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During one of my routine channel surfs, I land on A&E. The episode is on. I catch it just at the beginning where the falling snow seems to fluoresce under a streetlight, the victim's jacket askew on top of the snow, in some field, next to another field, next to a rundown house. I can still feel the cold trigger warm on my finger and how upset I was that night with the victim, now a ghost, and how he betrayed me over and over again.
I didn't know I was going to be on TV. I found out when I called home from the county jail in 2010, and my moms said I was on a show called The First 48. I never signed anything or saw a camera crew—nothing. I felt stamped: This is what you are. And I wasn't allowed to change my image because I am a prisoner.
The First 48 follows a falsified true-crime formula: A murder transforms into something that feels more like a dramatic sitcom. Tired, witty homicide detectives have two days to find a suspect—as the opening sequence reminds viewers, after 48 hours, the chance of solving a murder decreases by half. "The clock starts ticking the moment they are called," the intro narration says.
Since my incarceration in 2010, I've learned how to cope with the show airing. By this point, I've seen myself on TV more than 100 times. The reactions never change. People see me and point, "I saw you on TV, fool!" or, "You're a crazy m'fucka," followed by, "Why did you turn yourself in?" But the one that pulls me down a rabbit hole, with furrows and twisted roots, is: "Damn, why you kill your friend? Why? What he do?"
All I can do is nod, smirk, and pray that my demeanor isn't too telling about that night.
The truth is, we were never friends. I'd seen him around the hood—we knew the same people. The producers shaped a different narrative than the one I lived; this is all entertainment. A&E is popular in prison. Part of it is because of today's culture: catching a body and getting money. When certain shows, like The First 48, come on that display the criminal part, the murder gang, it's a boost of morale. What else do we have?
A&E plays my episode once every other month—I just saw it again three weeks ago. I obsess over it, and even though I don't want to watch it, I believe I have to for my safety, to hear what comments people make. I listen for others in the unit to yell up the hall to say something about the murder, if they knew the victim, so I can ready myself to attack. People sometimes feel a type of way because at the time we were gang-affiliated.
Before prison, before I grew up into an older boy, I hung out with a neighborhood gang, a syndicate to a much bigger gang who ran around fighting and kicking trash cans over—nothing out of the ordinary for a young boy growing up on the eastside of Detroit. But money, like all loose things, makes us want to obtain as much as we can. These days, providing can lead to the rash reasoning of taking someone's life or paralyzing them from neck to toe. We live on the street to become men without ever really being children. The victim in my case comes from the same background—a different street gang that has changed with time, but is still relevant with a large number inside this prison system—and I've been shuttled through quite a few.
Prison transfers increase my anxiety. People either already know me from TV, or they will soon.
It's January 2017, a black van holding me and a few other men enters the St. Louis facility. This transfer, like the others, feels like a deep gut-wrenching punch, followed by a heedful checking of who's who when I'm walking on a compound, readying for surprise attacks.
On my way to 6 unit, I see a few guys I know from previous prisons—neutrals, but heavy gossipers. A fire lights inside of me. I am the smoke passing like a black cloud on the pavement. Word will spread quickly that I am here. Already, I see heads pressed against the second-floor windows in connected buildings, their eyes following me as I walk into the assigned unit.
Entering the small room, I notice that my cellmate is a white boy with long hair. From how he chose to decorate the room, it seems that he's laid back. There are arts and crafts on the wall and old Pop-Tart containers constructed into vases. I can't focus too much on him now. I need to go walk the yard to find out if I have any enemies, which I never know until the unexpected happens.
The white boy gestures to the bottom bunk. "Dude before you was disgusting so I cleaned and washed the mat," he says.
I nod and ask, "When is yard?"
He says in 10 minutes. I don't unpack my belongings, but I gently lay my green duffle bag up against the footlocker. Where I'm from, how I used to live, if you hurt mines, I hurt yours; if my momma cry, your momma cry. It's an eye for an eye. I can't be upset with the victim's loved ones for seeking vengeance. So, I must be ready at all times and honor their strike by keeping it between the parties. The odds are against me; who will make the attack? It will be hard for me to know, but on the other side they have a monthly televised profile of how I look, how I talk, making it easy to figure out where I will be next. It's almost like I'm battling a digital ghost.
I make it to the yard, which should alert everyone—if they know who I am—that I'm here and ready for whatever. The attack rarely happens during my wild overthinking and preparation for it. Instead, prisoners look at me like I have a mental issue. They wander farther off from the area where I pace and mumble, "Ready when you ready." I stalk the yard because eventually I'll become restless, and when that happens, that's when it'll start: a missing eye on the end of a shank or a lung collapsing from a long skinny pipe, from the side.
As for now, no alerts of anyone withholding a furious revenge, but soon they'll reveal themselves as time permits.
It's routine, like my episode's airdates.
The First 48 had a few episodes in Detroit, but ultimately, the series set in Motown didn't make it into further seasons due to a horrible mistake. On one aired episode, while looking for a suspect within the 48-hour timeframe, a cop killed an innocent, sleeping child named Aiyana Stanley-Jones. During a raid targeting the apartment on the floor above Stanley-Jones, Officer Joseph Weekley of a SWAT-like team, fired a hand grenade into Stanley-Jones' unit, burning her blanket. When Weekley stepped inside, he fired a single shot that went through Stanley-Jones' head. The little girl, 7 years old, died instantly.
The First 48 crew filmed the whole thing, although the show decided not to air that episode. The shooting brought national attention; Weekley was charged for reckless endangerment with a gun and involuntary manslaughter. A First 48 producer ended up pleading guilty to obstruction of justice after the state went after her for "lying to prosecutors about copying, showing or giving video footage that she shot of the raid to third parties causing a significant delay in the investigation of the case," according to news reports from 2013. The footage never made it to A&E, but it aired in court and later on CNN. After two mistrials (hung juries), and almost five years off active duty, in 2015 the Detroit Police Department reinstated Weekley as an officer, transferring him to the Criminal Investigations Bureau.
Killing a child isn't very entertaining—that much is clear. But what should also be clear is that others being murdered for circumstances rooted in trauma shouldn't be used as entertainment either.
That little girl was somebody's child.
Every televised murder, every person whose case is segmented for action, was also somebody's child.
To be clear: no one is above reproach and everyone should be held accountable for their actions. When you commit a terrible wrong, one of the most important ways to give back to a suffering community is to turn your life around. Shows like The First 48 also need to be held to account. Putting aside legal issues that likely prevented this episode airing, I wonder if production knew that showing Weekley kill a child, an irreversible miscalculation, would've done more harm than any "good," and might stir concerns in how police, and copaganda, legitimize murdering civilians.
As part of Scalawag's 3rd annual Abolition Week, pop justice is exclusively featuring perspectives from currently and formerly incarcerated folks and systems-impacted folks.
Neither The First 48 nor prison initiated my accountability process. I am suffering the consequences. To be truly accountable, there has to be some inner suffering—and not guilt, per se. But a deep recognition for one's action and how it affects others, the community, the people. The truth is, I didn't care in the beginning of my prison bid because I had the same street mindset I entered with. My "high profile" image fed an impulse; I knew I could rekindle those results if I desired. I saw the world as dog eat dog. But a person is never one thing. We hold multitudes.
At the end of the episode that covered my case, the victim's mother looks into the camera and says to the world, to me, "Friends don't kill friends… that's all I have to say." She looks like my mother: Black, tired from raising boys but strong enough to stop the world with just a flick of her thumb. I rewatch the episode often, and I am continuously inundated by so many thoughts. Why did she think her son and I were friends? Every time I watch the episode, her facial expression never changes. I don't know why I expect it to. Maybe it's just that I'm changing, and I hope she can see those changes on my face, as if she's been watching me back during each repeated viewing. Can she see me bear this deserving pain I caused her over the last decade?
Over and over she says, "Friends don't kill friends… friends don't kill friends… friends don't kill…" Maybe she was saying, "Black people aren't supposed to kill Black people." Maybe I should have just left whatever was going on alone, left that block and the drug game alone, swallowed my pride of ruling something that wasn't ours in the first place.
For 12 years, the mother's words have made me anxious, and I'm not saying I don't deserve my time or any of the stress that comes with it. I took her son. I took something from her that is irreplaceable, and she reminds me that I have to be held accountable. But this anxiety, this pressure of overanalyzing, the obsessiveness of protecting myself, is making me insane. The show is killing me.
Murders are being televised for entertainment. Executives make loads of money off of grief without the slightest help for the family suffering a loss, just a rerun. Or maybe they want to stop any attempts of change or growth in the prisoner: Your crime is who you are.
After a few weeks in St. Louis, I become more at ease with my surroundings. The show airs twice back-to-back. Someone says to me after seeing it that they would've gone crazy from everyone asking for over 12 years about an act committed so long ago.
"I have to do my best and become a better man," I say.
"It seems like your best is preceded by a decision you will never outlive," he replies.
He is right. I'm always reminded of that day. But right now we are chilling together on the yard, working out, and reminiscing about the hood. He is someone I know from home. Getting along with others is never a problem for me. The problem is what my antennas catch when I'm obsessing. Everything in here is used as a weapon. I can't be too honest; I can't be too giving. Prison is not a place for civil empathy. Everyone here wants to be "killas," but don't know the ramifications it brings.
The show airs again, and I'm back to that day, and the noise in the hallway has me bunched against the cell door like lint caught from a breeze, bunkie snoring away.
"I know homie that got killed. If I ever catch Meech…"
That is all I need to hear. Like a man at war, I ready myself to attack because that is how it goes: Get them before they get you. Fear for me is losing an eye or being buck-fiftied across my face, and I can't allow that if I can prevent it. My heart is racing as I make something sharp enough to penetrate flesh. I don't understand this urge. Friends don't kill friends, people don't supposed to kill people. I lay in bed and replay that night over and over until my door opens for 6 a.m. breakfast.