In light of recent events, I have been troubled by so many of the comments I’ve seen and read that blame black people for getting shot. Because they were criminals, so therefore they deserve to die. As a former criminal, this bothers me for obvious reasons. Sometimes people do what they have to do, and if you’ve never had to lie, cheat or steal then lucky you.
The side hustle is the trademark of our generation. Nobody, not even the college educated, can live on the one meager salary they make at their day job. For white people there is yoga instruction, personal training, and artistic endeavors like the handmade soap company I run in my spare time. For black people often times these second jobs aren’t a viable option. So they sell loose cigarettes. They sell CDs and memorabilia and hats outside of convenience stores. Maybe they sell drugs. Plenty of white people do that too.
But the difference between black people and white people all shakes out in the justice system. As an addict I’ve had my share of criminal activity. I’ve been arrested multiple times. But you’d never know it if you looked me up on the oh so convenient Connecticut Judicial website that allows you to see who is in the system including people who haven’t even been found guilty yet. But their names are there, so their reputation can be sullied before anyone proves that they’ve even committed a crime. You’d never know my arrest record if you were my employer and you ran a background check. Even though I’ve been through the system repeatedly.
I was lucky. I had a get out of jail free card and I used it again and again. It was the color of my skin.
I have sat in the courtroom several times, each time watching families cry for their black relative who was being click clacked into handcuffs, ushered into a holding cell by no less than three police officers, like a wild animal that might turn violent at any minute. I didn’t have to wonder what their crimes were. The judge reads them aloud for everyone to hear. Some of the charges were identical to mine.
My eloquence and knowledge of how the justice system operates afforded me the luxury of several diversion programs, in which all of my fellow probationers were always white as well. Coincidence? I don’t think so. After my last arrest the prosecutor tried to tell me that I had used up all of my chances, that there were no programs left. He acted like he was doing me a big favor by offering me a sentence of 30 days in jail with a year suspended and a permanent felony record. But because of my education, my intelligence, and my willingness to question this authority figure who was too busy judging me to actually try to help me at all, I knew there was another program I was eligible for. Had I been a young black man, would I have even been given the opportunity to question this man? Would anyone have even listened to me or taken me seriously? As it was I had to get a public defender to help me make my case. Somehow when I waited in line to meet with him I always jumped ahead of the black men who had signed in first. Maybe because I wore a suit to court. Some people can’t afford a suit. They can’t even afford dinner.
What does this have to do with mental illness or addiction, the general topics of this blog? EVERYTHING. So many people in the black community are raised not to acknowledge these problems, not to get help, not to show weakness. Then when shit hits the fan they have no treatment record, no history, nothing to help illustrate why they may have committed this crime, that maybe they need help not jail, that maybe there’s more to the story.
We make them felons, essentially procuring them from ever getting a real job, then get angry when they break the law so they can have food to eat. Felonies should be for violent crimes. The original purpose of the felony was that someone had committed a crime so severe that they were banished from society. The felon was not meant to live in the constraints of regular society. But now we’ve made practically every drug offense save for small possession of marijuana a felony. So now a sick person is permanently branded as someone who we don’t want in our society. Instead of giving them the opportunity to change their lives we force their hand and give them no choice but continue deeper into a life of crime. This is true of all addicts, but especially those of color.
The media is focused on the heroin epidemic in our suburbs. They’re focused on “the new face of heroin” but totally ignoring the old face. Before it became the drug of choice of young, upper and middle class white people it was the drug of low income black people. They aren’t entitled to the treatment mentality that is starting to develop within our culture. They aren’t privileged to get that second, third, or fourth chance that a white kid with wealthy parents who can afford a good lawyer is entitled to.
Maybe black people live an alternative or even criminal lifestyle sometimes because white people just won’t let them in to our privileged world. Their parents were drug dealers, or criminals. They are raised to be look outs from the time they are young children. Their parents raise them in the hustle, groom them into the life so that by college age they are already felons and any chance at a productive life is long gone. Before they even turn 18. It’s a deep cultural problem. It’s asking people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they don’t even have flip flops, let alone boots.
As an addict I’ve seen first hand the way black people are treated in the justice system as opposed to white people. You cannot tell me it’s not real, I have seen it with my own eyes. Over and over again. Until we have a fundamental change there at the core of this issue, black men will continue to be in danger from a police force that often doesn’t understand what their life is like.
On the other side of this issue there are countless officers, public defenders, community leaders, teachers, even prosecutors who want to be the change. They risk their lives at times to reach out to troubled youth and try to correct that path that could ultimately lead to their death whether they are shot by a police officer, shot by a peer, or die from an overdose. These people need to be acknowledged and commended for stepping outside the bounds of what has always been done and doing something different, doing what is right and just.
We need to be allies for our brothers and sisters who need our support. We need to speak up when we see an injustice. We need to speak up when our family member makes a bigoted comment over Thanksgiving dinner. We need to stop being complacent and use our position to support the black community when we see a store employee treating them differently. When they ask the black woman for ID with her check but yet they don’t ask the white woman right behind her. When we see these subtle acts of racism we need to SPEAK UP. We need to teach our children to speak up. And hopefully as the generations roll forwards, someday, we will all speak up for each other and racism, classism, xenophobia, will all be part of our past.
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas police officers who were gunned down in an act of violence Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Smith. May you all rest in peace.