This is the 2nd installment of Brett Roman Williams’ My Brother’s Keeper series, in which he relays the experience of being the younger brother of and supporting a former convict that’s done over 16 years in prison. Read Part 2 below. Click here for Part 1.
In 1989, a Philadelphia common pleas judge sentenced my brother to 10-20 years in prison for his involvement in a 1988 drug shooting. The Philadelphia Daily News headline read, “Reputed JBMer Gets 10 Years For Role in Shooting.” He was 25 years old. I was 5. As a 5 year old in 1989, the only things that I recall being important were watching the WWF (now WWE) on Saturday afternoon; visiting my grandmom, Rena on Sundays where she kept Welch’s Grape Juice (shout out to Biggie) and graham crackers on deck; Thundercats and french toast for breakfast; and watching Jeopardy before dinner. Meanwhile, the world as we know it today was starting to shape.
George H.W Bush was President and his war on drugs was in full effect. I emphasize, “his,” because H.W wasn’t the first to introduce the “War on Drugs.” It wasn’t President Reagan either. It was actually 20 years prior, in 1969, when President Richard Nixon identified drug abuse as a “serious national threat.” In 1971, Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs,” and in 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Alas, that’s another story, but an interesting one seeing how drugs have kept hundreds of thousands Black and brown men behind bars on drug charges, but I digress (really but not really). So, let’s get back to 1989. The Berlin Wall collapsed, Communism ended, cell phone technology would be forever changed, and the Internet was well on its way to becoming our daily bread. Ironically, bread became my brother’s daily meal as he began a bid of 16 years and seven months.
As I was headed into adolescence in the 90’s, my thoughts became more focused on football and a hood game called “Catch A Girl” (think freaky tag). As I became busy with school, sports, and my hormones, I’d occasionally think about my brother. In the midst of my life, I found that we’d become totally disconnected. No more visits. No letters. No nothing! I really think my father’s untimely death put me in a state where I went through the motions of life as if everything was alright. I became so self-indulged in trying to make my life seem so perfect. But In reality, I was hurting deeply. I can’t imagine what my brother was going through as he received the news of my father’s death during his seventh year “behind the wall.” He couldn’t even come to the funeral. His only option was to view the body while being shackled and handcuffed with the supervision of CO’s. He declined the viewing. Interestingly enough, I always wondered if my brother had revenge in his heart and had plans on avenging my father’s killing at the hands of a retired Philadelphia Police Officer, sentenced to three years for manslaughter. I also wondered if they would ever cross paths behind bars. Now that I think about it, it’s crazy that my brother was serving 10 to 20 for a shooting and his affiliation with the JBM while this man who murdered my father in cold blood was only sentenced for 3 years. Talk about the scales of justice being balanced. Once again, I digress (really, but not really).
It wasn’t until 2005 and he was paroled when we reconnected. The tables were turned and I was on the receiving end of a visit. By then, I was living in my own apartment in Washington and was a sophomore at Howard University in DC. He came to visit me for a weekend. During this visit, I gave him a brief tour of Howard and DC. We laughed and discussed some of his future plans. In the process of sharing our lifestyles, I was introduced to his story of crime; and he was introduced to my story of young Black intelligence and academia. He also shared a feature length movie script that he wrote during his 16 year bid. It was based on his experience of watching the rise and of the Philadelphia Junior Black Mafia. I was inspired by the story that I wanted to help him with producing the script. I was so inspired and motivated by the work and story that I decided to declare my major as Film Production in the Howard University John H. Johnson School of Communications. My brother’s story helped me find my “why” in life. I was excited to introduce him to my friends and colleagues at Howard. He actually sat in a membership intake process of a very cool organization that I was involved in and he became highly inspired. I remember his reaction to seeing the brilliance of my friends. He could not stop talking about how it was his first time seeing so many young and intelligent Black people. My Howard friends could not stop focusing on the fact that I had an older brother who had served 16 years and seven months for being a big time drug dealer! Talking about a true culture clash for all of us! But when you look at the dichotomy of what it is to be a young Black man in America, Howard University and prison are the both ends of the spectrum. However, at this point of our relationship, I began to imagine us as enterprising brothers with a promising future.
My brother and I kept in touch on a regular basis. We even traveled to Vegas to see Floyd Mayweather fight Zab Judah. All of the high rollers and “Who’s Who” were in town. We were in the mix as we stayed in the legendary Bellagio Hotel. Rapper T.I’s, “What You Know About That,” was our soundtrack for the weekend. I witnessed my brother ball out as he’d bet $1,000 on the Phillies’ opening game and then another stack at the craps table. Sad to say, luck wasn’t on his side for this trip but that didn’t stop the fun. He then splurged in Caesar’s Palace on some luxury threads while I sat back in awe watching my big bro enjoy his freedom. Next thing I know, we were in a limo headed to the fight. We were living the life and our bond as brothers grew stronger. Now I know you’re probably wondering, “How in the hell did he come home from doing a 16 year bid and was able to ball out as such?” Well, remember I told you about my father’s bar and his businesses and my father’s passing? My father was thinking about his legacy and our well-being in his will. As we left our weekend Money Team excursion, I was headed back to Howard and he was headed back to Philly. I was headed back to the fun filled collegiate life of self-exploration and he was headed back to a life of being a parolee trying to ease his way back into society. Unfortunately, recidivism is a case that many of our convicted brothers will have to confront and overcome at some point of their life’s readjustment. I began to realize that he needed my help. I also began to wonder about how I could help him become adjusted to a society that has evolved in so many ways since 1989.
Stay tuned for Part 3
Brett Roman Williams is now in pre-production for his short film initiative, Warrantless. He currently resides in Harlem, NY.