It’s never much of a surprise when I hear it, but it stings all the same. Freddie Gray would be alive today if only he hadn’t inexplicably sprinted down his West Baltimore street. As would Walter Scott, the African-American man who was shot in the back in South Carolina fleeing a white police officer who then made an unsuccessful attempt to frame Scott for provoking his own destruction.
If only Sandra Bland hadn’t been so rude and had put out her cigarette when asked, no matter her constitutionally protected rights to both. If only Samuel DuBose had not tried to pull his car away from a Cincinnati university officer who then proceeded to empty a shell into his skull.
The question persists: Why do they run? Why do they run? Why don’t they just cooperate with the police? This is America, after all: a country where one is presumed innocent until proved guilty.
I know why. I am a black man, and I have been arrested. I am also a husband and father of three, a lawyer, a former White House aide and now a candidate for Congress.
The police made a mistake, as humans inevitably do. It was a little more than a decade ago, when I was in my early 20s and well on my way toward a promising career. I was in a car with some friends and fellow law-school classmates when, as a thoughtless prank—the sort that tends to hang over from adolescence—one of them shouted an obscene comment at a woman on the street. That woman turned out to be an undercover police officer.
Let me state that what he did was wrong, and completely out of character; but, of course, I had no idea of his intended actions. Nor did I have control over them. We were all arrested, and in the end, the charges were dropped and the record of my arrest was eventually expunged.
I knew at the time, and I suppose I could have assured myself, that it was all a mistake and that the police would accept the truth of my innocence. But as difficult as it is for me to admit, when the police officer confronted me, I thought about running, too. I wasn’t having a bad day, I didn’t have an outstanding warrant and I knew I had done nothing wrong. But I also knew that arrest—not conviction, but a single arrest—could severely imperil my future right then and there. Suddenly, despite my success in life, I could see myself becoming yet another black man swallowed by our elaborate criminal-justice system—another statistic.
It is no secret that the way our society pursues alleged criminals and metes out punishment has long been a fiscal and humanitarian blunder. The facts are hard to ignore. Over the past three decades, mandatory-sentencing policies and aggressive police tactics have caused state spending on prisons to rise at twice the rate as spending on K-12 education. California has built 23 prisons since 1980. In the same period, the University of California system has opened just one new campus.
In my home state of Maryland, the governor has refused to release $68 million in funding for education allocated by the state Legislature, but saw fit to recently approve the construction of a new $30 million youth jail in Baltimore.
At a time when crime rates are the lowest they have been in decades, we continue to arrest and incarcerate at rates unparalleled in modern history. The collateral consequences of this policy misadventure are most severe in communities of color. Half of black males in the U.S. and 44 percent of Latino males are arrested at least once by the time they are 23.
One in every 3 black males born today can expect to go to prison (pdf) at some point in their lives, compared with 1 in every 6 Latino males and 1 in every 17 white males. This means that the darker your skin, the more likely it is that your arrest will result in jail time. We recently heard about the estimated 1.5 million black men who are “missing” from society as a result of death and incarceration.
The Equal Justice Initiative has often discussed the callousness that many Americans feel when we hear that someone has been arrested or convicted or is labeled a felon, and how we cease to see that person as a human being, deeming him or her unworthy of our compassion or forgiveness.
Does anyone think men of color living in America are blind to this reality? When the threat of violence and lifelong stigma looms so large, the impulse to retreat at the slightest suggestion of that threat is hardly mysterious. The reason I thought about running from the police was that I knew that even if I were able to avoid being charged, convinced to take a plea deal or convicted, I would still be confronted with the dim prospect of an arrest record. An arrest can appear on background checks when one applies for a job, credit or housing, not to mention the societal shame that often follows.
Although one could argue that this is true for anyone, the issue hits particularly hard in communities of color, which already face disproportionate rates of unemployment, poor housing and lack of available credit. What we’re talking about is the denial of a second chance to people who didn’t even use up their first one.
In my case, the charges were dropped, but now you can understand why I worked so hard to have the courts seal any record of my confrontation with the police. Unfortunately, for many, record expunging or sealing is costly and complicated and typically does not guarantee that the arrest won’t someday turn up on a background check.
You think I don’t frequently check Google to see if mine has leaked out?
Until now I have never disclosed any of this to anyone other than close friends and family. And I expect that some who know me (and many others who don’t) will see me differently after reading this piece. But I would ask them, when did I cease to be human? Am I not the son, husband, father of three, attorney and former White House aide I was before you knew this about me?
My sincere hope is that by lifting my voice, I will encourage others to do the same. The statistics tell us that there are many of us who have similar testimonies about what our nation’s heavy-handed approach to criminal justice is doing to communities of color and society at large.
Right now we find ourselves at a critical moment in history. We stand at the precipice of passing the most sweeping bipartisan criminal-justice reform legislation in a generation. But it won’t happen if this is seen as a problem for “them,” as opposed to all of us. Democracy is what got us into this mess, but I’m confident that democracy can help alleviate it and bring us markedly closer to our country’s highest ideals in the process.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Will Jawando is a former Obama White House aide and a candidate for Congress in Maryland’s 8th District.