Celebrity Platforms

CELEBRITY PLATFORMS

By: Timothy James Young

When I say “celebrity platforms”, I’m not talking about their shoes. I’m talking about the apparatus in which they use to bring about social change. When it comes to celebrity platforms of the 21st Century, I elect Colin Kaepernick and Kim Kardashian as King and Queen.

Everyone knows that Colin Kaepernick risked his NFL career by taking a knee to draw attention to the systemic racism, oppression, and police brutality that Black people in America are subjected to. People know about the kneeling, and they know about his many accomplishments on the field. What they don’t know about, however, is his many accomplishments off the field.

During his time away from football, Colin Kaepernick has been the recipient of the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, Ambassador of Conscience Award, the Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award, and even made GQ Citizen of the Year. He is recognized for his humanitarianism because he donates much of his time, money, and resources towards helping various non-profit organizations and community groups.

He also heads the Know Your Rights Camp, which is a free campaign for youth that helps raise awareness of higher education and self empowerment, and also teaches about safely interacting with law enforcement. All in all, Colin Kaepernick is using his platform to effect change, and he is doing it in a way that differentiates him from most other athletes.

As a newcomer to the world of activism, Kim Kardashian was met with a lot of side eyes and skepticism. People in activist communities questioned her motives. They questioned her commitment. But while they were sitting around conjecturing, she was busy bringing pop culture to the doorstep of criminal justice reform.

There will always be a contingency of naysayers, but based on Kim’s track record, skeptics are going to have to come to terms with the fact that Kim Kardashian has proven to be the real deal!

Not to toot Kim’s horn, but how many other “A” list celebrities do you know of that are down in the trenches, fighting to rectify the wrongs of the criminal justice system?!?

Not only is she fighting to correct the wrongs of the criminal justice system, but she has taken that fight straight to the white house! She has met with President Trump, she has met with his administration, and she has acted as a liaison while working with various social justice organizations to get a prison reform bill on the books. Needless to say, she was instrumental in getting the First Step Act passed, and signed into law. Kim is not just “talking” about criminal justice reform, she is being about it. This was evidenced by the fact that she was willing to journey into the belly of the beast (Death Row,) and visit with wrongfully convicted prisoners like Kevin Cooper and Rodney Reed.

Kim has not only visited and advocated on behalf of various prisoners, but she has also used her time, money and resources to help secure their freedom. The last time I checked, there was a growing list of about 20 prisoners that she has helped set free, including Alice Johnson, the grandmother who was serving life in prison for a non violent drug offense.

Say what you will about Colin, say what you will about Kim, but from where I sit, they are doing the kind of work that makes other celebrities look counterfeit.

True, there are many celebrities, with many different platforms, but how many of them choose to use them in a revolutionary way? Colin Kaepernick and Kim Kardashian have gone against the grain. They have dared to use theirs in a revolutionary way. For that, I crown them as King and Queen of celebrity platforms.

8 minutes 46 seconds: A Carceral Continuum

8 MINUTES 46 SECONDS: A CARCERAL CONTINUUM

By Timothy James Young

Sitting here in my four and a half by ten foot prison cell on San Quentin’s death row, what has stood out to me the most about the horrifying death of George Floyd is the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck. As I watched the video of those long minutes, I asked myself, “what if that was me?” As I continued to process the image of George Floyd being penned down by three Minneapolis officers and made to give his last breath to the concrete, I began to think about how African Americans have been living that 8 minutes and 46 seconds for 400 years.

As a Black man in America, I have encountered Derek Chauvin types at every bend, corner, and stage of my life. And, in pulling from my memory, I would have to say that my earliest experiences with being choked by systemic racism started in school.

As a child, attending different elementary schools, there was always a tinge of discrimination in the air. Teachers and administrators treated the Black students as second tier. By the time I reached middle school, that “tinge” had become much more discernible. As I entered high school—and as the school system determined that I wasn’t the type to just “shut up and dribble”—I became expendable. That means that they became more engrossed with trying to incarcerate me than educate me. Nowadays this is called the “school to prison pipeline,” but when I was coming up it was just called the “facts of life.”

It is said that most cops are good cops? That may ring true to the recipients of white privilege, but it is not indicative of the Black experience. Where I come from, the majority of the cops are of the same caliber and mentality as that of Officer Derek Chauvin, and as a result, Black bodies overflow the nation’s juvenile halls, jails, and prisons. I can’t count the number of times that I was harassed by law enforcement, pulled over for no reason, searched, accosted, held at gunpoint, pepper sprayed, and falsely arrested. The worst of it was when five police officers decided to use my face as a punching bag while my hands were cuffed behind my back. Nowadays they call this racial profiling, police brutality,
criminalization, and mass incarceration, but when I was coming up it was just called “tough luck.”

Generations and generations of Black folks have been preyed upon, imprisoned, and left to decompose inside the belly of the beast—becoming compost for the garden of white supremacy. This happens because the criminal justice system is crooked and corrupt. And because judges, juries, and prosecutors get away with using the same “knee to the neck”
practices as that of Officer Chauvin.

When the highest court in the land rules that a Black man is a slave and not a citizen (Dred Scott v. Sanford), that’s a knee to the neck! When a Supreme Court Justice refers to a Black man peacefully protesting against police brutality as “dumb and disrespectful,” that’s a knee to the neck! When an African American is tried in front of an all white jury, that’s a knee to the neck! When white juries acquit police officers of killing Black people, that’s a knee to the neck! When prosecutors fail to prosecute killer cops, or do so only when they are pressured, that’s a knee to the neck!

How do we rectify this? How do we remove this judicial footprint? Here’s some food for thought. Had George Floyd survived his 8 minutes and 46 seconds of police terror, and had it not been caught on camera, he would be locked up right now and facing fifty years worth of false charges. The prosecutor would throw the book at him—and just like that, George would be a wrongfully convicted prisoner!

There is not a single Black person in this country that hasn’t been racially profiled, discriminated against, or made the victim of systemic racism. At the end of the day, every African American, from every walk of life has felt that 8 minutes and 46 seconds grip around their neck in some way, shape, or form. Be it physically, politically, or
socioeconomically—they have felt it!

Will there ever come a time when this Black holocaust is atoned for? A time when it is no more?

As a 50 year old, wrongfully convicted prisoner who has been incarcerated for over 21 years, I thought that I had pretty much seen it all. I have seen marches, riots, protests, movements, and everything in between. I have seen politicians come and go. I have heard all of the lies, rhetoric, propaganda, and lip service that they spew. And I have certainly seen their promises of “hope and change” fall to the wayside. But there is something about this moment that seems different. Not in terms of politicians, or the powers that be, but in terms of the people.

The national outrage and unrest that was sparked by the videotaped death of George Floyd have morphed into a bonafide movement. And the spirit of that movement has taken root all around the world.

Some people attribute the uprising and the movement to George’s death, but it was actually a culmination of things that led to the unrest. And to be clear, the movement is just as much about Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice, and Philando Castile as it is about George Floyd. The truth is, there are millions of known and unknown African Americans who have been killed, brutalized, or disappeared by the police. The movement speaks to each and every one of us. It also speaks to the intrinsic nature of everything that has transpired in this country over the past 400 years. This, in totality, is what caused people to get up, rise up, and say enough is enough!

It is a beautiful thing to be able to see America’s melting pot come together and signify that a better world is possible. And to hear them say that they refuse to go back to the way things were is a clear sign that they intend to turn the “possible” into a reality. And the fact that they would brave one pandemic (coronavirus,) in order to cancel out another one (systemic racism,) speaks volumes.

Protestors have expressed that they have no more patience for committees, commissions, congressional hearings, town halls, round tables, panel reviews, think tanks, deep dives, and more jive about reforms. They assert that the time for change is now! And that status quo politicians need to get on board or get out of the way! The people realize that politicians and judges are the gatekeepers of systemic racism, and that the laws and policies that they create have had a carotid stranglehold on the Bkack community for 400 years.

In following the protests, I am not only seeing a call to defund the police, but I am also seeing a call for abolition. Yes, people are fed up, and they want systemic racism, the police, the prison industrial complex, and the death penalty to be gone! I join them, and even though concrete walls, metal bars, and razor wire prevent me from marching in solidarity, my words penetrate the cosmos and travel the beaten path.

Here in California we are in a unique position because Governor Gavin Newsom is not only someone who “gets it,” but he is someone who has vowed to eradicate the roots of racism.

Taking on racism within the criminal justice system will be a tall task. My wrongful conviction comes as a result of police misconduct, judicial misconduct, jury misconduct, and prosecutorial misconduct. And if anyone was to investigate the malfeasance in my case, they would find that all of those acts of “misconduct” were bathed in white privilege, white supremacy and racism. This deserves visualization. Picture the likes of Officer Chauvin
sitting in the judge’s seat, in the juror’s box, and at the prosecutor’s table. This was my reality. And this is what prevented me from receiving a fair trial.

And then there is the Appellate process… where the wait is long, the reversals are few, and the system is completely rigged. Now I get the joke of why my trial judge would continually say: “take it up on appeal.” He had zero concerns about his erroneous rulings and unethical behavior being appealed to the higher courts. The impression he gave was that, “judges stick together just like cops do.”

This is my story. It is a snapshot of systemic racism. It is a portrait of the very thing that Governor Gavin Newsom has vowed to eradicate. My question then, is what will be done to overturn wrongful convictions? What will be done to uproot the systems that make wrongful convictions an American norm?

From my cell on San Quentin’s death row, I kneel, and I call out for change. My prayer? That freedom, justice, and equality exist on the other side of this movement. My fear? Is that Black people will be relegated to a carceral continuum, forced to live that 8 minutes and 46 seconds for another 400 years.

Pandemic Proof

PANDEMIC PROOF

 By Timothy James Young 

I have recently been asked by journalists and others about my experiences of collaborating with the award-winning artist jackie sumell and UC Santa Cruz on the Solitary Garden project. People have also inquired about my health and asked if I would be willing to shed some light on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic at San Quentin State Prison. After thinking about it long and hard, I decided that these repeated questions reveal a story—a story that is worthy of sharing.

This realization also comes out of my experience of collaborating with jackie sumell and UC Santa Cruz, an opportunity that has been magical. When jackie selected me out of the 2.3 million prisoners there are in the United States to be the Solitary Gardener at UC Santa Cruz—I knew right then and there that I had hit the lottery! I still feel that way, and I always credit her with having celestial judgment because pairing me with UC Santa Cruz has been a match made in heaven.

When I first started working with jackie and the students on the garden, which sits overlooking the ocean on the UC Santa Cruz campus, I was excited to have the opportunity to imagine being able to touch the soil and grow food, plants, flowers… I think I would be happy to even grow weeds. I have been in a cell for 22 years, and I have not held soil in my hands for all those years. I’m in San Quentin, right next to San Francisco Bay, but I haven’t seen the ocean in all that time either. I felt like jackie had offered me a window out of my cell. I even designed the garden to have a veranda so I could better dream about having the view. And, it was amazing to work with students and volunteers to make my ideas become real.

What I came to realize was I was also being offered a platform. The mission of the Solitary Garden project is to get people to imagine a landscape without prisons. What I’ve learned is for people to want to abolish prisons, first they have to understand them and what it’s like to be inside. And, jackie has given me an opportunity to supply this information. I have a platform that allows my voice to be heard. The window jackie gave me works both ways—through letters, phone calls and camaraderie with staff, students, supporters, and volunteers, people are also able to see me. They are able to see my attempts to prove my innocence and the corruption that led to my conviction, as well as the conditions in San Quentin. Through Solitary Garden, I am able to transcend the concrete bounds of my four and a half by ten-foot prison cell and reach levels of visibility that the downtrodden can only pray for.

This has been especially important during the pandemic. On a personal level, the connections and the bonds that I have made through the Solitary Garden project have been invaluable. And the reason that I am still healthy enough to render these words is because of the love and support I received during the heart of the pandemic. As people may or may not know, I contracted the virus back in June of 2020. I had a very rough time of it but my saving grace came in the form of people who had come to know me through the project. It was my visibility that brought them in, but in return, it was their love, care and support that kept me afloat.

My experiences that I have shared through my Solitary Garden letters, which then are published online, have also given people a look at the inhumane workings of our nation’s prisons. I never received treatment for the virus, along with most of the other prisoners at San Quentin (many of us have been sick as a result of tight quarters, overcrowding, lack of ventilation, etc.) and I still suffer from lingering symptoms. And although I have incessantly complained about brain fog, fatigue, and “long hauler” symptoms, my complaints have fallen on deaf ears. I also suffer from sleep disorders. These sleep disorders were exacerbated after having contracted the coronavirus. Despite having sought medical help and requesting to be seen by a sleep disorder specialist to determine diagnosis and treatment, to date, the doctors at San Quentin State Prison refuse to refer me to a sleep specialist. Again, I am denied any semblance of adequate medical care. 

My Covid-19 story is not an anomaly; I’m sure there are a thousand other horror stories just like it. But just as prison officials have hid the true number of positive Covid-19 cases and the true number of outbreaks, so too will they hide the number of long haulers. Case and point: I recently received a letter from my attorney (in relation to a mandatory Inmate Transfer Program) which stated that San Quentin is claiming herd immunity and alleging that they haven’t had a positive test result in the prison since August of 2020. However, over 30 prisoners in my unit were in quarantine at the time that I received the letter. Hypocrisy? Yes! But it speaks to how low the prison industrial complex will go in order to sweep pandemic statistics under the rug.

In spite of the pandemic, in spite of the outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, and in spite of the shelter-in-place-orders and national lockdown, I marvel at how much we’ve accomplished through Solitary Garden. Perhaps we could’ve made more strides had we not encountered so many roadblocks and impediments, but when I hear from people who have been impacted by the garden, the concepts behind it, or my writings—it lets me know that our mission to bring about abolition is pandemic proof.