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There’s a viral tweet floating around right now that compares the two to four years that rapper Meek Mill was just sentenced to for violating probation to the punishment that Darren Wilson, Timothy Loehmann, Daniel Pantaleo, Sean Williams, and Michael Slager received for killing unarmed black men. To be clear, none of these police officers got any jail time, which suggests Meek’s violations as more egregious than intentionally taking someone’s life. Many of us are aware of these racial disparities in the US penal system, but something about seeing these incidents tightly boxed in together magnifies just how absurd it all is.
On Monday, Philadelphia Judge Genece Brinkley, who sentenced Meek, cited two recent arrests as her reasoning: one in a St. Louis airport in which he got into an altercation with employees and the other in August when he was arrested in New York City for reckless endangerment after being seen on social media doing tricks on a dirtbike. Both of those cases were dropped after Meek completed community service requirements, but Brinkley believed that he had not learned from either incident. She told him at the hearing: “I gave you break after break, and you basically just thumbed your nose at this court.”Critics rarely recognize that Meek’s ascension is nothing short of a miracle. His rise out of the difficult circumstances in which he was born to one of rap music’s most successful entertainers makes him a hero and a beacon of hope for those in underserved communities. Moreover, he has history of philanthropy, such as donating 60,000 bottles of water to Flint, Michigan and $10,000 to his high school alma mater. And more than any of his peers, he’s demonstrated the willingness to take young people under his wing so they can escape the vicious cycle of black, urban America.This week’s legal troubles aren’t a new development for Philly’s native son. In 2008, he was arrested on gun and drug charges and sentenced to eight months in prison. After completing that bid, Judge Brinkley put him on a five-year probation. Since then, Meek has violated the probation multiple times, landing him more time behind bars. In 2012, a parole violation resulted in his travel permit being revoked. The next year, another violation in which he did not report his travel plans, ended with him taking mandatory etiquette classes. The most damaging came in 2014 when his probation was revoked and he served just under five months in prison. Later that year, his sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money, was scheduled to drop and it was by far the most anticipated release of his career. Instead, it was pushed back by almost a year. Then in 2015, another travel-related violation ended with 90 days of house arrest in which he could not do anything related to his work as an entertainer (and to add insult to injury, Brinkley added another six years to his probation). What these incidents highlight more than anything is a major flaw in a system that will handicap someone for all of their adult life for a nonviolent offense, but will protect those of a lighter hue from the same fate for taking human life.
Meek has had his fair share of missteps but none of these are reasons to root for his demise. Still, for some reason, ever since he called out everyone’s favorite pop star rapper, his legal troubles and musical missteps have served as a sort of twisted entertainment for many. And even more ironically, with the elevated consciousness and social awareness that many claim to have on social media, it is baffling that so many black people online are calling for Meek to be brought to justice because of what the letter of the law suggests. Just look at a few of the comments under The Shade Room’s Instagram post of Meek’s new mugshot: “Pray for him for what? It’s his own fault,” “Take accountability,” and “Why should he be free?”The perceived inherent guilt of blacks in the US is what makes people—both black and otherwise—buy into this kind of thinking. The overwhelming majority of depictions of black people in film and literature over this country’s history have been those of loud, aggressive, violent, and uneducated mongrels in need of discipline of the harshest variant. But what most people are missing is that this country’s parole system is built to keep people incarcerated. Judges are given free reign to keep people institutionalized without needing them to be in a physical institution. Some of it is simple: don’t commit any more crimes, report to your parole officer, etc. Other parts are a little more stringent and insulting: enforced curfews, no use of drugs, even if you weren’t taken in for anything drug-related. It’s also a system most left up to personal interpretation. If a judge feels that a former criminal is not on track to be of better service to society, they can flag you for violating your probation and you will be sent back to jail, effectively putting you back at square one. With that in mind, many people believe Meek deserves what he is getting, no matter how ridiculous some of his violations are.Moreover, what’s alarming is the potential lack of accountability of judges. Billboard published eye-opening allegations against Judge Brinkley in an interview with Meek’s attorney Joe Tacopina. He alleged the judge has an obsession with Meek and once requested that he re-record a Boyz II Men song, and mention her on it. He also stressed that she sent Meek to jail, despite others recommending otherwise. “Both the probation officer and the district attorney recommended no incarceration for these violations. No incarceration,” Tacopina said. “But this judge excoriated both of them, challenged their credibility and overrode both law enforcement agencies recommendations and went from zero to two to four years, which shows that she clearly had a personal vendetta against this guy.”Plenty of people have come to Meek’s defense as well. The hip-hop community at large has been supporting the Philly rapper with #FreeMeek hashtags since the news of his sentencing got out on Monday. Last night during a performance in Dallas, JAY-Z stopped his show to drive home to the point that “He's 30 now, he's been on probation for 11 years. Fucking 11 years. Judge gave him two to four years because he got arrested for being on a bike and popping a fucking wheelie.”Here we are, in 2017, with this country’s “advancements” in civil rights constantly being thrown into our faces if, for nothing else, to shut up anyone who dares to point out the opposite. At the same time, a person like Meek Mill who, if he were white and not connected to hip-hop culture, would have likely been given the benefit of the doubt years ago can not get from out of the law’s oppressive reach. In last year’s documentary film 13th, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker said, “Right now, we now have more African-Americans under criminal supervision than all the slaves back in 1850s.” It’s one of the many sobering facts from the Ava Duvernay-directed film that covered how racism plays into mass incarceration in the United States. What was most heartbreaking about the film was coming away without an ounce of solace and realizing that much of the pain connected to the black American experience has gone unchanged. Meek Mill’s current situation is part of that legacy.Follow Lawrence Burney on Twitter.