I'm angry. This is the realization that I had walking to the gym on Tuesday. It's not new. I think I've been angry for a while but have not had the freedom to realize it, acknowledge it, or express it. With the opportunity to exist in a totally creative space for 3 months, I am finding myself much more sensitive to my deepest thoughts and feelings. I was listening to Vic Mensa's album "There's A Lot Going On" (disclaimer: certainly not for young, sensitive, or conservative ears) and it ignited a lot of emotions that I have suppressed in order to stay focused. In particular, his song "16 Shots", a response to the murder of 17-year old Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police, reminded me of the feeling of frustration and helplessness I often feel as a black man in America. Every time I see a story on the news about police brutality against black people or rampant inequity in the justice system, I am reminded of how in 2016, being black is still a crime. As someone who has seemingly made all the right decisions in life, I still cannot avoid micro-aggressions in the workplace, looks of sheer terror when I walk into an elevator with a white woman, and being pulled over for nothing other than driving while black.
Just recently, I was in the car with a co-worker, also a black man, who had just purchased a new BMW. He drove to my apartment in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to pick me up so we could head to the gym. Two brothers in tank tops, driving in a new BMW? You can probably finish the story. The police who were driving behind us on Atlantic Ave. pulled us over and 3 policemen hopped out. They circled the car looking for suspicious clues and then finally one of them signaled my friend to roll down the window. He asked for license and registration and stated we were pulled over because he was missing tags in the front, but they were riding behind us the entire time, there's no way they could have known that the front was missing tags. They let my friend off with a "warning", pulled off ahead of us, and proceeded to go pull over a red Lexus with custom rims on the same street - probably for the same offense, driving while black.
When having conversations about these types of experiences with folks who aren't black, somehow it inevitably goes to "well, why didn't your friend have tags on the front?" That is not the point. Why am I a target? "Well Laquan McDonald wasn't exactly a Boy Scout." I'm not saying he was; his record certainly says he wasn't. What I am saying is there was no need to shoot him 16 times when he was walking away from the police. If I have a son - how do I have this conversation with him? How do I explain that the justice system is not set up in his favor? Earlier this year, I had the eye-opening experience of serving on jury duty in Brooklyn. It was an attempted rape case amongst other lesser crimes. From the very beginning I could tell the defendant was probably doomed. He, the defendant, was a black man and the victim a white woman. He looked like he may have played college football back in the day and she looked like an art student. While the DA used a well structured powerpoint deck and laser pointers to deliver closing arguments, his attorney (probably a public defender) had a yellow legal pad that looked like it lived in the backseat of his car somewhere between his running shoes and his coffee mug. He flipped vigorously through pages of chicken-scratch, as if trying to remember which case he was even working on. Attempted rape is a serious crime, and here is a brother in court who will likely spend the next 20 years of his life in jail because he doesn't have enough money to afford an attorney with a laser pointer (and more than 48 hrs to review the case).
The defendant had actually committed a similar crime over 20 years ago and the DA wanted to bring the former victim in as evidence. The defense attorney objected saying that the previous crime for which he was tried, does not prove that the defendant was more likely to commit the crime. The judge sustained the objection but allowed the victim from the previous crime to testify. His reasoning for allowing it in as evidence was "only for identification purposes, not as proof of a predisposition to a certain behavior or crime." What does that even mean??? How can you allow a jury to hear someone say the defendant sexually assaulted them 20 years ago and not expect it to taint their view in any way? The judge knew that would influence our decision making, but he allowed it anyway, probably because he himself had already decided the defendant was guilty.
When we, the jury, got to the deliberating room, we took an initial vote. Though the jury was quite diverse, you could clearly see how prejudice finds its way into the justice system. When the forewoman asked "Ok, who thinks he's guilty?" every white woman in the room raised her hand. When asked who says not guilty (more specifically, not enough evidence to prove guilty) every black man in the room raised his hand. This, ladies and gentleman, is how the justice system works. Now imagine white police officers on trial for the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and a grand jury where 9 of 12 jurors were white and probably from that community. It makes sense why in so many of these cases, the police officers are acquitted.
What is clear to me is that race and wealth greatly impact one's access to justice, but that's not really justice at all, is it? So if I have a son I guess I'm supposed to tell him, "If you ever find yourself in trouble you will be assumed guilty because you're black, unless of course you have a lot of money... then you can just buy your way out."
And so I've decided to start on a new series, one which expresses my thoughts and feelings about the realities of the black experience in America. It won't be colorful but it will be real. "16 Shots" is the first piece in that series. I will continue my work on God's Trombones but will also be developing this one at the same time. More to come...