Authors: Jean Love Cush
For Charles, Sydney, and Haley
Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotectedâthose, precisely, who need the law's protection most!âand listens to their testimony.
AME IN THE
He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.”
BEFORE THE SOUND OF THE SIRENS . . .
Four boys were hanging out on Fortieth Street. They had skipped school because they wanted to extend the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. They were dressed alike in blue jeans, leather jackets, and sneakers as if they were part of the same team. Except, one wore a green wool hat low on his head to protect his ears from the frigid cold.
The wind blew Malik Williams's hoodie off his head, and he quickly snatched the covering back on. Eric Richardson's numb hands were stuffed in his pants pocket. He drew his neck deeper into his leather jacket, wishing he had worn a scarf.
“Dude, give me some of your chips,” Eric said.
“I only have a little bit left,” D'Andre responded, flicking the outside of the foil bag with his gloved fingers.
“Then give me half of that.”
D'Andre extended the bag to Eric, then quickly tilted it to his own mouth and downed the rest of the crumbled potato chips.
Malik laughed. “Sucker! He played you.”
Eric shoved his hand, empty, back into his pants pocket. Embarrassed, he teased, “Who got played earlier today?”
Malik twisted his lips into a frown. “Man, you weren't even there. What are you talking about?”
“Oh, snap!” D'Andre instigated, “Tell us again. Tell us what said to Sean G.”
Feeling himself, Malik puffed out his chest. “I was like hell no!”
Suddenly, there was the sound of police sirens. The noise was getting closer, clearly heading toward the young boys. Louder and louder. The sound of fifty cats screaming. Malik could feel the building vibration of the noise through the soles of his sneakers. His heart began to beat faster.
The potato chip bag fell to the ground as red and blue lights flashed brightly against the dimming sky.
Eric tugged on his friend Malik's arm, but Malik was an immoveable force. His mother's words, which rang in his head, would not allow him to go along and escape with the others.
For me, Malik, do what they say.
He could see her warm smile in his mind and knew there was no way he was going to let her down. Eric tried to pull him again before running away at full speed, knowing the police were there to harm them, not help.
Malik spun around in a slow circle, a delayed reaction to his friends scrambling like ants to get behind closed doors. Before Malik could turn around completely, three Philly police cars came to a screeching halt in front of him, blowing up discarded fast-food wrappers, cigarette butts and mangled plastic bottles. Drivers' and passengers' doors swung open. Five officers exploded out of the cars with their guns drawn.
“Hands up! Hands up!” a short, white, balding man in uniform ordered. The other four followed after him in V formation like geese migrating south.
Heavy, hot breath gushed from the lead officer's mouth. His gun was pointed at Malik's head. Four more barrels were directed at his chest.
“I didn't do nothing,” Malik blurted as his hands went straight up. A lump formed in his throat, making swallowing almost impossible.
“Shut the fuck up,” the lead officer demanded. “Do you have a gun? Do you have a weapon?”
The policeman, with the name
in all black capital letters engraved on a small bronze-colored rectangle on his chest, took wide steps toward Malik. He positioned the gun inches away from the young man's head. Malik could see into the dark emptiness of the barrel.
“No! No!” He pressed his eyes shut.
Using his free hand, Officer Rhinehold reached up for Malik's arm and yanked it toward his back, forcing the boy to flip over and crash headfirst to the ground. The officer's booted foot immediately pressed hard into his back.
Blood spilled from a deep tear in Malik's skin just above his right cheek, as pain reverberated through his body. It was impossible to tell if the source of the pain was the boot in his back, the unnatural twist and crack his body made as he was flipped to the ground, or from when his face bounced off the cold concrete like a deflated basketball.
He tasted blood. He was afraid to spit it out, not sure if the officer would take it as a sign of disrespect. He swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and suppressed his need to gag.
“I'm sick of yous punk asses running around here like a band of animals,” Officer Rhinehold said, frothing at the mouth. “You're going straight to hell, where you belong.”
The officer bent over Malik and patted him down, from his splayed-out arms to his feet. He kicked Malik in the side of his rib cage, and the boy instinctively curled into the fetal position.
“Flat on the ground!” the officer fumed, kicking the boy again. Rhinehold then cuffed Malik and snatched him up by the hoodie that was hanging out of his leather jacket. He dumped him into the caged backseat of his cruiser.
“Suspect in custody. All details of description confirmed. Black male teenager, approximately five-five, thin-built, wearing jeans, a hoodie, and leather jacket.”
THE CAR PULLED UP IN FRONT OF THE HUGE CRIMINAL JUSTICE CENTER building. Malik's chin trembled, resisting the urge to cry. Tears welled in his eyes. Quickly, he lowered his head to his lap and wiped them against his soiled jeans.
The Criminal Justice Center wasn't so much tall as wide. The brick-and-stone building filled a full city block on all four sides. The numerous windows and doors covering its facade resembled chickenpox scabs. It was the place murderers, robbers, and other criminals passed through before they were sent to prison.
Around back, a dozen police cars and at least thirty officers surrounded the rear of the building. Some stood like stone figures with their backs toward the Center, some appeared to be searching the area, while others moved quickly in and out of the building.
Malik's heart raced. The sea of officers were all strapped with guns and nightsticks. He hunched over his legs and held his head between them to ease his sudden nausea.
“What the hell is going on?” Officer Rhinehold said.
Malik sat up. There was a barricade fifteen yards out that stretched the length of the rear of the building and continued along its sides. A blond officer, who didn't look much older than Malik, was diverting the squad car away from the building.
Officer Rhinehold lowered his window. “I have a suspect back here. I got to get him in there. What's going on?”
“Bomb threat. All cars with suspects are being directed to local districts for processing. If the suspect is seventeen or under you're ordered to take him to 180l Vine Street for processing.”
Officer Rhinehold clenched his teeth, shaking his head. A thick vein bulged from the side of his neck. He pointed his thumb over his shoulder at Malik. “You don't understand. We have a teenager in custody for homicideâthat's an automatic transfer.”
The young officer shrugged his shoulders. “I told you the order.” He frowned. “Dude, it's crazy around here. The order is if the arrestee is under seventeen years old, they go to 1801. They'll work it out there.”
The young officer turned his back on Officer Rhinehold and began to direct stragglers and other cars that had penetrated the first line of barricades.
Officer Rhinehold banged his fists on the steering wheel. “Damn it!” he spat. He put the car into reverse and backed out.
JANAE WILLIAMS SAT ON THE WOBBLY TOILET LID IN HER CRAMPED BATHROOM. The green-and-yellow-tiled walls had small beads of water on them from the steam rising from the running shower.
She massaged her left foot and then her right one, trying to tame the stinging pain that had set in from waiting in the cold too long for a bus that never showed. It was just her luck that on the day she left the house without a hat, scarf, or boots it felt like ten below. It took her more than an hour to get home from Thomas Jefferson Hospital, where she worked as a cafeteria cashier. She put both feet down on the dingy, cracked linoleum floor and then stuck her hand behind the plastic curtain. The water was nice and hot.
She stood up to undress. She got a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked like she had been through a washing machine's spin cycle. Her lips were cracked, and the skin around her eyes and nose was stained with dry tears and snot. Blotches of red from the cold were starting to fade from her golden-brown complexion. Janae's ponytail puffed and shrunk a good two inches during her walk home in the cold, wet weather. And she must have lost one of her hoop earrings in her mad dash to get home. She pulled the remaining one out and placed it on the small shelf above the sink.
The doorbell rang. Instinctively, she turned toward the closed bathroom door as though that would allow her to see who was at the front door from her second-floor apartment. She shook her head at the lousy timing.
It rang again but this time someone pressed repeatedly on the doorbell as if they had lost their damn mind.
“Malik! I keep telling youâ” Janae said as she marched down the steps and swung the door wide open.
In front of her stood a visibly shaken fifteen-year-old who looked older than his years underneath his baseball cap worn low and nearly concealing his wide, tear-stained eyes. Eric Richardson was over six feet tall with a slight fuzz of hair along his jawline. His dark-mahogany skin was dotted with goose bumps.
“What is it, Eric?” Her heart began to palpitate. Her mind had already gone to the darkest place. “Is Malik hurt? Is Malik .Â .Â . Please .Â .Â . Tell me he's okay.” She grabbed the boy by the arms.
“I, I tried to take him .Â .Â .”
“What is it? What!” she begged.
“They took him. They say he killedâ”
“He didn't kill no Troy. I know he didn't,” Eric said.
“Troy? Troy's dead! The police think Malik killed Troy?” she shrilled. Troy had been in her home countless times. She shook her head violently. “No, no, that's not possible.”
She had often thought about what she would do, and how she would respond if Malik was involved in something horrible.
She had spoken to her son about the cops and being arrested many timesâthat was the responsibility of every black mother. She had been relentless in drilling into Malik that if the police ever stopped him,
Raise your hands high, keep your mouth shut, and do what they order, immediately.
Janae's breathing evened. “Eric, I want you to calm down and start from the beginning. Tell me everything.”
The boy balled his stiff hands into fists. He held them close to his mouth and tried to warm them with blows of breath. He looked up and down the street. There were a few people outside hanging around as usual.
“Come in here.” She guided him by the shoulder and pulled him into the dimly lit hallway and shut the door behind them. “When did this happen and where did they take him?”
“It just happened. I swear. As soon as the cop cars pulled away I came right here.” He shook his head. “We were just hanging out, messing around. The sirens were so loud. They kept getting louder. They were coming right at us! Everyone started running. I didn't thinkâI just ran like everyone else. I was almost inside the corner store when I turned back and Malik was still just standing there like he didn't know what to do.”
She shook her head at the thought of him alone and terrified. Maybe she had been dead wrong in what she told him to do when in the presence of police. Had he run, he would be with her right now. She leaned against the wall, buried her face in her hands.
“You all right?” Eric asked.
“Don't stop,” she said, blinking away tears.
“That's it really, they put him in the cop car,” he said, then hesitated.
She looked at him. The space between his narrowed eyes was heavy with wrinkles. His lips shuddered. “I, I guess maybe the officers kind of beat him up a bit. There was blood. Blood was on the ground afterwards. I don't know where he was hurt.” He frowned, and his eyes met hers. “Or, or if he was even hurt.”
She winced as if the blows her son took landed on her own body. “He couldn't have done this.”
The boy shook his head slowly as he took in her words. “It's just not him.”
She nodded her head softly in agreement. “I know. I know. But where did they take him?”
“I don't know.”
IT TOOK LESS THAN AN HOUR TO FIND OUT THAT MALIK WAS AT 1801 VINE Street, thanks to the Philadelphia public defenders' office. The number of poor defendants in the city was so plentiful that the organization had become a virtual hotline for the accused and their families.
Janae was told to go to the Juvenile Probation office. The intake portion of the unit was responsible for getting cases ready to go before a judge.
“My son is here. I was told by the public defender that he is here. Can I see him, please?” Janae's eyes scanned the lower-right corner of the glass divider that separated the waiting area from the office workers. Her eyes settled on a black nameplate with embossed white letters. It read:
The woman on the other side of the glass was much older than Janae, but she was clearly trying to hold on to her youth. She wore bright-red lipstick on her plump lips, hoop earrings that reached her shoulders, and her sweater stretched over several rolls of belly fat. Fine beads of sweat formed a wet mustache just above her top lip. She didn't bother to look up from the newspaper she was reading. “What's the name?” she said in a loud, flat voice. “Last name first, please.”
“Malik Williams. I mean Williams,” Janae said anxiously.
The woman folded her paper over, exposing the keyboard that was on the counter in front of her. She pecked at the keyboard with excessively long acrylic fingernails that had an assortment of colors and shapes on each nail. Janae could make out the W-I-L of her key strokes. The woman mistakenly pressed O on the fourth tap instead of L. She corrected herself and then asked for the spelling of his first name.
“Have a seat in the waiting area.”
The older woman turned her body slightly from the glass, thumped her newspaper with her nails, and went back to reading.
“Can you just tell me if you have him?”
Eboni Jenkins used the tip of her pen to scratch her scalp. With each stroke, the coiled edges of her braided salt-and-pepper hair peeked out from underneath her auburn weave. “Ma'am.” She gritted her teeth. “I wouldn't have you wait here for nothin'. When they are ready for you, they'll call you back.” The woman snapped her wrist so that her finger pointed to a gray door that blended into the gray-painted cinderblock walls. Above it was a sign that read:
An onslaught of rage gnawed at Janae. She wanted to reach through the glass and force the woman to understand that her son was a real live breathing boy, not just some name in the system that she typed into the computer.
Janae looked anxiously at the door that separated her from Malik.
She joined the other mothers in the waiting area. She tried to occupy herself. An old, clunky TV hung from the ceiling. It showed image after image of beautiful women modeling fashion trends for the upcoming spring, worrying about their resolutions to get in shape, and discussing how to please their men with the latest fragrances, gadgets, and sexual overtures.
The woman across from Janae sat on the edge of her seat. Tears mixed with black mascara on her face gave her the appearance of a child having finger painted on her dark skin. She ripped paper over and over again into tiny pieces as though she was making confetti for a party. Bits of paper spilled over her hand to the floor, forming a small pile at her feet. The mother next to Janae sat perfectly still with her eyes closed. Her hands were folded in her lap, and her head slightly bowed. Her mouth moved rapidly but no words came out.
Janae tired of the TV quickly, and she had already skimmed through the three magazines in the waiting area. Every once in a while the gray door would open and another mother would be allowed to pass through to see her child. She grew more anxious when two women who came in after her made it to the other side of the door.
After nearly two hours, her heart was in her throat. She gripped the chair handles, trying to stuff the panic back down inside of her. When she pulled herself together, Janae walked up to the counter.
Eboni Jenkins was flipping through a magazine. Janae tapped on the glass and the woman looked up at her as though she had never seen her before. “Am I going to get to see my son today?” Janae's voice cracked with pain. “I need to see him. Please.”
“What's his name, again?” the woman said with her fingers hovering over the keyboard ready to type the requested information. “Gimme the last name.”
Frustration and anger welled up inside of Janae on top of the fear. How could she protect Malik if she couldn't even manage to see him? “His name?” A flood of tears escaped from her eyes, and her body bowled over as if there was a foot in her back stomping her down.
Eboni Jenkins's suspended fingers slowly balled at her keyboard. She stood up and looked at Janae. She took in a deep breath, leaned over to her coworker's desk, and pulled a tissue from a box. She slid it through the opening in the glass window. “Here, take this.”
Janae managed to stand straight. Their eyes met briefly. “Thank you,” Janae said. She used the tissue to dry as much of her face as she could. But the tears would not stop flowing. “I'm sorry,” she said folding the tissue in order to dab at her eyes some more.
, you're not the first mom to cry here, won't be the last either. Don't worry about it.” Eboni's eyes softened and her lips curled into a faint smile. She handed Janae a fresh tissue. “What's your boy's name, again? Maybe we can find out something.”
“It's Malik Williams.”
The woman typed the name into the computer. She tapped the monitor with her fake nail. “It says right here that Malik will be in Courtroom B next Monday at eight a.m. That's upstairs on the second floor. With that bomb threat at CJC everything is a bit out of wack. I'm so sorry, but you going to have to wait until then to see him.”
JANAE THOUGHT ABOUT CALLING HER MOTHER BUT WASN'T UP FOR THE doom and gloom that would inevitably be cast over Malik by her. According to Janae's mother, nothing works out right. Janae loved her mom, but she wasn't the kind of help she needed at a time like this. Janae had to stay hopeful for Malik.
Janae sat glued to her old sofa, watching the local news. Other than the streets, it was her only source of information about Malik.
In the neighborhood, there were whispers that Malik and Troy had gotten into an argument the day of the murder. Over what, was unclear. One rumor had it that they exchanged blows.
On the news, it was a big story, not because Troy had been murdered, or because her son was the suspect, but because it was the twenty-ninth murder in the twenty days since the new year began. The number of homicides in Philadelphia kept rising at a rapid rate, and the police were itching for someone to blame.
Troy's face splashed across the TV screen. His smile tore at Janae. He had doe eyes and a dimpled left cheek. Troy had a great smile and was always laughing at something Malik had said.
One time, Troy walked into the apartment wearing a bright-red leather jacket similar to the iconic one Michael Jackson had worn. Malik looked at Troy, and then his eyes darted devilishly to Janae. All at once, Malik grabbed his own crotch, twisted his bended leg in midair, and sang, “
” The three of them laughed for a good ten minutes straight.
According to the news, the cops were teaming up with church and community leaders, who were calling for a
Take Back Our Streets
rally. They already had blood-red T-shirts with the names of all twenty-nine victims and
plastered across the front. The walk would include some of the hardest-hit communities in Philly, and everyone, all ten thousand of the estimated crowd, would converge on City Hall and demand that something be done.
The local news anchor shifted her angle and stared into a different cameraâright into Janae's eyes, it seemed.
“The question is, should the fifteen-year-old murder suspect Malik Williams be tried as an adult for the murder of Troy Barnes?”
Janae jumped out of her seat, her eyes fixed on the TV screen. “He's only fifteen!” she yelled. “How can they do this? Oh my God, Malik.”
The phone rang. She turned her head toward it but let it go to voice mail.
The news anchor continued:
“According to the arresting officer, Peter Rhinehold, there was no doubt that the intent was to snuff out a life. The murder was performed execution styleâone bullet to the back of the head and another in the lower back. Visibly frustrated, the officer pointed out that in Pennsylvania murder is an adult crime. He said all teenage murder suspects are to be automatically transferred to adult court. But that's not what happened in the Troy Barnes murder. Due to a processing mix-up during a bomb scare just this week at the Criminal Justice Center, suspect Malik Williams is currently in juvenile detention. The nation has its eye on this case because it brings to light how a major American city is being marred by violence. Something has gone wrong in the City of Brotherly Love. We have with us renowned child psychologist and college professor Maury Phelps to give his take on exactly what is going on.”