Am I not human? A call for criminal justice reform | Marlon Peterson

She wrote: “When I become famous,
I will tell everyone that I know a hero named Marlon Peterson.” Heroes rarely look like me. In fact, I’m what garbage looks like. No, not the most appealing
way to open a talk or start a conversation, and perhaps you have some questions
going through your head about that. Why would this man say
such a thing about himself? What does he mean? How can someone view him as a hero
when he sees himself as garbage? I believe we learn more from questions
than we do from answers. Because when we’re questioning something, we’re invested in taking in
some sort of new information, or grappling with some sort of ignorance
that makes us feel uncomfortable. And that’s why I’m here: to push us to question, even when it makes us uncomfortable. My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island in the Caribbean. Trinidad is also home
to the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century: the steel pan. Deriving from the African drums and evolving from the genius
of one of the ghettos in Trinidad, a city called Laventille, and the disregard
of the American military … Well, I should tell you, America, during WWII, had
military bases set up in Trinidad, and when the war ended, they left the island littered
with empty oil drums — their trash. So people from Laventille
repurposed the old drums left behind into the full chromatic scale: the steel pan. Playing music now from Beethoven
to Bob Marley to 50 Cent, those people literally made
music out of garbage. Twelve days before my 20th birthday, I was arrested for my role
in a violent robbery attempt in lower Manhattan. While people were sitting
in a coffee shop, four people were shot. Two were killed. Five of us were arrested. We were all the products
of Trinidad and Tobago. We were the “bad immigrants,” or the “anchor babies” that Trump
and millions of Americans easily malign. I was discarded, like waste material — and justifiably so to many. I eventually served 10 years, two months
and seven days of a prison sentence. I was sentenced to a decade of punishment
in a correctional institution. I was sentenced to irrelevance — the opposite of humanity. Interestingly, it was during those years in prison
that a series of letters redeemed me, helped me move beyond
the darkness and the guilt associated with the worst
moment of my young life. It gave me a sense that I was useful. She was 13 years old. She had wrote that she saw me as a hero. I remember reading that, and I remember crying
when I read those words. She was one of over 50 students and 150 letters that I wrote during
a mentoring correspondence program that I co-designed with a friend who was a teacher
at a middle school in Brooklyn, my hometown. We called it the Young Scholars Program. Every time those young people
shared their stories with me, their struggles, every time they drew a picture
of their favorite cartoon character and sent it to me, every time they said they depended
on my letters or my words of advice, it boosted my sense of worthiness. It gave me a sense of what
I could contribute to this planet. It transformed my life. Because of those letters
and what they shared with me, their stories of teen life, they gave me the permission, they gave me the courage
to admit to myself that there were reasons — not excuses — but that there were reasons
for that fateful day in October of 1999; that the trauma associated
with living in a community where guns are easier
to get than sneakers; that the trauma associated with being
raped at gunpoint at the age of 14; that those are reasons for me why making that decision, that fatal decision, was not an unlikely proposition. Because those letters
mattered so much to me, because writing and receiving and having that communication
with those folks so hugely impacted my life, I decided to share the opportunity
with some friends of mine who were also inside with me. My friends Bill and Cory and Arocks, all in prison for violent crimes also, shared their words of wisdom
with the young people as well, and received the sense
of relevancy in return. We are now published writers
and youth program innovators and trauma experts and gun violence prevention advocates, and TED talkers and — (Laughter) and good daddies. That’s what I call a positive
return of investment. Above all else, what building that program
taught me was that when we sow, when we invest in the humanity
of people no matter where they’re at, we can reap amazing rewards. In this latest era
of criminal justice reform, I often question and wonder why — why is it that so many believe that only those who have been convicted
of nonviolent drug offenses merit empathy and recognized humanity? Criminal justice reform is human justice. Am I not human? When we invest in resources
that amplify the relevancy of people in communities like Laventille or parts of Brooklyn or a ghetto near you, we can literally create
the communities that we want. We can do better. We can do better than investing solely
in law enforcement as a resource, because they don’t give us
a sense of relevancy that is at the core of why so many of us
do so many harmful things in the pursuit of mattering. See, gun violence is just a visible
display of a lot of underlying traumas. When we invest in the redemptive
value of relevancy, we can render a return of both
personal responsibility and healing. That’s the people work I care about, because people work. Family, I’m asking you
to do the hard work, the difficult work, the churning work of bestowing
undeserved kindness upon those who we can relegate as garbage, who we can disregard and discard easily. I’m asking myself. Over the past two months, I’ve lost two friends to gun violence, both innocent bystanders. One was caught in a drive-by
while walking home. The other was sitting in a café
while eating breakfast, while on vacation in Miami. I’m asking myself to see
the redemptive value of relevancy in the people that murdered them, because of the hard work
of seeing the value in me. I’m pushing us to challenge
our own capacity to fully experience our humanity, by understanding the full biography of people who we can
easily choose not to see, because heroes are waiting
to be recognized, and music is waiting to be made. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Responses

  1. Fabrizio says:

    Amazing how the Left cannot grasp the concept of personal responsibility.

  2. Hirmuinen Trolli says:

    Even thugs are still humans.

  3. RAJA SEKHAR says:

    That's the great transformation of a human character. #Salute

  4. Dej Green says:

    White liberal video: " Oh wow how intriguing, so different" "I love this Ted Talk"
    Black liberal video: *dislikes before watching "Um, can you not" "Your truth makes me uncomfortable"

  5. Sugar Bear says:

    Thinking errors are killing your people, fix the thinking errors and than work together to enforce positive changes in your environment. Quit worshipping the crime culture, quit placing value on things that do not matter and lead to the same conclusions its a cycle, falling down into the cycle will produce the same results time and time again. Notice his friends where killed by whom? How about reforming that.

  6. Big Boss says:

    Great speech. Big up Trinidad Big up Brooklyn 🇹🇹

  7. Anurag Kumar says:

    fascinating person, great talk!

  8. LimmingKenny says:

    You can argue they don't deserve anything else, but it's to society's benefit if inmates stop looking at themselves as trash at some point during their sentence. Once they're out, we don't want them doing what they did before. That's why it's important we spend the resources necessary to get inmates on the right track, that is part of being a civilized society. Reducing the rate at which inmates return to prison saves money and prevents crime

  9. Banka says:

    how about not commiting crimes huh how about that

  10. Shlomo Silversteinberg says:

    "waah, I committed a crime and now I had to do my time!"

  11. Robin lindlöf says:

    So, you are no longer committing armed robbery and haven't killed anyone since your prison sentence. Whats the problem?

    I never thought I'd see the day someone would flaunt criminal victimhood but there really are no limits to cultural marxism, is there?

    By the way, good job there TED. I didn't think you could stoop any lower then last weeks addition of the 'old black women eat themselves to an early grave cause they carry white opression in their bones' episode. I'll either unsubscribe or simply stick around to see if you can possibly top this.

  12. thresholdhouse says:

    The state has no right to make law and enforce the subjective morality of the few on the many. Law is merely an individually restrictive social construct.

  13. Munseong Park says:

    I stopped listening when he said he helped kill someone. He can sugar coat all he want and ask forgiveness from anyone he wants. But I do not want people with history of crime working in positions that matter. People that rely on violence when things overheat deserves to live out their life in prison. Not calling them garbage, just unfit for society.

  14. Potatoes says:

    a lot of these "gangsters" do it because they think its cool, they wanna be "down" in the hood, not because they are poor, its laziness because they dont wanna get a minimum wage job and work thier way up.

  15. Maitreya Buddha says:

    If you have to ask then then the answer is yes.

  16. Someguy029 says:

    "Our humanity depends on everyone's humanity. Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. If somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. If somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law. Despite the fact that it is so dramatic and so beautiful and so inspiring and so stimulating, we will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won't be judged by our design, we won't be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated."

    Bryan Stevenson's 2012 We need to talk about an injustice TED Talk.

  17. Meta Self says:

    There are no heroes who commit a violent crime on innocent people.

  18. Mike Stewart says:

    I'm all for second chances and the idea that our system should focus on rehabilitation rather than disposal, but robbery that turned into murder??? I just can't see how redemption will ever be possible.

  19. Pedram Babaei says:

    Nice Guy

  20. Adam.R says:

    How you respond is a test of your character and I see a lot of people showing their true colors in the comments. You're on the wrong side of history. Have fun justifying your ignorance and rage for the rest of your life, It really masks your crippling depression and autism.

  21. rawstarmusic says:

    There won't be any healing for the 2 dead people. No community no nothing only violent robbery.

  22. Adrian Jacobsen says:

    This reeks of social justice based on nothing but emotion.
    Like at 06:00 what exactly are you saying? Is this even english?
    Your messages are void of any content.

  23. Sterling_Mustang says:

    No, you're not. You're black.

  24. CEIA BOSS says:

    am i the only one eho didnt understand anything?

  25. S. O. says:

    Educated black men are so sexy

  26. Philosophical Mind says:

    did he said what kind of criminal justice reform he wants?

  27. John Lemon says:

    One of the truest Ted talk ever! I am so touched

  28. Nesano says:

    Incoming "Incoming "here the racist comments come" comments" comments.

  29. Punished Luxibelle says:

    Pride month is almost over and there is yet to be "talk" about the struggles of being gay. BLM has hijacked this.

  30. Talladega Tom says:

    Why does all of the 'trauma' experienced in life mean that the criminal justice system needs reform?
    Seems to me that isn't the problem here. Wasn't it the life trauma that induced the lack of being civilized?
    In other words, how would a 'reformed' criminal justice system have made any difference in the the choices you made to commit deadly crimes? Criminal justice takes place AFTER the crimes have occurred eh?

  31. VaporShock1 says:

    You know who also would have liked a second chance? The people him and his friends killed.TED talks used to be about education and innovation apparently they'll let anybody on.

  32. Nikitoz9595 says:

    "Yeah, name the video like I am a victim"

  33. Phoebe Caulfield says:

    I really wanted to see this conference, but I understand very little, I would like to see subtitles in Spanish and not only in English.

  34. NoGufff says:

    Have a drink every time he licks his top lip.

  35. Sam Girardin says:

    It has been shown that punishment doesn't deter crime nearly as well as rehabilitation.
    If your justice system and prison system only contributes to increased crime rates and has exceptional levels of re offense, what is the point?
    We need to do whats best for society. Not exacting revenge and breaking already broken people.
    If a criminal is rehabilitated, we dont have to pay for courts and jails every time that person re offends, we save money in the process.
    If a criminal is rehabilitated, they can again contribute to society.
    If a criminal is rehabilitated it is good for their families, and helps deter those kids from going down similar paths.
    If a criminal is rehabilitated they wont hurt someone again, the crime rate will drop, and society will be safer.
    Rehabilitation is what is best for society and criminals. Criminals are people too and many of them CAN be saved. Not all, but some. And if we can save just one innocent life by rehabilitating a criminal, it is worth it.

  36. RemusKingOfRome5 says:

    More foreign invasion CRIMINALS – DEPORT !

  37. AquaGalaxyArt says:

    Man I have so many issues with the criminal justice reform system. Rehabilitation > locking them up until they die.
    Props and respect to this guy for the progress he's made in his lifestyle.

  38. fangirlfortheages says:

    U mention those convicted of non violent drug offense are given chances. They are branded for life too. They don't get chances either. The criminal justices system is rotten, cold, and unforgiving to the core

  39. Adrian Carter says:

    Norway has the lowest percentage of people going back to jail, yet you dont follow them or even try. America has the largest proportion cause you made a country that thrives on it and uses the 13th amendment. Just watch "Where to invade next"…your country is trash

  40. Vixolent says:

    People who disliked the video should have really listened to it. that was amazing.

  41. Adeena Bnetfarrg says:

    Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. Leo Tolstoy. Good job, man.

  42. oscardallas16 says:

    Amazing TED talk

  43. Joe Black says:

    I clicked cuz he looked like Chris Rock in the thumbnail

  44. ibmason1 says:

    A murderer cannot be redeemed. A human life is priceless. The choice to change for the better is definitely a great thing but a life taken cannot be made up for by any amount of speeches or letters.

  45. Jaydon J. says:

    is Ted becoming more and more like buzzfeed or what?

  46. Y Huss says:

    bravo God bless him

  47. San Samman says:

    Stoicism is inspirational 🙂

  48. detonator says:

    Blaming Trump for a crime he committed 18 years ago. Bahaha

  49. Mia Fountain says:

    Crime and prison is a very tough topic to talk about so first I commend Marlon for talking about it. For people who think prison and punishment is the best way to deal with crime, ask yourself why? why is putting the criminals in one place where their only interaction is with other criminals a good thing? America has one of the largest reincarceration rates in the world. Part of that is because the criminals have nowhere to go once they're released, so they have to turn back to crime to live. Places like Norway, where they help prepare the criminals for the world have some of the lowest incarceration rates. Think about why.

  50. Bob Newman says:

    love the message but the format deserves better

  51. Kostiantyn Stasiuk says:

    The only thing I'm thinking about after watching this video: those who were killed in lower Manhattan can no longer watch this TED talk. I would ask families of those people what do they think about all of that

  52. ZOMBIESLAYER 115 says:

    All these people saying "DON'T DO THE CRIME THAN!" Well Innocent people go to prison too.

  53. John Trauger says:

    I hear Peterson say 'I just wanted to be relevant" and complaints about gun availability and other social ills that befall the black community and what I hear behind it is, 'It's not my fault".

    I don't trust "It's not my fault" because it says he isn't responsible for his actions. And if he isn't, he's free to make the same mistakes again if his life takes a rough enough turn and he still won't be responsible for his actions.

    Peterson is not garbage, he most certainly is human, Along with the compassion for being human comes a requirement that he own what he does.

  54. John Wayne says:


  55. jeff crawford says:

    This A-hole is complaining about being sentenced to irrelevancy when his victims were sentenced to death. We do need reform. You should not be walking the face of the earth.

  56. Matt May says:

    Here’s my take on the matter. Yes, prisons need to get better and improve their practices, and help inmates and people who have committed crimes get back into society to be a productive member of it. But you also have to recognize that if you commit a crime, you can’t argue that you don’t deserve prison. Far too often, I see people saying that the law is unfair and how their life was ruined because of prison, and not at all taking responsibility for their actions that got them in there in the first place. I agree, prison is not good with human rights and helping former prisoners get back into the working force, but that doesn’t mean you can blame all your problems on it. You have to take responsibility for your actions, and understand that your choices can have a massive and everlasting effect on your life.

  57. ABaumstumpf says:

    There is a reason why a person that committed a violent crime is viewed as less human:
    Cause that person ignored the humanity of his victim.

    If you murder somebody you forfeit your human rights.

    The US criminal system needs reforming, but one of the reasons why is because too many crimes are committed in poor communities with a lot of drugs and weapons. cops that get send there are in danger, they too fear for their life because they did nothing wrong and still people shoot at them.
    many of those cops are not adequately prepared for the situations simply cause the police lacks the resources to do so. And then a criminal that doesn't follow their orders only makes it worse.

    get people to recognise that by breaking the law they create all sorts of problems for a whole punch of people – mostly for them self and their loved ones.

  58. sheiladleon says:

    Pedophiles, rapists and people who have committed atrocities like Josef Fritzl and the like deserve it though. If you're gonna act inhumane you deserve the punishment. You can't really apply this argument to horrible people like that because really I doubt anyone would show sympathy to a man or woman that's shown complete apathy for human lives.

  59. Don Quixito says:

    I invented YouTube social networking the September Eleventh attacks the Boston bombing Pokemon go possible the attack in Brussels the intial one had something to do with hebdo both the images and attack and more recently the Manchester attack and tower block fire I'm insane and welcome the retirement bullet would suggest burning the body as they probably have a look alike or will try to recesatate me…..I can barely think any more and my thoughts are troubled from internal unresolved wounds and external telecommunication and scizophrenic and scizzor studys

  60. David C says:

    His "reasons" are NOTHING but bullshit excuses.

  61. Tat Tvam Asi says:

    Sorry but you don't get to be a hero by standing up and delivering a melodramatic pile of sentimental crap to a room. He's more narcissist than hero.

  62. Vance JQ says:

    Lots of armchair philosophers over here; I doubt many of you have ever been in the socioeconomic conditions that promote criminal activity and its factors.

    Poverty and crime go hand-in-hand as it's easier to act unlawfully when you develop the cynicism and desperation associated with chronic economical hardships.

    Unfortunately, our methods of funding prisons, via private contractors with income-per-prisoner, ensures there is some form of political resistance to positive recidivism change so poor people can continue to be farmed for profit like crops.

  63. Amy Dentata says:

    Only a very small number of people commit violent crime because they enjoy it. The rest are in terrible situations with no hope of escape, and no others options available.

  64. Zhang Chen says:

    The man have grown into a human being, whatever he was before he no longer is, he have discovered salvation through human compassion and accepted it as a principle. May he grow greater still and preach it to troubled souls.

  65. Paulo Haddad says:

    he got raped at 14?

  66. AvgJane19 says:

    a lot of these comments aren't focusing on the actual discussion, that being reform of the criminal justice system. The goal is to make society safer, that can not be done (and is not being done) when the focus of the prison is "revenge", those who serve their sentence leave unreformed and are likely to repeat an offense. This conversation is not about shortening sentences, its about changing the prison system to rehabilitate criminals and therefore benefit society.

    If your response is "do the cringe, do the time" we are having two different conversations and your input is useless to the progression of the conversation.

  67. Morris The Cat says:

    it's "relevance" not "relevancy."

  68. Сергей Герман says:

    Thanks !!!

  69. Robert Stevenson says:

    Five of them robbed a coffee shop, two people were killed… now I'm supposed to feel and understand what??? Now he's all better, and we're supposed clap…??

  70. tjr3145 says:

    It is great that you have forgiven yourself for your part in killing those people in 1999. I wonder if their families are all happy go lucky about it. Why should you get your life back?

  71. Adventures with Frodo says:

    Okay your special. how many don't change and want to be redeemed. so how do you tell. not all want to take the hard road and changed.

  72. Regimeshifts says:

    I understand the sentiment of people saying "stop committing the crime", but in reality that will never stop. If you accept this as a proposition, the question is then what do you do with people who commit the crimes? For the benefit of all of society, you'd rather rehabilitate them because otherwise you will have to deal with the consequences of their future crimes.

  73. Ulrna says:

    So even TED is social justice now, for pete's sake. that's it for my over 3 year subscription.

  74. Debbie Johnson says:

    I would like your contact information. Two and a half years ago God put a young man on my heart who is facing criminal charges right now. I am hoping you can provide help. I have a deep respect you. You have great couage.

  75. Debbie Johnson says:

    I hope you learn how to be a loving person.

  76. Debbie Johnson says:


  77. Sffaf Sffaf says:

    لم يتم ترجمة للعربية

  78. Agnes russo says:

    Very moving and amazing talk!

  79. marie gold says:

    this whole capitalism is a crime.

  80. marie gold says:

    the elite fights a cruel war against everyone and everyone takes their part in this. as long as we don´t overcome capitalism their will be people in precarious situations. and it is our human nature, that precarious situations cause aggressive actions. it is only a strategy of survival.

  81. silentstorm says:

    While he wants to start a discussion about an alternative methods that would be more productive and more ethical a lot people in the comments don't get further than 'criminals should get punished because the did something bad'.

  82. king kutz says:

    they don't care

  83. Chris h says:

    I will dislike and comment on all Ted videos because apparently I can't comment on how stupid Kelli jean drinkwaters video is or even see how huge the number of dislikes is. Ted is garbage. they don't care about ideas. they care about agendas

  84. V M says:

    To everyone who say criminals deserve to be treated as they treat others:
    You forget that the criminals are often only behaving the way they do because of the way they were treated and what they learned growing up. Criminals rarely have an opportunity to have what most people take for granted. So why is it fair that they serve time for what they did, but they never got justice for what happened to them, to make them that way?
    This man mentioned being raped at gun point, having easy access to guns etc. as turning points in his life that supported him to become the kind of person to commit a crime. Did he ever get justice for those events? Doubt it.
    I don't support violence or criminal activity at all, all I wanted to say really is that justice is not black and white. Also, i get he was old enough to make his own decisions, and hence why he deserved jail time.
    But I'm personally very glad that this man has turned his life around and is helping others, despite everything he has been through. He is a person just like all of us, like it or not.
    Shows there is still hope for humanity after all.

  85. Matt L says:

    If you break the law, then you need to be punished.

    If you do not want to be punished, then don't break the rules.

    If you make an honest mistake, then take responsibility for your actions and try to correct it.

  86. Wake up. says:

    Ted talks is now a government propaganda platform.

  87. SusanBailey AmazingEstate says:

    Personal responsibility.

  88. Silverliege says:

    About 9/10 comments on this video are some version of "just don't do the crime," so I think you've all truly missed the point of this video. I would invite those of you who think this way to try and imagine the world more complexly, including really listening to people with stories like this. Because you're right, crime is AWFUL. But treating criminals as if they're not human is also awful, because it causes irreparable damage to them, their families, our society as a whole, and just perpetuates more crime in the end. Justice must prevail, but it must ALWAYS be tempered with compassion. Otherwise we'll never move past the "eye for an eye" cavemen mentality of revenge.

  89. Michael says:

    this is literally the first discussion on criminal justice reform ive heard that never mentioned slavery and jim crow…

  90. HypodermicSalty says:

    "How about not doing the crime"
    Would you rather dispel of someone in an institution in which they're surrounded by other criminals proving to them they have to continue to act hard and tough, people who join gangs for protection in prison- or have them in an environment where you construct them into productive members of society and allow them to redeem themselves from their previous actions???
    The point
    Your head

  91. Fos7er xd says:

    vai se foder joanalice

  92. Brains for Change says:

    Is this guy even human? Sure looks like a human. That was a great talk.

  93. BULL SCHEIST says:

    "The only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century…empty oil drums…re-purposed into the full chromatic scale." I call BUULLLLL SSHHHEEEEEETTTT!!

  94. toneman335 says:

    Stop crying and stand up and take responsibility for your bad decisions and criminal behavior. You are not the victim. The people that died are the victims. You are a "criminal predator".

  95. Philip Groves says:

    Another NPC claims to live in the netherlands but doesn't even understand how their criminal justice system works. They focus on rehabilitation, not punishment and thus have a low recidivism rate which is falling further still.

  96. Taylor Bishop says:

    I am huge criminal justice reform advocate because I made some mistakes when I was in my late teens until 22. Nothing like what this guy ever came close to doing. However, this guy should have got more than ten years in my estimation.

  97. Buttercup says:

    I'm so sick of feeling sorry for blacks. No other group needs as much help as them just to be acceptable. Pathetic.

  98. obi one says:

    I totally disagree but in my opinion if you murder u need death don't like the punishment don't do the crime.

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