It’s become routine for Donald Trump and his Republican Party to smear all immigrants as criminals, all criminals as monsters, and the Democrats as allies of monsters. When Trump’s preferred candidate, Brian Kemp, won the Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia last month, Trump denounced his Democratic rival Stacey Abrams as Kemp’s “crime loving opponent.”
Trump opened his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants rapists, has whipped up fear about the MS-13 gang, claims that Democrats “want anarchy, amnesty, and chaos,” and maybe most famously called undocumented immigrants “animals” earlier this year. He and his supporters insist the last remark was in reference only to MS-13, known for its gruesome attacks. But I know how the dehumanization of one group bleeds over into others fully understand the dangerousness of Trump’s language. I know this because of my brothers.
They are neither undocumented nor members of MS-13, but in a real sense, they are who Trump was referring to when he spoke of “animals” who had done awful things.
My brothers have done monstrous things—but they are not monsters.
The distinction matters. When it’s not clear, it seeds the ground for the demonization not only of those who do commit awful acts, but everyone in their orbit. It’s why most Trump voters are convinced MS-13 will likely affect them personally, even though they are probably in more danger from lightning strikes than the gang Trump can’t stop talking about. Such demonization makes it easier to increase irrational fears that can be weaponized for political purposes. It leads to incidents like the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was considered such a threat for playing with a toy gun by police that they shot him dead. That demonization has led me to spend several years writing about the realities of race and crime, because I know the real harm that can arise from such mischaracterizations.
Thirty-six years ago, my oldest brother, whom we call Moochie, faced the death penalty after he stabbed a man dozens of time. He pleaded guilty and served 32 years in the South Carolina prison system. When I met the murdered man’s sister a quarter of a century after the killing to apologize to her family on behalf of mine, she was still having nightmares about the brutality of the crime and the condition of her brother’s body.
My oldest brother’s only son, Albert “Smooch” Harris, who was raised by my mother like he was one of my brothers, is serving a 25-year sentence for manslaughter after accidentally shooting a man during an attempted robbery of his fellow drug dealers. Another of my brothers, James, is serving 16 years as an accessory in Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina, a prison which experienced a riot a few weeks ago during which seven men were killed and a couple dozen were injured. Not enough people cared that state officials had allowed conditions inside that prison to deteriorate to inhumane levels, which has led to an inhumane level of violence, likely because those prisoners are considered little more than animals.
My youngest brother Jordan began serving a 24-year-sentence in a federal prison last summer for his role in a multitude of violent crimes. I sat in the courtroom during his sentencing hearing. I heard a member of a victim’s family declare that Jordan will forever be violent. He recounted how Jordan had entered a guilty plea in a murder six months before Jordan broke into a well-known family business in our small town with a gun. The man’s wife, who brandished her own gun and fired at Jordan to protect herself and two family members, was still having trouble sleeping years later. She would awaken in the middle of the night screaming and suffered a panic attack when a FedEx delivery man showed up at the front door to deliver packages during the Christmas season.
I never like to admit it, but I began welcoming the times my brothers were locked away. It was the only time I felt real peace.
Jordan “terrorized them,” the man told the judge. “Our sense of safety has been truly shattered. We avoid going places. It’s a shame feeling like a prisoner in your own town.”
I knew he was telling the truth about my youngest brother. I knew because our family had been terrorized by Jordan’s actions, too.
I spent years terrified every time the phone rang, thinking it would be the time one of my youngest brothers had either been killed or killed.
I spent years trying to figure out how best to keep my two young kids safe while helping them maintain a relationship with their grandmother, who still lived in the small town where my youngest brothers were causing the most problems. When to allow them to visit grandma and when not to was a question that created tension in my marriage. I thought it was safe when Jordan and James were in jail or prison. I never like to admit it, but I began welcoming the times my brothers were locked away. It was the only time I felt real peace. My wife wasn’t sure the town was safe for our kids even during those moments and struggled between trusting my judgment and her maternal instincts telling her I was wrong.
And maybe I was.
I didn’t fear that my brothers would hurt my kids; they wouldn’t. I was afraid my brothers’ rivals, who were also involved in the violent drug game, just might, even if inadvertently.
That’s when I received that dreaded phone call, late at night from my youngest sister, telling me Jordan’s girlfriend had been killed during a drive-by-shooting. The bullets directed at Jordan hit her instead and, by some miracle, did not also hit the young kids who were sleeping in the apartment at the time. Later, I’d go into their room and see bullet holes after stepping over a bloody footprint at the front door. We spent part of this past Mother’s Day taking two of those kids to their mother’s gravesite.
So I understand the urge to reduce those who have done monstrous things to monsters, to animals. Because as much as I’ve tried to love even my brothers, there were periods where I gave into that instinct. I hated that they put my mom’s life in jeopardy. (The young men who killed Jordan’s girlfriend may have driven by my mother’s house first, looking for Jordan.) I hated that they were tearing our family apart, with some of us happy to see them taken off the streets and not caring how they were treated by the justice system and some of us struggling to hold fast to our love for them.
I hated that because of them, my family had become the black sheep of the black sheep, the kind of people others don’t want to be associated with. Even would-be allies, those who spend their lives fighting for criminal justice reform, speak of violent criminals in hushed tones, if at all. People we grew up with were reluctant to speak on our behalf publicly after Moochie was arrested; activists I’ve spoken to have boldly proclaimed the full humanity of nonviolent offenders, but not violent ones. After Trump’s “animals” comments, his administration doubled down on them, evidently assuming that no one would defend violent criminals.
The animal label seems reserved only for some, not all, people who do awful things.
“I don’t think the term is strong enough,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said during a May White House briefing. “Frankly I think the term animal doesn’t go far enough and I think the president should continue to use his platform and everything he can do under the law to stop these types of horrible, horrible, disgusting people.”
But if we’re describing humans as animals, we should think about who we’re placing into that category and who we’re leaving out. Sanders obviously doesn’t consider CIA Director Gina Haspel an animal, even though Haspel ran a secret prison where torture occurred. Trump evidently doesn’t believe men like Thomas Jefferson were animals, even though Jefferson repeatedly raped a young slave girl and had other slaves beaten. The animal label seems reserved only for some, not all, people who do awful things.
Some time ago, I spoke to Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that defends men and women on death row and created a first of its kind memorial dedicated to the more than 4,400 documented victims of lynchings in this country. Our conversation occurred a couple of weeks before Trump’s most animated “animals” comments, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarities to what Stevenson said about how talk of “super predators” shaped public policy in the 1990s in ways that eventually helped undermine families like mine.
“That rhetoric is what pushed states to lower the minimum age for trying children as adults and created this world where we have thousands of kids in adult jails and prisons,” Stevenson told me. “We have just thousands of children born into violent families. These children live in violent neighborhoods; they go to violent schools. By the time they’re five, they have a trauma disorder… and they are like vets coming back from a combat zone. What you are supposed to do is help those children feel safe, but instead of making them feel safe, what we do is when these kids show up at school, we threaten them… We menace them. And when those children, after eight or nine years years are given a drug and for the first time in their lives, for three hours, they don’t feel traumatized, we get mad at them when they say I want more of that drug or when someone a few years later says, ‘Join my gang, we’ll help you.’ We punish them for that.”
We don’t show a commitment to the notion that all children are children “by how we treat privileged kids and talented kids and gifted kids,” Stevenson said. “We have to show our commitment to how we treat troubled kids, traumatized kids, poor kids, kids who make mistakes.”
I know the awful things my brothers have done and have never excused any of it. I also know the factors that helped turned them into the men they became.
I know we were born to a mother who was forced to marry at the age of 13 to a man maybe a quarter of a century her elder. I know she was forced to end her education in grade school in an area which held dark skin in contempt. I know she endured years of physical abuse at his hands. I know my abusive father was born into a society which demanded he treat little white boys as his seniors, even when they taunted him with “nigger.” I know my oldest brother spent years being abused, too.
I know we needed food stamps and other government assistance to survive and were relegated to schools that remained segregated and underfunded four decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
I know we were shamed into silence when my oldest brother went to prison, as though we were unindicted co-conspirators for a crime that was committed when I was a nine-year-old boy, James was still a fetus in the womb, and before Jordan was conceived. We had no right to openly tell our truth about Moochie, about all the times he stopped my father from beating my mother, all the times his checks from his short stint in the Army helped us make ends meet—until he was told to leave the military because they couldn’t handle his eruptions of migraine headaches and violent outbursts and sent him back to us still broken.
I know the shame imposed upon us—as though we weren’t victims, too—made it impossible to receive the help we needed to navigate a world in which a pillar of an already-vulnerable household was removed. I know that shame-induced silence seeded the ground for the cycle of violence that continued with my youngest brothers.
That some of avoided that fate makes it no less true that growing up in awful situations makes it harder to avoid bad ends. I have a brother whose daughters are emerging TV and recording stars, a sister who works for Delta, a brother who owns fitness centers after a career as an air traffic controller, a sister who is an IT specialist and stage actress, a brother who preaches and works in manufacturing, a brother who was been a highly successful car salesman.
And I have a brother, Zadoc, who is now a married father with a new house. There was a time he, too, would have been called an “animal” by Trump and Sanders and others who believe it OK to dehumanize those who’ve done awful things. He spent time on those streets with my other younger brothers before finding his way clear.
Neither he nor I can tell you with certainty why I avoided those streets and he escaped them while our brothers couldn’t. But we both know there’s a fine line between who they became and what we overcame. We both know that if our brothers are animals, so are we.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Issac J. Bailey on Twitter.