Lorenzo DaBenzo’s story is a long one. In fact, in his telling, it kind of starts all the way back in the days of slavery. His great-grandfather was a slave and, as Lorenzo sees it, he’s been subject to effectively the same oppressions suffered by his ancestor.
“Being a slave, you’re considered a second-class citizen. You have no rights to vote. You have no rights to do anything, you lost all your rights, right? You’re a non-citizen. Well, guess what? Same exact thing. I’ve never voted in an election,” he said, reflecting on his status as a felon.
He’s not wrong that he has been denied many of the rights and privileges associated with American citizenship. An avid and autodidactic student of American political history, he can, if you sit down for a cup of coffee with him, chart a direct path from chattel slavery to the racist system of mass incarceration that persists today.
Much of his political education came firsthand, growing up in the turbulent ‘60s and ‘70s. He was 10 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He remembers Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in protest of the U.S. national anthem during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He remembers the FBI infiltrating the Black Panthers and murdering Fred Hampton. Injustice and resistance were all around him.
His understanding of mass incarceration, and the ways in which it carries on the evils of slavery, isn’t just because he’s studied it; he’s also experienced it. However, he didn’t start out as a victim of it. His first visit to prison wasn’t until he was 31. That was thanks to crack, which he was introduced to in Los Angeles in the ‘80s, and the relentless marginalization and criminalization users of it experienced in that era.
His addiction took him on a cross-country odyssey from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Phoenix with short, unpleasant stints in Fort Worth and Orange County. This was a journey punctuated by plenty of nonviolent property crime – which Lorenzo sums up simply as “hustling” – and incessant trips to prison because of it.
“Prison never did anything to cure me of my addiction disease and here I am, I get out, I get back in trouble. Violate and I go back. It was a revolving door for years,” he said.
Being caught up in the War on Drugs, he said, “All of a sudden I’m a convicted felon; I just lost all of my rights. Goes right back to my grandad. That’s why they shipped the crack here.”
He did finally kick his habit after a plea deal landed him on probation in Phoenix, where he was able to find treatment and stabilize his life. He had one more run-in with the law, but that sentence, which he finished in 2008, was his last. What really did it for him was triple bypass heart surgery.
“I didn’t think I was going to live but I survived it. I remember the cardiologist saying if you don’t eat right, if you don’t take this medication and if you don’t exercise, you ain’t gonna be with us much longer,” he said.
That’s also what brought him to Seattle. By chance, he’d recently attended an Arizona Cardinals game with the halfway house he was living in. Seeing pedicabs for the first time, he’d grabbed a business card, mostly out of curiosity. After recovering from his surgery, he was no longer just curious. He got out on a pedicab as soon as he was physically able to.
“Three months later I was a star on that bike! The cardiologist couldn’t believe the recovery. I lost all that weight,” he said.
He moved here shortly after his then-girlfriend – also a pedicab driver – did, sending word back to him that the hauls at Seahawks games were enormous. They were, Lorenzo said, but he wasn’t prepared for the city’s exploding cost of living. They ended up unhoused in Sodo, living in a van. During that time he continued to drive a pedicab and, thanks to a slightly better recommendation from that same girlfriend, began to sell Real Change.
While times were hard, especially during the pandemic, he considers Real Change a crucial lifeline. Like driving a pedicab, he said, it’s a woefully rare form of low-barrier employment.
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Real Change helps reduce the recidivism rate,” he posited. “I was in and out of jail like a swinging door. Now, I’m in trouble, I got felonies, can’t get a job, etc., etc. Then there’s something like Real Change? Now, all of a sudden, I can make my money legally and I don’t have to do that corrupt stuff. Because I was tired of it anyway!”
But while things are a lot better for Lorenzo these days – he’s got a HUD voucher and should be moving into a Seattle Housing Authority building this week – life’s not all roses. Besides giving lie to the drug-warrior narrative about getting clean and getting back on your feet, his experience of being unsheltered hasn’t been fun.
On Dec. 1 of last year, his birthday, he was minding his own business, celebrating alone in the van with a beer. He heard a knock and came outside to a robbery. Three other unhoused individuals, assuming his pedicab meant he was flush with cash, demanded he pay up and give up the pedicab. He didn’t, but they weren’t done.
“Out of plain mean and evilness they set my van on fire and burned it up! Pedicab and everything, burned it up,” he said. “I’ve been struggling with it.”
Lorenzo has been gifted a used pedicab, but if you’d like to help Lorenzo replace his other possessions, please donate to his GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/burned-down-van-home.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor of Real Change.
Read more of the May 18-24, 2022 issue.