The first time I recall being afraid of a police officer was at the age of six in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. My mother was stopped for running a red light as I was riding in the back seat. She gripped the steering wheel and muttered instructions to me. Stay calm. Don’t talk back. Don’t look suspicious. The cop car’s red and blue lights showered over us.
Even at six years old, I was struck by the fear in my mother’s voice. After we were told we could drive away, I asked her enough questions to precipitate the infamous “talk” that many Black parents have with their children. That day, she taught me that I should never think of my body as innocent—that I must always consider how others view it through racist eyes—and what that entails: keeping my distance from white people when walking late at night, never making sudden movements when interacting with police. Eventually, America proved these rules to be relevant with the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a Black boy who was attacked and shot by a neighbor while walking to his father’s house. Martin and I, at the time of his death, were only one year apart in age.
“What’s most important is that you survive,” my mother said to me that day, “Not everyone survives.”
Today, most Americans know of Cleveland as the city where, in 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police while carrying a toy gun in a park. The fact of Rice’s murder, like that of too many other Black Americans, has become commonplace in the United States. But no matter how many police body camera videos, Facebook Livestreams, or cell phone captures of the deaths of Black Americans surface as evidence, it’s still difficult for many people to accept that the United States' criminal justice system is fundamentally racist. Some require a bird’s-eye-view to clearly see how racism and bias reach every crevice of its machinery—a portrait that includes not only the murders but also the little moments, like the fear felt by a six-year-old who has done nothing wrong.
That’s what the podcast Serial, created by This American Life, has ventured to do with its ambitious third season, which began airing at the end of September. “Ordinary cases are where we need to look. We need to spend at least a year watching ordinary criminal justice in the least exceptional, most middle of the road, most middle of the country place I could find—Cleveland,” says host Sarah Koenig in the season’s opening episode.
And that is what she does. Each episode, of which five have aired so far, brings the listener inside the Cleveland court system—often to the seemingly mundane parts where no one tends to look—and unpacks the issues and histories that haunt it. Covering topics including racial profiling, arbitrary arrests, exorbitant court fees, and police officers that bend the truth for their benefit, Serial gradually helps listeners learn about all the inequities that compound to make a machine that unfairly traps Black Clevelanders.
In episode one, we hear how bias affects policing through the case of a white woman who is assaulted in a bar and accidentally hits a cop in the face during the chaotic interaction, leading to her getting charged for assaulting a police officer. The defendant, Anna, knows she hasn’t done anything wrong, and she makes it loudly known as she’s waiting hand-cuffed in the police cruiser. When Koenig asks her why she wasn’t afraid of yelling at the officers, she responds, “I hate to say it, but I’m a white girl.”
Episode two focuses on bias in the court. We learn about the very visible racial makeup of Cleveland courthouse employees: 32 of the 34 felony judges are white. (Meanwhile, janitors and security guards are almost all Black.) One of those judges is Daniel Gaul, who regularly calls Black defendants “brother,” touts white savior fantasies of knowing some defendants “better than they know themselves,” at one point is described as a “raging slave master” by a Black defendant and goes as far as telling defendants that having children out of wedlock is a violation of their probation. (Which, to be clear, it is not and legally never could be.)
By episode three, we hear about the seeming impossibility of reforming the system from Detective Steve Loomis, the former president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, who insists that less reactive training would only put officers in danger. “Tamir Rice knew exactly why those policemen were driving that marked police car towards him, alright?” he tells Koenig, “He is a product of the street. He is not a product of a loving home.”
“It’s absolutely on Tamir,” Loomis continues when asked if anything could have been done differently on the part of the police. “It’s on any suspect that gets shot by the police.”
As a queer, Black man born and raised in Cleveland, the idea that Cleveland police are racist is nothing new—in fact, it’s an irremovable part of my life. So, Serial’s searing depiction of how exactly that racism plays out, and the dismissive nature by which the Cleveland court system permanently alters the lives of those that enter it, feels both validating and alarming. It’s validating to have the truth expressed so articulately, but alarming to have the discriminative practices existent in one’s home on such vivid display.
What’s most striking, though, is how Serial reveals the infrastructure behind the normal instances of disenfranchisement and racism that have always punctuated my life and the lives of my loved ones. When my older brother worked late nights, for instance, it was common for him to be stopped and searched by Cleveland police officers on his drives home. A few years ago, he was charging his phone in a shopping mall when a cop threatened to fine him for “stealing public electricity.” In high school, my peers and I walked through metal detectors in the morning and avoided security guards in our hallways. Even the Tower City Center, the mall in Downtown Cleveland, would turn away Black high schoolers that tried to hang out there after school.
Now, as a writer who often returns to Cleveland for periods of time, I see how economic boom and gentrification is creating a city that relies more heavily on police—with cops cracking down on things like homelessness by criminalizing panhandling with city ordinances. This present reality of over-policing and faulty justice is tied to a complicated city history. In the 1960’s, Cleveland was ripe with school desegregation protests that led to the arrests of many Black community members after being brutalized by white mobs in neighborhoods like Little Italy, as police watched. By the 1990’s, Cleveland, like many other major cities, was ravaged by the crack cocaine epidemic. Then the 1994 Crime Bill instigated a national shift of being tough on crime, with $9 billion used for the construction of prisons, $8 billion delegated to hiring new police officers, mandatory minimum sentencing, and incentives for states to administer harsher sentences. But when 44 local officers were convicted for taking money to protect cocaine operations in 1998, it became clear that Cleveland police were not innocent, either.
While Serial masterfully illustrates the complicated ways in which the values embedded in this history play out in the present, it also makes sure to hone in on the basic assumption underlying it all: That those trusted to enforce the law and dole out justice consider themselves to be fundamentally different from those at the hands of the criminal justice system. As Koenig narrates in episode one, “But there was a more disturbing implication as well, one that prowls this courthouse and throughout our criminal justice system—that we are not like them. The ones we arrest and punish, the ones with the stink, they are a slightly different species.”
It is this precise sentiment that gets at the core of the problems within the criminal justice system in the United States as a whole. Instead of rehabilitating individuals for breaking the law or posing a danger to the public, it operates as an implementer of racist policies and is reluctant to reform. Most of all, it functions to damage the lives of Black Americans and Clevelanders, like me, who are forced to survive it or make sense of its destruction in hopes of replacing it with something better.