As I watched the Netflix series “When they See Us,” I can only testify, “It could have been me.”
Ava DuVernay did an excellent job bringing to life the horrific trauma of what five teenagers, four black and one Hispanic, endured when they were arrested, charged, and convicted for crimes they did not commit.
October 4, 1999, may have been one of the worst days of my life. Early on that Monday morning, my mom knocked on my bedroom door telling me that the police were at the house for me. I questioned her, “For me?” She responded, “Yes.” I couldn’t believe it. I had never committed any type of crime that warranted police to surround my house and take me out in handcuffs. It was so embarrassing as my neighbors watched the police escort me into the back of the police car.
The officer took me to the police precinct on State Street in downtown Milwaukee. One officer walked me into the precinct another white officer asked, “Where did you get this one from?” Angrily I answered, “From my bed.” I had just gotten a new Green Bay Packers jacket and they took the drawstring out of it and I was never able to put it back in my coat. They took my belt and my shoestrings.
At this point, I was only 17 years old, but I wasn’t afraid because I knew I had not done anything wrong. I was very active in my church. I had been a licensed preacher in the Baptist church for over four years up to this day. I had been working at Wendy’s for about three years and never thought about taking anything from anyone.
I eventually learned that I had been arrested for strong-arm robbery. A white young man picked my face out of a yearbook as the person who attempted to snatch his wallet while riding the city bus after school. I was a senior in high school at this time. I had only two classes; I was done with school every day by 9:30am and at work by 10:00. I didn’t even ride the bus. I stated all of this to the detective and he still requested that I be moved from the precinct to the county jail.
At 17 years old, the State of Wisconsin considered me an adult, so the police put me in the same cell with grown men. Still, I thought I would be going home soon, but when they chained me together with other men and put me in the back of a large transport truck with no windows I knew things were real.
I arrived at the county jail and they searched me again; causing me to take all of my clothes off to ensure I was not bringing anything into the jail. They took my picture and fingerprinted me. After the fingerprinting, I was finally able to call my mom. Due to the confusion that was going on in my mind I just ran to the first phone I saw. As I picked up the phone a correctional officer rushed towards me telling me to move because I was on the side for women only. I moved to the men’s side and called my mom, crying, demanding that she come and get me from that place. But there was nothing my mom could do. I was in the hands of a justice system that didn’t care about what I had told them but believed a young white male who had picked my picture out of a yearbook.
I sat in the county jail for a whole day. No one ever said anything to me about what was going on with my case. I would call my mom only to learn the police were not telling her anything either. I had to eat frozen bologna sandwiches with butter on them. They put me in an orange correctional jumpsuit. I had to wear the underwear given to me. I was forced to sleep on concrete slabs and benches. The next day I was moved to a pod and had a very thin mattress to sleep on. It was so uncomfortable.
That night I prayed, “God, you have to get me out of this place.” On the third day, I was sitting around the breakfast table and an insightful gentleman looked at me and asked, “What are you doing in here? You don’t belong here.” I said, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
A few hours later a correctional officer called my name. She informed me that I was free to go. I didn’t go before a judge, no one from the Milwaukee judicial system ever said anything to me; they just let me go without any explanation or apology.
I know somewhat of what the Central five boys endured; totally innocent but required to prove that you are in the face of those who have already considered us guilty “when they see us.”
This incident has left a lasting imprint on my character and a practical impact on my life. I was denied employment at the post office, I had to get a waiver to join the Army, I had to fight to get a security clearance, and was asked additional questions when I applied for a concealed carry permit in Virginia, all because a young white boy picked my face from yearbook and when they saw me, they didn’t believe my truth.
As I watched “When They See Us,” I consistently thought about the “what ifs.” What if I was eventually charged and convicted for the crime I had not committed:
- I would have not graduated high school.
- I would have never been able to join the Army and serve my country.
- I would have never been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan where I was able to inspire and lift so many soldiers who were enduring the hardships of war.
- I would have never met my wife at Ft. Campbell, KY.
- I would have never completed two graduate degrees.
- I would have not been a pastor of a church and be able to have a positive impact on my community and church.
I would have had a difficult time making it in life, but God did not allow my story to include a felony because of something I never did.
I had a loving family, I was connected to the church, I was doing great things in my community, I had a job but was still subjected to the cruelty of the justice system because when they see us, they only see thug, gangster, dumb, deprived, dangerous or even worse. Until others change their historical Hollywood stereotypes that have been placed on black and brown males, things will never change. We will continue to be guilty until proven innocent.
Throughout this entire ordeal, there was nothing anyone could do to help the situation but God. I wasn’t in jail because I didn’t have a father, it was not because I did not have a mentor, it was not because I didn’t have a job or because I wasn’t involved in the community. The only reason I know was that the arresting officer saw me as a criminal, even when he heard my truth. This was such a scary situation; and to know that I am the father of a black boy who can be mistaken as a criminal just because of the color of his skin is even more concerning.
The extremely sad part to all of this is that I was not the only innocent black boy who has experienced this and many don’t get the chance to ever go home. So I charge others to see us as the men we are: sons, uncles, brothers, citizens, contributors to our community, men of God, righteous and courageous leaders and most of all just see us as human beings and not animals.
Rev. Dr. Marcus Allen is Pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Madison.