As you walk into Michael Ta‘Bon’s North Philadelphia rowhouse, you can’t miss the tall, white rectangular object leaning against a wall. It’s a casket. Hanging nearby is a set of handcuffs. Vibrant paintings preaching messages of peace and anti-violence adorn the walls. A few miles away from the rowhouse sits a flatbed truck that Ta’Bon owns with a 20-by-6 foot custom-built, two-story compartment that contains a replica of a jail cell.
Through the month of February, Ta’Bon will take that truck on his annual drive around the streets of Philadelphia, bringing awareness to the toll that imprisonment and premature death take on the community. At night, Ta’Bon, who was previously incarcerated for armed robbery, will sleep in its cell compartment. At each stop, he and other community activists will offer “sidewalk therapy,” listening to community members, providing relatable advice, and giving them contact information for an array of social service providers.
He’ll give tours of the cell, and children will be allowed to wear the handcuffs, and to slip into a body bag and the casket. If that sounds shocking, that’s because it’s supposed to be — it’s part of his effort to educate kids about potential life outcomes. “I am teaching death and prison prevention,” he said. “When kids look in the casket they will see themselves in the mirror. … We have the only casket designed to keep people out of the grave.”
Beyond those art pieces, the truck is decked out with a 110-inch movie screen, music recording equipment, and six security cameras. There are two basketball hoops affixed to an outer wall, and the tail end folds down to make a stage.
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“It’s a community center on wheels. I use music, art, drama, and athletics to teach young people how to stay out of prison and early graves,” said Ta’Bon, 49, who is known professionally as O.G. Law. “You can learn science, math, and history. But if you don’t know how to survive in these neighborhoods, everything you learn can leak out of a bullet hole.”
A father of three who spent seven-and-a-half years in state prison, Ta’Bon runs the National Love Team, a grassroots organization he founded in 2017. He learned to paint in prison and naturally took to rapping and acting, having appeared in the Idris Elba 2020 film, “Concrete Cowboy,” which was filmed in North Philly.
Since being paroled in 2005, he has devoted his life to community building; he considers everything he does to be a form of teaching. Even his attire, an orange prison jumpsuit that he wears for public events, is designed to remind young people about the consequences of breaking the law.
Ta’Bon is buoyed by Philadelphia’s drop in homicides last year — 410 compared to 514 in 2022 — and believes a big part of the decline is due to the city government providing millions in grants to anti-violence grassroots organizations. While he didn’t receive any of that money, Ta’Bon believes his efforts have also played a role. Each year, he estimates he has reached between 2,500 and 5,000 people. He’s working on getting city funding to expand his outreach programing, including taking his HardKnock UniverCity mobile crisis vehicle into the community more frequently.
As he and colleagues made final touches to the casket before the monthlong tour — adding a pillow, speakers, and a mirror so that those lying inside can see themselves — The Trace sat down with Ta’Bon to discuss his journey from being an armed drug dealer and robber who was first arrested at age 16 to becoming a peace seeker in Philadelphia’s most violent communities.
These answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MD: Despite the recent dip in shootings, Philadelphia has not shaken its “Killadelphia” image and too many young people are still killing and being killed. Why?
Young people don’t even get dressed for funerals anymore because it’s a normal thing. Sadly, what I think is being misunderstood is, the reason why it’s so easy for them to kill is because they already feel like they’re being hunted. Violence has become a trend. Once we allowed our children to play video games and play simulated murder, mixed with the drugs, mixed with the absent fathers, the deck is already stacked. There is inequality, but I kind of like to look at the parts that we can fix.
Why do you call your mobile outreach campaign that will take place during the entire month of February a prison and premature death fast?
We are fasting from anything that can put you in prison or an early grave. This is the only time that children get to experience handcuffs and a body bag and casket and still go home.
You were raised in a low-income section of West Philly by a mother and stepfather who were blind, and you began drug dealing as a teen and landed in prison in your early 20s for armed robbery. What has kept you from backsliding into crime like others with similar backgrounds?
“After the first seven years, even without the knowledge that I have, I knew that I didn’t want to go back. I was already teaching people how not to go back. I wrote a book while I was in prison and actually released the book. So I made a lot of money.
How were you first exposed to guns, and what is your view of them now?
My first introduction to guns was actually on television. And my relationship to guns today is, I wish I could tell people that they didn’t need them, but until public safety becomes a priority, I think we should have a right to defend ourselves. I also believe that if a person is allowed to get out of prison on parole and has to live in such harsh environments, I think there should be a special license that allows them to get a gun to protect themselves. Or, they can be given bullet-proof vests. I’m just trying to think realistically about what we can do to save lives. Because it’s dangerous just to go to the store.
How many people do you know who have been shot?
Most of the people around here have some type of bullet injury, all of us. I have a fragment in my knee, from a shootout, where the bullet hit the car then hit my knee.
What qualifies you to do this type of work?
There is a portion of society that has been deemed too complex to repair. That would be us. Specifically, impoverished Black men across the country. I happen to be good at repairing people. My final goal and dream is to create a human recycling program. A program to take those deemed too complex to repair out of the city for three to six months and teach them new skills and then bring them back to the city. If you can do that with plastic, you can do that with human beings.
What is the National Love Team?
It stands for, Life Over Violence Everywhere, Together Everyone Accomplishes More. We’re a collection of groups, organizations, individuals and businesses that have ideas for the betterment of the community, and we work together to make sure that those ideas are implemented.
Why do you use a casket and jail cell on wheels?
What’s the two biggest issues in Philadelphia right now? Death and prison. I am teaching death and prison prevention. When kids look in the casket they will see themselves in the mirror. I feel like I have the only jail on wheels, and the only jail designed to keep kids out of prison. We have the only casket designed to keep people out of the grave.
Explain the orange jumpsuit?
Most of these youths in the inner city unfortunately have fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers in prison. So they’ve already seen the pictures of the men in prison suits and they associate it with the men in their families. So now I become a credible messenger.
You fund your work through the sale of T-shirts and from a $30,000 grant from Mural Arts Philadelphia. You’ve recently applied for a city grant. If the funding comes through, how would you use it?
I would invest in getting a HardKnock UniverCity brick and mortar building, and I would like to get some vans and flatbeds and utilize the youth to help me and contractors build mobile units to ship across the country.
As a grassroots nonprofit, do you need anything else from the city to help with your mission?
I would like to have some workshops on how to handle the funding and paperwork. Build a team around me if you have a franchise player. We’re talking about saving lives.
Do you have cause for hope in this new year?
The city did invest money in small organizations, and they’ve made it a little easier for the committed person who may not have the education to get the grants. I definitely believe that is part of the reason why the shootings are going down. It’s becoming trendy to live, again. If you remember, we went through a season where we were wearing skeleton hats and belts. Now, fashion is starting to change, people are starting to think and move differently. Everybody is tired of going to funerals.