Paradise Lost on Friday, July 9, at 3 PM EST. All are welcome; please email us for a Zoom link! We send a special thanks to our Milton devotee, Nina, who shared a link to this Open Yale Course on Milton by John Rogers. We listened to several lectures and were completely captivated. The lecture on Book 9, which reads Eve as giving voice to Milton’s subversive, revolutionary politics, is especially amazing.