The terror that any family member – especially a member of a Black family – endures when discovering their loved one has been captured by an unjust criminal legal system is horrifying. My turn came when I discovered that my baby brother – my beautiful, incredible, sweet, smart, loving, brilliant baby brother, Akinola Gonzalez – had been arrested on his campus at Hinds Community College where he is studying engineering in Raymond, Mississippi. I called my mother immediately. Her voice sounded so worried, at times so powerless, so frantic … so exhausted. Our worst nightmare, being forced to face our inability to protect him and keep him safe, was happening. Our illusion of successfully getting him to “safety” via a college campus rapidly dissipated.
He was arrested in the early evening. The officers told us they were backed up and had no idea when they would be able to process him. The charge, they said, was “failure to comply,” but they would offer no further details. After spending nearly 23 hours in jail, my brother was finally released after we were able to hire a bondsman – only after an obscene amount of runaround from the holding facility. We were told they “didn’t know where he was,” then told he was transported to court (where we had to find and hire an attorney at the last minute). We then found out he was transported not to a court but to a penal farm. On Raymond Penal Farm, the city of Raymond, Mississippi, is extracting forced labor from countless Black people, who are kept in holding cells for misdemeanors.
We were furious. We discovered later that my brother was strip-searched (twice), humiliated, transferred into a prison jumpsuit and told to sign a piece a paper from Raymond Penal Farm stating he would work off his bond at $50 per day until he could be released. His bond was $500.
The crime? Allegedly, “sagging.” Sagging, the wearing of one’s pants below the waistline oftentimes exposing one’s underwear, has been a hot source of debate for some time. Champions of “respectability politics” often seek to portray sagging as related to gang culture, crime, and irresponsible parenting. Some critics of the practice also use homophobic rhetoric to dissuade men and boys from sagging, circulating the myth that sagging is a way to signal an openness to sex between men in prison.
Although my brother claims he was not sagging, we are left baffled, wondering how an alleged dress code violation could possibly lead to an arrest. How does a young man, living on campus and paying tuition, find himself booked, strip-searched, incarcerated and sent to a penal farm because of how he chooses to wear his pants?
The Hinds County Jail was clearly holding my brother with no interest in processing or releasing him. When the clerks told me they couldn’t locate my brother, I panicked. All I could think of was Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her cell after being pulled over for a traffic stop, and Ralkina Jones, also found dead in her cell while in custody. I couldn’t breathe when I thought of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held in Rikers Island for over three years (including two years in solitary confinement) with no charges, after being accused of stealing a backpack. The charges against Browder were eventually dropped, but it was too late.
I couldn’t stop thinking of all the numerous Black and Brown (including immigrant and Native) bodies lost in the system – disappeared or dead. I frantically organized every single person I knew to help get my brother out. After partnering with Million Hoodies Movement to organize a petition and call-in campaign, my brother was finally located. He later told us that there were many others in holding who had arrived at least three days before him and who still hadn’t been booked. How many more are still there waiting or lost in the system?
When I see my brother now, I hug him fiercely for a long time. He seems fine, compartmentalizing the trauma since he still has to go to class and work. Yet he has shared with me everything that happened, and I am horrified by the details.
The day my brother was arrested, as he was finishing his dinner on his way to his dorm room, he says he was confronted by a campus police officer, Martin D. Wilson. As the officer approached my brother, his friend warned him “pull your pants up, cop is coming over.” The officer saw Akinola adjust his pants as he replied to his friend “they are up.” The officer then asked for my brother’s ID, which was clearly displayed around his neck. My brother asked, “Why?” The officer ignored him, requesting that he go to the campus police station to see Chief Lt. Christopher Heard.
Akinola says he complied and was escorted to the station while continuing to ask why he was being asked to surrender his ID. When the officer did not respond, he asked if he was under arrest. He was told “no.” The officers asked him to sit down and he replied that he preferred to stand. After a back-and-forth between the police and my brother – my brother continuously asking why he was being detained and asked to surrender his ID and the officers lecturing my brother on authority, respect and compliance – the conversation ended with Lt. Heard berating my brother, calling him “stupid” and using profanity. It was clear the lieutenant was upset because Akinola dared to inquire about his rights. Heard finally demanded that Akinola sit down. My brother complied. In the lieutenant’s next outrageous power play, he then demanded my brother stand up and stated that Akinola was now being arrested, with no explanation provided. As he was being arrested, my brother says Wilson and Heard told him he wouldn’t be able to get out of jail for days because he was “broke.” After my brother told the officers they were going to be reported to the dean, he says the officers smiled and said, “ain’t nobody going to do anything.”
In a matter of minutes, what started as a police intervention for a minor infraction quickly escalated into a verbal attack and arrest eerily reminiscent of the case of Sandra Bland. There were two key differences, though: The officers who arrested my brother were Black. And Akinola survived.
To many, what was done to my brother may seem out of balance with how “order” and “safety” should be upheld on a college campus. But according to the Philadelphia Student Union, this is an all too familiar reality for thousands of high school, middle school, elementary and even preschool students. Zero-tolerance policies, initially created as a part of the war on drugs and rooted in the “broken windows” theory for policing communities, were later applied to schools in the mid-1990s. And as we’ve seen the US prison population skyrocket, partly as a result of minor drug arrests, we have similarly seen the overuse of out-of-school suspensions for minor discipline code infractions that have ultimately led to hundreds of students a year falling into what is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Much like our draconian prison system, the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts Black students, affecting Black youth at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts. A recent report by the African American Policy Forum titled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” revealed that in New York City alone, Black girls were more than 10 times as likely to be involved in disciplinary cases than their white counterparts. Black boys were six times as likely. The statistics remain true for almost any major school district in the United States. In 2014, a 12-year-old Black girl in Hampton, Georgia, was facing criminal and expulsion charges for writing the word “hi” on a locker room wall. The penal farm where Akinola was incarcerated is just one manifestation of how Black youth are regularly funneled out of their schools and into confinement and servitude.
The following week after his incarceration, Akinola and I visited the penal farm where he had been detained. We learned that many of the mostly Black prisoners there are serving time for misdemeanors, such as failing to pay traffic tickets or are kept in a holding facility waiting for their court dates because they cannot pay bail. I visited the penal farm’s produce stand, where they sell fruits and vegetables harvested via exploited prison labor to local residents. One young man told me he had been incarcerated for three months for a misdemeanor and had no idea when he would be released. An overseeing officer asked him to tell me how much he loved his job assignment. He told me his truth – that he hated it and was miserable.
While we know that the 13th Amendment calls for the eradication of slavery, we also know there is a clause that allows for slavery via prisons: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The exploitation of labor in prisons should perhaps come as no surprise, but the predictability of this injustice makes it no less horrifying, with devastating impacts on Black communities. Of course, it is all the more devastating when it happens to your own baby brother.
The officers who arrested my brother never filed an affidavit, so what happens next is unclear. What we do know, however, is that my brother still faces criminal charges. We also know that he endured an incredible amount of harassment, verbal assault, and trauma during his interactions with the police on campus. We are very concerned with the level of unsafety my brother faced at the hands of the supposed protectors of “public safety,” and with the wanton power granted to the campus police.
We also know that my brother is not alone. At least four other Hinds Community College Raymond Campus students have come forward to say they too have been arrested for the same charges.
In a statement my brother issued to the media, he said:
My question to the campus, including the dean of students, Dean Tyrone Jackson is: If you make young black men feel this way (and I am not the only young black man treated this way), what kind of environment is that creating here on campus? I am simply walking from the cafeteria without having harmed anyone, and a couple of hours later, I am arrested, strip-searched, detained overnight, sent to a penal farm, degraded, and profiled. Again I ask – what kind of learning environment is that creating for students?
For most Black and Brown children in this country, their first experience with law enforcement is unfortunately in school. Public schools increasingly resemble prisons. Meanwhile, those schools are fending off attacks from privatization advocates and repressive state governments, who underfund education budgets. The only resources made readily available to these schools are more police. And as another school year begins, so does the process by which students, our babies, are broken into obeying absurd “rules” aimed at policing their self-expression, conforming them to notions of “respectability,” and above all else, reinforcing mandated obedience to “order.” The consequence for those who refuse, even by mistake, is an introduction to the juvenile “justice” system and ultimately, an unjust criminal legal system – a process almost impossible to reverse once it has begun.
My brother will survive this ordeal, however, as we continue to organize so that the police officers – and the school – are held accountable. We continue to fight so that not one more student is arrested. Ultimately, we continue to fight for Black bodies to exist free from the trauma of criminalization and we press toward a world where Black students thrive, learn and live without fear of arrest.
Hiram Rivera contributed to this article.
Copyright, Truthout. Reprinted with permission.