Why?

By: Amber Lee

In the courtroom

“Your honor, I would first like to thank you for the opportunity to plead my case. On August 20, 2016 my brother, James Wilson, and I went to the mall to shop for school clothes. As we were on our way home we stopped at a stop light and noticed Mr. Johnson in the driver’s seat with two other passengers. There was a look exchange but that was it. When we arrived home, I opened the car door and POW POW POW, I heard nine shots. I ran in the house and went immediately to my room. I assumed my brother was right behind me. I lay on my bed, and just as I was slowing my breathing, I heard Punkie, my brother’s friend scream, and went outside to see why he was yelling. When I got to the door I jumped down the three steps of our porch and ran to the car. There I seen my brother, mouth and eyes open, sitting in a pool of blood… My brother was my everything. I do not have a dad or any other male figure to direct me in the way that I am supposed to go. No, my brother is not perfect, and neither am I, and that is why I am here.

That night was the worst night of my life. Instead of sleeping, I thought about how my brother would never be back. I could never see his smile, I had no one to look up to; my little brother had no one to look up to. I wanted nothing more in life but to ask – why? I heard Punkie say he thought it was Mr. Johnson, and I needed to know why Mr. Johnson would take my brother. I remember waking up and walking. I did not know where I was going, but I wanted so badly to ask ‘why?’ As I turned left on 11th street, I seen Punkie and some boys.

Your honor, I did not know that within the next three minutes, my life would be changed forever. When I seen Mr. Johnson1 I ran towards him not knowing what I was doing. My body was moving, but I did not tell it to move. My legs could not stop running…” There is a moment of silence. “Then I seen him pull out the gun, and as he did…” There is another long pause. “Punkie shot him, and we2 ran. At that specific moment, I did not think about the consequences that would occur. I did not see my future being destroyed because I could not control my emotions. Your honor, I am a sixteen year old black boy living in the hood with my single mom3 and little brother. I am currently a straight-A student, and I have never been in trouble. At this moment, I am all that my family has. I am asking that as you make your decision, you take into consideration all that I have been through, and will go through because of all odds being against me.”

The judge says, “Court is in recess until further notice.”

Robert does not know what to expect. His mother, Ms. Wilson, has not hired a lawyer, or requested a public defender because she was advised not4 to. After about an hour of waiting, Judge Manner enters the courtroom and says, “Mr. Wilson, you are an intelligent young boy that has overcome a lot. I knew your brother, and every time he sat in my courtroom, in the same seat as you are right now, I knew something was special about him. But now I’ve met you, and for some reason, I believe you. And not only that, but I believe that you will be someone in this world. I believe that one day you will look your mom in the eye, and relieve her from everything trying to pull her down.” Ms. Wilson cries. “Today I will not be sending you to the Detention Center. However you will serve a six month sentence on probation, and you must obey every rule. I’m trusting you, so please do not let me down. Court is adjourned.”

A week later Robert’s probation officer, Officer Deal, comes over to the Wilson’s two bedroom house, which has seemed empty ever since Robert’s dad left, and now his big brother is dead. Officer Deal goes over the conditions of his probation.

School

Today is the first day of school, and Robert’s responsibilities have increased tremendously. Over the summer he changed schools because of transportation. While James was alive, he would bring Tyree, their youngest brother, to school every morning; now, that is Roberts responsibility. Because his school is in the opposite direction of Tyree’s, and his mother thinks it would be best to keep Tyree in the same school. Robert had to change schools. He is the eleventh grade and has been to three different high schools5.

About a month into the year, Tyree tells his brother that he is being bullied. After Robert talks to his brother, he decides it would be best to wait at Tyree’s school until the bell rings. For a week Robert stays at Tyrees school which causes him to be late to first period. One day, he walks into class and gets called into the principal’s office. As he waits patiently for the principal, he sees Officer Deal walk in with Principal Manner. Principal Manner walks around the desk and sits in his chair. Officer Deal sits down in the chair next to Robert.

“How have you been Rob?” Officer Deal asks, turning his chair to face Robert.

“Good, but I’m confused as to why I’m in here.”

“Mrs. Hands told me you’ve been having trouble getting to class on time. And as you know, one of the requirements for your probation is punctuality.”

“Can I explain?”

“Whatever your excuse is, it won’t matter because you know the zero tolerance policy6 for tardies, and Mrs. Hands was already kind enough to go four days without telling Principal Manner.”

“So what does that mean?”7

“You violated probation8, what do you think that means?”

In jail

Although Robert has always lived in a bad neighborhood, and his big brother has gotten in trouble every once in awhile, Robert has never thought that it would be him in jail. On his first day in “the hall,” he sees his best friend from elementary school, Sammy. For the first two weeks, Robert has to get used to significant changes between being at home and being locked up. On the first night, someone tries to escape. There are loud sirens that go off, bangs on the walls, and Correction Officers yelling at little kids that look no older than 12, crying.

Robert loves school. He loves the ideas of numbers, and infinite possibilities. He likes writing, engaging in intellectual conversations about politics and learning new things. Inside the hall, he no longer enjoys learning. There is not really a school, there is a room in which students can voluntarily take classes. However, all the classes are meant for little kids. The worksheets consist of times tables (1-12), reading excerpts from Junie B. Jones, and a coloring picture of MLK.

“Excuse me Ms. Letitia, do you have any work for me? I am currently a senior in high school, but I take mostly AP classes at school.”9

“What’s your favorite subject?”

“Math, but my dream is to one day become the President of the United States, so I enjoy politics.”10

“Why do you want to become the President?”

“My brother always told me to dream big, so that’s what I’ve always done. I want to be an example for young black boys that were never taught to dream big, and show them that white people aren’t the only people with power. Before there was a president, there were Kings and Queens, and were those people white? No!”

“Have you taken the SAT or ACT? Any AP test?”

“Yes, I have. I scored 26 on the ACT, 1390 on the SAT, and a 3 on the AP Literature exam.”

“Right now, we do not have any work for you. Most students come here at a fifth grade reading level, and third grade math. However, I will work on creating assignments for you. In the meantime, will you help out other kids?”

As Robert looks around, he notices that there are hardly any boys his age. After searching for what might be a good fit, he finally walks over to Sammy.

“How are you?” Robert asks, sitting down text to Sammy.

“Nigga why you in here?”

“Violation of probation. What about you?”

“I murdered11 my mom’s boyfriend for beating on moms an’ tryna fuck my sister. Shit was crazy.”

There’s an awkward moment of silence. Robert does not know how to respond. The same little boy he threw rocks with, is the same young man who murdered someone. Robert was late to school because he had to look out for his little brother, and Sammy killed someone. Yet, they are in the same jail, same unit, wearing the same clothes, in the same classroom, and receiving the same form of punishment. Robert gets up from the table and goes to his cell. He feels himself spinning out of control. His life feels unreal. For the next two months,12 he would be in this foreign institution. Never before in his life has he felt like he has lost control. He doesn’t have his big brother; he doesn’t have his mom, dad, or little brother. He has to eat when some stranger tells13 him to eat. He has to wake up to sirens and horns, much louder than his mom’s mouth could ever be. He has no friends, no one to confide in, and most importantly, the constant self-reminder that he did absolutely nothing to get into the position he is in.

He decides to write his mom, and a friend he knew from his neighborhood. When he requests paper, he realizes that he has nothing to say.

“Dear Mom, Sorry for being a failure!”

Instead he lays on his bed, closes his eyes and envisions his life next year, month, day, second. He does not know what his future will consist of, and he wants to know – why is he even in this place? Is five minutes of class really less important than protecting his brother? What if –

Home

It’s Robert’s first day back home and he has never been more excited to go to his cramped two bedroom house on the corner of 12th and Peralta; also known as the hood. Because he is an out of district transfer, he is no longer able to go to the school he transferred to; he must go to his old school. When he arrives, everyone is preparing for finals. One day, Officer Deal visits14 the Wilson’s home to check on Robert. Robert  tells Officer Deal that he is searching for a job but no one will hire him.

“Before this whole jail thing went down, I would have been the perfect candidate for any job or college…” he stops. “Sir, I’m afraid. What if I can’t get into college? Then I can’t get a job. Then I will not have money. Then I’ll be 32 living in my momma house with three kids15 by two different women, that don’t know for sure if I’m really the father to their kids.”

“Robert I have known your family for over two years and I have never heard you speak like this. You have so much potential to be anything you want. I remember you said you wanted to be the president.”

Officer Deal feels like he failed this kid. In more ways than one, Robert is no different than him. When they both walk out the door, down the steps, and out the gate, no one sees their past: what they had to go through to get to where they are, all the lessons that they learned, their true intelligence. They see a black male, and that’s it. Before his time in jail, this little boy with no daddy, a constantly drunk mom, and no money16, wanted to be the leader of an entire country. And now, he can’t even get a job at McDonalds. Why does this country fail him at every step? He cannot have a chance at his dream because he was late to school. What could have potentially been the change, spirit, love, strength and compassion that this country needs, is now never going to happen because a little boy got four tardies.

Officer Deal pleads to Robert, “Listen, you can be whatever you want. Keep your faith and trust in God. I believe that everything happens for a reason. So you’re not going through this just to give up and sit on your ass. You are better. You are stronger and worth more than you can ever imagine. I will do some searching and we’re going to find you a job and college admission.”

It’s the morning of graduation and Robert is on his way to school for the rehearsal. He has on a grey sweatsuit, and a FedEx17 hat from his new job. His principal acknowledged the hard work and dedication that Robert put into ensuring he graduated and stayed on track, and asked him to be a student speaker. Robert wrote the speech, conscious of his audience. He is not only going to speak to his family and friends, and the family and friends of others, but to teachers, community members, the administration, and most importantly the young black boys that look just like him. He is going to inspire the youth to never be afraid of failure, strive for the best, and never forget the people who helped along the way. As he gets in his car, he puts his head back and closes his eyes. He envisions his life in the next year, then month, week, day, second… and he sees black. He does not know that would be his last thought. Robert Tyrick Wilson dies in his car the day of his high school graduation in front of his home at 8:43am from a stray bullet.

  1. Sixty seven percent of males report that they know or are related to their victims.
  2. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227730.pdf
  3. Forty two percent of juveniles had just one parent caring for them when they were growing up.
  4. Chad’s panicked mother consulted the probation officer, where she was promised that because this was her son’s first offense, there was no need to worry. Consequently, she neither hired an attorney nor requested a public defender
  5. Danny attending three different high schools and two learning facilities: Berkeley High School, Oakland Community Day High School, Oakland High School, Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center, and George Junior Juvenile Detention Center
  6. https://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf
  7. 10% of youth, leading to their current placement, committed only a status crime
  8. Almost 12,000 children are behind bars for “technical violations” of the requirements of their probation or parole, rather than for a new specific offense.
  9. About one-half (47 percent) say they want to go to college and another one-fifth of youth (21 percent) say they would like to go to graduate school, medical school, or law school.
  10. Most youth in custody (88 percent) say they expect to have a steady job in the future.
  11. Fairfield Boy Stabs Stepdad to Death Protecting Mom
  12. 23 percent think they will be in custody for another 1 to 3 months,
  13. John Mills, a 21-year-old inmate, is serving seven-to-nine-years. As a kid, John dreamed of becoming a police officer, but by the age of 17, he had committed more than 75 armed robberies. John is trying to make a change in prison, but sometimes it is hard for him to forget the thrill of putting a gun to someone’s head.
  14. It is common for Probation Officers to come to their clients homes
  15. Timmons, S. and Timmons, M. (2016, December). Personal communication.
  16. The average income for African Americans was $35,398
  17. FedEx is one of many jobs who hire felons
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. soha says:

    Amber this was so amazing. You put so much heart and passion into this writing my a$s almost cried multiple times. Thank you for illustrating this character so well, I’m sure many stories can relate..

    Like

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