Young Black women touring San Quentin questioned a group of prisoners with tears in her eyes. “Aren’t you guys mad at what’s going on out there between the police and communities?”
I dropped my head in humiliation because I had no answer. I was speechless. I stood staring at the ground; I could feel the hurt and pain I’ve experienced at the hands of police officers.
Race in America is a difficult subject to write about because it is personal, painful and emotionally challenging, but recently I realized my need to grapple with the ways in which race and violence have affected my life and my country.
I began my criminal record at age 10 and, when I turned 15, while fleeing from a stolen car, I was chased down by a police dog and mauled until I was unconscious. I woke up cuffed in the back of a police car, bleeding, in excruciating pain, and unable to walk. This encounter formed my negative feelings toward police officers. My punishment was out of proportion to my offense.
The racial injustice in America is as old as it is repetitive. However, today, violence against minorities—especially by police—is often captured on video owing to the proliferation of mobile devices. In turn, media show this violence on endless loops for mass consumption.
Minorities, however, have never needed video evidence to understand what happens when we encounter the police. Historically, Blacks, Mexicans, and Asians to a lesser degree, have had disproportionately more contact with law enforcement than the rest of society.
The criminal justice system in America is overly punitive toward minorities and creates division which divides our nation and produces an “us-against-them” mentality.
So when the racial tensions surrounding policing in America are exposed in the media daily, many prisoners, including me, voice our opinions.
“The police were created to track runaway and freed slaves, so how can a Black man in America trust them?” asked one man on San Quentin’s prison yard. Another prisoner advocated for more violence against officers, but later changed his mind.
One thing everyone eventually agreed on is police officers need to stop shooting first and asking questions afterward.
I envisioned myself as one of those Black men lying dead on the streets, killed by the very people who were entrusted with our safety. I picture myself as Tamir Rice or Tyisha Miller. Many of us minorities fit the description of Andy Lopez, Paul O’Neal or one of the ever-growing lists of people who have been victimized by police.
But I see hope when I watch officers like Nakia Jones of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, and California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, who understand the problems of race and injustice in America. I applaud them for standing up and speaking openly about the complications of race relations in policing.
I think about those dedicated police officers who travel all the way to San Quentin from Los Angeles with a group of juveniles and introduce them to the men of the SQUIRES (San Quentin Utilization of Inmate Resources and Studies) program. These officers take time out of their lives to help divert children of all races from making bad decisions
I also reflect on the death of Dallas Police Sgt. Michael Smith, who dedicated his life to community programs to stop violence. How would I feel if he was my brother and I had to witness him shot dead on the streets of Dallas?
The names of people like Andy Garcia, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd and Philando Castile should be mentioned in the same sentence as peace officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Lorne Ahrens, and Michael Krol, because in the end, a victim is a victim and all of the lives stolen by violence are equal in value.
As long as some lives are held as more valuable than others there will be no end to the violence. Solutions to the disgusting plague of murder that infects our nation can only be found when every citizen, civilian and law enforcement officer holds all life as sacred.
As one prisoner said, “We cannot kill our way to a solution.”