If Maryland was Hunger Games, Baltimore City would be District 11. Any day you can become prey for stick-up boys, diabetes filled corner-store food, or crooked cops. Coming across people from your childhood that got swept up in this tornado is nostalgic. I refuse to see them through CNN’s eyes. Recently, I had to prove that to myself when I met an old friend released from prison. I was standing outside of the Raven’s stadium waiting for my cousin Anthony before we blew the game against the chargers last season. Between the folks selling sweaty polish hot dogs and all the recycled Raven’s gear being pitched at me, I got turned around. After a while, I saw a familiar face. It was my old pop warner football Coach Steve. He’s about 5’8” with skin like tinted windows, a pot belly, deep set eyes and a guttural voice. If you closed your eyes he sounded like a ghetto Darth Vader. I figured he must have been getting harpooned by the steamy bratwurst. I leaned in, snatched him out of his ecstasy, and hugged him. “Tariq what’s going on with you boy? How’s the family?” he asked looking inspired. I shot back, “Coach we been taking it easy you know, working and building”. Coach Steve said “Boy you looking like you taking care of yourself man I’m so proud!” Coach Steve coached in Park Heights, a neighborhood in West Baltimore notorious for dirt bike parades and day-time drive-bys all his life, so seeing a kid he coached fourteen years later was almost biblical. “I know it’s still tough out here regardless but, I’m striving Yahmean?” I retorted.
Besides catching a stray bullet, prison was a menacing reality that Coaches like Steve lost countless hours of sleep over. In fact, according to the ACLU, 1 and 3 black males in America born can be expected to do hard time. Baltimore’s “tag em and bag em” police culture is no help in quelling the disparity. In 2007 Maryland ranked at a deadly number 7 among states that jailed people for petty marijuana possession. Behind him stood a guy looking all too familiar as well. “Is that you Dip?” I asked, peering over Coach Steve’s shoulder. “Yeah shorty it’s me, whaddup with you?” he said grimacing. I said “cooling man, same ole same ole”. Dip was Coach Steve’s oldest son who played ball with me back in the day. I remember him with the same deep electric eyes like his dad, but now they looked troubled, almost as if they had blown a gasket. A tattoo centered in the middle of his eyebrows like a bull’s-eye and his fudge skin had dusty gray glow to it. I saw him get cursed out more by his dad than kids who got their outfits dirty on Easter Sunday. Sometimes it was brutal. We’d be having a sleepover the night before a game at Coach Steve’s house, and he would barge in the room screaming, “How the F#%k you gonna be up here playing XBOX when its hundreds of dishes in the sink?! Are you testing me M@r#$cka? Clean the kitchen before I destroy you and that damn XBOX!” And Dip would hang his head, slink out of the room and clean up. We also witnessed him meet the warm embrace of his father and he rarely heard no if he asked for anything.
Coach Steve was an astute practitioner of tough love, and if you’d thought Dip would make a left turn in life, anybody would’ve disagreed. But again this is Baltimore, and staying out of jail is a minefield. Our conversation delved into that wrong turn and eventually, the systematic harbingers that had him caught in the vortex of the system. “Yo what you been up to Dip?” I asked. “Shorty I aint even gonna lie I was locked up for minute yo. Feds booked me for distribution.” he remarked. I interrogated him in awe, “Distribution of what? Yo you lying”. He looked square into my eyes and said “Yo I swear on everything I got booked for some bud they found in my car and I just came home one month ago” Suddenly I realized his skin and the dark cloud that radiated around him told a more complex story. “But Yo, how you get booked for 4 years off distribution of weed son?” I asked more concerned. He whispered, so as not to have his father hear me, “Man I was in West Virginia with the savage N#%gas, I kept getting violations for holding my own yahmean? So time kept getting tacked on, from the petty weed charge.” I had heard this type of situation before. At times, one prison sentence gets multiplied because of the demands for survival there, don’t always align with the rules. Dip failed to learn this lesson early on.
Dip was now 25 years old with multiple convictions and an institutionalized mind that would take intensive care to repair. With all that being said, we both grinned optimistically at each other. We both knew that him making it to the outside was triumphant in its own right. I walked a few more yards towards the stadium with him and we exchanged phone numbers. “Yo I work with people who be coming home, just hit my phone” I said after slipping him my card. Dip nodded his head in approval as we shook hands and parted ways. He’s called me once since then, but for good reason I believe, it hasn’t been a lot of follow up on his part. The thought that he was a thug or gangbanger never ran through my mind. These are labels society puts on guys like Dip who make mistakes in dying neighborhoods where the margin for error is slim. No one’s an exception, and I mean that.
Baltimore’s filled to the rim with these stories. Our judicial system casts such a wide net on the ghetto that anybody could get find themselves getting hauled along the shores of the prison industrial complex. What’s more baffling is that it so far it hasn’t had any positive impact on the community as far as I can see. Which is why I was saddened by the decision to pump 30 million more dollars into a brand spanking new Youth Correctional Facility. Don’t they know guys come home with the clothes on their back, plump with trauma so deep in their psyche it takes weeks just to get them relaxed in social settings? Neighborhood’s become ticking time bombs for ex-cons. Essentially they become ghostly opportunist, who have few legit opportunities. So, is the best method of increasing the safety of our neighborhoods to distribute 30 million dollars into locking another round of unsuspecting low income blacks in Baltimore? Seems like a lucrative band-aid to me. A band-aid that will eventually continue the spin cycle our communities already in. O'Malley got tough on crime in the early 2000s and that kidnapped entire families. Now either there’s a criminal gene being oozed through DNA of black folks, or we have a parasitic prison system ready to feed on anything black, brown or poor moving.
This legislation speaks volumes given all the unrest lately. It says we are in well invested of the business of rotating broken men and women in and out of the system. It says that the schools who were denied Eleven million of that thirty million have no choice but to be the prep school for the youth prison. And we can consider the youth prison the D-league. So for brothers like Dip who yearn for a new lease on life they’re going to have to pull off a miracle just to stay outside those walls. And everyday that they continue to meet the adversity that comes with the label of a prisoner, the more difficult it is to be optimistic about flying straight. What’s more a concern is that Baltimore’s similarities to Hunger Games are excruciatingly painful to see playing out. Only in this reality that’s appearing in theaters new you the Katniss Everdeens get shot, broken, spines or prison sentences for selling the same pot that students in Towson pass around in their deep dialogues about fighting climate change. May the odds be ever in our favor…