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Abolition in Action | Sowing Seeds of Accountability

Based on an interview with Trinidad Flores, written by Kiki Reitano

Each morning, Trini starts his day tending to his home garden. He walks through to check the progress of newly budding greens that, in just a season or so, will feed his family. Trini cares deeply for this land, for its ability to produce a harvest, for the generations who’ve called it home and future generations who will grow here. In this small community, Trini’s presence was absent for 24 years while he was incarcerated, and the landscape changed drastically. In his youth, Belltown was notorious for its rural landscape, unincorporated streets, and a community poorly equipped with the resources necessary to thrive. As a result, the small town adjacent to Riverside and on the west bank of the Santa Ana river was riddled with violence. As a teenager, that violence was something Trini had to subscribe to in order to survive and ultimately, it led him to prison.

In 2020, when Trini returned to Belltown after spending more than half of his life incarcerated, the streets were quiet; what was previously familiar to see – gangs, substance dependence, police sirens – had diminished to the point of near invisibility. Large corporations had spent the last twenty-plus years buying out the community. Police no longer patrolled the streets in fear of the community; instead, other agencies patrolled to surveille and protect these new neighbors, profit hungry corporations.

While locked away, separated from loved ones and in some of the most deplorable conditions known to humankind, Trini was working on tending to his inner garden. Having endorsed ideas of manhood as a child that ultimately led Trini to being incarcerated, he was working to challenge these beliefs. Just as he does in his garden, Trini allowed for seeds to be planted in his mind; some of those from his participation in Success Stories Program, where the introduction to feminist theory helped him to reconsider previous notions around his role as a man. Inside these walls, although Trini may not have called it this explicitly at the time, he and many other incarcerated people were putting abolition into action. In instances of conflict, Trini would refer to elders for guidance on how to avoid the perpetuation of violence. Conversations would be had to diffuse situations before reaching aggression. Community would be built through a shared meal. These instances were all practice for what was ahead, once back in the world of freedom.

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On a cool morning last winter, Trini awoke early to tend to his daily chores – taking care of his home, watering his plants, visiting his grandma. When he returned home, it was barely 7am and he sat on a bench outside waiting for the sun to rise, enjoying the fresh air, appreciating freedom’s gifts. Soon, his partner’s son, Hector, walked by and they exchanged “good morning”s and “I love you”s before Hector was off to work. Just as Hector was leaving the gate, they both heard a ruckus of dogs barking and shouting. Confused at first, Trini thought perhaps it was someone watching TV inside his home, but quickly realized after Hector headed out for work that no one else was home. Stepping through the front gate, Trini could clearly tell that something was awry, as a woman’s voice cried out for help. He approached the street and saw a couple in a physical altercation. As Trini is spotted by the man, he stepped away from the woman, who quickly ran away and toward Trini, who put his hands up to signal that he was not trying to harm her and told her she was safe. He walked her through a few deep breaths as she expressed her fear of being fatally hurt. As she caught her breath, Trini let her know that he would not be calling the police, but would respect however she wished to move forward.

Trini and the woman walked across the street as a neighbor came out of their home asking how she could help, and alerting them that she had already contacted the police. The woman was welcomed into the neighbor’s home as Trini could still see the man, who was now walking toward Trini trying to explain the situation. Trini informed the man that the police had been called and his best suggestion was to leave, but the man did not appreciate this advice. The man set his hands into his pockets as Trini realized that Hector was still nearby, frozen and watching the situation unfold. In an instant, Trini assessed that now was not the time to try to get the details of the situation from this man who was clearly agitated. Emotions were already high and Trini wanted to maintain a safe distance.

Again, Trini let the man know that although the police had been called, that was not the outcome he’d had hoped for and he would not be giving the police any information; he only wanted to interrupt what had looked like a harmful situation. The man retorted, “you don’t know what you’re messing with or what you got yourself involved in.” Trini could understand the sentiment; he’d been there. The man presented a challenging look as Trini flashed back to a moment when he possessed the same anger, like the day that he committed three attempted murders at 15 in broad daylight, in this very neighborhood. The man interrupted the thought, letting Trini know that this was his community and he’d be back, as he walked away with his hands in his pockets, to show that he may have a weapon.

As the man walked back toward the car where the altercation first began, Hector walked closer to Trini, visibly in fear. Trini let Hector know that it was okay for him to head off to work, that he was going to go back to the house and lock the front gate behind him. Later that evening, after everyone had returned home and the altercation had long ended, Trini explained to Hector why he didn’t call the police, citing that police would only have caused further harm in this situation by increasing the risk of incarceration – an outcome, from lived experience, that Trini simply does not believe in.

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After Hector left for work, the police showed up.

Heart racing, body jittering, palms sweating. They asked Trini for all of his information and wanted to know the situation from his perspective. Trini explained that he had heard and seen someone being harmed and was only trying to assist and support the person asking for help, and that he wouldn’t provide any additional information. In trying to get the words out to the officer, Trini could feel his breath changing, making it harder to speak. Reina, Trini’s partner, looked on from the house, recording the interaction on her phone.

The reality of this interaction for Trini was that there was no room for any kind of misunderstanding or miscommunication. Trini felt the need to be responsible in carrying his discharge card – documents that prove that he is no longer on parole and under supervision of the state, meaning that the police should not be able to search or harass him. However, a palpable fear lingered in this moment – even questioning could turn into a return to prison for the rest of his life. He wondered what was the right thing to do.

Trini later discovered that the police were holding the man in custody in their car around the corner while another set of officers questioned the woman. The cops seemed agitated, as if they were not receiving the answers they wanted, and without any compassion for the traumatic experience she’d just had. Eventually, they let her go, noting that they would need to investigate to determine who had committed the harm, despite her history with the man. Meanwhile, the police who were talking to the man they held in their vehicle had driven off.

Trini stood at his front gate thinking about how things could have panned out differently, recalling days in prison. Inside, yards are segregated by race and ethnicity. When conflict arises, folks consult with community elders for advice. Trini took this practice and went to visit with a Belltown elder, sharing what had transpired and noting the racial tension that could have been perceived in his attempt to communicate with the aggressor, a young Black man. In connecting with a community elder, Trini learned that the man was not from Belltown, but that the elder would work to bring them together for a conversation. This interaction highlighted Trini’s desire to grow his community network, an accountability network.

Memories of his past, when witnessing violence against women was a norm, crossed Trini’s mind as he made a mental commitment to always speak out when he saw any kind of abuse, just as he did in this instance. That evening, Trini received a phone call from a friend of the woman who thanked Trini for his involvement and care. The friend also informed Trini that only two weeks prior, the aggressor had harmed the woman so badly that she was in the hospital for two weeks with a facial fracture.

Trini was an integral part of de-escalating a situation that could have quickly resulted in a very different outcome. While recognizing the risk that his involvement posed to his freedom, his life, and his family, Trini still chose to act from instinct – interrupting violence in

an attempt to hold his community accountable.

Recently, Trini found out that he will become a father for the first time this fall. Imagining that this monumental life event may have altered how he handled the situation were it to happen today, Trini made it clear that he believed acting from this instinct was the right thing to do. He also received affirmation from Reina, his partner, that standing up for the woman in this instance was absolutely the correct course of action. Besides, this community will soon be home to a new life and their child deserves a community rooted in care and accountability. Trini is sowing seeds of a new way to handle conflict amongst his neighbors, and his community is welcoming to his thoughtful approach.

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