The first time I met the organizer of the March for Justice she told me to shut up. She put it more politely, but that was the meaning all the same.
I was milling about in the lobby of the Beacon Light Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Hudson Valley in New York state half-asleep, chatting with marchers about what in the hell would bring them out on a cold, rainy early Sunday morning when I heard it.
“S” is protestor-speak for shut the fuck up.
One of the march’s drivers, Bill, who looks like he could be plucked out of a picture from the height of the upheavals of the 1960s, leaned over and whispered: “When Miss Soffiyah says ‘S’ it means be quiet.”
Soffiyah Elijah, the charismatic executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice who created the March of Justice, has an almost uncanny ability to tap into reserves of energy. She had already marched 80 miles from Harlem, with another 100 to go. She had been sleeping on cots and inflatable mattresses, with the occasional catnap in the rattling school bus or on tattered couches. But here she was taking command of the group of marchers and newcomers.
She ordered everyone into a circle. It was time for chi. Justice, Elijah insists, takes chi.
I am not what you would call a chi guy. But something about her exuberance and infectious smile and the almost military no-nonsense way she barked out orders about channeling energy from the universe won me over. Next thing I knew I was twisting back and forth and paying a visit to my toes and rubbing my shins.
Elijah, a former defense attorney for revolutionaries, conceived of the march as a way to use traditional civil rights tactics from the 1960s to draw attention to what she sees as a civil rights catastrophe happening every day behind New York’s prison walls and in the ubiquitous inequities that plague its criminal justice system.
I traveled 20 miles with Elijah. I watched her face obstacles as serious as prison administrators who tried to stop her march to as mundane as finding a place to wash clothes. She never stopped. When a park employee told her she couldn’t continue without a permit, she replied with a smile and without hesitation: “We aren’t turning back.”
The last time I saw her, Elijah was done marching for the day. She was in yet another church basement turning a rickety foldout table into an information booth surrounded by people. She was explaining, composed but with quiet passion, what is happening in the prisons while they sleep at night.
Bob, one of the other drivers for the march and a veteran of the social justice movement since the 1960s, offered to give me and my photographer a ride back to my car, which was a 10-mile backtrack to the south. We sat bumping along in a silence for a few minutes. Then I remember that earlier in the day, during the march, I saw Bob rocking out to reggae music while he crawled next to us in his Toyota FJ Cruiser. I mentioned to Bob that I saw him enjoying his tunes.
“You were really pumping out the jams today,” I say.
“What's that,” he says as he leans forward to hear me better.
“I said you were really pumping out the jams today!”
“Oh yeah,” he responds, making a face that he knows it.
He turns on the radio and Peter Tosh’s rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” comes on. He is beggin’ for his people to be set free.
"Who's there yonder dressed in white?
“Must be the children of the Israelites.
“Go tell it on the mountain,
“To set my people free."
It might be an Old Testament song but after two days of marching it has a contemporary resonance.
"Look at that, you got yourself a beautiful full moon tonight," Bob says as we turn down New Paltz Main Street, where a few hours earlier a 105-year-old white woman in a wheelchair held hands for a brief electric moment with an 82-year-old black woman marching and shouting civil rights era chants.
He's right. It is. It looms in the twilight sky like an omen. In the sideview mirrors Shawangunk Mountains, known around here as The Gunks, recedes into the distance, outlined by splashes of pastel pinks and oranges.
I don't know how much saving this world has left in it. I have never been much for the bright side of things. But it's all so god damn breathtakingly beautiful that it's almost tempting to think that Bob might be right.
Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.
If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.
Thanks for listening.
ALBANY, New York — At the midpoint of the 180-mile March for Justice, its organizer, Soffiyah Elijah, was overwhelmed. She was simultaneously trying to find the proper turn on a back road in a Hudson Valley town, coordinate with the caretaker of a 105-year-old woman who wanted to join the march and figure out where to find a laundromat that would stay open late.
She slumped in her seat on the repurposed school bus and wearily placed her face into her hands.
“I need a nap,” she said.
At that point Albany seemed more like 900 miles away than 90, but Wednesday Soffiyah Elijah wore footwear that wasn’t sneakers for the first time in 18 days. She pointed to her brown-and-tan strap sandals inside LaZeez, the Indian restaurant where she was planning the rally for later that evening and cracked a joke.
“It feels good to be in something other than sneakers,” she said, flashing a brilliant smile.
She had launched the March for Justice on Aug. 26 in Harlem in Manhattan. And after walking through numerous counties, towns, villages and cities, they had finally made it.
Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, conceived of the march as a way to employ traditional 20th-century civil rights tactics to draw attention to what she considers an urgent 21st-century civil rights catastrophe in New York: the abuse of prisoners in the state’s juvenile adult facilities and the broken criminal justice system that puts them there. The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on Earth. In New York, often heralded as a beacon of progressivism, 80 percent of its prison population is black or Hispanic.
Elijah’s organization is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. It fights for a number of issues — from voter registration to meaningful raise-the-age reforms, as well as supporting the families with loved ones behind bars.
New York’s prisons are almost exclusively upstate, away from New York City, often in bucolic surroundings near charming hamlets and villages. Elijah strategically selected a route that would take the march past as many prisons as possible en route to Albany, the heart of political power in the state.
At 5 p.m. the march culminated in a rally in West Capitol Park, in the center of vast, imposing state government buildings. Behind the stage was the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, its granite facade etched with the names of many of the counties the marchers crossed: Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster, Green.
Elijah opened the rally by launching into her favorite chant, one she recited dozens of times. It begins: “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family …” She did her trademark crouch and shimmy and then ran into the crowd like the front man of a rock band and kept leading the chant. She approached Miss Ivey, the oldest of the marchers who made it all the way from Harlem, and held her signature red megaphone to Miss Ivey’s mouth so she could lead the chant.
Across the lawn of the park sat the New York Capitol Building, on either side the monumental Legislative and state Educational buildings. The emcee, Alliance member Carol Harriott, kept the mood light as well, making jokes and moving the evening along with an upbeat, conversational tone. She teased Elijah at one point and had the crowd laughing.
Many of the 200 people who gathered for the rally wore T-shirts or held handmade posters advocating for the cause they think is in most need of reform. Some support ending solitary confinement for youth, others for improved reentry services.
Whatever the cause, all the attendees were in agreement with the march’s aim — to bring as much attention as possible to what they see as a civil rights catastrophe in New York’s criminal justice system. One recurring theme for speakers was the need to convert the energy created by the march into tangible policy successes.
Again and again, speakers encouraged attendees to reach out to politicians and policymakers at every level of government. As the sun set, in a theatrical gesture Elijah showed how she was going to tell Andrew, referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She raised her megaphone to her mouth and led a chant about bringing an end to the prison state. Her voice was rugged and raw after 18 days of chants, but it could be heard clearly as it bounced off the walls of the Capitol building.
Throughout the evening speakers talked about the list of demands. Chief among them was closing down the Attica Correctional Facility, which Elijah called New York’s Abu Ghraib. She had timed the march with the anniversary of what some call a riot and others call a rebellion and an uprising, when Attica prisoners took corrections officers hostage to draw attention to abuses happening inside the prison.
“If you consider yourself a person of conscience,” Elijah said. “Then you should never be able to rest at night until you’ve done everything in your power to help bring an end to the suffering going on in prisons and jails going on right in New York and across the country.”
Throughout the two-hour rally speakers came to tell their stories and give intimate, human examples of what they meant when they used the clunky phrase “prison industrial complex.”
Alicia Barraza, a veteran of the political battle to raise the age of treating juveniles as adults during the last state legislative session, recounted the story of her son, Ben Van Zandt. She talked about how as a result of a severe mental illness he committed a crime, arson, when he was 17. He was charged as an adult and placed in series of adult prisons where he endured beatings, rapes and frequent harassment due to his illness. Eventually, he ended up in Fishkill Correctional Facility. It’s a prison in Beacon, New York, where Elijah and her marchers had a confrontation with an administrator who accused them of riling up the inmates.
While he was in Fishkill, Baraza was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. Eventually, he killed himself. He was 21.
“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” Barraza said.
When she explained that her son committed suicide, the crowd gasped. She cautioned the crowd to be vigilant. Despite the Empire State passing a law to raise the age, district attorneys still have vast power to steer teenagers into the adult system.
“People should be paying attention,” she said.
Some marchers reunited for the first time since meeting on the road. Friends, associates and fellow activists chatted amiably between speakers. But after Barraza spoke, the mood took a jarring turn.
For most of the evening the mood had been light and jovial, despite the seriousness of the event. Harriott took back the microphone. For most of the evening she had been upbeat. She suddenly appeared shaken, overcome with sorrow.
She made a few halting attempts to encourage people to be active, her voice starting to crack.
“I’ve run out of words,” she said.
She stepped away from the microphone, slid her fingers beneath her glasses and wiped away tears. Elijah came up from the crowd, where she had been glad-handing and hugging well-wishers, to meet her. She hugged Harriot, who was now sobbing.
Other marchers noticed Harriot, who, like them, had made some part of the 180-mile journey from Harlem to the shadow of the statehouse in Albany. They took a few more steps to join in consoling her.
Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.
If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.
Thanks for listening.
After a 180-mile hike that began in Harlem in Manhattan on Aug. 26, the March for Justice arrived in Albany, New York, this morning.
They timed their arrival at the state capital with the anniversary of the notorious Attica Prison uprising, which ended after state troopers raided the complex. Ten corrections officers and 33 inmates were killed.
The March for Justice organizers are holding a press conference at 1 p.m. today and a rally this evening in front of the capital building. The march was organized to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hope, to bring about reforms.
Soffiyah Elijah, the march’s leader and chief organizer, is the founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice.
POUGHKEEPSIE, New York — When she was in the sixth grade, when she still wanted to be a pediatrician and not a lawyer for revolutionaries, Soffiyah Elijah entered her first integrated school in Hempstead, Long Island. She remembers that in response to integration the administration of the school then segregated the classrooms. So she spent her first day in an integrated school among all black students.
That didn’t last long.
That afternoon after school was dismissed she went home and told her parents.
“My mother marched up to the school the next day,” Elijah recollected. “And she moved her little girl over to the other class. It was like either my daughter will be in this other class or you’ll wish she was. My mother was a no-nonsense mom.”
When asked if she feels some of her mother’s sense of justice helped shaped the woman she has become, she bursts out into laughter.
“I think a lot of her rubbed off on me,” she said. “And my dad was a no-nonsense dad.”
Elijah was looking to explain what inspired her to organize and lead the March for Justice. In order to do that, she reached back to her childhood. She needed to explain the ubiquitous system of segregation that touched her life starting as a toddler.
Major events of her childhood
It wasn’t just her professional life as a lawyer or her work leading the Correctional Association of New York, but a lifetime of exposure to rampant segregation that shaped the 62-year-old to organize a 21st-century civil rights march in the state often considered one of the most progressive in the union. That’s a misconception she hopes to dispel by the time she reaches Albany, New York, at the end of her 180-mile March for Justice.
“The assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassination of Malcolm X, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Cointelpro program, the brutality of the civil rights workers that they went through,” Elijah said, listing the historical forces that shaped her youth. “That’s a lot, right, to shape someone’s formative years. I watched the political assassination of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., I grew up when black people were never depicted on television in a positive light. So, it’s rooted in my DNA.”
By the time Elijah had reached sixth grade she had already become inured to the ubiquitous racism that defined her neighborhood. She grew up on the border of Hempstead and Garden City. Garden City was all white back then, but Hempstead was segregated between black and white residents. Her house was near the border of Garden City. So she and her black playmates grew up knowing a lesson that wasn’t taught at any school.
“So I knew,” she said “As black kids growing up there we all knew. ‘Do not ride your bicycle past this block.’”
As a black child in Long Island, segregation was as much a part of her life as someone in the deep South. Elijah grew up hearing her parents tell the story of moving day. Her neighbors were white. Someone had painted “Go Home NIGGER” on the picket fence.
“Now I was too young to see that or to understand it because I was only 2, but my parents, as I got older I would hear them talking about that,” she said. “So, I didn’t have to wait until I got to the sixth grade.”
When her parents took her on trips to Delaware to visit her godmother or farther south into Maryland to visit relatives, Elijah became accustomed to a routine: Her parents would always pack food and a portable toilet. She learned on those trips that because she and her parents were black that they couldn’t use any public accommodations.
“That was just the norm,” she said flatly. “You packed your food; you packed your port-a-potty, and that’s how you traveled. And so I learned that well before I got to sixth grade. The idea of stopping at a rest stop on the road to D.C. to go in and use the bathroom and buy something to eat — I didn’t learn that until I was an adult.”
First step to fix justice system
As the founder and executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, Elijah now works with many families with loved ones behind bars. But in 2001 she had her own close call. Elijah’s son was arrested by the Boston Transit Police for a graffiti charge. She attended the court hearing in Boston, but did not reveal she was a criminal defense lawyer who had once taught at Harvard. Her son’s defense lawyer came up to Elijah and told her to relax.
“‘Mom, you don’t have to worry, we’re going to get him six months probation,’” Elijah remembers her saying. “I said, ‘Oh no, you’re not. You’ve got yourself the wrong little black boy.’ And I gave her my card. And I said, ‘Now you fix it or I will.’”
The head of the gang violence unit of the Boston police came into court and swore out an affidavit that she witnessed him doing graffiti at a train station, Elijah said. The headmaster and the dean of her son’s private school went to court and swore out an affidavit that he was in school.
“I’m sure the only reason he didn’t go on the adult track is because he had a criminal defense lawyer as a mother,” she said. “It was like, ‘You are not going to screw up my son.’ If it weren’t for that, I’m sure his life would have been very different.”
She said there is no fixing the criminal justice system without first repairing a broken juvenile justice system.
“I don’t think you can fix mass incarceration unless you address the juvenile justice system,” Elijah said. “And you can’t address the juvenile justice system without addressing the education system. They are feeder systems.”
She had just taken a quick cat nap on a beat-up sofa in the lobby of one of the many churches that offered her marchers shelter. She was on the eve of reaching the halfway point between the beginning of the march in Harlem to the terminus in Albany.
She remained steadfast in her belief that this civil rights movement for the 21st century she is trying to jumpstart is essential in influencing a generation of young people to make as big a difference as the activists of the 1960s did to transform the country.
“This is part of how we can touch the next generation. This why I am doing this,” she said. “Lord knows, I could be doing something else at 62 years old besides going down the block in some strange neighborhood with a megaphone, OK? But it’s like a moving classroom. It’s like an interactive moving classroom for young people. And that’s really important. There’s no university they can go to on this planet where they can go to that can teach them this.”
Hello. We have a small favor to ask. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. You can see why we need to ask for your help. Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.
If everyone who reads our reporting helps to pay for it, our future would be much more secure. Every bit helps.
Thanks for listening.
“Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”
NEW YORK — The civil rights marchers had gone about a mile and change into Wappinger Falls, a quaint village in Dutchess County, New York, when it was time for a bathroom break.
“Sometimes,” one of the marchers joked, “you need to take a bathroom break for justice.”
The three-vehicle caravan of a ramshackle school bus, a 12-foot Penske moving truck and a Toyota FJ Cruiser that had followed the marchers from Harlem all pulled to a stop at the curb.
The marchers had been walking for about an hour on a bleak and unseasonably cold and rainy September morning without incident when they decided to stop at a coffee shop along Main Street. A handful had been on foot from the starting point in Harlem on an 180-mile walk to Albany, New York, in an attempt to draw attention to the abuses in state prisons and, they hoped, bring about some reforms. Others had just joined the group a few hours ago.
A few of the marchers, a mix of white and black, young and old, gay, trans and straight, went inside the coffee shop to grab a hot drink to warm up They were a bedraggled bunch. Many had slept the night before on cots and inflatable mattresses in the sanctuary of a nearby church. So the warm, dry Ground Hog coffee shop was a welcome relief.
Stepping into the shop felt like stepping back in time to Mayberry or some other small-town idyll, aside from the cleverly named espresso drinks on the chalkboard like dirty chai latte or coconut moka. The chessboard-tiled floors, wooden tables and framed black-and-white photographs all had the feel of a timeless bit of Americana.
The customers, all of them white, lifted their heads up from breakfasts of French toast and omelets to observe the wet group of marchers ambling past, wearing a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky on the back of their T-shirts. It read: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
As the marchers lined up, the opening piano riff of Lynard Skynard’s “Free Bird” came over the speakers. The man taking orders came out from behind the slatted wood counter and approached a 30-year-old black woman, one of the march’s organizers.
“You all need to leave,” he said. “You all need to get out. Now.”
“Why is that?” Lilly Oseitutu replied in a lilting London accent.
“We’re busy and can’t have you blocking up our establishment,” he snapped back.
The two squared off in the middle of the cramped dining room. Ronnie Van Zant sang, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”
“I don’t understand,” she replied making a deliberate effort to remain calm. “We’re paying customers. Why would we have to leave?”
The counter man was in no mood for an argument and shook his head.
“I want you back outside now,” he said.
“We’re not leaving,” she replied.
The man held his ground for a few beats, then shook his head in disgust and returned to his station behind the counter.
The woman went to the bathroom and left the shop a few minutes later.
“You’re damn right I’m not leaving, I’m a paying customer. What does he think this is?” she asked no one in particular. The patrons watched as the door shut behind her and “Free Bird” reached its rousing final chorus.
“Lord knows, I can’t change, Lord help me, I can’t change ...”
The march’s origins
When Soffiyah Elijah, the march’s leader and chief organizer, hears about the incident inside the coffee shop she is not surprised.
“Remember when I told you we were heading Up South,” she said. “This is Up
Elijah lifts her red megaphone to her mouth and leads the group in a new chant. They have a long way to go yet.
The nonprofit organization she founded and is executive director of, Alliance of Families for Justice, came up with the march. Here is an incomplete list of some of the abuses behind prison walls she is hoping to end. She has them printed on a pamphlet with a pair of black hands in handcuffs on one side and a white hand clutching a billy club on the other: Waterboarding. Mangled ears. Plastic bags held over prisoners’ faces. Teeth kicked out. Prisoners shackled and thrown down flights of stairs. Years spent in solitary confinement.
When the nation saw students punched and kicked for trying to integrate lunch counters, or marchers going from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Alabama, hit with billy clubs and tear gassed, it was outraged. That led to two signature pieces of civil rights legislation.
But, Elijah said, New Yorkers remain indifferent to the savagery in the state prisons that line the march’s route to Albany. That’s why she self-consciously borrowed from an effective civil rights tactic from the 1950s and 1960s. She wants to get people to see that the injustices plaguing the modern criminal justice system have parallels to the past. She sees a profound disconnect between how people lionize the work done in the civil rights movement but remain oblivious to the need for one in present.
It’s a paradox that frustrates Elijah and many who have dedicated themselves to the work of making reforms to the state’s criminal justice system — from the juvenile justice system to adult prisons. She, like many activists and advocates for juvenile justice reform and ending abuses behind prison walls, gets frustrated that the public does not see this as an urgent civil rights catastrophe going in New York state. It’s a partisan issue at best that gets bogged down in predictable policy debates in Albany.
All the while, people like Elijah, the alliance board and its members, made up mostly of volunteers who have seen firsthand what happens behind bars in New York state or who have family there now, watch as children and adults, a staggering number of them black and brown, get beaten out of sight in one of the prisons nestled deep in the bucolic woods and farms of the Hudson Valley.
She thinks the 21st century is in as desperate need for a civil rights movement as the 20th century was, and that the work started then is not done. It’s something she learned working as a defense attorney for decades.
“I started to grasp what my client’s families were going through,” she said. “Particularly mothers and spouses, mothers and partners, fathers and what they were going through. And the agony that they experienced having someone incarcerated. And they would suffer in silence, there was nowhere for them to go, there was no organization, there was nothing. They wouldn’t tell their pastor, they wouldn’t tell their fellow parishioners, frequently they wouldn’t tell other relatives. They would say, ‘Oh Johnny went down South to visit his relatives,’ but like I said, Up South.”
Elijah first stepped into a New York prison because she was in love. She was 17 and her boyfriend was in Auburn Correctional Facility. He was a few years older and was in for a drug charge. His older siblings had already died of heroin overdoses. Elijah was a freshman at Cornell University, an elite private school about 30 miles from the prison. She scheduled her classes so she would have Thursdays free.
“He was someone that I knew that I cared about,” she said. “So I went.”
On her class-free days she would go to the Greyhound station, take the bus to Auburn and visit him.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” Elijah said. “My parents went to their grave never knowing.”
Although she didn’t know it at the time, she said, those visits to the prisons were making a mark on a teenage girl that would shape the lawyer, prison reformer and civil rights advocate she would become.
“What struck me was that everybody in the visiting room being visited looked like me, and all the guards looked like you,” she said, motioning to a white man. “And that was really stark to me, really stark.”
Elijah explained the origins of her brainchild, the March for Justice, sitting on a beat-up metal chair at a rickety foldout table in the lobby of the Unitarian Universalist church in Poughkeepsie, New York. Just down the hall in the sanctuary is where she would be spending the night with the rest of the marchers.
“The other thing that was stark to me was that I saw so many people from my neighborhood in that prison who I had thought had gone down South to visit relatives. I didn’t know they had gone Up South.”
Elijah’s Alliance of Families for Justice is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. She conceived of the March for Justice, a 180-mile walk from Harlem’s National Black Theater to Albany’s Capitol Building, as a way to be more aggressive in getting out the message of prison abuse.
She witnessed those abuses first-hand while she was the executive director of the Correctional Association, from 2011 until last year. It is the only private organization in the state with the legal authority to access prisons. The legislature granted it the authority in 1846 to inspect prison conditions and report back to the public.
But Elijah felt the association wasn’t doing enough for families, so she founded the Alliance to support incarcerated people and people with criminal records, and their families. Its purpose is also to mobilize people to put pressure on the political system to make sweeping institutional change. That was part of the inspiration for the March for Justice.
“When you are trying to move people you have to deal with their hearts and minds, and you can’t do hearts and minds on the phone,” she said. “You have to literally bring it to their living rooms, or at least to their neighborhood — the March for Justice brings it to people’s neighborhood, it brings it to their churches, their houses of worship.”
Justice, but first forms and stretches
It’s not even 9 a.m. on Sunday morning and Lilly Oseitutu in her second church. She describes herself as the “co-logistical coordinator of the whole damn thing.” She walks around the lobby with three clipboards with forms for new arrivals looking to join the march. One is for an emergency contact in case anything happens on the way.
After all the new arrivals fill out their forms they head into a wide hallway of the Beacon Light Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church. Oseitutu takes a head count — 15 will march today — and turns the crowd over to Elijah. Outside it’s gray and overcast with a cold steady drizzle. Elijah speaks the letter “S.” Bill, who wears a long scraggly beard and camouflage and seems like a veteran of the civil rights battles of the 1960s, leans toward a newcomer and whispers, “When Miss Elijah says ‘S’ it means be quiet.”
Elijah turns to the group and flashes a broad, warm smile.
“Welcome to the March for Justice,” she said. “We’re scheduled to do 14 miles in the rain!
“I’m going to start with the importance of following leadership. Oseitutu and I call all the shots. When in doubt,” and then she paused and corrected herself. “I’m not even going to say the word doubt. Just ask us. If anything comes up — ask. If we say get off the road and on the bus, you will get off the road and onto the bus.
“We have a long road ahead of us. There will be times when you can’t be heard and we’ll say reserve your voices and just march. And when we say that, just march.”
After she laid out the importance of leadership, it was time for chi. Every morning Elijah leads the marchers in a series of stretches designed to get people’s chi going. She jokes that you can’t get justice without the chi. After series of twists, toe grabs and leg stretches it’s time to hit the road.
“This is a good time for a bathroom break because we don’t know where the next bathroom will be. So now is the time!”
Bathrooms, snacks, potential allergies volunteer marchers might have, roads with shoulders, alerting police departments, routes, alternative routes, places that will have outlets to charge phones, accommodations, sleeping arrangements, laundry — when you spend a few days on the March for Justice you get a sense of how much of the work is dedicated to a dizzying array of minutiae, tasks and navigating around unexpected obstacles that pop up, both major and minor.
Everyone climbs on the bus. Elijah is riding in another of the caravan vehicles. But she gives some final words of wisdom from the doorway.
“Our goal is to be what?” she asks the passengers. They look back blankly. Elijah nods. “To be safe!” She flashes a mischievous grin. “If you get a little anxious, sing ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round’!”
Bill turns the key, the bus makes a loud wrenching noise and rumbles to life, headed to the next spot where the organizers have found a safe marching route.
Banners hang from each side of the bus covering the windows. On them are pictures of some of the incarcerated people and their families they are marching to help. The feeble light creates a gloomy atmosphere, but it doesn’t affect the marchers. The mood on the bus is upbeat. A few women are trying to retrace yesterday’s route on a map.
Another clutch of newcomers are engaged in lively chat, the kind of conversation you expect out of strangers who just met in a church lobby at 8 in the morning. Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group who has been with the group since they left Harlem on Aug. 26, is napping. Her son has been in a New York state prison for two decades. She calls him daily to keep him updated on their progress.
Bill pulls the bus into a Valero gas station in Wappinger Falls about nine miles outside Poughkeepsie. Kevin Barron, the media coordinator, stand up and shouts: “OK, everybody off!”
The marchers gather gear. The banner carriers work out the best way to hold them so they can be seen by passers-by. Elijah makes sure everyone has a poncho as the rain continues to steadily fall.
“Hey, does anyone want a megaphone,” one marcher shouted to the crowd. “I have two,” she said, raising the bright red amplifiers in the air.
They’re on the move.
Elijah lifts a megaphone to her mouth and shouts the first of dozens of call-and-response chants she will lead that day:
“One, two, three, four! Tell me what we’re marching for,” she says, almost singing the words. “Five, six, seven, eight! An end to the prison state!”
A car zooms by honks and waves. Elijah doesn’t miss a beat as she smiles and waves back.
Hot soup and a new home for the night
After Oseitutu’s showdown at the coffee shop, the rest of the march goes without incident. A few people roll their windows low enough to voice their displeasure. But most of their reception is positive, with people scooching their windows down to wave. The afternoon turns into a torrent and Elijah decides to drive the remainder of the day’s route. Everyone piles back in and Bill delivers them to a Unitarian Universalist church.
Everyone forms a bucket brigade and helps haul in all the supplies from the Penske truck. Once everything is inside the church, people settle in for lunch. A pile of brown bags sits on one table, and two pots of steaming soup sit on another. Volunteers made homemade chicken noodle soup and veggie and bean wraps. Stickers are on the foldout tables with bold black lettering that read: #Feed the Resistance.
Elijah calls out “S” and the room falls silent. She tells everyone what’s on the menu.
“The lunch is vegan, the cookies are not,” and then she starts singing it, as she would a march chant.
During lunch many of the participants talk about what brought them out to join the March for Justice and walk in a cold, dreary rain. Chaia Lehrer, a member of Mid-Hudson Jews for Racial Justice, explains it with a picture she recently took.
“It’s totally off the road, it’s way back behind the woods,” she said, almost with an air of paranoia. “That’s how they do it. They hide it back in the country so no one can see it — so no one knows.”
Lehrer pulls out her phone and pulls up a photo. It is a picture of a sign. Highland Residential Center Office of Children and Family Services. It’s a juvenile center that was at the heart of a 2010 lawsuit for numerous abuses.
She pulls up another. This one is a picture of a nondescript building behind a fence ringed with barbed wire.
“Who knows what’s going on in there,” she says in a whisper.
Lehrer explains that her main frustration is that the children in the facility have no connection to the community in the surrounding area, and the community has no connection to the children. There is no incentive, she said, for anyone in the community to care about what is happening to the children imprisoned behind the gates.
“There are no kids from around here in there,” she says with a dismissive wave. “These are all kids from the city. The community has no connection to what is going on in the facility. Their parents are too far away to know. It’s a very bad situation.”
She pointed to the members of the march scattered around the sanctuary.
“This is the civil rights movement,” Lehrer said. “This is just the next phase of the civil rights movement. This is how civil rights abuses happen now. Locking people up, putting them under supervision. Making a whole new class of people with no rights.”
Jake Salt agrees that the March for Justice is at the heart of a burgeoning civil rights movement.
Salt, 31, said he first realized that the criminal justice system was broken when he got arrested for a prank gone wrong when he was a teenager, in the early 2000s. Salt and two friends were in the Youth Detention Center in Passaic, New Jersey. Salt, who is white, was in a holding cell awaiting an appearance when another teenager, who was black, approached him. Salt remember the black teenager yelling at him that he and his two white friends were going to be out of here and that everyone else in the cell would be stuck in jail.
“He was right,” Salt said, talking in the Unitarian church’s sanctuary after lunch. “The three white kids went home. All the black and brown kids stayed in jail.”
Growing up white and middle class insulated him from the pipeline that eventually funnels many black and Hispanic children into the adult prison system, he said.
“I was able to go through a year of probation and live my life and not be exposed to recidivism,” Salt said.
The experience forever changed his worldview. Salt, who now runs the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, dedicated his life to activism because of that day in the court. He said it was important for him to come out and show solidarity with the March for Justice because so many LGBTQ, especially youth of color, are vulnerable to the juvenile justice system.
“Sure, I’m in this Universalist Unitarian church sitting being able to feel great about being able to go and march and make a difference, and that’s fine,” he said. “But there’s a lot of people out there who could be doing the same thing but they didn’t have the chance because the way they looked sent them down a different path.”
After the volunteer marchers who just signed up for the day leave and only the hard-core marchers remain, Elijah places a computer on one of the lunch tables and plays a video from the day before. It shows the march going past the Fishkill Correctional Facility. An administrator comes out and tells them to leave. They refuse. Oseitutu and the administrator get into a heated argument. As they go back and forth, corrections vehicles race past in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate them.
Miss Ivey, the oldest member of the group at 82, has a son serving time there. He is 55 and has been inside for two decades. She talked to him on the phone later on. He told her he couldn’t hear them. She counseled him not to mention it to the other inmates. She was worried that the word would get out and her son would face retribution from the corrections officers.
Day 9: Next stop, New Paltz
The next morning is the same as the one before. More forms, a head count, more channeling the chi. Elijah warns the new marchers to be polite and not get into any skirmishes with anyone who might disagree with their message along the route.
She points to Miss Ivey. “Miss Ivey is here to make sure there is no counter-revolutionary activity,” she tells them, smiling. “If anyone gets out of line she is here to straighten them out.”
During breakfast, a heated argument breaks out among a few marchers about the best way to persuade people to their cause. One argues for direct action and confrontation, the other for persuasion. They agree to disagree.
Everyone is ready to go by 9 a.m. They file out with Elijah at the front. As the marchers make their way up the church driveway and down a narrow sidewalk a few step on someone’s lawn. Elijah cautions them to be careful.
“We don’t want to disrespect anybody’s property,” she tells them. “So please go single file.”
They are headed for Hudson Valley Rail Trail. After conferring with Oseitutu and Barron, Elijah decides that since it’s Labor Day they will be able to reach a lot of people with their message. She is concerned because this will be the first time the caravan won’t be by their side. The trail doesn’t allow cars. But, it's a warm and sunny day, and she expects there to be a lot of people out.
While they are walking along Hooker Avenue, a white man in another pickup truck slows down and honks to get the marchers’ attention. Then he stuck his hand out the window and gave them the middle finger.
“We’re getting mixed responses,” Oseitutu said. “Very mixed responses.”
It is a sign of things to come.
First the march enters downtown Poughkeepsie, where Oseitutu said she has encountered more resistance to the message since they left Harlem. She has been darting back and forth across the street handing out fliers. She goes into businesses like a barber shop and Dunkin’ Donuts and makes her pitch.
Oseitutu tries to give a flier to a woman but she refuses.
“Black people kidnapped my kids,” she shouts. “You got to stop doing what you’re doing!”
“It’s to be expected,” Oseitutu says as she hustles across the street to hand another passerby a flier. “The further we head upstate we go, the more we are going to be encountering people who are resistant to our message. But I have really been feeling it today.”
When Oseitutu recounts the encounter with the woman to Elijah, she flashes a sardonic smile.
“Black people kidnapped her kids,” Elijah said sarcastically. “White people kidnapped my family. Did you say that?” she asked Oseitutu.
“No,” she replied. “I should’ve said that.”
“Listen,” Elijah said. “We don’t want to have a lecture about kidnapping.”
Taking the scenic route for justice
It doesn’t take long along the Rail Trail, a pedestrian trail that has a bridge that spans the Hudson River offering a stunning view, when they encounter their first obstacle. After a bathroom break at the port-a-potties and guzzling some water in the shade, they make their way to the bridge but are stopped by a Parks Department worker driving a golf cart.
“Who’s got the permit, you can’t march without a permit,” she says with finality.
After some initial confusion, Elijah approached the parks employee.
“I called the police station in the area and alerted them that we were coming and that we would be coming through.”
The employee starts shaking her head before Elijah can finish her sentence.
“There’s going to be no marching today,” she said. “Not without a permit.”
“Well,” Elijah said with a weary smile. “I’ve been marching all the way from Harlem. I’m not turning back.”
The two women stare at each other. After a few beats, the mechanical, officious bureaucratic demeanor of the parks employee melts away and her off-the-clock personality comes through.
“All right, listen,” she said. “You all go ahead and march. Just try to keep it to one side and watch out for the bikes.”
Can we chant, one of the marchers chimes in. The question hangs in the air for what seems like an eternity. For a second it seems like the hard-won victory may be derailed. The emotions that play across Elijah’s face make it evident this was a rookie question. Seasoned protesters know you never ask for permission.
The parks employee takes a deep breath, sighs, drops her chin to her chest and nods.
“Go ahead, chant,” she said. And then she leans forward and whispers to Elijah: “Keep up the good work!”
Crossing the Hudson
The small victory rallies the marchers, and they need it. They have logged about 5 miles under a bright sun and seem tired. All except Elijah. On the March for Justice she is equal parts drum major, singer, coach and CEO. At the front of the march she appears to fall into a reverie, slowly nodding her head and moving like a dancer, crouching with athletic ease.
Elijah gets the marchers organized and has them shouting another chant. She waves and beams a huge smile to visitors on their Labor Day strolls who gawk at the marchers navigating the crowds. Meanwhile Oseitutu and Ray Ray are sprinting up to people, handing out fliers to anyone who will take them.
Ray Ray, 42, a black activist from Poughkeepsie, approaches a white man along the trail and tries to hand him a flyer. He refuses. “Ninety-five percent of all the people in there deserve to be in there,” he said. “They’re all killers.”
Ray Ray politely disagrees and points to some of the facts on the flier. She then points out the Alliance for Families for Justice website, which has information and data on New York state prisoners. He does not show any interest.
Ray Ray tries another tactic.
“If you think that people who are killers or hurt other people should be put in prison, you should be marching with us. That’s what we’re fighting against. These prisoners are getting beaten and tortured and sometimes killed.”
The man does not agree. Ray Ray thanks him for his time, joins the chant and jogs to catch up with the march.
Another white man shouts at Oseitutu: “Can you please keep moving? We’re trying to enjoy our Labor Day.”
Oseitutu responds politely but forcefully.
“Actually, we have as much right to be here as you do,” she said. “So sit there and listen.”
Jayme Schultz, 38, who is white, had not planned on marching. She was out on a leisurely walk with her son on her shoulders when she noticed Oseitutu enthusiastically handing out fliers to passers-by. She changed her route and joined in the march from the rear. After a few paces she started joining in the chants.
“I saw them and it seemed like the right thing to do,” she said.
Schultz talked about a friend who was teaching behind the walls of a local prison. The administration would constantly sabotage her efforts to do her job, the friend said.
“She came out of that experience completely changed,” she said. “She saw lots of abuses and the corrections officers treating the prisoners so badly, calling them racial insults. She said they were treated so poorly.”
Schultz said she had no doubt that the abuses in prisons and the racial inequities in New York’s criminal justice system represent a civil rights crisis.
“Absolutely,” she said. “That’s why it’s such a good thing these marchers are out here. You need to make people feel uncomfortable. They live their comfortable lives and they aren’t touched by any of the horrors that are going. You need to make them feel uncomfortable. You need to put it right in their faces where they live, where they go for their Labor Day walks.”
When she got across the bridge she stopped. She had a long walk ahead of her to get back home and needed to get her son lunch. Arthur, still on his mother’s neck, craned his neck to watch the marchers head off into the distance.
“I want to go,” he said in a disappointed voice.
“I know you don’t want to stop, you want to keep going,” Schultz said in a reassuring tone. “It’s OK, buddy, we’ll be able to join up again some other time!”
Not a safe route
After they cross the bridge and head farther north on the trail, the crowds diminish. They are now walking through towering woods that occasionally create a canopy with dappled light on the path. Elijah announces there won’t be any more chants until they reach a more dense area.
“I want you to conserve your energy,” she tells them.
The marchers slow their pace and chat among themselves, recalling some of the encounters they’ve had along the way.
There are exercise stations set up along the trail. One of them has a sign mounted that reads: Hamstring Stretch. Ray Ray sees it and gets excited.
“Oh man, hamstring stretch, I need that,” she said.
She jogs over and slings her leg up one of the bars and starts leaning in. She groans as she stretches.
“All right,” she said, limbered up. “Time to go.”
About a mile or so later, they reach Tony Williams Park, where another volunteer has lunch waiting. Two big trays of peanut noodles, one with chicken, another strictly vegetarian, and an economy-sized bag of ginger snaps for dessert. There’s a sense of camaraderie among the group. Even though many of them met in a strange church about seven hours earlier, they are laughing, hugging and sharing intimate conversation.
After lunch, Elijah, Oseitutu and Barron spread a map out on one of the picnic tables and assess the next move to New Paltz. The only road to New Paltz from the park has no shoulder. Elijah decides it’s too dangerous and tells Bill to get the bus ready.
Elijah explains to everyone that they need to drive the next few miles. They look visibly disappointed. They relish hitting the pavement. But Elijah is insistent.
“It’s just not a safe route,” she said.
New Paltz is where Elijah is scheduled to meet a 105-year-old named Journey Truth.
She wants to join the march.
The road to New Paltz
The mood turns at New Paltz. More people join the marchers as they make their way through downtown. At the head of the march is Elijah, trotting backwards, shouting one of her favorite chants:
“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family, a diverse family, a mighty, mighty family, headed to Albany, fighting for justice …”
Right behind her, singing along, are Miss Ivey and Journey Truth, a local, a former artist and activist who insisted on joining the march. She is being pushed in her wheelchair. Miss Ivey stands next to her, clutching her walker. The crowd is as big as it has been in days and the sidewalks are narrow.
The road is steep and they have to be careful. Miss Ivey and Journey Truth are determined. They find each other in the scrum of the march and reach out for each other. They clasp hands for a brief moment and look at each other while they sing.
Truth can’t make it to the end of the march. She is wheeled back to her car, where a marcher and her caretaker gently guide her into the passenger seat of a car.
“She’s 105 years old; she’s seen everything,” said Amy Trompetter, one of the many friends of Truth’s who care for her. But, she added, Truth is horrified by what the prisoners in New York endure. “She is going to leave the planet soon. She knows this. But she’s determined in helping to lead the struggle.”
The gloom that had settled on the group after the run-ins in Poughkeepsie has lifted as they make their way through historic New Paltz. As they approach the Reformed Church of New Paltz, they can see a huge crowd waiting for them. The crowd is jubilant, cheering them as they make their way into the driveway. The front lawn is covered with picnic tables that have spread out on them farm corn, casseroles, potato salad, burgers, hot dogs and a variety of homemade treats.
A celebratory feeling is in the air. Miss Ivey gets a burger and a hot dog, a little squirt of ketchup and mustard on each. Miss Ivey lives in the East New York neighborhood in Brooklyn, but was born in Selma and moved to the Florida Panhandle town of Pensacola when she was still a toddler. She still spent many of her summers in Alabama growing up, and said her time there had had a big influence on her.
“Now, when we were in the South, white people were the ones who taught their children there was a difference between black and white,” she said, munching on her burger. “Preaching hate at the dinner table. Black people didn’t do that. They just told us to be careful. They just told us what to be careful of. They never taught us to hate.”
She recently went back to Alabama to visit Edmund Pettus Bridge with seven of her grandchildren. But she said, civil rights isn’t a chapter to be relegated to a stale history book. There is no doubt in her mind that the March for Justice is part of a movement.
“It’s civil rights, it’s human rights, it’s the whole nine yards,” she said. “The brutality shown to the inmates. There’s no reason for a human being to be treated that way, to be dehumanized. What we’re marching for is unfinished business from the old days.”
A huge gust of wind blows through, knocking over some cups and causing a minor commotion.
“The wind is telling us,” Miss Ivey said. “We got to get moving.”
Bill helps escort Miss Ivey down the stairs to the basement. Elijah, Oseitutu and Kevin Barron are already there, converting a foldout table into a makeshift information booth. They stack their literature in neat piles and arrange their merchandise. After they’re done, they sit and relax for a moment.
Barron looks at Oseitutu.
“Tired?” he asked.
“I could sleep for three days,” she replied, hanging her head with exhaustion.
Barron, 62, arches his eyebrows and looks puckish.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“What does my age have to do with anything,” she shot back. “I’ve just marched for nine days. I don’t care how old I am, I am going to be tired.”
“How old are you?” he asked again.
“I’m 30,” she said. “Were you doing 19-day marches when you were 30?”
Barron leans back in his chair and waves his hand dismissively.
“I could have marched to California when I was 30,” he responded with a grin.
Elijah, who has been enjoying watching the exchange, chimes in. She turned to Barron.
“Do you remember what you said to me when I said we’re going to be marching from Harlem to Albany?”
“No,” Barron said.
“You said, ‘Who?’” Elijah responded. “‘We’ is a plural pronoun last time I checked.”
The anecdote has them all laughing, but it’s short-lived. Moments later, people coming for that evening’s program are already crowding around the table. They start asking about T-shirts and tote bags, and inquiring about the pamphlets.
The march has ended for the day, but their work has just begun.
Thanks for listening.
Editor’s Note: Taylonn Murphy Sr. knows the anguish of losing children to gun violence. He’s lost two to both sides of the gun.
In 2011, his daughter, 18-year-old Tayshana, was murdered and last year his son, Taylonn Murphy Jr., was sentenced to serve 50 years to life for the murder of Walter Sumter after being arrested in a 2014 raid in West Harlem.
Now Murphy’s working to save other families from the pain he’s endured.
He’s part of Queensbridge 696, a program aimed at stopping violence at Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the nation. It’s working.
On Jan. 19, Queensbridge celebrated 365 days without gun violence.
Murphy, an outspoken critic of the New York Police Department’s use of large-scale raids on developments as a means to stem violence, said the program’s success proves there are alternatives and that raids aren’t necessary.
“We have to do something about promoting or supporting alternatives that show that we do not need this type of policing in these neighborhoods,” he said, speaking on a panel Saturday night in Harlem (see companion story). “What we’ve done in Queensbridge can be done here,” he said confidently.
“I think the only way we can get around these raids is by building stronger community and that’s what we’re doing at 696, we’re building stronger community,” he said.
Murphy has seen a lot of tragedy in the last year, but winning this coveted activist award was a high point in a summer of challenges.
NEW YORK — Steve Ice Waters was a kid when his family moved to Harlem from Los Angeles in 1980. Harlem was beginning to see the early signs of what would become a crack epidemic. It had already witnessed the ravages of the heroin trade and gang violence. The homicide rate in the city that year was a staggering 1,814.
Waters, 13, had no friends or anywhere to hang out. He was aimlessly walking the streets when he came across the Police Athletic League (PAL) gym on 123rd Street.
Waters walked into the building and met the man he would say changed his life. Randy “Bubba” McGhee, called Bub by his many friends, would routinely stay in the facility to make sure the doors would stay open to the Harlem youth whose only alternative was the streets.
“He was the first person I saw,” Waters said. “Lucky for me.”
McGhee chatted with Waters and asked if he would like to become a member so he could avail himself of the programs and the basketball courts. He said yes, he was eager to join.
“But how much is it?” Waters asked. “It’s $10,” McGhee replied.
Waters reached into his pockets and pulled the lining out. “But I don’t have any money,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it,” McGhee said, smiling. McGhee gave him some forms for his mother and his life was changed from that point on.
“That’s just the way he was,” Waters said, a look of nostalgia crossing his face. “He was a coach, a mentor, a friend and a father to so many of us.”
In an interview shortly before he died in May, McGhee spoke about what drove him to look out for the youth in Harlem.
“It was my duty to help all the black young men and women in Harlem, to try to teach them to be responsible, accountable young adults,” he said. “It was something that was instilled in me, that we have to be accountable for actions and our behavior, and everyone needs someone to push them and encourage them, so my job was to encourage you guys to do the best you could, to be young men and women.”
A Hero to the Harlem community
Waters, now in his early 50s, recounted this meeting in July, at the 2nd Annual Randy “Bubba” McGhee Basketball Classic in Harlem. It was the first tournament to be played since McGhee’s death, which tinged the otherwise festive atmosphere with a bittersweet sadness.
The atmosphere was festive, a cross between a county fair and a family reunion, where more than 200 people were joined by their shared appreciation for one man and a building they consider sacred.
The day was as much about remembering McGhee as it was the games played in his honor. Attendees said Bubba would’ve been heartened by the scene.
“That was a safe haven for a lot of the youth,” Waters said. “He realized if he didn’t keep those doors open we would’ve gotten caught up in the troubles that plagued our community. The youth, that was his thing.”
For more information about COMMUNITY BASED ALTERNATIVES, go to JJIE Resource Hub | COMMUNITY-BASED ALTERNATIVES
Grown men giggled like children and posed for photographs. They hugged and reminisced like attendees at a high school reunion, except they were celebrating survival on the streets. Most knew someone growing up who is either dead or in prison.
If the old PAL facility was a home away from home for the youth of Harlem in the ’80s and ’90s, then McGhee was their father figure. The love was printed on shirts and large vinyl banners, and it was on the lips of everyone attending the tournament. Nearly everyone wore shirts with his likeness or that paid tribute to him. The printed words echoed what everyone was saying about McGhee: “Father, Brother, Coach, Friend, Mentor, And Hero to the Harlem Community.”
That sentiment was shared by the team manager for the New York Police Department’s goodwill basketball team. When Sgt. Quathisha Epps, the team manager, heard that the tournament was in honor of McGhee she didn’t even need to consult with that team before agreeing to participate.
“Bubba McGhee was a staple in this neighborhood, a fixture; how could we not say yes,” she said. “He kept those doors open. He gave those kids a safe place to go, he built a bridge from the street. That is very much what we’d like to be a part of,” she said, talking about the team’s role as ambassador to the hardscrabble streets.
Epps said she knows there are problems, both real and perceived, between the police and communities like Harlem. But as someone who comes from those streets, she is confident they can be solved, she said.
“This is how you fix it,” she said waving her arm at the mix of children and teens and adults laughing and eating. “You have events like this. There has to be more outlets for the youth, you have to have more resources for the kids.”
She has no patience for people who complain about the trouble youth get into without offering any alternative for them.
“You can’t complain about the streets if you’re not willing to do something to make them better,” she said.
Cristen Corprew, McGhee’s son, said he learned about his father’s influence on several generations of Harlem youth.
“When someone found out that I was his son, they would tell me, ‘Oh, your dad got me my first job,’ or ‘Your dad got me into college,’ or ‘Your dad saved my life,’ said McGhee, 26. “He wanted to make sure that the next generation would do the right thing and would have the opportunity to do something with their lives. A lot of these kids didn’t have a father figure growing up and he wanted to be that for them.”
Waters said he graduated from Martin Luther King High School only thanks to a “whooping” and a long discussion with McGhee. He wasn’t attending class and was on the verge of not getting his degree when his mother reached out to McGhee instead of his own father. It worked, Waters said. He went back to school and graduated on time.
“I was more afraid to disappoint Bub than I was my own father,” he said.
What would Bub do?
The day wasn’t about just about remembering the past, it was also figuring out how to meet the challenges posed by the present. In that spirit, Taylonn Murphy was given the Randy Bubba McGhee Community Service Award. McGhee bestowed the award on Murphy before he died in May, so Murphy will be the first and only person to ever receive the award from McGhee himself.
Waters introduced Murphy, describing his last tumultuous four years: the two murder trials for the young men who killed his daughter, promising basketball prospect Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy; and the trial of his son Taylonn ”Bam Bam” Murphy Jr. for a retaliatory murder for the slaying of his sister.
“Mr. Murphy, like Randy Bubba McGhee, is a community activist. When we have an unfortunate incident, someone is killed or someone’s child is injured, he is the first one on the scene to try to give some comfort to someone’s family. He has been through it himself. He lost his daughter to violence and, unfortunately, he just lost his son to the prison system. His mission now is to get at these youth and try to keep them on the straight and narrow so they don’t fall into the same traps that his own children did.”
Murphy encouraged the crowd to go out and work with the youth in Harlem, to be a Bubba to a young person on their block, and try to find small ways to keep his work alive.
“One thing I got from Bubba is that he wants his work to continue in many ways,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Not just through me but in each and every individual that’s in here. I think ‘What would Bub do’ when I put feet on the ground to go talk to a young man or try to snatch a young man off the street.”
Murphy said he wants to start by ending the feuds that fuel violence among young people in Harlem. Beyond Harlem, he said, he wants to continue to take his message to besieged communities across the city.
“We’re losing our young people every day to nonsense,” he said.
Not everyone was happy for him. Some people gave him hard looks. His son Bam Bam had been sentenced to 50 years to life the week before for shooting Walter Sumter. Some people made sure they let Murphy know the bad blood persisted. Murphy did not respond in kind. Instead, he sought out people to shake hands or give a hug and offer words of encouragement.
“I’m here to try to bridge the gap,” he said, as he hunkered down in the gym’s cramped ballroom. “I’m not trying to keep this [feud] going. We gotta show people better to get better.”
Epps said she is encouraged to see that people like Murphy continue to perform the kind of community work that McGhee did. She declined to talk about the NYPD’s policy of using raids to go after young people in black and Latino communities, like the one that landed Murphy’s son Taylonn Jr. in prison. Epps admired Murphy’s ability to continue working to help the youth even after losing his daughter to gun violence.
“A loss like that is everyone’s loss,” she said. “Not just the family. Not just the community. The whole city. ... A tragedy like that, a young girl, a father losing his daughter, it hurts us too.”
There are certain courts that are special
He had one more trip to make, to the corner of 145th Street and Lenox Avenue to the Colonel Charles Young Playground. That’s where young players in the Tri-State Classic basketball tournament were wearing jerseys with an in-game picture of Chicken in her early teens dribbling, a look of fierce concentration on her face. An orange square Stop the Violence patch was printed just over her left shoulder.
In sharp contrast to the previous tournament, police officers manned a makeshift line of barriers instead of playing games with the youth. They rifled through players’ and visitors’ bags and stared stone-faced at visitors as they entered. Overhead the roar of a police helicopter competed with the announcer as it swooped again and again above the court.
This court holds a special significance for Murphy.
“I can feel her presence,” he said, pausing on the sideline to watch. “Like she’s here with me.”
Murphy notices one girl getting benched and not responding to her coach’s advice. She is having a bad game and she is too frustrated to listen to any adult counsel. She turns her head away from him while he tries to offer her some advice.
Murphy approaches the girl after the game. He recognized her from his work trying to end the feud that cost his daughter’s life.
“I know you were frustrated but you need to relax, you need to relax,” he says. “No matter how hard it seems you need to keep your head. The game has to be fun. Or else what’s the point?”
At first she looks at him with practiced teenage indifference.
“Trust me, I learned a lot from this game. You know the girl who is on the jersey, Chicken Murphy? That’s my daughter.”
She looks at Murphy again with renewed interest.
“Oh! You’re the one that talked to us in Manhattanville?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” he replied.
Her face transforms from being twisted in frustration and anger to one that is willing to listen.
Thanks for listening.
NEW YORK — On a cold, rainy early spring night in 2014, I attended the private meeting of a tragic club nobody wants to join. It was a gathering of parents whose children had been killed as the result of gun violence. They were meeting in a Harlem hair salon under renovation to discuss strategy and allowed me to attend if I kept their names out of the news.
In some cases, the gun that killed their children was fired by a cop, in others by kids. In some cases the guns were fired by adults shooting at each other who hit an innocent bystander by mistake. The circumstances varied, but consequences were the same: All of the parents had to bury a child felled by a bullet.
They had gathered to share ideas about how they could convert their pain into public policy. Before the violent killings turned their lives upside down, many had been apolitical, too busy with the demands of work and family to wade into politics. But now, with their sons or daughters buried, they wanted to take that anguish and turn it into something useful, to prevent another parent from joining the club.
As the meeting went deep into the night, the conversation turned toward creating some kind of partnership with the families from Sandy Hook. At the mention of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, an audible grumble spread throughout the room.
One woman spoke up in a West Indian accent.
“Sandy Hook,” she said, shaking her head and making a clicking noise. “All we hear about is Sandy Hook, my Lord. It was sad what happened to those children. It truly was. But what about our pain?”
It was clear she had struck a nerve. The rest of the room sounded like a church during a particularly fiery sermon. They interjected with shouts of “That’s right!” and vigorous head nods, encouraging her to continue in a call-and-response.
“Where was the president when our children were killed? Where was all the attention? Where was the press? Where was the outpouring of grief? All the soul-searching? We grieved, too. We’re all still grieving. But all we have is each other.”
According to the census, Newtown is 97 percent white, and the median income for a family of four is $100,000. Not one parent in that hair salon was white. Not one parent in the room had much in the way of money. They did not live in spacious houses like the ones that dot the rolling hills of Newtown.
They were not diminishing the pain of the Sandy Hook parents; they were just embittered because they suspected that the color of their children’s skin was wrapped up in the country’s indifference to their suffering.
On average, seven children and teens are killed by a gun every day in the United States. That means in the past four years — since the grotesque spasm of violence that erupted in Newtown when Adam Lanza, 20, slaughtered first graders in his former school — there have been the equivalent of 486 Sandy Hook massacres in this country. Many of the victims may not be as rich, they may not have been slain all in one place, many of them may have been darker, but all of them are just as dead.
‘We have to come together’
In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook, 91 percent of people in a Quinnipiac poll said they support closing what is popularly known as the gun-show loophole. It allows people who are not licensed gun dealers to sell guns without a background check of their customers. Instead, backed by the NRA, the U.S. Senate voted down comprehensive gun-reform laws in the wake of the murder of 20 children.
That Washington Beltway paradox inspired filmmaker John Richie to spend three years making “91%: A Film About Guns In America.” While filming, Richie traveled across the country, including to Newtown. He spoke to Sandy Hook parents off-camera and said how impressed he was at how those families formed organizations like Sandy Hook Promise, whose members take a bus to Capitol Hill every year to lobby Congress to make changes to reduce the likelihood that another Sandy Hook massacre will happen again.
“If there’s a good reason to remember a tragedy like what happened in Sandy Hook it’s that it reminds us why we need to be more active and committed to doing our civic duty like these families are to ensure we have stronger gun policies that make us all safe,” Richie said.
One of the awful ironies of the massacre at Sandy Hook is that so many of the people made their lives in this idyllic New England village because it seemed so safe. Its family-owned shops, manicured main street and babbling river seemed immune from the chaotic violence that struck it four years ago. It is about 80 miles away from New York City, but the small town feels several worlds away from the likes of Brownsville, Brooklyn, or the housing projects in Harlem. But a dead child has a way of collapsing distance and difference.
“It’s a sad thing to commemorate [the anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary], but if we’re going to find the good in it, it is to realize that we have to come together,” Richie said. “We don’t have a champion to try to push gun reform forward, so it really does fall on us — the people. And I hope the people realize that.”
Toward the end of the 2014 meeting in the Harlem hair salon, Taylonn Murphy, one of the organizers, whose daughter, Tayshana Murphy, was shot to death in the hallway of her apartment building, looked around at the swirl of activity and discussion. These parents had survived the unimaginable, and now they were willing to get to work and do whatever they could to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.
He wondered aloud what they could accomplish.
“If a person can deal with the type of tragic events and stress,” he said. “If someone can deal with all that pressure and all that strain, the passion has to be pushing them to do something extraordinary.”
NEW YORK — If 20 murdered children in a small-town school could not change the debate, what would?
This is the question that haunted filmmaker John Richie. Richie was still screening his first movie “Shell Shocked,” a documentary about gun violence and youth in America’s murder capital, New Orleans, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary with a semi-automatic rifle and killed a classroom of first graders.
Richie had spent years immersed in the world of guns in New Orleans, where, as one teenager he interviewed told him, it was easier to get a gun than a textbook.
Now, he watched as the intractable and implacable gun debate took shape and calcified into predictable camps. But he saw one poll number that obsessed him. It was that 91 percent of people had said they agreed with closing what is popularly known as the gun-show loophole. It allows people who are not licensed gun dealers to sell guns without a background check of their customers. Richie was perplexed at how so many Americans could support comprehensive background checks and how little it meant to leaders in Washington who refused to act.
That number, that 91 percent, inspired Richie to make a sequel. Today Richie is set to release “91%: A Film About Guns In America,” the sequel to “Shell Shocked.” The film focuses on the majority of Americans who support comprehensive background checks — a factor that Richie says could have prevented thousands of gun violence tragedies around the country in recent years.
Richie, a child of the deep South who lives in New Orleans, said he is an advocate for reining the debate into what he calls the “sensible middle.” After some screenings, he said, he has been impressed by people on the other side of the issue who have said they were moved by the film and felt that it was nonpartisan.
“It’s a baby step, but I’ll take it,” he said.
After spending three years in the trenches of the fight over guns and gun regulation, he says he is finally seeing what even the lifeless corpses of Sandy Hook could not change.
“We can see it in this election,” Richie said. “It’s become such a big part of this presidential election. Hillary [Clinton] has made reforming this loophole a part of her platform. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see movement on something that until today we haven’t seen movement on since 1994. We are putting into office people who support background checks and stronger regulations to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
For almost a decade now Richie has gone to sleep and woken up immersed in the world of gun violence. In 2007 he started making his first documentary, “Shell Shocked,” a cinema-verite look at how gun violence affects young people in New Orleans. Nearly a decade later he has finished a second. This accomplishment did not come without a psychic toll.
“There’s been some dark moments and dark times but it’s given me a deeper appreciation of life. I am looking forward to working on something other than guns, guns, guns and gun politics. I would never, ever say I regretted it though,” he said. “At the same time it can be really inspiring, it can really make you appreciate life and the people who you care about around you. ”
As part of his reporting for the movie, Richie met victims of gun violence who are still dealing with the consequences of the shootings years after the shots were fired. There is Carolyn Tuft, who watched her daughter get gunned down and killed in a mall in Salt Lake City while going shopping for Valentine’s Day cards. There’s Judi Richardson, whose 25-year-old daughter Darien was shot to death by masked intruders who burst into her bedroom in Portland, Maine, while she slept. A young man was killed by the same gun a month after Darien’s murder, police said.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Richie said. “You go to their houses and see the narratives of their lives in pictures — special events, graduations, vacations — and their child is ripped out of there. There’s a certain amount of suffering every day of their lives that easily could have been prevented if there had been stronger gun laws.”
There isn’t a particular person that moved him, but he was left inspired by them all, he said.
“It would be hard to pick just one person who we featured in the film or that we talked to while making the film who wasn’t a constant reminder that this is not about politics,” Richie said. “This isn’t about policy. The end result … is literal life and death. This is the difference between a safe, comfortable society, or one in which you have to live in fear of being shot down randomly. This is what it’s about.”
He said he was constantly humbled upon meeting people who tried to turn tragedy into reform.
“One of the most inspiring things about the people featured in the film is that they took this awful tragedy and tried to turn into something meaningful,” Richie said. “They’re out there trying to prevent what happened to them from happening to the rest of us.”
There were numerous moments when Richie wondered if he would have the emotional endurance to respond to the horror of sudden, deadly violence the way his subjects in the film did.
“I think there’s a lot of people, you and myself, who deal with this tragedy all the time, and I can only imagine what that loss would feel like and the amount of grief that comes with it — it would be absolutely crippling. I would hope I could muster up enough strength to do what they have done.”
He hopes the movie will jar viewers into an understanding of how there is a universe of tragedy that continues after the mainstream media moves from one high-profile shooting to the next, he said.
“If you are not immediately touched by gun violence or actually shot, then you don’t realize what the long-term effects are on real people’s lives,” Richie said. “We hear these stories in the news and the narrative is always the same: The person was shot and they either lived or they died. For you watching at home that’s the end of the story. We don’t think about what happens afterward.”
A crucial, underreported part of the story, he said, is to understand how far-reaching gun violence is and how long-lasting its damage can be.
“We spend well over a billion dollars a year treating gunshot victims — to treat this wound that never really heals,” Richie said. “There’s tons of scar tissue and fragments of bullets inside people. I’ll tell you one thing, though; these people, despite all they’ve been through, have moved to activism. What would break a lot of people, they try to turn into something good. The people we show in the film use this unbelievably horrific event in their life to prevent it from happening to other people.”
Richie spoke to dozens of people for the film, mixing interviews with experts and real-life stories of victims of gun violence with verite footage of them at National Rifle Association conventions, coping with day-to-day struggles and being activists in Washington, District of Columbia. “91%” focuses on only a handful of stories.
“Some people lost their lives, some people lost the life of a child,” he said. “Some are luckier than others. Some were just shot.”
NEW YORK — I am writing this from inside a jail cell. I was put here for doing an unremarkable, routine bit of journalism, covering a sentencing in a murder. I won’t go so far as to say I was arrested since I was never read any rights. I am in the cell just the same.
I must have covered hundreds of similar hearings in my career. But this is the first time I ever ended up in the same cellblock as the subjects I was covering.
I had just shot video of a phalanx of court officers who came out of a courtroom and were followed by a pregnant woman in the throes of some kind of intense anxiety attack. She moved haltingly. She struggled to breathe.
You will never see this 28 seconds of video because I have just been forced to delete it.
I am composing this column in my head because court officers put me in handcuffs, escorted me to a holding pen and threw me in a cell while I was reporting on the fate of Taylonn Murphy Jr. He is a 20-year-old found guilty of murder for shooting Walter Sumter, who was 18 at the time. I will do my best to get it down on paper as soon as I get out.
A few minutes ago, one of the court officers handed me a pink piece of paper. It reads “‘Title of Offense: Dis Con’.”
For those unaccustomed to the penal code, this is common shorthand for “disorderly conduct.” Technically, it is a charge for a person who intends to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm. That includes someone making too much noise, fighting or blocking pedestrian or vehicular traffic and so on. In practice, it is a catch-all used commonly by law enforcement in New York to lock people up for whatever they want. Sometimes it’s for being black. Sometimes it’s for protesting.
I got it for doing journalism on June 24.
I can’t say that I am surprised. I don’t know what else to expect. Writing from a cell almost follows the perverse logic of the story I am here covering.
The sentencing was a bleak coda to a story that I started working on four years ago.
Since the murder of his daughter and the subsequent trials of the killers, Taylonn Murphy Sr. has dedicated his life to intervening and ending the violence that led to the killing. He has tried to salvage some meaning from her pointless death. Now, in the same courthouse where his daughter’s killers were tried, Murphy Sr. was awaiting the sentence in a murder trial where the tables were turned and his son — known to friends as Bam Bam — was the defendant.
I had arrived early at 100 Centre St., home to the criminal branch of Manhattan’s Supreme Court, to cover the sentencing. That’s not unusual. Any reporter wants to get interviews before a sentencing like this. You never know how people are going to react.
So, in front of the courthouse entrance, I conducted an interview with Taylonn Murphy Sr. about how he was feeling. Murphy Sr. was composed for someone who was going to lose another child to a bloodsoaked feud between two low-income housing projects in Harlem. First a daughter to a grave, now a son, his youngest, to a cell.
From where he stood, he could see the courthouse where over the course of a year he had watched two grueling criminal cases unfold that led to convictions in the murder of his daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy. Now he was about to hear the fate of his son, Taylonn Jr., who had been convicted of killing Walter Sumter, for being allied with the crews who murdered Tayshana on Sept. 11, 2011 and bragging about her killing on social media.
“Both sides of the gun, D,” he said, shaking his head wearily, “both sides of the gun.”
As we spoke, Taylonn Jr.’s lawyer asked to speak to Murphy Sr. in private. When Murphy Sr. returned, he said Justice Edward McLaughlin had ordered extra security for the hearing.
What else should I expect?
Murphy Sr. told me a sergeant assigned to the raid investigation had testified in his daughter’s murder trial that he had watched live surveillance footage from a command center while Chicken’s killers huddled outside their building, exchanged the gun and headed to the Grant Houses to shoot the promising basketball player. The sergeant said a New York Police Department team of investigators had watched as the killers prepared to hunt down Murphy Sr.’s daughter.
That they did nothing but watch has served as a haunting symbol to Murphy Sr., one that puts in sharp relief what he and others campaigning to end violence have worried about for years.
The NYPD started surveilling Taylonn Jr. when he was 15. The raid that swept up Murphy ended an investigation that started in 2010. So for 4½ years, investigators watched these teenagers, kids in some cases, grow into young men exchanging threats and hurling insults on social media sites and fighting and stabbing each other in the streets. All the while, job opportunities remained cut off and the hope promised from positive-change programs seemed like a cruel joke.
They didn’t do anything but watch.
The Department of Probation didn’t do anything. The Administration for Children’s Services didn’t do anything. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office didn’t do anything. Neither did the City Council. Or the mayor, or the mayor before him.
So it feels almost natural to be covering this story from a cell when everything else about this system seems so upside-down.
While still mourning his daughter’s death, Murphy Sr. formed a partnership with Arnita Brockington, the mother of Tyshawn Brockington, one of his daughter’s convicted killers, and Derrick Haynes, whose teenaged brother was also shot and killed decades ago, to end the feud fueling youth violence in the housing projects. Haynes’ brother was the first killed in this senseless feud that has pitted poor black kids against each other in a nihilistic death spiral for years.
Murphy, Brockington and Haynes filled the void because they looked around and felt that no one else was doing anything. There is a Department of Probation, a Department of Corrections, a Horizons and Crossroads and a special building on the sprawling complex of prisons on Rikers Island, cell after cell after cell, but there’s no Department of, of, well — this, whatever name you want to call this crisis — of stopping young black kids from killing each other to give some purpose to otherwise chaotic lives.
The prosecutors might be right that Taylonn Jr. pulled the trigger on the gun that shot Sumter, but we put the bullet out there. Society was, at the very least, an accomplice.
There was no intervention until The Raid. All that happened was Taylonn Jr.’s imprisonment, the length of which was now being decided upstairs, on the 15th floor.
There was no doubt that this was not being treated as a normal sentencing. There were at least triple the usual number of court officers for the hearing. They wore bulky bulletproof vests despite a thorough and arduous security process to get into the courthouse, including going through a metal detector.
By the time I made my way upstairs, members of the New York press corps had already assembled and were waiting on the floor as well. There were reporters and photographers from the New York Times, the Post, the New York Daily News and others, including a film crew from “Nightline.” I joined the mass of reporters and waited.
Eventually they started letting press in so they could set up in the jurors’ box. When I approached, a court officer asked to see my press credentials. Press credentials are handed out by the NYPD and are not legally binding in any way. I have had credentials in the past when I worked for daily newspapers but the NYPD has refused to give me one since I work for JJIE. So when the officer asked I told him I don’t have one. He refused to let me in.
So I sat outside with a photographer from one of the tabloids and waited. I asked questions and observed the young people out in the hallway making small talk. They had come to show support for Murphy Jr. but there wasn’t enough room to let them in.
After an hour or so, a court officer shouted to no one in particular: “Defendant’s family coming out!”
As I shot the video, a female court officer told me I should be ashamed of myself. And then another asked, “Is he shooting video?”
And another responded, “Yes, he is.”
I was approached by three court officers, all men, one in the middle flanked by two on each side, their hands on the handles of their guns. They are authorized to use deadly force.
“Who are you?” the one in the middle asked.
I told him my name.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m a reporter,” I said, handing him my business card, which was already in my hand. “I’m covering this story like everyone else.”
“Where’s your press credentials?” he asked.
“I don’t have any, NYPD won’t give them to me,” I replied.
The three left the office, leaving me with a man and a woman. The man stared at a computer screen and glancing down at my business card.
“Did you shoot video?” he asked absently.
“No disrespect, sir, but am I being detained?” I replied.
“Yeah,” he said, still not taking his eyes off the screen.
“Then with all due respect, sir, I’d rather not say anything,” I said. He shrugged.
One of his colleagues, a female sergeant with tattoos on her arms, didn’t take it as well.
“Well, can you hear?” she asked, her voice filled with sarcastic venom.
“You won’t talk, right, but you can hear, right? Right,” she said, jabbing her finger into my chest. “Because listen to this — you’re going to jail. Can you hear that?”
I tried to reason with her but she wasn’t interested. I sat there for a while before a lieutenant who refused to identify himself asked me to come out to the hallway. He fumbled to find the right words.
“Are you willing to show me the video?” he asked, as if memorizing a question for a test.
“Am I under arrest, sir?” I asked.
“We’ll get to that. Are you willing to show me the video?” he repeated. He suggested he’d let me go if I showed him the video.
I figured if I was reasonable with him he’d be reasonable with me.
I had a deadline to meet and I knew that the sentencing upstairs was going to be wrapping up soon. I showed him the video. I figured wrong.
“Turn around,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, almost bemused.
Imagine your own job. You get up to go get a drink from the water cooler. Along the way you are detained by guys with guns, and then, after an interrogation, you’re handcuffed and led out of your office building to a cell.
That’s the Kafkaesque quality of what I felt was happening to me. A prequel to “The Trial,” playing out in a nondescript government judicial building, but with the twist that I am never taken to see a judge.
“Turn around,” he said.
“Can I ask you a question, lieutenant?” I asked.
“No,” his reply came curtly.
I asked anyway: “Am I under arrest?”
“We’ll get to that later,” he said.
“Put him in handcuffs,” he said to his underlings.
They grabbed my arms roughly and I felt the steel close in on my wrists behind my back. As the metal dug tight into my skin, the cuffs squeezed my wrists so that my hands were immobile.
The court officers exchanged glances: “Take him down to the captain’s room.”
Three court officers led me down the stairs to the 13th floor, room 1307 and into a cell. One of the officers patted me down while the other watched intently with his hand on his gun. They unlocked my cuffs.
“Take off your shoes,” he said.
“Take off your socks,” he said.
I took off my socks.
“Turn them inside out,” he said.
After the court officers arrested me, they took away my notepad, my pens and of course my phone.
I shook my head at the absurdity of going from covering a news story to turning my socks inside out for some guy with a gun in a cell when I hadn’t been formally arrested or charged.
It struck me with a jolt that no one had any idea where I was.
So I am sitting here in a 6 by 6 cell with high ceilings while a young man I interviewed on a half-dozen occasions when he was still a teenager waits to see what happens next.
Murphy Jr. may very well be learning that he has to spend the rest of his life in a cell like the one I am sitting in now.
I went from covering a story to being a prisoner in the matter of a half-hour. No one tells me if I’m under arrest. No one tells me any rights. I am in a legal purgatory.
I’ve been arrested before while covering a story, but it’s always been interrupted before I’ve been processed. Calls to editors. Higher-ups not wanting to deal with the paperwork. But I’ve never been thrown into a cell for doing journalism.
I am someone who takes my liberty seriously. I am famous for asking what rights are enshrined in the First Amendment whenever I give a news quiz in the class I teach at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, so my mind is racing as these two guys deprive me of my liberty for doing what James Madison has told me is my right.
But I’ve dealt with these types enough — guys with guns and uniforms who have no patience for the Constitution that they swear to uphold — to know that any argument or complaint just makes them more satisfied with “detaining” me in the first place.
I can take comfort in knowing that however long I will be in here there is a tangible end to my ordeal, a few hours, a few days at most. That comfort does not extend to the young man two floors above me waiting to hear his fate. His will be a sentence handed down from a white judge to a young black man for killing another young man who looked like him, talked like him, grew up in the same Harlem neighborhood.
These violent deaths of black youth at the hands of black youth has plagued big cities like New York for years, and for years the bodies piled up, and for years our response has been the same. I’ve seen hundreds of their bodies over the years. I sit here now and wonder, if I could pile them all up, how high the mound would stretch toward the sky.
Sometimes they were covered up with some tarp, sometimes exposed, sitting on a pool of blood, their rail-thin, lifeless corpses surrounded by little plastic yellow evidence markers counting the shell casings in the streets of Brownsville and East New York and Harlem and Jamaica and the South Bronx and so on. I think about all the interviews, the conversations in cramped well-kept apartments, in stairwells and funeral homes, the parents and relatives, friends and classmates; I always got to know them intimately when they were already dead.
As for the murder, Bam Bam insists on his innocence. Whether he killed Walter Sumter or not, whether he pulled the trigger or not, whether the dead man took joy in the deaths of Bam Bam’s sister and other young people who were with this crew or that — whether he's guilty of the crime does nothing to change an immutable fact as solid as the bars of this cell.
The fact remains that this cream-colored cage remains the closest thing we have to a public policy solution to this problem. It is a peculiar answer to the vexing question of how to get young people, all of whom look basically the same and dress the same and listen to the same music and communicate with the same lingo and carry the same guns, to stop firing the same bullets.
I stand up and wrap my hands around the bars. I look at the graffiti scratched into the bars and have a grim kinship with the kids upstairs waiting in the hallway to find out about Murphy Jr. Another tenant had written March 2011 “3 Stacs.” Another wrote “Harlem Savage.”
I wonder if I’ve talked to the authors of the graffiti at any point in my reporting, if they ever sat here in this cell wondering with some dull curiosity what was going to happen next. How long did they sit here? Where are they now? Are they dead? In prison?
I wonder, also, what my fellow New Yorkers would think if they had to sit here. Not poor black kids like Taylonn Jr. or Tayshana or Walter Sumter and his friends from the Manhattanville Houses, I don’t mean them. We know they sit here all the time.
I’m thinking of the ones who are insulated from the grindhouse of the criminal justice system, the ones who see it as a process that happens to other people from other communities. I’m thinking of the ones whose votes determine whether we as a city will see a raid as a response to children in crisis. The ones who watch MSNBC and listen to WNYC and go to sleep at night thinking they are good people.
I wonder if they could go through what I’m going through while routinely doing my job, if they could sit where I am sitting, wondering what is going to happen next.
I wonder, if they went through this experience, would it lead to an alternative to our current policy of steel bars and wooden coffins?
A court officer, a sergeant, walked in and interrupted my reverie.
“Do you have permission from the judge to do that?” he barked, referring to covering the story.
“I have permission from James Madison,” I replied. And that’s that.
“Let’s try this again,” he said and started talking to me with practiced condescension about approval and the like.
It reminded me about that woman in the video. And that I was here for a specific reason, the story that I am supposed to be covering.
I have so much I want to talk to her about. I want to go ask her why she was so upset. I wonder whether she was worried about the baby she is carrying. I want to ask her if sitting in on someone else’s sentencing hearing for the killing of a fellow teen was making her react that way. I want to ask her if she caught a glimpse of her child growing to be swept up in another raid.
I want to ask her but I can’t. I’m stuck here.
This story has been updated.
Daryl Khan is the New York bureau chief for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and an adjunct professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
NEW YORK — A JJIE reporter assigned to cover the protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was arrested at approximately 8 p.m. Central Time Sunday and freed on bail at about 3 p.m. CT Monday.
In an interview after the arrest, the reporter, Karen Savage confirmed that she had been arrested despite identifying herself as a member of the press.
Savage, 50,a student at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, said she was never told by police why she was being arrested or what the charges against her were at the time of her arrest. Savage spoke while in handcuffs before she was taken away by the police.
“They didn’t tell me anything,” she said. “I told them I was a member of the press and the officer said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
She was one of at least several dozen people being arrested. It is unclear if any other members of the press were arrested aside from Savage.
Savage was on assignment to cover the protests that have been taking place in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II.
She had reported from the protest the night before without incident.
Savage, like any reporter, is entitled to cover a newsworthy event, said Leonard Witt, the executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism, the publisher of the JJIE.
“We do believe that all reporters have the right to cover protests, and CUNY is in the midst of retaining legal representation to insure that her rights have not been infringed upon and that her constitutional rights are protected,” he said.
Repeated calls to the Baton Rouge Police Department’s public information office, non-emergency number and chief’s office were not answered.
Marco Poggio, another JJIE reporter and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism student assigned to cover the protests, said he was on the phone with Savage after she had been arrested and she told him the officers had her near the highway. When he arrived she was sitting on a sidewalk in handcuffs near the corner of Government Street and East Boulevard near the entrance ramp to the I-10 highway.
Poggio said he tried to take pictures and shoot video but he was ordered to leave. “A cop told me I had to go away or I was going to get arrested too,” he said.
A police wagon picked her up and took her away about an hour after the initial arrest, but none of the officers at the scene would say where they were taking her, he said.
Aiesha Savage, 20, one of Savage’s daughters, said she was texting her mother off and on throughout the day including after she had been arrested. She became worried when her mother stopped responding.
“My mom, she is passionate about getting people’s stories out there,” she said. “The police don’t want anyone telling their stories. My mom was just being a good reporter.”
Her voice shook as she talked about her mother’s arrest from her home in Boston.
“I’m definitely shaken by this,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen now. I don’t know when she’s going get out. I don’t know what they’re going to do to her.”