Danielle Allen is the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, professor in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education, Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Allen is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought and is widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America.

She is a frequent public lecturer and regular guest on public radio to discuss issues of citizenship, as well as an occasional contributor on similar subjects to the Washington Post, Boston Review, Democracy, Cabinet, and The Nation.


Aged 15 and living in LA, Michael Allen was arrested for a botched carjacking. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to thirteen years behind bars. After growing up in prison Michael was then released aged 26, only to be murdered three years later.

In this deeply personal yet clear-eyed memoir, Danielle Allen reconstructs her cousin’s life to try and understand how this tragedy was the end result. We become intimate with Michael’s experience, from his first steps to his first love, and with the events of his arrest, his coming of age in prison, and his attempts to make up for lost time after his release. We learn what it’s like to grow up in a city carved up by invisible gang borders; and we learn how a generation has been lost.

With breathtaking bravery and intelligence, Cuz circles around its subject, viewing it from all angles to expose a shocking reality. The result is both a personal and analytical view of a life that wields devastating power.

This is the new American tragedy.


FIRST AND FOREMOST, I must thank my friend and colleague, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., without whose invitation to give Harvard’s DuBois Lectures, this book would never have been written. The purpose of those lectures is to contribute to our better understanding of African American life, history, and culture. As, over years, I contemplated giving those lectures, I could think of no topic more important than the ravages of mass incarceration. Yet that topic, that material was too hard, too personal. Without a firm date, a room booked and an audience expected, I’m not sure I would ever have been able to finish this.

Second, I thank my friend, Quiara Alegria Hudes, whose own public statement about a cousin, a chapter in my book Education and Equality, gave me the courage to start.

To my family, of course, I owe everything. My parents and brother, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. My former husband and stepsons. My husband and children. All have in one way or another helped author this book.

My daughter, Nora, came across me one evening at work with photos of Michael spread out.

Who is that, she wanted to know?

“It’s Michael.”

“Who is Michael?” she said.

Well, Nora, this is Michael.

If the material was hard for me, it was excruciating for my aunt Karen and cousins Nicholas and Roslyn, who endured repeated interviews and my insistent, continuous probing. Each of us had been seeking understanding, and peace, through a solitary journey. Never had we tried to assemble our story together. While the process has been painful, I believe we have all achieved greater clarity. By and by, we have come to understand, at least in part, and this can put some of our incessant mourning to rest, I hope.

My agent, Tina Bennett, my editor, Bob Weil, and miracle-working assistant Emily Bromley are stalwart friends, advocates, and teachers. They believe in me, and we should all be so lucky to have their sort of fierce support.

Many, many more assisted, too, of course. My friends and colleagues at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, in the Government Department and Graduate School of Education, in the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, in the Department of African and African American Studies. My students across campus, of course. And all of the extraordinary scholars and writers—people like Bruce Western, Elizabeth Hinton, Glenn Loury, Rajiv Sethi, Tommie Shelby, Brandon Terry, Michael Fortner, Michelle Alexander, Jill Leovy—and so many others who have at last opened up the story of mass incarceration so that we may all consider our circumstances with clear eyes.

Also, this story could never have been written without able and generous legal work by Joshua Milon, without the courteous and sympathetic assistance of staff in the Los Angeles courts archives and records offices, without the smiling help of staff in several branches of the Los Angeles County library system, and without the patient responsiveness of Irene Wakabayashi, in the District Attorney’s Office, who fielded my multiple public records requests.

I am also grateful to all the people at Norton and Liveright who have helped make this book possible, especially Peter Miller, Cordelia Calvert, and Marie Pantojan.

Finally, I want to say thank you to the many people who came up to me after I relayed Michael’s story for the first time, in those DuBois Lectures, and said, I, too, love someone who is in prison or I, too, have lost someone to the ravages of the world of drugs. So many people shared their own painful stories with me. You, too, are in my heart’s locket.


Our Declaration: A Reading

of the Declaration of Independence

in Defense of Equality



DEARLY BELOVED, IF you ask yourself why the least among us are not thriving, you can turn the question this way and that, you can push it and you can pull it, but if you are honest, you will have to recognize that there is only one answer. The least among us are not thriving because those at the top of the illegal drug economy have established a parastate and entrapped impoverished communities within it through the systematic application of violence.

From prison and in love with Bree, on Juneteenth, a holiday that marks the date in 1865 when news finally reached Texas that all slaves were free, Michael rapped:

Everyone wants to be a “g” but no one wants to be a man

How do I stand when these grown men wanna play games

I got to pray to fight from goin’ insane

Dearly beloved, if you ask yourself why the least among us are not thriving, you can turn the question this way and that, you can push it and you can pull it, but if you are fair, you will have to recognize that there is only one answer. The least among us are not thriving because national governments have sought to fight the War on Drugs by concentrating their world historic levels of firepower, punishment, and control on impoverished communities trapped by the systematic application of violence within the parastate.

Alive and well with anotha chance to get it right

Despite what the media sells, we got to fight

(Chorus: Respect it. Don’t take it for granted.

Keep it real and know that you can handle it.(4x))

It represents my liberty and my ability

To stand amongst those who for a second dare to hate me

For the color of my skin, you can’t win

That’s what they whisper, but I was raised completely different.

I’m on this mission, keepin’ this vision

Establish by those before, who now, no longer living

But the spirit of freedom is far from dead

Incarcerated but they can’t trap what’s inside of my head

Dearly beloved, if you ask yourself why the least among us are not thriving, you can turn the question this way and that, but if you are self-aware, you will have to recognize that there is only one answer. The least among us are not thriving because so very many of us desire illegal drugs and turn a blind eye to the costs involved in supplying our desire. We are like nineteenth-century Englishmen and-women who sweetened their tea with sugar made by slaves.

So I smash debilitating curses

Debilitating my foes wit prayer and that’s for certain

I’m searchin’ even though I’m lock down

Remaining focus and gettin’ ready for when I touch down

Dearly beloved, remember that there are three categories of direct victim of the international drug economy: ONE, addicts; TWO, victims of violence; THREE, those entrapped in the parastate. In terms of sheer numbers, the third category may be the largest. There are many millions gone.

They can’t hold us, we under a creed

I serve Christ, and like Him for my people I’ll bleed

Imagine if Malcolm or Martin would have gave up

But in adversity they stayed down and was trued up

Dearly beloved, we’re today

Gathered in the memory of those who were brutally slayed

I pray that we can find peace

Cause even in Penitentiaries we still can remain free

But there must be recognition that Prison isn’t living.

Consider the numbers of Americans now imprisoned. One out of every one hundred adult Americans is in prison.1 This makes more than 2 million people currently incarcerated. The world has never seen a penal system like this before.

Been down since 15, now I’m 23

Wit 3 to go I’m ready to accept responsibility

Consider America’s preeminence in imprisoning people. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are in American prisons even though only about 5 percent of the world’s population lives between our shining shores.2 The world has never seen anything like this.

This my first and last time, prison will never be a pastime

A free man so you can never take mine

Consider, once more, how the War on Drugs bloats and disables the judicial system. It’s so important as to be worth repeating. Fourteen percent of Americans now imprisoned have been sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses. In recent years, as many as 32 percent of defendant filings in federal courts, in a given year, are for drug-related cases. This is the biggest category of filings. And then there are all the violent offenses that flow from the intertwining double helix of drugs and gangs. Imagine how well our courts might work if this burden were removed.

The same goes for you, cause only you can stop you

You can make or break you, so to thyself remain true

Consider how the War on Drugs increases violence. The illegal drug economy overburdens our judicial system, increases prosecutorial workloads, and drives down homicide clearance rates, leading to a phase shift in levels of violence in urban areas. Then, as violence in urban contexts increases, impoverished communities are ever more entrapped in the protection rackets run by the gangs claiming to protect their turf and the international traffickers who employ them. Imagine what liberation might look like.

I celebrate my folks died so I can be free

Love and peace to any struggling incarcerated minority

When in the course of human events, misguided laws have resulted in the entrapment of a population in the jaws of ever-more-powerful pirates, it becomes necessary to overthrow the parastate, in the worst-case scenario, which we now face, by legalizing it. Legalizing marijuana alone will not be enough to dismantle the parastate. We have to set our faces squarely to the future and learn how to decriminalize harder drugs as well.

I bleed tears directly from my veins

I cry for joy cause a future awaits w/o pain

This has been done before. In 2001, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties for low-level possession and consumption of all illicit drugs and reclassified these activities as administrative violations.3 Instead of being arrested, people found in possession of personal-use amounts are ordered to appear before a “dissuasion commission”; the result is treatment, a fine, or other administrative sanctions. In contrast, drug trafficking remains criminal. Yet decriminalization of personal-use possession has brought drug dependency out of the shadows. In Portugal, the number of people seeking treatment increased by 60 percent between 1998 and 2011, and adolescent drug use has decreased since the law’s passage. At the same time, the percentage of people in Portugal’s prisons for drug violations fell from 44 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2013. And the overall quantity of illicit drugs seized actually increased, possibly because public safety resources could be directed to targets higher up the supply chain.

Is parenting easier in this environment? No one’s done that study, but a reduction in secrecy must surely be a boon, and having fewer children in jail cells, fewer prison visits to make, must lift morale.

All night my mother be praying on bended knees

Symbolizing Harriet crawling till her knees bleed

I plea to my b’s & c’s quit busting on each other

Vision the pain that those who died sustained

Imagine being split open and at your feet rests your brain

Am I crazy? No I speak reality.

From day to day livin’ was a fight for liberty.

So I thank Christ cause somebody prayed for me

And you too, cause you’re right here listening to me.

Does legalizing marijuana everywhere and decriminalizing hard drugs sound like turning the world upside down? Here’s what’s been turned upside down. This girl who always tried to be squeaky clean—because she thought it was the only way to be safe—has turned into a proponent of legalizing drugs, including even decriminalizing heroin. Even though she’s seen relatives ruined not just by incarceration but by addiction, too. I have become a legalizer. How about you?

Each one of us has the job of, somehow, absorbing the damage done to us as children and transmuting it into wisdom so that we do not pass it on. The terrible thing is that we have to achieve that transmutation before we have any wisdom, because the time to achieve this is between the ages of eleven and sixteen, when, like Michael, we choose our life course. It is not that by then we will know, or need to know, precisely what we will do in life but that by then we will have chosen how we are putting the basic building blocks together. What kinds of people will we want to live with? Can we delay gratification? Are our purposes pure? Will we live inside or outside of the law? Before we choose our building blocks, before we are fourteen or sixteen, perhaps, we need to transmute the damage done to us into wisdom. How many of us can do this? The more the damage that has been inflicted on a kid, the harder the job of transmutation, but even when there’s not so much damage, I think none of us manages to transmute all of it, whatever the quantity it may be our particular burden to transmute. The question is mainly whether we’ve been given a light load or a heavy one. And if our burden is heavy, there is one more question. Can we transmute enough of the damage to survive? This is possible only if we ready ourselves to damage others less than we ourselves were damaged. This is the paradox: to save ourselves we have to prepare to save others by seeking to understand what went wrong with us.

Now I lay me down to sleep

And every morning I wake-up I think about this Juneteenth.

As a society, our challenge is the same. Can we damage the generations to come less than we ourselves were damaged? From the ground we stand on, we must understand the harm that has been done and ascertain how we can rebuild the foundation while we stand on it, so that we do not pass on the harm. The failed War on Drugs is something rotten. Its effects are by no means limited to those who sell or use.

Forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us.


 1. One out of every one hundred adult Americans: Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, ed. Jeremy Travis, Bruce Western, and Steve Redburn (Washington D.C.: National Academies Press, 2014), p. 2.

 2. Twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners: Ibid.

 3. In 2001, Portugal eliminated criminal penalties: Drug Policy Alliance, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: A Health-Centered Approach,” February 2015. Available at


I AM GRATEFUL to my family, especially my aunt Karen; cousins Nicholas, Roslyn, and Pili; my father and mother, William Allen and Susan Allen; and my former husband and stepson Robert von Hallberg and Isaac von Hallberg for taking the time to share their memories with me, even over the course of repeated interviews and follow-up conversations. In order to reconstruct events, I depended not merely on their memories and my own, but also on articles about Michael’s attempted carjacking in the Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.) and court records for Michael’s case and Bree’s later homicide and manslaughter case. Whereas most California court documents are available to the general public through the court archives, juvenile records are not. Despite the fact that he was treated as an adult, Michael’s case was filed as a “Youth Authority” or juvenile case. Consequently, I have not been able to secure the whole of his record and was able to secure those parts that I did acquire access to only via formal public records requests. I am unlikely to have succeeded in that effort without the valuable legal advice of Joshua Milon. It is worth noting that, in California, the court files of juvenile defendants who reached the age of eighteen but are now deceased are orphan files. No one has a legal right to them. The defendant, who is deceased, cannot access them, of course. Neither, though, can their parents if the deceased passed the age of eighteen before passing away. Such was the situation with Michael’s file. It was difficult, in the first instance, to find it, because it had been misfiled. Once I found the file, it was held up to me, through a glass partition, in its full thickness of several inches. The clerk then informed me that she would have to review it and remove anything marked confidential. After twenty minutes, she returned to me with a file with very little left in it. This is what led me down the path of making public record requests. I am extremely grateful for the material that I was able to secure, but I did not secure the whole of Michael’s file. There are other mysteries in it that I may never be able to untangle, for instance a letter that Michael wrote in 2001 from prison to the judge who sentenced him.




DANIELLE, PHONE CALL for you. It’s your dad.”

I broke away from a conversation with my husband’s cousins—from glancing, distracted talk about the kids who were playing yards away in their floral sundresses under a soft English garden-party sun. Rising from the picnic table, I took the cell phone from him and walked a few steps.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Danielle, it’s Michael.”

My father’s voice, the careful, clipped speech of a retired professor, came from across the Atlantic, from Maryland through the ether, but sounded as if it were miles beneath the seas, crackling, wispy as if through the first ever transatlantic cables.

“He’s dead.”


“Dead. They found him shot in a car.”



“I’m coming.”

Michael. My cousin. My baby cuz.

Sometimes on English spring mornings a gauzy haze clings to the air. This, though, was July and, now, afternoon, but that same sort of whiteness suddenly seemed to wrap the sky and the surrounding willows, and I near collapsed, staggered into my husband’s arms, and said “Jim, we have to go.”


“Michael’s dead.”


“Dead. We have to go.”

Straightaway go, we had to go, to South Central.

And so we left.


RELEASE DAY, June 2006

THREE YEARS EARLIER, I had arisen one Thursday morning well before dawn. I was in my palm-tree-shrouded vacation condo in Hollywood, California, feeling the most glorious sense of anticipation I have ever known. It was June 29, 2006. I was still married to my first husband, not Jim the philosopher from Liverpool and second husband, but Bob, the professor of poetry who had grown up in Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s.

As I wended my way past the kidney-shaped pool and climbed into the old white BMW I’d bought from my mother, my spirit was filled with a light, almost sweet buoyancy easy to savor in the Southland quiet of that June day. Strange to admit, but even when my first child was born some years later, the anticipation was not so simply blissful. Waiting with Jim for Nora’s arrival was an experience shot through with fear and joy. Resurrection, it turns out, is more transcendent than birth, or so it was then, as I headed to my aunt’s small stucco cottage on a block in South Central where a few doors down, on the corner, a fortified drug house stood like a hostile sentry. Her house appeared serene. It was always reasonably neat, if also in a state of disrepair, and as the sun rose over the tidy, pale houses, it colored them pretty. Poverty never looks quite as bad in the City of Angels as it does in the winter-beaten Rust Belt.

My aunt Karen, my father’s youngest sister, the baby of a set of twelve, now herself forty, was about to drive a crew of us to collect her own baby, her third child, Michael, from “Reception and Release” or, as it is called, “R&R.” Prison life is rife with black humor.

I was along. So was Michael’s “Big Sis” by eighteen months, Roslyn, and one of Roslyn’s own babies, Michael’s eight-year-old nephew, Joshua. We were on our way to collect the last son of an extended clan, youngest child of the youngest daughter.

If I had it to do over again, to meet another loved one on his day of liberation, I’m sure the fear would now overpower the joy. It’s not that, on a rational level, we didn’t know how hard reentry is, how low the probability that any given life turns a corner. But to know something intellectually is so very different from feeling it in your flesh, straining after some goal with every fiber of your being only to sink in the end to defeat.

Everyone was looking forward to a homecoming party for Michael. In the driveway of my aunt’s house, next to the postage stamp of a lawn, uncles and friends, cousins and second-cousins, and cousins once or twice or—who knows—how many times removed, would pull folding chairs up to folding tables covered with paper tablecloths and laden with fried chicken and sweet tea. I was eight years old when Michael was born. My guess is that he was probably the first baby I ever got to hold and I had grown up with him. The baby of a sprawling family too numerous to count, he was also my baby, a child of magnetic energy and good humor.

We had lost him when he hit fifteen, eleven long years ago. He had been gone from us almost half his life. Now he would be with us again.

Today, though, we were just going to collect Michael and see what he wanted to do. We would drive to the parking lot by Tower 8, not the normal Tower 2 location for visitors. There we would wait until the white van drove up to deposit those prisoners being released. We were to arrive by 8 A.M. sharp, no exceptions. From L.A., in the early rush hour, it could take us as much as two hours. But once we arrived, we would have to wait. Possibly an hour. Possibly half the day. No one could say in advance.

The drive seems like something of a haze. I remember a wait, but I don’t think it was, in the end, terribly long. We all sat—nerves taut—in the car. And I remember somehow being in a green and shady grove, which made the experience altogether different from every other trip to Michael’s last prison in Norco, a little, dusty stretch of Riverside County just south of the unfurling black ribbons where the 10 and the 15 freeways join.

It’s a cliché to say that someone has an electric smile, but what else can you call it when someone beams and all the lights come on? Michael arrived and smiled. His broad, toothy grin, gums and all, always seemed to take up half his face, a bright flash of white against his dark skin, and he always had a little bob in his step that you could recognize as belonging to the playground athletes of your youth. He had that natural spring as a child, even at every prison visit and, to be sure, on this day of his release after over a decade of incarceration.

His late adolescence and early manhood were, like those of so many millions, gone behind bars, and nonetheless he bounded toward us. How could we not sing hosannas, and think, “God is great”?

His mother, deep brown and plum-cheeked, warmhearted and big-chested, wept, or so I believe. “All things work together for the good,” she might have said, as she often does when thinking about Michael’s story. Again, these are details I just cannot recall.

Then we came to asking him what he wanted to do. Fulfilling that request would be my job, as would helping him in the months to come through reentry. Not mine alone, no, but mine consistently—day-after-day as the cousin-on-duty, the one with resources, the one whose parents had been to college, and who was expected to go to college, and who had done so, and who had turned into a professional.

I was ready. Or at least I thought so. Like a coffee klatch of nervous first-time parents, we had all been preparing for months—my father, the retired college professor; my aunt, the nurse; Michael’s older brother and sister, each struggling to make ends meet; my husband, Bob, the poetry professor, himself near retirement; and me.

We did have plans, but they were not the plans we had hoped to have. Michael had been working as a firefighter for the last few years. He loved the work. He should have been paroled to a fire camp or to a fire station. We even had family in Riverside County. They were ready to take him. He could have lived with them and gone to school and kept on pushing back and beating down wildfires.

But the rule was, you had to be paroled to the county where your crime was committed. In his case this was Los Angeles County. Need I add that L.A. County is crime-ridden? We didn’t have the plans we had hoped to have because of this policy on parole, but we had developed the best alternatives we could. As the Secretary of Defense who got us into the Iraq War once more or less said, we were going to have to go to battle with the army that we had.

Step one was this: on the way back to L.A. County, ask Michael what he wanted to do first.

Michael wanted to buy underwear.



AFTER MY FATHER’S phone call, we left the party immediately, so I don’t know if the willows ever stopped swaying. While the earth itself settled back into its more reliable wobbly orbit, we booked our plane tickets to Southern California and tried to figure out what was going on. No one knew much. The best anyone could do was direct me to a few news items gleaned from the Internet.

Headline No. 1, from KTLA:


LOS ANGELES—A body riddled with bullets was found inside in a car in South Los Angeles, police said Saturday.1 Police responded to a call of a suspicious person sleeping in a vehicle in the 1000 block of West 60th Street at around 5:20 P.M. Friday, said Officer Rosario Herrera of the Los Angeles Police Department. On inspection, officers discovered the sleeping man propped up in the car’s passenger seat was really a bullet-riddled body wrapped in blankets. The body was identified as that of Michael Alexander Allen, 29. Allen suffered multiple shots to the torso, Herrera said. Police have no motive or suspects in Allen’s shooting. Anyone with any information on the shooting is asked to call the LAPD Criminal/ Gang/ Homicide Unit at (213) 485-1383 or (877)-LAPD-24-7.

These were the basics. One didn’t know how he died, or how he’d ended up in the car. About his corpse, however, there was information to be found in a Los Angeles Police Department blog.2

Headline No. 2:


LOS ANGELES—The Los Angeles Police Department needs the public’s help to identify and locate suspect or suspects who fatally shot a 29-year-old man on July 17. Yesterday, at around 5:20 P.M., a patrol unit from 77th Division was dispatched to the 1000 block of West 60th Street. The radio call was generated in response to a report of a suspicious vehicle with what appeared to be a person sleeping inside. When the officers arrived they found Michael Alexander Allen, a 29-year-old male Black, wrapped in bedding on the passenger seat. He was pronounced dead at the scene. The vehicle and victim were transported to the Coroner’s Office where he was taken out of the car.

Did the police hoist the “vehicle and victim” onto a flatbed tow truck, or winch them on behind and pull them, a yoked pair, along the road? Did passengers riding in cars alongside witness a seemingly “sleeping” man? The gods must chortle every time death’s chariot, like Charon’s ferry, pulls up in the form of a rusty tow truck. This is too routine a feature of death in America, in our blood-spattered culture, this image of the dead being hauled off as “evidence,” the most basic human ritual of ministering to and caring for the deceased interrupted.

Yes, of course, it makes more sense to invite the next of kin not to a street corner but to the coroner’s office to claim the victim’s belongings. Yet the rawness of the rough concrete curb at 60th and Vermont, and the grimy adjoining gutter that paralleled the road’s black asphalt, was surely a more suitable cauldron for the smelting of grief than any coroner’s antiseptic office. And when one thinks of Michael now, one never thinks first of the clickety-click wheels of a coroner’s efficient bureaucracy but of this corner, whited-out with urban despair. Here, smack on the corner of Vermont and 60th, belong the gnashing of teeth and rending of veils.

As we waited to fly across an ocean and continent, Karen and her daughter, Roslyn, Michael’s “Big Sis,” went to claim his few, forgettable belongings. The little hatchback appeared to have bloodstains on the floor of the passenger’s seat, but my cousin, Roslyn, also struggling with poverty, so needed a car that she would soon claim it as her own all the same.


 1. Headline No. 1, from KTLA: “a body riddled with bullets,” KTLA News website, July 18, 2009, 9:39 PM PDT.

 2. Los Angeles Police Department blog: “Man Found Dead in Car,” July 20, 2009, available at