Anthony Harris: From felon to free man to change agent

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Anthony Harris is ready to put his past behind him and move forward. Part of that process includes being open about where he’s been and what he’s done to pay the price, so that his experiences can inform his leadership: “I’m not here to sugarcoat my past. My past is my past,” he says. Photo/Stacy Harrison

MANCHESTER, NH – Born addicted to drugs, it isn’t surprising that Anthony Harris’ life has been one of poverty, sexual abuse and crime.

It also has become one of redemption.

What is surprising, is the 38-year-old man has chosen to make his life an open book in seeking the state representative seat for District 11, Ward 4.

“Everything about me – my life, my campaign – everything is about transparency,” he says.  “I’m not here to sugarcoat my past.  My past is my past.”

Harris said he never had any thought of running for office until a client of Rootz Natural Hair Shop, which he manages for his partner/owner Shaquwanda Allen, told him he should run for governor.  He laughed at the time but he decided the only way progress was going to be made in New Hampshire for people of color was to talk about the issues.

That meant he had to own his past because, he says, what little he knows about politics is it’s a dirty game.

“Let me get this dirt on them and let me tell the people about the dirt,” he says.  “What is your plan for the community?  You put dirt on them so they vote for you and not them.  With my past, they will have a field day.  But I don’t care because I am 100 percent transparent.”

What he hopes, he says, is that his past is not held against him because he is no longer that person.   

“I challenge anyone who brings up my past to live through my past and tell me you wouldn’t make those same decisions,” he says.  “Be molested at 5 years old by your uncle who is supposed to teach you how to be a man but yet tries to destroy your manhood.  Get abused and beaten for 3 ½ years damn near every day and then move to New York and go outside and see nothing but Crips, drugs dealers, gangs. I didn’t have a mom, no dad, no love, no guidance, no support, but these people right there (the Crips) were giving me the love, hugging me.  It may not be genuine to you but to a person who never had it, it was everything.”    

Harris was born addicted to drugs in Kingston, N.Y.  His mother eventually overcame her drug addiction but not before the state took away her children.  Ultimately, she regained custody and was determined to never lose them again.  However, as a single mom she had to work long hours to support her family leaving the children oftentimes to fend for themselves.

Harris says his father was never in the picture and the male relative who was, sexually molested him.  He said he never received any treatment for the emotional damage that caused and so he acted out, fighting friends and foes inside and outside of school.  Yet, school was a safe haven but that was only for six hours a day.

The only male role models in his life were the local drug dealers, the ones with the gold chains around their necks and the fancy cars.

A precocious 9-year-old, he closely studied them and ran errands for them for a few dollars.

One day, with $5 in hand, he and a buddy went to the local go-cart establishment.  Riding along the track, Harris said he saw an opening in the perimeter and drove right through it.  Soon he and his pal were freewheeling down the road with police in a slow pursuit.  When they finally caught up to the thieves, the cops were in disbelief that they were a couple of kids.

That sent him into the “Scared Straight” program at Rikers Island, New York’s prison system, and a meeting with hard-core felons.  He’d go there one more time – as a 10-year-old – but he said it just wasn’t enough to scare him away from the street life.  The gang, he said, was his family, they were the ones providing a child with the love and hugs needed.

Harris’s eyes sparkle behind his Covid mask as he recalls running his own crew at the age of 10.

Harris would send a young kid into a store to sweet talk the clerk.  He assured the little boy nothing would happen to him, since he was so cute.  The child would do his best to flirt with a store clerk before swiping a bunch of candy bars and beating it out the door.

When the clerk ran after him, Harris and another partner in crime would sweep in and take the cash from the till and, being kids, grab as many candy bars as they could.  They would sell them at an inflated price to the drug dealers.

It was only a matter of time before Harris became a gang member.  At the age of 13, he was “jumped in” – soundly beaten – by members of the Crips.  When he came home seriously injured, “I told my moms I’d been jumped,” he laughs.  It wasn’t a lie, he says.

His mother’s response was to pack up her children and head south to Florida to live with her parents.  After his grandparents’ deaths, his mother inherited the house.

“To us, it was a mansion,” he said.  It had a fenced-in yard with an orange tree in the back.  That life was short-lived, however, when his mother couldn’t afford to hang onto the house and the bank foreclosed on it.

His continuous fighting landed him in “jit camp,” ( jit is slang for jitterbug, a term for little kid) a youth detention facility.    

Utlimately, he dropped out of school at 16 – he’d left home a couple of years earlier – and the streets became his life. To survive, he sold drugs and robbed drug dealers since they wouldn’t call police.   While the life sounds exciting, and maybe even glamorous, Harris said it is anything but.

“Don’t get it twisted, you can still die real fast,” he says.

And the theft of pitbull puppies – “I didn’t steal them but I was kind of happy a friend did” – sent him back to juvenile detention for a second time, he says. 

When released he went to live with his mom in Orlando, Fla. 

His life took the turn for the better when he got married, left the gang and had a son.  By then, he was living in Connecticut and attending a community college studying computer engineering.  He was working full time, going to college and coaching his stepson’s mini-basketball team. 

Now 20, he decided to give his life back to God and do youth ministry. In Connecticut, he says there are organized gangs – Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings, etc. – that appeal to young boys.  

“It sounds adventurous,” he says.  “But do you really want bullets flying at you?  This isn’t a video game.  There are no restart buttons.  It’s not peaches and cream.”

People who were with him in the drug trade are dead, he says. He’s been pistol-whipped, stabbed and shot in the arm.

When his marriage fell apart, so did his life.  He returned to a life of crime.  Back in Florida, he devised a plan to steal dozens of highly-priced plasma flat-screen television sets from a retail store. When they first came out, sets sold for $10,000 apiece.

Authorities were stumped.  

The crew decided to do it again only this time they were caught when a police cruiser drove by the store and became suspicious of the vans that were leaving.  

One driver became nervous and gunned it, setting off a high-speed chase involving numerous cruisers and a search helicopter overhead when the thieves abandoned the vans and ran across swampland and pastures.

Harris was charged with about a dozen felonies but ultimately he pleaded guilty to three charges and was sentenced to five years.  He had to pay $30,000 in restitution and another $22,000 to his lawyer.  He was out of prison in three years.

When he was released, he had nothing and nowhere to go so once again he turned to the Crips for help.

“They gave me everything I needed,” he said.  He stayed with them for about a month but he needed to see his son, who was then 9 years old.  Today, he is 18 but their relationship remains strained.

He returned to New York to live with his brother and work at Burger King.  But you can’t live on $165 a week, he says, and you can’t find a better job because once you admit to having felonies, your application is always placed on file.

That’s when he caught up with a friend who told him to come to New Hampshire.  “I’m like where the hell is New Hampshire?” he laughs.

The gig was drugs.  He says he felt horrible. He knew the damage drugs did to people “in the hood,” where there’s no food in the refrigerator because mom, dad or both are high on drugs.  

Harris said it was different for people with money so the wealthy became his clientele and he sold drugs to the rich at Hampton Beach.   Soon, he had an artfully furnished lakeside cottage and five cars, including a Mercedes.

While selling drugs, he worked a full-time job at a telecommunications company.  How did he get that?  The manager was a customer who smoked crack.  He also worked for a Hampton Beach construction company earning between $1,500 to $2,000 a week.

Once again, he was arrested in Manchester for possessing drugs. At trial, he was found not guilty and released from jail.

His waterfront life was short-lived.  Believing law enforcement was on to him, Harris packed up his belongings and moved.  A friend offered to store his property and it was the last time Harris saw his white leather furniture and his $7,000 Persian rug.

Then he was arrested again, this time for possession of drugs and criminal threatening charges.  He is released from Valley Street after six months.  It is 2017 and he is 34 years old.  “No more,” he tells himself. 

He heads to North Carolina to work for a friend but returns to New Hampshire when that doesn’t work out.

He decides to “get right with God” and that is when he meets Allen and begins working with her.

His criminal life now in the past, a year ago Harris co-founded with Marquis Olison, a community activist who worked on the Obama campaign, an organization called Felon to Freeman to assist people released from prison in finding a job, housing and steering them into programs to help them transition back to society.

“Too many times, people are being released right back into society without any support system, hope or guidance,” says Harris who knows the drill all too well.

The goal is to provide mentorship, job training, health and wellness, financial education and even a clothing outlet to help men and women prepare for job interviews, he says.  

It is being run by fellow felons who have made “the transition from handcuffs to cufflinks and are walking the path from prison to prosperity,” he says. “I’m hoping that our stories of pain and perseverance will inspire others to stay the course and continue being model citizens, active parents, and those who are now giving back to the communities that we once helped to destroy. We are looking to build a better society, give choices and a voice to the disenfranchised and help people and families whose lives have been thrown off course due to incarceration.”

Harris is also the first Decarceration Organizer for the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire program.  The part-time, paid internship, was made possible by a grant from the NH Charitable Foundation and the Arnie Alpert Action Fund.

Felon to Freeman, he says, is part of his political campaign which will also focus on ending mass incarceration and rebuilding the prison system, improving the health care system, immigration and racial justice. 

“I just don’t feel we should be paying all this money for healthcare to be healthy,” he said.  The system is about making money for insurance companies, not keeping people healthy, he says. 

One bill he is focusing on is HB 328 which would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.  He said what happens now is they drive without a license because they need to work to support their families.  They end up getting arrested and deported.

Another bill, HB544, would prevent people from being able to talk about racism in our government or schools. 

“When America was founded black people were not included in the constitution.  Black people were only one-fifth of a person and you were only property to be bought, sold and borrowed,” Harris says.  “So the foundation of this country is racism.  We need to be able to talk about it, not to point fingers.  White people, you need to face the truth of your ancestors.  Learn your history so we don’t repeat that.  Black people, we need to know about our slavery.”

For instance, he said slaves weren’t fed nutritious food.  They were given slop and pig intestines and from that they created soul food.  “That’s where chitlings come from,” he says.

As far as his campaign for state representative, Harris said he plans to be out in the community letting people  know there are advocates fighting for them such as the ACLU-NH and the American Friends Service Committee.  

People don’t know anything about them, Harris said he told both groups.

“If they don’t know about them, how are we expecting them to come and fight for a bill they never heard about,” he says. 

The main thing of his campaign, he said, is communication.  He’s ready to listen to everybody and says, being only one man, he expects other people to step up to make change.

“We need time, energy, effort and love – four things – to pull up the sweat equity.  As long as I put that in and you put that in we can get somewhere,” he says.  “You have to communicate with the people and the police to understand who we are.  Make them see and you don’t have to do that in hate.  You can do that in love.”

About this Author


Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.