September 24, 2004

Commentary

Documentation Gone Awry

By Ernie McCray

I walked away from Courtroom 38 of the Superior Court of San Diego County the other day dazed by the reality that black folks are still, in a sense, after all these years, being lynched right here in the good old USA.

I spent that morning, in sadness, listening intensely, as three young black men, each in his 20’s, sat facing the possibility of going to prison for life. Life. Now, I’m not against putting somebody away for life if that’s what’s called for. But these guys are facing life for, basically, being at the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time with the wrong tag: gangbanger.

Whew, let me tell you, a gangbanger is not who one should be. See, if you and I got together with an old friend who, for some cockeyed reason, shoots somebody, the old friend goes to jail and we, hopefully, would run home and evaluate our roster of friends. But if you’re documented as a gang member you might as well have pulled the trigger yourself - and that might be just, I don’t know. Seems to be some logic in there somewhere.

But as I reflect on my morning down at the Hall of Justice I keep asking myself over and over: “How long does a ‘brothuh’ have to stop gangbanging to get his name erased from the gangbanging list?” Hey, one of the young men on trial, a Jerome Silvels, rose above the mean streets of his youth and for nine straight years has rolemodeled extraordinarily what being a good citizen is all about and has, in particular, shown a knack for working with kids. People who know him smile at the mention of his name and speak freely and highly of him.

This situation bothers me deeply because I can identify with being a young black man trying to make it in this society. But back in the 40’s when I was growing up on the north side of Tucson I didn’t have to contort my fingers every which a way to claim my allegiance to anyone and I could wear all red or all blue, any color I wanted to, and it didn’t matter to a soul. But there was a gang, the “Angels,” available to me if I wanted in and that entailed fighting the leader and ending up with a toothless grin like most of his crew. I just went on my way with a “No thank you.” And they went on their way with their clubs and bicycle chains knocking giant sized knots upside rival gang members’ heads.

But it wasn’t that simple for Jerome growing up. He had to watch the colors he wore. He had to be careful of what he said and whom he said it to or where he went and he couldn’t wander too far from the people he knew. To claim or not to claim a gang faced him everyday and he chose to claim at one time but he eventually walked away from it all. That’s extremely hard to do.

But Jerome still, up until he was hauled off to jail, lived in the “hood” and childhood relationships can run deep. He didn’t watch himself one night and joined some old friends for what he thought was going to be a little fun on the town and the next thing he knew some fighting went down and a young man was shot and fell to the ground. He died in an ambulance. But Jerome didn’t pull the trigger and based on how he has turned his life around there was no way he went out to a Puerto Rico Festival at Mission Bay on Fathers Day to put himself or anybody else in harm’s way.

Jerome is as innocent of murder as any law abiding American reading these words today. And from what I have heard I feel pretty sure he has learned a lesson my grandfather used to preach to me: “Be careful who you hang out with, boy.”

Justice can only be served if a jury puts an end to this modern day lynching by setting this young man free and “documenting” him as the human being he has proven himself to be to those who know him, a gifted coach, an active father, a loyal friend, a decent loving and caring U.S. citizen. Amen.

McCray is a retired San Diego Unified school principal.

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