“Dark Places Definitely Bring the Light Out:” A Conversation with Obie Anthony

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down (virtually) with Obie Anthony, Executive Director of Exonerated Nation, an organization that meets the immediate needs of exonerees by helping to heal the debilitating spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical effects of being wrongfully incarcerated and affects policy change for restoration and the righting of wrongs.

At only 19 years old, Obie was convicted of a murder he did not commit and spent 17 years in prison before being exonerated and released in 2011. When he left prison in 2011, he didn’t have a social security card or birth certificate and had to learn how to use a cell phone and write a resume. Since then, he’s helped other exonerees navigate the often difficult transition out of prison. He has been instrumental in the passage of California Assembly Bill No 672 (Obie’s Law) along with other key pieces of legislation.

We talked about identity and personal growth, what gets him up in the morning, his important work with Exonerated Nation, and which Seinfeld character he relates to the most.

I tried to have a normal upbringing

I was born in St Louis. I grew up there before I moved to California in the late 70s, early 80s.

I grew up in the inner city. It was a normal upbringing for that environment. I tried to have a normal upbringing but it turned out to be what it was, with moving to California and being put in prison for something I didn’t do.

When I talk about my identities, I have three main ones. Focus, passion, and self-assessment. When you talk about focus, [it’s important to realize and understand that] there are so many different distractions to focus on, whichever world you’re in. 

I had a talk with a friend about the three different types of transitions that I’ve had so far…really going from a kid before I was framed and put in prison to the kid that I was growing up in prison, into the guy that I am now.

Obie discusses what it was like transitioning to a new life with little to no support from the State of California and why he was motivated to found Exonerated Nation.

I realized that it’s my self-discipline that keeps me aware and makes me considerate, thoughtful, compassionate, and mindful of those things as well. And in that place…it creates a passion, not only to be, but to manifest. It creates the ability to think about how you interact with others. 

Doing my time in prison, I had a cellmate named Walter Scott. And we were sitting there playing pinochle. Just talking, playing pinochle and he hit me with a question. 

He said, “Look, man. Let me ask you this.” 

And he said, “If you had a chance to go back and apologize to individuals that you wronged, whichever way it might have been – maybe you lied to them, maybe you cheated them – would you?” 

And he said, “I don’t want you to rush into the answer. Just think about it.” I was like, “Damn.” It put me in my mind. It put me in a place where I had to assess myself. It made me go back and be considerate of relationships, whether it was my mother, my sister, friends in the streets, strangers, or wherever it may have been. And afterward, I had to say to myself, ‘I would have to answer yes,’ because of what happened during that self-assessment. 

When you make that acknowledgment, when you’re forthright with it, when you say those things instead of just mumbling them to yourself, you’re out loud with it…it’s out in the universe. You can’t take it back. 

It’s the skeletons in our closet. The shame. No one wants to talk about the shame they have in their life. As a matter of fact, they become defensive, they want to battle.

I learned later, going through my civil complaint, with a psychologist, that they reported back to my civil attorneys that I had high emotional intelligence. At first I thought that she was telling me that I was a little [whistle.] I felt like George Costanza. I went straight George Costanza in the office – “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” But when I came home and I read the definition, it made me self-assess. 

I tell people I do the work I do because it’s necessary to do it

Dark places definitely bring the light out. And I don’t care what nobody say. You have to go through the dark to get to the light. I have to go through the dark so the light that’s within me can do what it does. 

I am an activist. I wasn’t born to be one. I tell everybody that. I didn’t go to prison to study to be an activist. I studied how to get out of jail and how to survive.

I’m an emotional wreck now because of the cost of things I had to see when I was there [in prison]. I’m out and I’m doing talks and presentations and I cannot hold back the emotions, even as hard as I try. That’s one of the [ways that being in prison for 17 years for a crime I didn’t commit changed me.]

The other thing is – I don’t know how you even put it. When you go through a traumatic situation, you know, you bump your head and see the light. You’re stuck between heaven and hell. It’s crazy to be thrown back [in the world] and to not fit in but to not be a pariah either. And so you’re stuck because no one gets you, no one understands or appreciates why you’re like this. I can go crazy about certain things but it made me who I am. 

I am an activist. I wasn’t born to be one. I tell everybody that: I didn’t go to prison to study to be an activist. I studied how to get out of jail and how to survive.

Photo: Exonerated Nation

There’s a bit of survivors’ guilt that sits upon me, because I know how many others there are like me. I’m one in a thousand that’s getting compensated for being framed and put in prison. I look at my community and I’m not that person. But it’s a fire that keeps me going. 

Because of my situation, I had nothing coming out of prison, but the state that put me in prison said, “Oh, we don’t [help you after prison.] We got the right guy, and now the right guy goes to prison.”

Well no, I wasn’t the right guy, and I was in there for 17 years, and you haven’t done nothing out here. You didn’t create no social worker for me, you didn’t give me no therapist. But you gave the guy who did commit the crime – you know, you gave him all of those things. You gave him a parole officer, you set him up with all those agencies, gave him money, helped him out with all those fantastic things and didn’t do anything for me. 

That made me do what I’m doing now. I tell people I do the work I do because it’s necessary to do it. Because if it wasn’t necessary that means I would have had the opportunity to come home to enjoy it, not to suffer from you know, not having no rental history so I can’t get a rental, I can’t get a mortgage. I had no rental history, no credit, no work history, so it was difficult to get a job.

I had to stay focused not on what they [the state] didn’t do but what I could do. You know, I talk about George Costanza a lot because I love Seinfeld, I love that show. George Costanza had this one moment in a coffee shop, and I call it the George Costanza moment, when George went into the coffee shop and said, “Jerry, that’s it. I’m not doing anything I was doing yesterday. Everything I’m doing today is totally different. I didn’t like coffee yesterday, I only drank tea. ‘Waitress, I need some coffee!’ He called over the waitress. He said, ‘You know, I didn’t talk to the ladies.’ He went up and he talked to the ladies.’ And a light went off when I watched that show because I realized, I understood, that that could happen literally. That literally you could say to yourself, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m only doing this.” And it was that pivot within my spirit that affected my mind and created the situation that I’m in now.

There’s no making up for lost time, only doing stuff with new time

Help helps help and hurt hurts hurt. And I prefer to be in the help line, because I got hurt. I’ve helped in my life. I helped my then-fiance, now wife when I came home. And so now I have to extend my help to the next person, just keeping going forward and never looking back. There’s no making up for lost time, only doing stuff with new time.

The work that I do with Exonerated Nation is about working with the debilitating effects of being put in prison and working with those individuals when they come home, and also looking at policies that are in place and being thoughtful and creative about those that are not in place. Ultimately, the crux of our organization is about our healing. It’s about recognizing our prison traumatic stress. It’s about what affects us and how we can control those things by becoming aware of them. Be aware of those things. Understand those things. Tolerate yourself first and foremost so that you can see the triggers. You know what they are now and you don’t need to say, ‘I don’t understand why I just went off like that. Something happened and I don’t know what happened.’ Well, you got triggered, so let’s talk about the situation and understand what it was. 

It’s about community, supporting, and healing. We keep ourselves focused on those main areas. We have a temporary job placement program. We also have a temporary housing assistance program.

In five years since 2015, we’ve been successful. Five bills have been passed in the state of California, one being 672, Obie’s Law, another one being 1909, with [Assemblywoman] Patty Lopez making the federal prosecutors convicting people wrongfully and intentionally – like they did to me – wrong. Also gate money, something that wasn’t there for me. 

The bills that we’ve been successful with and we’ve pushed and we’ve sponsored are about those things. Things that weren’t there for me.

I’m also really proud of the Weber bill. It calls for four years of housing and four years of support for that housing so they can buy a house, rent a house, lease a house, borrow a house…They don’t pay for it.  And also 8703, which is higher education, making it where there’s free tuition for community college all the way to university level for an exonerated person. I’m really glad about these things over the last 5 years. Those struggles that were there at the beginning. 

This is why freedom is so good

[I’m also proud of] my little guy, my first son ever. He is something else. He gets me up every morning and it’s like, this is why freedom is so good, you know what I mean? He makes freedom absolutely great. 

So I’m really proud of him and his mom for putting up with me, because I can be a hot mess. It takes a lot to deal with an individual who never really came to grips with his own issue that he has. 

He gets me out of bed every morning, pulls my hand…I love his sense of joy watching discovery happen. It’s so raw. He’s discovering with no purpose, no intent. He has no motive about it, and it’s a joy to watch that. 

[I hope for him] definitely not to suffer what I went through, first and foremost. But I also hope for him as far as the future is concerned that there is some sort of balance in the atmosphere. Right now things are just really out of control. There’s no end in sight at this point. When I think about his future, I think about what’s going on. I’m always in my mind, you know, I’ve gotta teach him a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of things. I have to be a continual parent almost every second and I worry for his future. 

I never liked politics, I’ll tell you. I just never liked politics. In prison I hated politics, but nevertheless I was a bit of a mediator at the same time, being the younger generation that could always communicate with the older generation. I was sort of a liaison. When you have to do that – be that mediator, you know what I mean? – it spills over. 

“You can’t unteach what I’ve learned.” Obie talk about the difficulties of transitioning out of life in prison.

I tell [my wife] Denise all the time, “I can’t come home and unteach you Christmas. You’ve been doing Christmas for 40 years, so I can’t unteach you in two weeks, heck, even in a year. And so you can’t unteach what I’ve learned growing up in another world for 17 years.” I grew up there. It’s like going out of the country, growing up in Europe and then coming back to the States, and you went to Europe when you was five years old, and when you come back 17 years later, at 22, 23, it’s going to take you a little bit long to sort of lose that accent. It’s going to take a long time, and even after that, they’re still going to hear it. And as much as I do the work, that self-assessment to get most of the things that happened off of me, I can still hear it. I can still see it.

I love my work. I love what has happened. I look forward to what will happen.

I always say, “Two plus two is?” 

And you say, “Four.” 

I say, “You don’t believe in that, do you?” 

“No,” you say, “I know that.” 

And I say, “Good, because if you believe something, someone can come in with more information than you and change that belief into something else, so you should know your stuff.” 

You’ve gotta stand to know. I advocate that, I push that, and I live that.

For more information on Obie’s work and how you can get involved, visit ExoneratedNation.org, or check out Exonerated Nation on Facebook and Instagram.