As a kid, he grew up in the Spanish Harlem where he lived a vicious street life: he robbed people and places, sold and took drugs and was in a gang. But while in prison, he decided to use his experiences and his writing — which he called “the Flow” — to help turn youth away from a life of crime.
Some people say that a person can’t change, that a criminal is always a criminal. He disproved this belief and presents a message of hope for outcasts and at-risk youth. He knew he had not been born a villain, that he could do more with his life. And he did.
Thomas, who died last week at the age of 83, began life as an outsider, someone with the desire to escape. His family refused to acknowledge its African blood, and the neighborhood youth mistreated him for his dark, Afro-Cuban-Puerto Rican background. To survive, he plunged himself into life on the streets where he felt empowered. Eventually, though, he found himself in prison for wounding a police officer during a holdup.
After serving seven years, he published a passionate, graphic memoir in 1967 that addresses issues including poverty, youth, violence, imprisonment and racism. Down These Mean Streets went on to become an influential best seller and a classic.
“God, I wanna get out of this hole,” he said, talking about prison. “Please let me out and I’ll push my arm back down there and help the others climb out.”
No longer can he personally spread his message — Unity Among Us — but people continue to read his autobiography. This work and his other writings helped to create an awareness about the plight of minority youth and helped empower many young people in high schools, colleges, prisons, detention centers and communities of color throughout the United States.
Piri Thomas may have penned Down These Mean Streets, but he was anything but. People who knew or saw him post-prison describe him as warm and accessible.
“He was very sweet,” David Inocencio, who met him in San Francisco as part of his prison-writing project for juvenile inmates called The Beat Within, said. “He had a lot of energy. If you see the documentary [about his life,] you’ll see him working with the kids, and the kids are totally buying into his style. […] I think that’s something he really enjoyed doing was working with young people. He was a powerful activist in the community.”
The award-winning documentary, created by Jonathan Robinson, is called Every Child Is Born A Poet.
“I am a child man,” Thomas said in an interview with In Motion Magazine a decade ago. “I still feel child-like, not childishness, which leads to rage without reason, in short, tantrums. But child-like which is the ability to be in awe, and to have hopes and joy. No matter how everybody else sees the horror, you can see one ray of light.”
The youth, whom he spoke to and worked with, connected with the child-like quality Thomas retained as he aged.
“I think there are people that understand how to not treat youth in the juvenile justice system as if they are not part of everything, part of us — and Piri Thomas did that,” Kim Nelson, the Associate Development Director of The Beat Within who once participated in a reading with Thomas, said. “He valued these youth and treated them as though they have much to offer […] as opposed to what seems to happen, where people come off like this is the sitcom we all agree on and whatever bad dream you live in isn’t really real, or at any rate it’s your problem.”
It’s true that Piri Thomas began life in darkness, in the ghetto, yet he rose above that existence and used his struggles to share a unique perspective on peace and justice. During his life, he also influenced the lives of young people, especially those involved with crime.
“You are not numbers,” he told an interviewer, addressing criminals. “You all got names. No one was born a criminal from their mother’s womb. We were all born into a society where children are considered as minorities, less than, and the truth is that all children are born of earth and universe. Viva all children.”
The documentary about Piri Thomas, Every Child Is Born A Poet: