Monday, April 23, 2007
Excuse me, if I offend you with this Declaration that Shaquanda Cotton is the youngest political prisoner recently released from the corrupt Texas Youth Commission (TYC). People have called into question the entire Texas Juvenile Justice System, accusing it of racist disparity in the administration of punishment. The story of Shaquanda Cotton is a case example.
She wrote a letter from the Brownwood Juvenile facility where she was incarcerated. She broke through very heavy censorship, in a corrupt system where children are held incommunicado, who are abused and violated behind the walls of incarceration, at the end of the line of the justice system. If they even so much as complain about their condition, the letter will not make it outside the walls.
How do I know? My name is Eddie Griffin, a former U. S. political prison, recognized worldwide in 1977. The government purposely held me incommunicado to silence my writings from a prison cell. Shaquanda Cotton, for a 15-year old, wrote the letter of her life, and it broke open the gates of hell, known as TYC.
I was compelled to see Sequanda Cotton in person, the Paris teenager locked up in a Texas Youth Commission (TYC) detention facility for shoving a hall monitor at school. I had to see for myself if the child was all right after the trauma of being incarcerated for a year. I was determined to be there on Sunday, April 22 at the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church where a rally was held in her honor.
When I started out for the small northeastern Texas town, I had absolutely no idea where I was going. I crept around winding back roads, through rural wooded farmland and sparsely populated communities, and no map for guidance. Of the thousand reasons to turn back toward Fort Worth, I was driven all the more by faith that I would get a chance to see this young lady that I had written so many stories about. Shaquanda Cotton had become a folk hero of sorts and crowned the youngest civil rights hero for a letter that squeezed through the crack of censorship and made it to the outside world and provoked outrage around the world. I felt that this was my child, who had finally been set free by public protests, radio talk show publicity, and a massive online campaign.
Getting lost going to Paris, Texas was only a calculated risk for me. Still there was something I wanted to see in her eyes. Was she like other young girls her age, who, a year before, popped bubble gum, jumped rope, and painted her toenails like grownups? Or, was she the wayward child the prosecutor and judge described before they sent her up the river for possibly seven years? I agonized over what I might find and the sacrifice I was willing to make in order to find it.
How was Shaquanda Cotton doing since being released? How had incarceration affected her life? Were she and her mother planning to stay in Paris, after the controversy of racial injustice had brought notoriety and shame upon the city? People around the country and around the world wanted to hear her voice, her own words, not mine.
At last, I arrived in Paris. Making it back, however, would be another question. For the moment, I could have cared less. A kind local resident went out of his way to escort me the last mile of the way to the church on Hickory Street where the rally was already in high session. There was standing room only for the overflow crowd.
Ron Muhammad, a member of the Million More Movement who recognized me, brought me to a seat on the front row, beside some of the dignitaries and preachers. But I had not come to stand before the podium and make a speech and heap fiery coals of condemnation up the city. There were enough ministers to preach about black people’s indignities. Neither was I there to have my voice heard from the audience. I had come, only in hopes of spending some private quality time with Shaquanda and her mother, which was arranged by Bryan Muhammad, one of the leaders of the coalition on the ground. To savor the moment, I took a picture with mother and daughter.
On the program were young hip-hop artists rapping about God and giving praise to Jesus. One teen brought the audience to its feet with her rendition of “Lean on Me”. “We all need somebody to lean on”, the singer sang, paying individual tribute to all the supporters, whom Shaquanda called upon in her legal distresses. And, there was civil rights lawyer Bobbie Edmonds there to give legal guidance and advice to Paris residents who had no one else to lean on.
During much of the four-hour rally, young Shaquanda stared blankly out into the audience. One minute she was there, the next she was out in space, peering into another dimension with a glazed look in her eyes. She was still in a dream state like the child that wished upon a star- the North Star that led slaves to freedom. Her dream had come true. Her prayers had been answered. And yet, it seemed, that it had not completely registered in her mind, that she was actually free.
Such a moment should have had her beaming from ear to ear with joy and happiness. But the glazed stare I had seen before, in the mirror, some 23 years ago. We call it the “penitentiary stare”. It only comes from being institutionalized over a period of time. I called this to the attention of her mother Creola.
“She’s not the same child, is she?” I casually asked.
Her mother shook her head. “She’s changed a lot.”
Poor child, I thought, forced to grow up before her time. I knew that incarceration caused men to go into “a fog” upon being released. But I was surprised to see it in the eyes of a child- that far away look where deep pensive thoughts take shape and etches a hard look upon the face of the institutionalized. This is the look of a person who has faced dangers and hostilities every day while in custody- a kind of unperturbed façade that masked a person’s fears and anxieties. I could not help but wonder: What have they done to my child? They robbed her of her childhood.
Everybody else probably saw it, but ignored it. The rally was designed to make Baby Cotton feel uplifted and happy to be free. In their fixation, they may have painted an imaginary smile upon her face. But I knew what Shaquanda knew. She was still not free because she was living too close to her immediate past memories- the hostilities, arguments, and fights in prison. Leaving that environment did not automatically leave the images behind. The ghost of TYC was still alive in her mind. It was a secret. Together, the three of us laughed it off- at least, for the time being. The hard days are yet to come. Nevertheless, when it was her time to speak, she took heartening courage.
“It was traumatic,” Cotton said of her 12-month stay in the Brownwood facility, where she said she witnessed kids fighting and listened to threats. “I didn’t go through stuff like that because I stayed in my room.”
Relationships there were pitiful, Shaquanda said.
“I missed my family,” she said. “My father died two weeks before I was released, and I was unable go to his funeral.”
The teenager appealed to other youth and said being locked up is not a way to spend life.
“We need to stop fighting against each other and take a look at the things that are going on around us and stand up for ourselves,” Shaquanda said. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be anything, because I have been told that many times.” (“Cotton speaks on TYC stay”, Mary Madewell, The Paris News, 04/23/07)
When she said that she had lost her father, it reminded me that lost both my grandparents during the time of my incarceration between 1972 and 1984. After my return home, my mother told me how each grandparent had waited and waited, just to see my face again before they died. But they never did. It is still the lost chapter in the book of my life. It will forever be a lost chapter in Shaquanda’s life.
But life goes on. The assault case against the juvenile did not go away. It is now on appeal, and no one is talking, because of the age of the child. Such information must be kept confidential. And yet, under the cloak of confidentiality, there is another side of the story being kept suppressed. She alluded to her treatment inside TYC. Instead of bemoaning how she was written up for an extra pair of socks in lockup, she seemed to have suddenly realized that such petty disciplinary was no longer important. She waved it off by the wave of a hand as if to wipe the slate clean and then added, “That’s a whole ‘nother story.”
Of course, there is another story for another day. But there is also another story for today, and that is the story of Paris, Texas and allegations of racism. Before the Chicago Tribune story was published and the case of Shaquanda Cotton brought to national attention, few African-Americans in this community of 25,000 people had ever heard of the youth. And, the only source of information Paris residents had after the story went public was through The Paris News, which other blacks concede never publish the whole story. Most of the published letters to the newspaper’s editor condemns the youth and tries to hold her responsible for actions she still disputes. There were letters defending the Paris Independent School Districts for its action to criminalize the child. There were letters supporting the decision of the judge to throw the book at her.
Secretly, blacks in Paris speak in hush tones about racism. They suspect it. But they are not given enough information to actually see the disparity in justice. On this one thing, however, they all agree. Shaquanda Cotton should have never been sent to prison. The judge and prosecutor fault the mother for not accepting a probation offer, but they, themselves, will never admit the fact that they pursued the wrong course of action in this case.
On the way out of the city, I caught a black man and a black woman alone at a service station. I asked them privately about the Cotton case. They admitted that they did not know what to think. This is when I realized that the rest of the world knew more about the Shaquanda Cotton case, from outside news sources, than the people who actually live inside of Paris.
QUESTION: Are there Political Prisoners in the United States?
UPDATE: Shaquanda Cotton Story makes international PanAfrican News