Before my brother pleaded guilty, my family bailed him out on a house bond. That means we put a lien on our house through the court and signed an agreement that if my brother fled and didn’t attend his mandatory court dates, the state could take our property. Though this never came to pass, the prospect demonstrates the criminal-justice system’s potential detrimental effects on entire families’ economic stability.
On a Sunday in January 2013, while still out on bail, my brother asked me if I wanted to attend a family friend’s birthday party with him. I’d seen the friend the day before and had already wished her a happy birthday, so I decided to stay home and write an essay for my Advanced Placement U.S. History class instead. Around 7:30 p.m., I received a call that my brother had been shot when someone opened fire onto the porch where he and his friends were sitting. Five were wounded. Luckily, there were no fatalities. We still to this day do not understand what prompted the shooting.
The next month, his bail was revoked after failed drug tests, among other violations of his pretrial release agreement. Azeem had been out on bail for almost 10 months without having any bail-revoking infractions, and he says that the drugs he tested positive for were prescribed to him by his doctor as pain relief for his gunshot wounds. He was sent back to prison.
For black boys growing up in urban environments, staying out of the penal system is no easy task—not because we’re inherently troublesome, but because we are targeted by policies and tactics, such as Operation Gideon, that are meant to send us away. One mistake, and your entire life can be altered forever.
The fact is, my brother and I are far more similar than we are different. We are four years apart, but we grew up under the same roof, with the same two parents. We attended the same Oakland public schools, and played baseball and basketball on the same teams. Our parents instilled the same values in us, taught us both about the history of the black diaspora, and gave us both African names to reclaim our heritage and culture.
We are similarly intelligent, both academically and socially. Given the chance, Azeem would also have done well at Yale. Upon meeting us today, a stranger would have difficulty telling who had the Ivy League degrees (I later went to Columbia for graduate school) and who was formerly incarcerated. But for the rest of our lives, he will be stripped of certain privileges, while I will not. It isn’t because he was some monstrous person out to wreak havoc on the world. He was a 19-year-old kid, caught by a system designed to catch him. Since his release from prison, Azeem has become a dog breeder, and is now venturing into real estate.
People look at my story and applaud me and wonder what I did to “beat the odds.” I wish they were more curious about why my brother did not. I wish they would ask, “What trap lay before this talented, bright boy so that he was bound to fall into it?” I wish they would see how difficult it is to grow up a black man in America.
My story is told as though it is a positive one, inspirational. But I see it as a grim one, the tale of a harsh reality that wrecks people. There is nothing positive about classifying me as an exception. When a person is exceptional for doing what I have done, the whole system is cruel to its core.