TROOPER: I explained to you last night that the bricks were starting to fall and they were all going to come crumbling down. All the evidence we’ve got - we know that you were there. So that’s where we need to start.
KAI: And that is where we are starting too. The feeling of getting caught. That moment when you just – you can’t run, you cannot hide, and it’s time that you face the consequences for what you’ve done.
GAIL: Was you there?
GAIL: Why didn’t you tell us last night?
STEPHEN: Because I was scared. Scared. Young and scared. You know the feeling I’m talking about. I mean, really scared. I mean, think back to it. That moment when you’re hiding in your friends house or wherever and you’re thinking: god, if I can just get away with this, if I can just not pay for what I’ve done this time, I will not do it again.
JUSTICE: After what happened happened, I went to the bathroom and I just looked at myself. And when I looked in the mirror I felt like I wasn't looking at myself.
And yet, the consequences, they still come. So then what, what happens next? For a lot of us, honestly, we pay some kind of price for our mistakes and we move on. Maybe we learn something, hopefully we grow a little. But for others — the dumb, destructive choices of our youth have a lasting impact. Or the help that is clearly needed, the help that those choices suggest that we have to get? It never comes.
BRIANNA: I wouldn’t even wish, like, jail on nobody. Like, cuz it’s not a nice place to be. And it’s like hard to be here. You being with people you don’t like, but you can’t do nothing because if you do something or say something wrong, you’re gonna get in more trouble, or lockdown.
Outrage over the criminal justice system has become a defining civil rights issue. Starting at least with Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow, and running all the way through Colin Kaepernick today, people are talking about the excesses of cops and courts with a new urgency.
[Black lives matter chant]
But here’s the thing, we have focused largely on the horrific end of the story: when there’s a dead body. In this podcast, we’re gonna instead look at the moment when young people first collide with law and order, and the lifelong mark it makes on them… We’ve all heard the stat: America incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Well that’s starts young. On any given night, roughly 53 thousand young people are in some form of lockup -- like more than a sold-out crowd at a Major League Baseball game. And nearly 60 percent of those kids are black or Latino. These are our kids. All of them. They’re our future. And yet, it’s too easy to just put them away somewhere and forget about them. That is, unless it’s your family – your sister or your brother, your son, sitting in lockup.
I’m Kai Wright... and this is... Caught
MOM: He was always dressed in a costume, running around the house in his Spiderman costume. He wanted to be a superhero.
Z: Oh yeah, I remember that too.
MOM: He used to say, "Spiderman, doodoo man, coming around the town.” [laughter]
Z: That’s my childhood
Kai: This is Z; that’s not his real name, we’re gonna conceal his identity. But we met Z and his mom two years ago, when we were recording the stories of kids held in a juvenile detention facility, in Queens, New York.
Z: Free me, free me! [laughs]
He’s 16 years old here. And the first time his mom came to visit him, he was in the basement playing Monopoly with another kid and some guards. We’ve actually been teaching him how to use some radio equipment to record his thoughts while locked up.
Z: Testing, 1, 2...
He brings the mic up into the family visitation room, sits down with his mom at a little table, and he starts interviewing her.
Z: How was it like the first time you saw me perform?
MOM: The first time it was a whole lot of people, and I was like...that’s my son, that’s my son on stage! I was just so excited, I don’t know.
Z: Tell them about your support throughout my whole rap career.
Mom: You was diagnosed with a learning disability. You had a lot of problems in school. So I had to think of a way where you would catch up with the other kids. And we realized that we like music because every time I put on the radio you would sing with me and we would dance. So I thought, I should go get a dictionary. I could trick him into learning all the words in a dictionary. Then I was like, “Look, you could get words out of this book and you could use it in your songs.” That’s when I knew that you was talented, when you was eight or nine years old you made a video to “Bouncing like a bunny.
RECORDING: “Bunny honey money keep on bouncing like a bunny, bouncing bouncing like a bunny, bouncing like a bunny, bouncing bouncing like a bunny, bouncing like a bunny, bouncing bouncing like a bunny...you see money baby for rock made me, the haters stay hatin’ cuz I’m fresh like Jay-Z...”
Z: it just looked like a music video.
MOM: Yes it did.
Z: yeah, it looked professional. I was only like eight or nine years old. Mom: I still think would have been a hit. But you never gave up, there was many a times you were like, “Mommy, I don't want to rhyme no more, I don't want to sing.” And I was like “why?” You was like, “Because I'm never going to go anywhere.” I was like “No you are, you’re good.” I always thought he was going to be another Jay-Z or 50 Cent and...now look at you.
Z’s a quiet kid, maybe 5’9”, with a slight build. He’s the type to look down when you try to make eye contact with him. And I look at him and I just don’t see a kid who’d commit a violent crime. Yet, he’s in for armed robbery. He and a bunch of friends robbed a store, and at least one of them had a gun. Which means, somebody else looked at Z and feared for their life. Still, it is really not fair to start his story there. Because that was nowhere near Z’s first collision with the law.
KAI: When was the first time you were arrested?
Z: Uh, I think in 6th grade
K: In 6th grade, so you were like, what...12 years old?
Z: Yeah, it started off as something simple. I was just a young kid, we were selling candy and stuff…
K: Selling candy, what do you mean selling candy?
Z: Like selling candy, that was my little hustle when I was younger.
K: And so you would just walk around school with, like, a box of candy?
Z: Not walk around school, but during lunchtime everybody used to come to me and stuff. And I made a good, like, 200 dollars a week
doing that and so...
K: 200 dollars a week, that’s money!
Z: I felt like I was rich for a 6th grader.
K: You were rich for a 6th grader! 200 dollars a week!
Z: So we selling, and after that a kid came up to me and said, can I sell with you? I was, like alright fine. But then after, he was like...for every candy bar that I sell, I’m gonna keep a dollar to myself. And I’m like wait, we gotta get a profit type stuff!
You can hear where this is going…It was Z’s candy in the first place, but the other kid wanted to keep all the profit. And Z was like...uh, hell no.
Z: So we got into an argument and it actually led to us fighting with each other
K: Were you on the school campus? Where was the fight?
Z: Right across the street from the school campus. I don’t know what made him do it but he went to the precinct and told on us and said we tried trying to rob him for his money.
Now, this is an important detail. Because this is the moment where a schoolyard fight...turns into a criminal concern. So in order to get a true sense of it, to really see how this thing snowballed so quickly, one of our reporters, Jared Marcelle, took me out to Z’s middle school, to show me where the fight went down.
JARED: There’s four cops out here. And they're standing by the entrance which is...I mean you would think that something something's about to go down. Not necessarily that kids are getting out of school. The school is literally next door to a police station.
GIRLS: Oh, can I say something? Can I say something? Hi. Hi.
JARED: Sure go ahead, say something.
JARED: Y'all go to school right by the precinct, right?
JARED: What's that like?
GIRLS: It's crazy. You always see the cops running to break up a fight. Exactly, cars, police cars, police cars everywhere. Especially around here.
Cops are just a constant, routine part of these kids lives. So, when Z’s candyselling partner decided he wanted to do something about the fact that he got beat up, he didn’t have to go far.
Z: After the fight I went in his pockets, I was like ‘Nah that's my money, I'm not letting you...you’re not leaving away from me until I get my money back.’
K: And so he gets up and goes to the precinct?
Z: Yeah, and I was like ‘Oh, he's walking towards the precinct. I should probably go before stuff escalates.’ Ended up like he filed a police report.
Z’s a minor, so we can’t see his records to get the official account of what happened. And to be fair, he acknowledges that things got carried away: He beat the kid up and threw his shoes on top a building. Still, he was in middle school. And what happened next, it just seems way out of proportion.
Z: I was in the store one day after school and all of a sudden I seen two cops are coming towards me and they look like they are not trying to look at me. So I was like, alright, maybe I’m over exaggerating, they’re not coming towards me. It looked like they about to walk right past me. So I put my head down and all I feel is a handcuff on one of my arms and I was ooooh...yeah they got me.
K: So they handcuff you then what happens?
Z: They bring me to the precinct and they call my mom up
K: Does she come down there?
Z: Yeah she had to come down to the precinct. So from the precinct they took me from there to the courthouse, they put me inside the little police van and drove me, two officers in the front of me, two officers in the back of me. And I had to stay downstairs in like this little cell.
K: When you went up to see the judge when you left that room and they took you up to see the jude, what were you thinking?
Z: I was like praying like, come on, I need to go home, I’m tired of being here. I been eating cold turkey sandwiches all day and drinking this nasty milk, like I need to get out of here.
K: So you get up there and he says what to you?
Z: So you go over there with your attorney at the table, and you face toward the judge, keep your hands behind your back, then they ask you your first name and last name. Then they ask you to say like a little oath, like “Do you swear to tell the truth, raise your right hand,” I think? I’m not sure. Your lawyer talks to the judge, and if they feel like you ready to go home, they let you go home.
K: and so at the end of all that, they told you all right, you can go home.
But that wasn’t just the end of it. From that moment, Z was marked. The fact of his arrest was sealed to the public, yes -- but not to the system. The precinct officers knew him... the judge knew him... and now he had a record, with a violent crime.
K: Had you been in any trouble before that, with the law of any kind?
Z: Not with the law. Maybe truancy or something like that. Skipping out of school and the paddy wagon come get you.
K: Reason why I ask, because a lot of people, you know when I was 12 and someone put a handcuff on me. I would have been like – woah this is crazy, what’s this, this is a cop! But you had seen this kind of thing before.
K: Would they cuff you when they would arrest you for truancy? When they stopped you for truancy?
Z: Sometimes, depending on if you tried to run.
K: Did you ever run?
Z: Yeah a couple of times. [laughter]
It's funny -- but of course, it's really not… Because it was the start of a childhood in which truant officers and cops and courts have been as common as schools. His arrest in the candy selling fight ended simply – he was sent home with his mom. But it wasn’t his last run-in with the law. There was a bunch of small stuff, but finally, it got serious: he and a bunch of friends robbed a corner store. So now, he sits in detention. He’s been locked up for over a year, and he’s hoping they’re ready to let him go.
Z: Hopefully I go home, and if not, do the rest of my time and I'm out of here. That’s it. I've already been off and off like maybe one two years. Over and over and over.
MOM: We can’t do this anymore. Cuz I feel like I’m in here with you. You’re a part of my heart. I’m used to waking up to you every day and you coming in my room and sitting on the bed. I mean, I love you so much. I don't wish this on nobody being in here or anywhere. That have to do with incarceration. I just want you to come home so we can be a family again.
And that’s what a judge will decide--whether they do in fact get to be a family again, or Z’s gotta stay inside. Later in this series, we’re gonna go to court with Z and his mom to find out what happens. But first, to really understand what he’s facing, we gotta pause, and back up -- all the way to 1990s.
[Screeching tires. Cocking gun.]
“Get your ass up out the car…’”
That’s up next.
So…the Nineties. Boyz II Men and Alanis Morissette and pagers and loud prints and that white Bronco cruising up the 405... There’s all that stuff, but also something we rarely look back on: It was a moment when the American imagination became fixated, for better and for worse, on a particular kind of black masculinity.
TUPAC: “Only god can judge / nobody else / all you other motherfuckers get out my business…”
Politicians, culture warriors, church leaders -- they all had opinions about the lives of young black men. This was of course a result of the drug trade, and all of its violence. And young black men had a lot to say too. Performers like Biggie and Nas and Tupac spoke back to America with some of hip hop’s greatest albums...
“TUPAC: And all my memories, of seein' brothers bleed
And everybody grieves, but still nobody sees
Recollect your thoughts, don't get caught up in the mix
Cause the media is full of dirty tricks…”
And let’s be clear, there was a crime problem. At the start of the Nineties, America had a higher murder rate than had been recorded since the Seventies. People of all races and classes were truly shaken. For some people, this was a lived problem – they looked around their neighborhoods and saw violence that threatened their children. But for most Americans, this was a more distant concern. They watched it play out on the news, and they conjured a lurid image... The Hughes Brothers captured that image -- the one too many people held in their minds -- in the classic hip hop film Menace II Society.
“Now O-Dog was the craziest nigga alive. America’s nightmare: Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.”
The movie’s big plot twist comes from an act that, by this point in the 90s, had become the ultimate representation of just how much of a menace young black men could be. An iconic act depravity.
[Screeching tires. Cocking gun.]
“Get your ass up out the car nigga! Get the fuck out!”
DWAYNE: It’s really, the stupidest crime that you could ever commit. I'm kind of dumbfounded that, as a relatively intelligent 16 year old, that if I was choosing to commit a crime, like, that's the crime I would commit.
I’m in the studio with Dwayne Betts, who’s gonna be with me throughout this podcast. He’s gonna help me think about how America deals with kids, kids like Z, who commit crimes. And hear me clearly there: we’re not talking about guilt and innocence here. The kids in just about all the stories we’ll tell are guilty; Z is guilty of armed robbery. We know that. The unanswered question is, what’s it even mean to call a 14, 15 year old child a criminal? What happens after we make that declaration? Dwayne’s life gives him unique insight on the question. Today, he’s a father, a husband, a renowned poet and author -- and a lawyer who works with juvenile defendants. But at 16, he was a kid who drove to suburban mall, flashed a gun at a guy, and stole his car.
DWAYNE: I had these rules. First I wouldn't sell weed, I just smoke. Then I might sell weed, but I definitely wouldn't sell like hard drugs. Like I wouldn't be selling cocaine, right? And then I knew people who would rob people, but they were just friends of mine. I definitely would never do this, right? And then one day, I'm with like, it was five of us, and I really only knew one of the people. And we in a room talking, and 30 minutes later we in a car driving to Springfield Mall. And I get it, like we intentionally went there to rob somebody. But, even now I'm trying to explain it, it's just not as clean as that. I didn't even know their names you know? And to admit something like that either makes the crime seem worse, or I hope, makes it more obvious how kind of oblivious I was. And how kind of, I got caught up in this wave that ended in prison.
KAI: So how’d it go down? You guys drive to the Springfield Mall...
DWAYNE: Yeah. And we walked around the mall for a little bit, then we came out and I just saw this guy asleep in his car and I tapped on his window and he was kind of startled. But you know, I like, whispered and he couldn't hear me, so he rolled down his window and I was like, “Get out the car.” And this is what’s craziest, though. So he gets out the car. I throw the gun in the passenger seat. But the guy, he's probably understandably terrified. So he's not thinking, wait a minute this kid who's like half my size just threw the gun into the car. He just kinda gives us his wallet and then you know a couple of minutes later we jump in the car and we drive off. I literally have only held a gun once in my life, and that was that night.
But holding a gun once was enough – certainly to the guy he pointed it at. And it was exactly the kind of thing expected of him – even in black culture.
DWAYNE: Look it was pervasive this idea of dangerous teenagers committing very violent crime, because it made it to The Source and Vibe. I mean I literally remember being in jail reading Vibe articles about kids who committed murders in Florida and in Detroit. And one thing that you didn't hear in those articles was how do we understand this thing? How do we understand it in a way that doesn't just say that that kind of behavior is this person being O-Dog from Menace? Because O-Dog was like, he was a menace! I mean, that’s it. I mean the prosecutor called me a menace to society. Like that's what the prosecutor said.
KAI: He said that? Wow.
Dwayne: So this is like, it was an understanding of a narrative. And it wasn't just us creating a narrative, and it's just some in-community narrative. It was one that had wide ramifications that drifted into the court and that drifted into politics.
“...they are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators, no conscience, no empathy…”
In November 1995, a political scientist named John Dilulio published an essay in The Weekly Standard. It was called “The Coming of the Superpredators.” This essay became a huge deal and has come to represent a real pivot point in how, culturally, we think about youth and crime. Dilulio’s theory, at its most basic, was that the generation headed toward puberty in the 90s was uniquely depraved, because they were growing up in what he called “moral poverty.” The essay well captured the panicked state that much of America had whipped itself into by that point. It came right after the now infamous 1994 crime bill. America was primed for a crackdown. But DiLulio – his prediction was simply wrong. We were actually at the front end of a historic and ongoing drop in violent crime. Still the idea stuck. For years, cities, states, feds--they all kept cracking down.
GUILIANI: We can drive ‘em out of this city, once and for all. Chase ‘em in every neighborhood and get them out of here, once and for all!
One of the many lasting effects was a huge expansion of local police departments. By the end of the decade, the number of cops on the streets had grown by nearly a third.
And Dwayne says all of this -- this whole backstory of the 90s -- it’s the context for what happened to Z, more than twenty years later, when he got into that schoolyard fight. He says it’s not just the laws and cops that changed; it’s a mindset that took hold.
DWAYNE: My lawyer introduced me to a word very early on. He said, “You need to remember this: This is an aberration.” I was like, I have no idea what that means. He said, “What that means is that this is not who you are. Like this happened, and you could own the fact that this happened. But it is an aberration.” And one of the things that I think some of the popular culture and definitely Dilulio’s work was attempting to do, is create this idea in society that aberrations don't exist when you're talking about young black males, young black boys. Like, what we do, even if it's a one time thing, even if it's like multiple petty crimes and then some robbery or something, that that is what our identity is and that we are actually incorrigible. And what you see is that didn't just get applied to kids who committed crimes like the one I committed. But it then created like a school-to-prison pipeline. And the same kind of logic got applied to truancy, got applied to like, fights on the schoolyard.
No aberrations. The system we’ve built accommodates only guilt and innocence – there’s nothing in between, no space for the reality that a lot of people are both things at once. Dwayne describes how this all began to sink in for him as he sat in a courtroom, at 16 years old, waiting to receive his sentence for carjacking.
KAI: Okay, so, tell me about the day you got sentenced.
DWAYNE: You know I knew people would take the stand and sort of be able to say some words about why they felt I shouldn't go to prison. I didn't really have a sense of who would do it and I had no idea what they would say. So but the first person came out and it was my Aunt Pendora. She basically said that I was inquisitive, intelligent and that I had never really been in any trouble before. And she said that ultimately she felt like it was, you know I was raised by a single mother and she felt like my mom couldn't teach me how to be a man. And couldn't teach me what I needed to know to navigate the peer pressure that exerts so heavily on like young black males. And apparently like a man might have been able to do that better.
KAI: Who spoke after that?
DWAYNE: My friend's mom. And she spoke and she sort of just said a version of the same thing. And then this cat, he was supposed to be my mentor but um, what did he say, he said, uh...that I was a good kid struggling with what it meant to be raised without a father. And after that, the judge asked me directly if I wanted to say anything and I was like, “Yes, there's a couple things I need to say, your honor.” And, you know, I don't remember everything I said, but the one thing I said that I know that I've always sort of been proud of is that I stood up and said, you know, “I apologize to everybody, to my family.” Because you could tell the kind of ordeal it was. People had to take off from work to come. But also, I apologized to the victim. That was easy for me to do, right? But the other thing I did was, I was like, “I don't know why I did it your honor, but I didn't do it because I didn't have a father in the house.”
KAI: But Dwayne, why? Like, I don't know. I mean if the whole idea here was that they were trying to build this narrative that might get you a more lenient sentence because, you know, because you were a fatherless child, why not just accept that? Why did you…
DWAYNE: Well I mean there's two reason. One I just don't believe it's true. Right? But the other part of it is that like, my mom was in the audience and my mom did an excellent job in raising me, right. I'm fundamentally who I am as a person now because of my mom. So I could be a lot of things, but at 16 I think I was, I was like – I was unwilling to let my dad be the scapegoat for this thing that I had done.
KAI: With the benefit of distance and age, looking back, why do you think it was important for them to create that narrative? Why do you think that's what they went to?
DWAYNE: If they couldn't think of a reason that made me not culpable for the crime that had been committed, they probably felt like they would have to agree that I should be in prison. And so not wanting to do that, they reached for the thing that was most obvious – and it was one of those tropes. That you know, not having a father in a life of a child leads to X, Y, and Z, and even though everybody knew it wasn't true, it was just one of those things that we grabbed a hold of. And so they grabbed it.
KAI: Because there's only two options: you can either send him to prison or figure out why he's not really truly guilty. There's nothing in between, about what you do for a kid that committed a crime.
DWAYNE: Right. or that why, despite being guilty, he doesn't deserve to be in prison, particularly in prison with adults. Particularly in prison for the kind of sentences that I got, that I ended up getting.
KAI: What sentence did you receive?
DWAYNE: The judge he, um – look, I've never forgotten this. I was 16 years old. This happened, you know, at this point like 20 years ago, and I have literally never forgotten what the judge said to me that day. He said, “I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help.” And then he sentenced me to nine years in prison. Coming up, Z goes to court.
Z: What do you know about my upcoming court date?
MOM: I know that so far you’re doing very well here. I know that the judge said that if you can do 30 days of not getting in trouble you’ll be able to come home.
That’s next, on Caught.
Caught is a production of WNYC Studios and the Narrative Unit of WNYC News.
This episode was reported by Jared Marcelle, Courtney Stein, and myself, with additional reporting from Simone Cazares.
Special thanks to Dwayne Betts for his consultation on the podcast. You should read his book: A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.
Also a special thanks to Phi Pham and all of the students at Building Beats, a NYC non-profit that provides music programs that teach entrepreneurial, leadership and life skills to underserved youth. This week we featured tracks from students Taja Parker-Graves, Alberto Lugo and Sean Gary.
Cayce Means is our technical director and Hannis Brown is our composer. Our team of talented producers includes Rebecca Carroll, Jessica Miller, Sophia Paliza-Carre and Patricia Willens. Additional reporting from Simone Cazares. Kaari Pitkin is our senior producer. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is our news director.
And I’m Kai Wright. Thanks for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.