I was raised in a neighborhood named Beverley Hills in Alexandria, VA, an affluent city right on the edge of DC. I am white. My parents make good money though I certainly wouldn’t consider us rich. I would describe our family and our lifestyle as upper middle class. Depending on who you ask I may be described as a loving son, great student, criminal or drug addict. I want to share with you some of my life experiences and contrast them with the experiences of one of my friends. He grew up two miles away from me, went to the same schools as me, and made the same mistakes as me; but he ended up in a very different place from me.
About three years ago I was arrested for credit card theft. I was charged with three separate felonies. This wasn’t the first time I had stolen from members of my community. I would pull handles on unlocked car doors in an attempt to find valuables or cash, anything I could use or sell to get money for drugs. Eventually, I got caught.
Today I’m over two years sober. I’m founding a collegiate recovery program at my school. I speak at rehabs. I help underprivileged kids write college admissions and scholarship essays. I’m a computer science major with a 4.0 GPA. I strive to lead a life of virtue and leave this world better than I found it. I would describe myself as a contributing member of society.
So, what happened, what changed and why does it matter? It matters because every American currently incarcerated got where they are through a complex series of events. In my experience, most “criminals” weren’t born with a weaker moral character than the rest of us. Life is just complicated.
I had a rough childhood. I experienced some abuse (outside of my home) and my family lost my brother as we knew him. He had a brain injury that left him unable to walk or talk. I was an angry kid with a lot of problems. I ended up bouncing around from school to school. Each one would only accept so much disruption.
I’ll never forget the first time I smoked weed. It was during 9th grade. I remember the flick of my lighter and flame hitting my pipe. I remember the crackling sound of this strange looking, smelly herb combusting, collapsing in on itself and turning white. I took a big inhale… and… exhale. A few seconds later everything slowed down. The smoke wafting in the air seemed to tumble and curl in a really beautiful way. A wave of bliss washed over me. It was almost a spiritual experience. I was ok with who I was. I was at peace with my past. I felt happiness. Even though it wasn’t true happiness, it was a feeling I couldn’t remember experiencing for a long time, if ever. From that moment on my life would be centered around drugs and alcohol.
A fundamental truth of substance abuse is that it’s expensive. One day I found what I was looking for. A way to get money quickly. I remember the first time I saw someone steal from a car. It was my friend; I’ll call him Kev. The sun had just set. We were walking down the street sharing a bag of Skittles. Kev reached out his hand and started dragging one finger across the shiny side panels of a parked car. He reached the handle and that one finger turned into four. A slight pull and… CLICK. The door was open.
“Kev what the hell are you doing?”
“Nah bro, don’t worry. I do this all the time.”
He came out with $25 and a pair of sunglasses.
“Damn Kev. That’s bold, I’m gonna hang back.”
Five minutes later I changed my mind. It was now me performing the one finger dance piece I’ll call teenage invincibility. While we knew we could get caught we never thought we would; we barely even thought about it. That’s why it was easy to act as if we were invincible. We had no idea whether what we were doing was a misdemeanor or a felony. It’s important to note that because a minimum sentencing law or a “hard on crime” stance from politicians wouldn’t have stopped us. We were stupid teenagers; we were on drugs and we had no sense of personal accountability. What we did have though was enough money for an eighth of weed and some blunt wraps. I did not steal out of greed. I stole out of what felt like necessity and so did Kev.
Eventually, I was arrested. It was serious this time. I had many brushes with the police in the past but every time they let me off with a warning and a conversation with my parents. The police came into my house and searched my room. I remember them finding some weed and asking my mother, “Do you want us to charge him with this or destroy it?” The police could have charged me with possession of marijuana many times but never did. Several of my other affluent white friends also experienced the police letting them off with a warning and a stern talking to, whether it be for a small amount of weed or a fake ID at a concert. Getting arrested was unheard of in my area. The police saw my family members as their peers. They had the same color skin and spoke with the same accent. They not only understood that my parents were good people, they expected it. Every officer in my house that day could empathize with the pain they were experiencing. At that moment it wasn’t my family versus the police. It was a moment of deep sadness for everyone involved.
Based on the officer’s personal discretion I was released from jail that day. I could have been held there awaiting a bail hearing. A few days after getting out of jail I got high on Xanax. I was extremely depressed and unstable. I started threatening people (and myself) with a knife. The police came, arrested me and took me to a psychiatric facility, not jail. I didn’t avoid jail time that day strictly because of the color of my skin. However, it may have played a role in the bigger picture.
My mother had spent countless hours researching mental health programs and talking to other members of our community that knew about them. She knew to call the police and ask for me to be taken to a psych ward. She had the luxury to focus a massive amount of her time on helping me. She was able to do that because my parents didn’t each need to work 70 hours a week to pay the bills. My parents worked very hard to get where they are. I wouldn’t want to take away from their accomplishments, but they were given the opportunity and encouragement to educate themselves. My parents had a reasonable chance at upward mobility and the color of their skin was never a concern.
What changed? I wasn’t able to use drugs. I was stuck in a lockdown psychiatric facility a hundred miles from my home. The facility was far from ideal. It could have been operated to a much higher standard, but it was nothing like a prison. We didn’t have to worry about someone stealing our food at lunch. We didn’t have to worry about being viewed as weak. I never had to watch my back for fear of becoming an easy target. I never had to do something I didn’t want to do in order to survive. There was no street code. We weren’t treated as second class citizens, banished to confinement because we weren’t good enough for society. We weren’t living in a dehumanizing culture of fear and violence. The emotional vulnerability and authenticity that existed inside those walls nearly brings me to tears today. We wrote and shared poetry, we sang, we danced, we screamed, and we cried. We did all of it together. I stopped worrying about and pitying myself. I cared about the people to my right and left and they cared about me. I had never connected on such a deep level with others. I was able to admit defeat. I accepted the fact that I was powerless to drugs and alcohol and that I was unable to change by the force of my will alone. The ability to admit defeat was much greater than any success I had experienced. The weight of my life and the lives I wished I had lived were lifted off of my crushed bones and I could stand up straight. The meaning of life and the path to happiness were being broadcast directly into my eyes. I wanted to change my life. I wanted to be sober.
The courts had agreed to give me a pre-trial diversion which is essentially a second chance program. Instead of going to court, you must complete programs assigned to you by a case supervisor. For me, the diversion consisted of going to rehab, doing community service and writing apology letters to the people I had harmed. I spent about nine months in rehab. Every aspect of my life changed. When I was arrested, I was in a seemingly hopeless state of mind and spirit. I could not be further from that today. I finished high school and got my diploma. I applied to college and was accepted. This is a great example of our criminal justice system working. However, not everyone has the same experience I did.
I want to tell you another story, the story of my friend. We’ll call him James. He grew up in the now mostly gentrified projects of Alexandria, VA. I can’t share publicly the details of his life experience, but I know that it has more similarities to mine than differences. James is black. James has good parents, although they don’t make that much money. James is a good kid. He’s smart too, really smart. Growing up I never could have imagined that the differences in our skin color would dictate the direction of our lives. We ate the same kind of pizza for lunch, we played on the same capture the flag team at recess and we had the same teachers. Even though we looked different I called him my brother and he called me his.
When we were young, I was a much worse influence on James than he was on me. He was on the soccer team and hung out with good kids who didn’t get in trouble. He never skipped class and he did his homework on time. I got in fights in the lunchroom and hung out with the group eloquently named the “ghetto crew.”
In high school things changed for James. He started experimenting with drugs. I think his first experience getting high was much like mine. One day he was arrested with about two grams of weed. This didn’t happen to me. Every time I interacted with the police, which was many times, they were trying to figure out how to help me and my family. No one wanted to put me in jail. He spent a few days in jail, left with a criminal record and was given two years of probation. James had drug problems too. Except there were no private schools or fancy rehabs for him.
The experience that I had showed me there was another way to live, that my life mattered and that society cared about me. About two years later James was arrested for stealing something. I don’t remember exactly what it was. I know his crime was non-violent. He spent a few months in jail. He never went back to high school. He never went to rehab. Today James is nineteen years old, a high school dropout and sells weed to support himself and his 9-month-old daughter.
Growing up, the differences between me and James seemed negligible. We went to the same schools, we listened to the same music, our parents both love us more than life itself, school was easy for us, we had a hard time growing up and we both got into drugs. Looking back, the differences seem clear. I’m white. My parents make decent money. In that order. The police tried to help me, they put James in jail. He never got a pretrial diversion. The world showed me that I mattered. The world showed James that he didn’t. I had an expensive lawyer. He had a public defender. I was treated as a human being. He was treated as a criminal. The story of me and James perfectly illustrates how policing and the overarching criminal justice system in this country, even at its best, fails. Even in a wealthy neighborhood with very well trained and well-intentioned police officers this system doesn’t work for some of us.
I watched the full 8-minute video of George Floyd’s murder. It was disgusting and deeply troubling. The reaction I had wasn’t the reaction of a white man. It was simply the reaction of a human being watching four police officers, who took an oath to protect and serve, end the life of another human being meaninglessly. This is an extreme example of policing gone wrong. It was filmed. It is easy to condemn the officers involved, #blacklivesmatter and then go on about our days. James’s arrests weren’t filmed. Even if they were, no one would watch. His story was more complicated. He wasn’t the victim of a “bad apple.” James was the victim of our justice system, a victim of broken policing, a victim of American history and the deeply ingrained racism it possesses.
It pains me to say this, but James may well be a drain on society. It is likely he wind up back in jail. His daughter will also probably need to rely heavily on social programs. This didn’t have to be the outcome; it wasn’t for me. So, would it be better for society if a troubled young man like me had the ability to get help, get a job and pay taxes or would it be better for society for him to sit in an expensive jail cell? Would you rather see better funded schools or larger prisons? Should police be our answer to every social problem, or should we trust in local leaders to know what their communities need? Would you like to see a more humane version of law enforcement or would you like to see more military style vehicles, SWAT teams and riot gear? I think every man, woman and child that needs it should be afforded the same kind of support I was.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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