Ples Felix: Retired Warrior, Teacher of Forgiveness
Ples Felix partners with Azim Khamisa in the work of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF), which they co-founded in 1995 to stop youth violence through education, mentorship, and community service. The two men came together around the murder of Azim’s 20-year-old son Tariq by Ples’s 14-year-old grandson Tony and their mutual recognition that “there was a victim on both ends of that gun.” Ples has an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics and a Master’s in Administration in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis. He has worked in the community development field for more than 25 years. His speaking voice communicates warmth and sweetness as well as conviction.
Tell me about your own early life, Ples.
I am a child of God and the firstborn son of my parents, Ples Felix Sr. and Nicola Felix. Growing up in Louisiana and then South LA, as a child with African American parents who were moving out of the segregated South, even though I shared the same history with many other families, I felt very different. I was a blond kid, a “yellow boy” who stood out in the mostly African American neighborhood. Kids respond to difference with inclusion or exclusion, and I was excluded. I had to figure out ways to stand up for who I am as a person and the right of all people to live without threat, and that included a lot of fighting.
After high school I joined the army and saw my ability and desire to excel as something that could propel me, that opened doors. After much evaluation and assessment I qualified for Special Forces. I always praise the Spirit that got me ahead, prepared me for Vietnam, where I did two 12-month tours in 1969 and 1970. That experience crystallized for me the delicate balance of life and death and exposed me to an opportunity. At age 19 I learned to meditate at the knee of a Buddhist monk, who saw a red aura around me that needed to be dialed down. I had no idea at the time that our outer expression of destruction was eroding us inside. I was raised Baptist and I was always a praying person, but this new spiritual practice allowed my breathing to access the voice of creation within me, to use gifts that I’m sure were passed on from my Mom. They saved me and saved many of my comrades. I still meditate morning and night. I did a lot of prayer and meditation after Tony, my one and only loving grandson, murdered Azim’s son Tariq, and I was provided the energy and clarity I needed.
Tell me about your grandson, please. First, how did he come to live with you?
I have one child, a daughter, the heart and life of me, the center point of my loving, giving nature that I didn’t recognize until she was born. She became pregnant at 14 while she was living in Maryland with her Mom and I was in New York City, getting a Master’s at the New School for Social Research. She didn’t want to be a mother; there was lots of tension. Her mother, who gave her birth at 16, said “You’ve got to do it.” There was nothing I could do to influence them; I could only support my daughter. I was there when Tony was born so she would know she was not alone in this awesome responsibility, and I spent lots of time with them both in his early years. As he grew up and my daughter and her mom transitioned back to California, I moved from NYC to manage a detox facility in Phoenix so I was closer to them. There was lots of love and support, but this girl was still young and she left Tony with his grandmother more and more so she could catch up with her social life.
They came to live with me in Arizona when Tony was 4 and she was 19, and he was in a lovely, diverse Native American daycare center. He was happy in that setting. Then one Friday his Mom said she was going to LA and she didn’t come back. He’s worried, distracted, and I’m telling him, “She loves you and she will come back, and she wants to see you happy and growing.” It worked, sort of, for three months, but he was feeling abandoned, so we set out to go find her.
With some help from my mother, we did, and they were reunited. His Mom moved in with another family until he was 8. I found out much later that there wasn’t enough adult supervision and he was molested by the oldest child in that household. At 8 he saw the aftermath of a gang murder, saw his favorite teenage cousin put into a body bag. He had a lot of anger behind that; he was vengeance-filled, full of a can’t-do attitude. I was living in San Diego then and his mom insisted he come to live with me. This time I made it clear that it would have to be permanent and for Tony’s benefit. Tony wasn’t happy about it. Over the past 4 to 8 years he had tried to connect with his biological dad and been rebuffed. I had a hard time with the can’t-do attitude, so I imposed a strict regimen on this kid who needed more than structure and missed his mom and wanted to do the right thing. I was aware that I wasn’t responding to his emotional needs, so I put him with a therapist twice a month, an African American man. I told his teachers I’d be staying in close communication and I expected close communication from them. Talking with the therapist was helping, so Tony bonded with a few excellent teachers and got more confident, discovered he could do and began to excel. He started middle school with friends he’d had since 4th grade and good prospects. Lots of other kids had single parents.
This lasted until 8th grade, when he wanted to hang with some “cooler” guys. He’s coming up on 14, feeling tension, wants to hang at the park. I say only if it’s adult-supervised activity, and then straight home. I caught him in a lie and a week later found out he’s not been going to school, and he’s defiant. This was a Friday night. On Saturday I got him up early, told him to use his anger as fuel to get through the homework he’d missed, and left to run errands. When I came back he was gone and he had left a note: “Daddy, I have run away, Love Tony.” A shotgun was missing too. I called the police and reported him as a runaway, gave them information on him and the gun. That same night I heard a news report about a pizza delivery man being murdered. Foreboding washed over me like cold water. I went to pray, but I couldn’t shake it.
I called my daughter on Sunday and she found out where he was through a girlfriend in LA, called the number, and heard Tony’s voice in the background. On Monday I called the police and told them where he was, and told them to be careful. They went to the door, he came out with them, and I soon found out he was the #1 suspect in the Saturday night murder. We got him an attorney and I sat with the attorney and my daughter and watched videotape of his interrogation. At first he denied it. Then we heard him cry out, “I can’t believe I killed somebody. I shot the pizza man!”
At first he really didn’t seem to understand what he had done. After we talked he wrote out a statement pleading guilty and seeking the forgiveness of those he had harmed. He tried to protect his friends, who were all older, and they turned and testified against him. We had a brand new DA, just elected on a tough-on-gangs platform, and a brand new law allowing juveniles to be tried as adults. After a 6-month process, he was found fit to be tried as an adult. He got 25 years to life.
From the beginning I’d been praying for an opportunity to meet the other family and commit to them in any way I could. When I heard Mr. Khamisa say in an interview that there was a victim on both ends of that gun, I knew he was a God-spirited person. We began to work together soon afterwards.
Where is Tony today?
Tony is in Corcoran State Prison where he has his first job, moving pallets of food to a van. He’s 12, 13 units away from his associate’s degree and wants to be a child psychologist. For much of his time he was in a maximum security, 23-hour lock-in, but he got his GED under those circumstances and scored 96%. He’s allowed to take correspondence courses that I pay for. I’m encouraging him to go for a PhD. He is not eligible for parole until 2027. Azim has worked with past governors and is working with the current one, appealing to commute his sentence.
You’ve had quite an impressive professional career, Ples. What is the accomplishment that gives you the most satisfaction?
Without any doubt it is working with children in our schools to teach them the practice of forgiveness and see how that changes them and their families, how the adults have been affected. It’s the most gratifying thing I have ever done or could ever do.
I heard you say it started in Vietnam, but when did you consciously turn from war to peace?
The day I came back from South Vietnam through Seattle airport, resplendent in my Green Beret attire, a women pushed a stroller past me and spit on my chest. She said, “You are a baby killer.”
I looked at her, saw the rage in her eyes, and said ‘I’ve never harmed a child.’ Then I went into the bathroom to wipe the spit off, looked in the mirror, and swore I would never be in combat mode again. I am thankful for that woman. Sometimes the California traffic on the freeway tests my resolve, but I am a man of peace.
People who stay in combat mode can’t grow. A warrior only grows when a warrior retires.
How do you measure progress in your work with the Foundation?
We look at feedback from the teachers and the schools. When the rate of suspension was 65% and it drops off, down to 20, 30, 40%, we know it’s working. We have mentors in our mentorship program for the 5 to 10% who are ID’d as disruptive and those kids not only turn around in their schoolwork but also in regard to their families. The mentors document everything they do, and they can show how the kids’ behaviors become more constructive. The kids contribute lots of testimony.
On some campuses in Escondido we have mentors in play and the schools themselves engage the kids in service projects to go out into the community. Americorps sponsors and funds our mentors. We’re looking now to develop more funding. We provide service at a very low cost, and some schools can only give in-kind.
Do you ever get frustrated because you can’t reach more schools?
No, because I live and breathe and walk in faith. We do what we can do and the Spirit will do the rest. Azim and I go to Australia every year; this year will be my fifth trip and his sixth or seventh. We speak to church groups, adults and children, and those allow us to plant seeds so they continue to invite us back. We do lots of travel, and every time we speak it leaves an indelible impression. Every one of us needs to know what peace is like but most of us don’t know how to reach it.
We live in a militarist, war-breathing nation. We have more guns than anywhere else on earth. We need a Department of Peace with a budget far bigger than the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, Azim and I continue to influence many every day as living examples. This is a walk of practicing faith about the power of forgiveness, starting with ourselves. That’s the foundation of peace. I’m a peaceful warrior.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell PeaceTimes readers around the world?
There are many mothers like my daughter who have children in prison, and many mothers in prison who have children. We must all do everything we can to support those mothers.
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