On Tuesday, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill pled guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge stemming from a 2007 arrest, ending his twelve-year nightmare in the Pennsylvania legal system. The plea came after Meek’s previous felony conviction was vacated amid a national campaign to free the rapper from his ten-plus years of probation. “I’m extremely grateful that my long legal battle is finally behind me,” Meek tweeted yesterday morning, “and I appreciate that it has sparked a much-needed discussion about probation reform and the inequalities that exist within our two Americas.”
“Two Americas” is the theme of Free Meek, a five-part docuseries that premiered on Amazon earlier this month. The series shows how Meek’s career (and freedom) has been perennially menaced by the draconian strictures of his probation, coupled with the punitive paternalism of presiding judge Genece E. Brinkley. If this sounds like a familiar story, it should. “I never really looked at it as a nightmare,” Meek reflects. “I looked at is as real life for a black kid in America.”
In the United States, the series argues, there are not just two separate justice systems but two different worlds. As deindustrialization ravaged cities across America, the “war on drugs” helped legitimize policing, jails, and prisons as the permanent solution to joblessness and economic collapse. The result: many Americans have been reduced to the status of “carceral citizens,” a “distinct form of political membership” in which people cycle through one punitive institution after another, monitored and punished by an ensemble of judges, prosecutors, and probation officers. “Cops kill people with guns, and it’s terrible,” Meek reflects, “but when judges kill people with paper, that happens a thousand times a day in America. It’s just a normal thing. A lot of lives lost to a piece of paper.”
The Probation Trap
On top of the more than 2 million people in prison, roughly 4.5 million find themselves in the dragnet of America’s post-conviction system. Meek’s home state of Pennsylvania has the dubious honor of being a leader in this respect: it has the third-highest percentage of residents on parole and probation, and Pennsylvanians are three times more likely to be under parole supervision than elsewhere in the United States. Probationers like Meek make up 81 percent of all those in community supervision.
While probation and parole are sometimes touted as alternatives to incarceration, roughly one-third of those held in Pennsylvania’s prisons are former probationers and parolees — and the majority did not commit a new crime. In 2016 (the most recent year on record), 52 percent of new admissions to state prison were parole revocations. Judges and probation officers use the threat of incarceration to coerce probationers to comply with both formal and informal rules and expectations. The ACLU goes so far as to say probation and parole drive Pennsylvania’s mass incarceration crisis rather than alleviate it.
There’s ample evidence of this in Free Meek. In an episode aptly entitled “The Trap,” we see America’s “dirty secret”: a system of mass supervision that interweaves probation officers, judges, prosecutors, and reentry organizations into a powerful net hemming people in from all sides. Judges and probation officers impose seemingly pointless limitations on movement and lifestyle, making it difficult to keep a job and fulfill normal social obligations. Nearly every part of a person’s life is subjected to scrutiny. “They say probation is designed for you to keep a job and get a job,” Meek says. “Well, I’ve been having a job the whole time. After I had a job, I started getting in trouble for going to work.”
The list of actions that count as probation violations is long: failure to pay fines, missed or late arrival to a probation meeting, failed urine test, unemployment, travel out of state, jaywalking, missed court appearances, missed classes (like Meek’s court-ordered “etiquette” course), speeding, graffiti, writing a bad check, and other minor offenses. In neighborhoods where police regulate daily life, police encounters are very common and represent a fast track to violations, and thus to incarceration.
The series also emphasizes the weakness of the case that landed Meek on probation. “I have never seen a case built on less,” says journalist Paul Solotaroff, who covered Meek’s ordeal extensively for Rolling Stone. For starters, Meek’s most serious charge in 2007 stemmed from allegedly pointing his gun at police officers. Yet just about everyone interviewed — including one of the arresting officers — agrees that if Meek had actually aimed a weapon at police, he would’ve been shot. A former Philadelphia cop tells the filmmakers that Meek’s arrest was part of an illegal shakedown of drug dealers. Perhaps a better explanation is that the brutal beating Meek endured during his arrest caused the police to slap him with a litany of charges to cover their backs. Another one of Meek’s charges, distribution of crack cocaine, is also on shaky ground. The prosecution furnished no crack cocaine as evidence, and the story police told about observing Meek selling drugs was implausible.
Ignoring the obvious irregularities, Judge Brinkley slaps the young Meek with a “long-tail” probation sentence, allowing her almost unlimited access to his life. Even when Meek proves to be a model probationer, Judge Brinkley remains unsatisfied. She makes it her personal mission to mold him according to her wishes. She tells him how he should deal with his management, and shows up personally to oversee his community service.
The figure of the strong “rehabilitative” judge has been touted since its inception as a progressive force, since a liberal-minded judge will purportedly abstain from vengeance and instead act in the best interest of the person on trial. As Judah Schept has written, some judges refuse to consider what they do “punishment” at all, even when it involves incarceration. In Meek’s case, this arbitrary power appears in its most troubling forms, as Judge Brinkley’s bizarre and abusive relationship with Meek threatens his career, his family, and his freedom time and again. In a particularly surreal scene, Brinkley calls Meek and his then-partner, Nicki Minaj, into her chambers, for what the duo reported was a solicitation to record a cover of the Boyz II Men song “On Bended Knee,” complete with a shout-out to . . . Judge Brinkley.
While Free Meek spotlights the structural injustices of the US legal system, it repeatedly returns to the quirks of Meek’s case, becoming ever more fixated on the story of a few corrupt cops, an overzealous judge, and a righteous man who suffers for their sins. The film’s shifting thematic terrain produces an unevenness — between the structural and the particular — that the director struggles to resolve, perhaps due to the case’s undeniable strangeness.
Any compassionate person observing Meek’s predicament would be moved to outrage. But while the series sets out to depict the “two Americas,” it ultimately leans on Meek’s celebrity status and the moral outrage of incarcerating an innocent person. Despite its best efforts, the political arc of the film bends toward a defense of exceptional cases, and innocent victims, that does not reflect the reality of mass incarceration.
Redeeming the innocent is an easy fight. It’s easier still to uphold those who have, like Meek, heroically overcome their impoverished upbringing to achieve great success and fame. But what about those who did not overcome their circumstances? What about the people who very likely did the things they’re accused of? In other words, what about most of the people stuck in the carceral net?
In her essay “Against Innocence,” Jackie Wang notes the drawbacks of making innocent victims the face of carceral reform. Reflecting on the 2011 execution of Troy Davis — widely believed to be wrongfully convicted — Wang writes: “The political response to the murder of Troy Davis does not challenge the assumption that communities need to clean up their streets by rounding up criminals, for it relies on the claim that Davis is not one of those feared criminals, but an innocent Black man.” Wang concludes forcefully: “When we build politics around standards of legitimate victimhood that requires passive sacrifice, we build a politics that requires a dead Black boy to make its point.”
A still more stubborn fact bedevils Free Meek’s innocence narrative: Meek undeniably had a firearm in his possession without a permit, which under Pennsylvania law is a serious offense that could have earned him a lengthy stint of probation, if not incarceration. As many progressives — and even some socialists — clamor for strict gun laws, the racist injustice of the existing laws is often left unaddressed. Reckoning with this contradiction is long overdue, and the failure to address it represents Free Meek’s most tragic omission.
An Unfair System
“So many people we know have been through this,” says Jay-Z, explaining why Meek’s case resonates so deeply with his fans, and beyond. “This is a shot for everyone to be heard.” The documentary thus ends on a positive note: the energy and movement around Meek Mill’s case has been channeled into a nonprofit organization, REFORM Alliance, uniting an all-star team that includes Jay-Z, Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and that is led by Van Jones. Rubin claims they will cut the prison population by 1 million. Yet the focus remains on the “innocent,” or those locked up for trifling charges, who are the basis for Meek’s plea to free everyone locked up for “stupid shit.” Nothing is said about those with violent offenses, who make up the majority of those incarcerated, or the criminal records that follow millions of Americans trying to piece their lives back together. When Meek pledged yesterday to help “the millions that are unjustly trapped in our criminal justice system,” it was still unclear what this would mean for them.
Similarly, the series misses a chance to explore the role of black and brown actors in the criminal justice system. This is particularly important, as Meek’s experience contradicts the voguish calls for community policing and more diverse hiring practices. Reflecting on the uprising in Baltimore following the police murder of Freddie Gray, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” Understanding how race and class shape the experience and administration of punishment in America is essential because it shapes the very visions of reform and transformation. Marc Lamont Hill, moved by Meek’s case, puts it best: “This is not about one judge, one courtroom — this is about an entire system that has been unfair to black and brown people and people who do not have the resources.”
If Free Meek doesn’t succeed in driving this point home, it doesn’t mean the movement Meek has helped inspire can’t. Transforming the US legal system requires not only focusing on those locked up for “stupid shit.” It means taking seriously the depth of the social crisis that has made state and interpersonal violence a fact of life for millions of Americans (especially poor people of color). It means organizing to challenge the criminalization of poverty and the existence of the class society that makes it necessary. And it means building non-punitive, community-based networks of accountability and mediation, while collectively fighting back against the reliance on police, courts, and jails to manage social problems — the real “stupid shit.”