orange is the new black
I was arrested before, so prison subjects get me emotional. It explains why I’m not in the mood to see prison injustices and violence in the new season of Orange is the New Black. I’ll watch it in the future. I’ve been doing a lot of creative work in the last three weeks, and I want my mind to remain clear.
Regarding my arrest history, the police arrested me one night years ago though the key witness spoke in my favor. I slept that weekend in jail. The prosecutors charged me with an outrageous felony. I could have ended up in prison, not because I was guilty; it was because I was poor.
The American legal justice system is not for poor people. Court appointed lawyers, judges, and prosecutors are a team that will continue getting along whether or not the accused is convicted or freed. Therefore, the accused is always seen as the outsider in their midst.
All the lawyer, the judge, and the prosecutor desire is a plea deal. Plea deals make their resumes look good. “Hey, look how many cases I have resolved this year alone!”
Plea deals make the justice system look productive. “Fellow Americans, we have put away X amount of criminals behind bars. The new commissioner of police is doing a fine job, Our communities are safer.”
But plea deals are the very legal productions that destroy the future of mostly black and Latino men. It could have destroyed me if I hadn’t taken on the system. The fight tired me. I got headaches. I got long bouts of flus. I vomited too often. I was in school and couldn’t finish my course work on time; but luckily, I had faculty members who understood.
I fought even after my lawyer advised that my “stubbornness” might result in my deportation because juries would not find my cocky attitude humble. At the time, I was not an American citizen. Judges, lawyers, and prosecutors hate going to trial. They view trials as time consuming. Trial is money that poor folks can’t pay. Trial is work that clogs up the court. So plea deals are their strategic offerings to the accused. The lawyer’s work thus becomes, more so, to convince the accused to take a plea deal rather than to convince the court and the prosecutor that the accused is innocent.
During the fight, I felt close to taking a plea deal. I had become too tired. My lawyer made me seem like an angry man. I was beginning to wonder if I was really an angry black man for demanding justice.
Sure, people can brand and stereotype even the best among us to the point that we begin to believe them. I am innocent. But the constant manipulation stripped away my confidence and at times I wondered if I was guilty of the prosecutor’s felony charge.
I wanted the case to just go away. I wanted a future. So could you see what was happening to me mentally? I was becoming afraid, not only of being sent to prison, but also afraid of my lawyer. I was even getting panic attacks. So to this day, whenever I hear any of my friends say they are getting panic attacks, I become worried that their self-confidence will dip and force them into depression.
Depression kills people, not necessarily body death; but mostly, it kills hopes and dreams–essences that keep human beings usefully alive. Though I was an educated man, I was becoming afraid of using my education in my defense. I began to view the utilization of my education as a show of arrogance, stubbornness, a lack of humility. Education was liability, I came to see it.
But, I came too far in my life, fought too hard in my history—saw my house on fire while I was in my dream, got kicked out of my family’s house because of my sexuality, and got threatened by family members, and was told that my father would kill me whenever he saw me, and was chased in the street with knives, and slashed in the face with knives, and slashed in the back with knives, and got shots fired at me—so what should I ever be afraid of now?
My best friend Christopher Walker (who died last year) said, After all you have seen in your life, why are you so afraid of speaking your mind to these people? Part of what makes you Dadland is your tendency to always speak your mind.
Christopher’s wisdom woke me. I no longer worried if I was an angry black man. I claimed it. I sure was one. A very angry one. Indeed, I should have been an angry black man, given that the system was trying to convict me while it dared to expect me to keep a smile on my face and quietness in my heart.
My anger saved me. I am an angry black man! And my anger didn’t manifest in a loud voice (as was stereotypically expected), or with certain body animations, or in producing reactions based solely on emotions. My anger was calm. My anger was wise. My anger was fierce like a bitch.
The anger of my blackness, the anger that emerged from consciousness that I had been racialized because of my poverty, was the anger that took away my headaches and my lethargies, and prepared me for a more strategic battle.
The battle began in my brain. I located the thing I feared the most. It was prison.
Was that it?
Blowing up those questions made me accept the worst. I was ready to go to prison. That acknowledgement gave me courage. The visible closeness of prison no longer frightened me. I no longer saw my education and speaking ability as a liability in my lawyer’s presence but assets I must continue to use forcefully.
I reclaimed my voice. I told my lawyer and the supervisor that I do not approve of their legal strategy. I informed them I would not be another black statistic in the legal justice system.
The Asian lawyer made it clear in the toughest voice that this had nothing to do with race. Absolutely nothing, the lawyer emphasized.
But No! No, no, no, I was not going to let the lawyer get away with that statement. I emphasized it was all about poverty. And poverty is race. And I would not take a plea deal, because I am poor, because I am racialized in the criminal justice system that identifies people based on numbers.
I wrote a letter. I sent it up into the chain of command. I set up a meeting. I intended to speak my mind in the meeting. I didn’t want anyone to lie that an accused criminal was out of control. I invited my friend Christopher to attend. Sure I was poor economically, but I was rich in deploying the intellectual and emotional endurance needed to protect myself when my life was on the line.
Having good friends by my side with their wealth of love and brilliance created just the team that I needed to tackle the structural legal monster that was ready to put away another innocent black man.
The meeting was successful. I got rid of that lawyer. A white person, the second lawyer was friendlier, but not friendly. This one was tougher, but I had gotten tougher too. This one also wanted me to take a plea deal, though I told this one that I had changed the prior lawyer because taking a plea deal was not an option.
We had a sassy argument. I reemphasized I would not take a plea deal no matter how close prison got to me. Ultimately, without this lawyer doing any work, the court dropped the case.
I was free. Another black man was free to walk lands, ride rivers, and travel seas. I will not say more about that history at this point. But one day, I will.
What I learned from the process is that the best among us can end up in prison. Keeping quiet about racism because we don’t want to offend others is the very silent activism that has been sending black and Latino brothers into an economic system of violence from which only few recover.
My message to poor people, in particular, people of color, Be weary of plea deals if you know you are innocent. And to other people, I say, don’t ever forget that if you are poor, you are a step away from prisons’ doors!