When I adopted my youngest child from Florida at three days of age, I knew it would be different. I accepted my role as the mother of a black son solemnly.
I tried to instill in him lessons that his heritage and the history of America demanded. I instructed him that the police are not his friends. I implored him to never look them in the eye and to give them a wide berth. I let him know that he could never own a gun. Not even as a lark or for target practice.
Instead, I told him that many police would rather use him for target practice.
I pounded mantras into him:
- A black man with a gun is a dead man with a gun.
- Cops are allowed to carry guns and they like to use them.
Usually, he smiled and blew me off. Handsome, charming, and too young to be considered a threat yet, he remained privileged, innocent.
Two years ago, he wanted to return to the U.S. for college from our home in Central America. I steered him towards a prominent chef school in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder teems with former Silicon Valley residents. It was the safest place in the U.S. I could think of.
Unfortunately, he took a detour to Key West for an externship. There, things went South, figuratively and in actuality.
He never was able to find housing.
An apartment required $3,000 upfront. The two rooms he snagged, were mysteriously rented out from under him once he showed up black to pay the security deposit.
Still working and completing his education, one afternoon he needed wheels. A friend lent him a golf cart, the island’s choice of transportation. It wasn’t the friend’s to lend, and my son was slapped with grand theft auto.
Grand theft auto. Of a golf cart.
Many times in my head that scenario has played out with the young man being white instead. If arrested at all, his daddy would’ve walked into the jail and reminded the authorities that “boys’ll be boys.” Laughing together, the jailer would have scribbled on a form and set the boy free.
In time, the public defender told us my son could return to Boulder. She promised she could get the overblown charges reduced to a misdemeanor and that he could attend court telephonically.
Instead, she did nothing.
Instead, six weeks ago, he was arrested and thrown into the Boulder county jail on a standing warrant. The car he was riding in was stopped for a traffic violation, and the cop ran the passengers’ names.
A five-week nightmare then ensued.
I endured the humiliation of working with an institution that considers suspects convicted criminals and their families a little better. I know my son endured much more.
Only in time will I learn the full extent of his demons.
At first, I had no idea that he had even been arrested. He often broke his phone. He, of course, wasn’t allowed to even call if he did have my number.
I searched for him online and Facebooked friends. Slowly, the pieces fell into place. I located his prisoner ID.
I bought a calling card with the wrong private company. I had those monies reimbursed and bought the correct card for him to call me. Yet, he didn’t have our number as it was saved on his phone. I implored a friend in the United States to print an email from me and snail-mail him a letter.
Once in contact, I purchased a different card for the commissary from a different private company. My son wanted underwear, a pair of shoes, and soup. He was losing weight, and he had none to lose.
Each phone call or purchase was taxed heavily. $1 a text. $1 a minute for a local call.
I wanted to contact his old Key West lawyer but the guards warned against it. Oftentimes the extraditing state simply never pays to extradite. After 30 days Colorado would then release him. Possibly the Key West authorities didn’t even know their “fugitive” had been incarcerated.
So we waited.
I wasted hours figuring out how to provide him with basics plus have minimal phone calls. I couldn’t help but imagine an elderly black mama on a limited income trying to figure out how to help her child. How to afford it.
It horrified me.
My wife told me not to be horrified about that. The black mamas had seen this play out before. For their brother, their father. And now, their son.
To the list of life lessons that I had sent my son’s way over the years I added one more:
- Stay away from the white boys in jail. They actually did something wrong.
This time, the first time that I remember, he agreed with me.
“Yeah. Mom, some of the white guys did really bad shit like kill somebody!”
Unfortunately, Florida did not let the 30 days run. After three weeks of barely surviving with no paperwork, and no information, a young formerly homeless man who borrowed a rented golf cart was awakened at 3:00 in the morning. His jailer hurried him. No time to shower or prepare, no time to inform your mother. At a cost to the State of Florida of $6,000, he was shackled and flown to Key West.
There, he sat for another two weeks before he or I were even allowed a telephone call with his new lawyer. His old one was either fired or demoted. The stories we heard conflicted.
Before that phone call, my son was presented with an onerous plea deal. He would be required to live in the State of Florida for 2 to 3 months. In a state with no family, no job, no friends, no apartment.
After that, his probation could then be transferred, possibly, to the State of Colorado.
And the cherry on top? He would have a felony on his record. The coup de grace of the American criminal system enacted to keep blacks from voting. His record could be expunged, but no young man is especially adept at maneuvering through the twists and turns of such a legal process.
Before the long-awaited meeting, my son made me promise not to mention race.
15 minutes into our call as the attorney blathered through the ins and outs of the pathetic plea deal, my son was cut off. I asked her to call him back. She told me she didn’t have the time
I explained she needed to make the time then to listen to me.
I recounted to her the story. She knew none of the facts.
She didn’t know her client was black although his file was replete with that reference.
She didn’t know he hadn’t missed a day of work, completing his college education although homeless.
She didn’t know a friend had thrown him the keys to the cart and said he could borrow it.
She didn’t know that my son had no prior record, and that he had no intent to keep the cart.
She didn’t know that his prior attorney permitted him to return to Boulder.
She didn’t know that I had Facebook messages from him telling how he was so upset as he awaited phone calls from the public defender, from the court.
Calls that never came.
As I screamed racism, I became more intense and earnest. I stopped and apologized. I reminded her that she was listening to a mother.
I promised her that we wouldn’t ever return to Florida if she procured a better deal for him.
That was on a Tuesday. The next day she met with my son in person. She was happy to do so because she was telling him that on Thursday he would be released. He could immediately return home to Boulder. His case was closed.
I was ecstatic. I cried at my computer once I heard the news.
And yet, it makes me wonder. Did his attorney figure out from our phone call that my son is adopted by me, a white woman? Did she figure that this was all a mistake because he’s not like the others?
That he’s a white boy with black skin? A sheep in wolf’s clothing?
And yet, the disregard and the marginalization continued. I had made phone calls to have his cell phone number reinstated so I could pay it. Once I couldn’t leave him a message at the jail because his phone privileges had been cut off, I tried his cell. He didn’t answer.
For six hours I didn’t know where he was.
I knew that the last Greyhound off the Keys left at 5:30 pm and I knew that the State of Florida had to buy him a bus ticket out of there.
5:30 came and went.
I feared he was celebrating on Duvall Street.
Instead, he was left in limbo. In the jail’s waiting area for six hours, not checked in or checked out. They released him at 7:00 at night, missing the bus. The cheapest hotel for the night would run $300.
But he was free.
He called me as soon as the door slammed him in the butt.
“They won’t buy me a bus ticket. Not even to Miami. God, they’re racist Mom,” he smiled.
They gave him no food and no taxi fare. No cash. But his smile was big on the WhatsApp video call.
The craziness floors me.
Florida paid $6,000 to return this young man for a phone call with the public defender. They made him lose his job, his income for a month, and then sent him back to the streets of Key West.
Luckily, he found a friend to spend the night with. I bought him a Greyhound ticket to the Miami airport and a plane ticket to Denver. His roommate happily retrieved his prodigal friend from the airport.
And now the rebuilding of a life on the edge begins again.
I know. You don’t need to tell me. At least my son is free again, still alive. Some mothers of black sons aren’t so lucky.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: The author and her son four years ago. Photo courtesy of the Author.