The debate over the criminal justice system.
Meek Mill’s probably going to prison, and that’s not right. The rapper, on probation for over twelve years, has been tossed back into the prison system in what increasingly seems to be a verdict of doubtful fairness. The judge who handed down the sentence has already had a long history with him that many see as having unfairly coloured his case, and many have also pointed out that his probation period was unusually long. Clearly, there’s something odd going on here, and it’s been pointed out by everyone from Jay-Z to prison reform activists that the situation is deeply unfair. However, there’s also a bizarre line of argument being deployed against this – that many people deserve to be defended, but given Meek Mill’s patchy record and the nature of the accusations against him there are better hills to die on than his.
The easiest response would be to say that there is actually a case to be built around this and that the crimes in question are doubtful. As has been noted elsewhere, Meek Mill’s apparent crimes are a bit dubious. He was convicted of doing wheelies, failing a drug test for Percocet, and getting into a fight in an airport. There’s no clear reason why wheelies should actually be a crime in the first place, and even if one accepts this there’s no reason why a minor traffic violation should bring jail time. On the Percocet, although it’s well-trodden ground, it’s still worth noting that drug sentencing is extremely racially skewed (especially in America) and that Mill is getting a lot less sympathy than most opioid-users in the midst of a well-publicised international crisis. Finally, the airport fight saw the employee involved dismissed, leading one to suspect that Meek Mill might not have started that fight in the first place. With all that in mind, Meek Mill’s case becomes less clear-cut.
More importantly, however, there’s the idea that Meek Mill just isn’t a righteous enough standard-bearer for the noble cause of criminal justice reform, and that somebody else with a more virtuous background needs to be chosen as the test case. This is a pretty peculiar idea. Meek Mill is already a celebrity and can bring in any number of influential backers. He can also unite the activist crowd with other potentially apolitical fans, building a larger coalition. He has an inspirational life story. What more can one ask for?
Second, ultimately it wouldn’t really matter how squeaky-clean his record was – the media would still find something to try and tear him down. There’s a tweet that often makes the rounds which points out that the New York Times wrote a kinder and gentler profile for a suburban anti-democratic Hitler-loving neo-Nazi than it did for Trayvon Martin, a fairly ordinary teen. If a kid trying to buy skittles gets more flak than a fascist from one of the great American bastions of “liberal” journalism, then there’d be no hope for Meek Mill.
There’s also a whole history here about making dubious political judgements based on “virtue” that leave people out in the cold. Take Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, for example. Both people essentially did the same thing – they leaked extremely large quantities of classified American diplomatic intelligence and military information to the press. This left significant quantities of egg on the face of the Five Eyes, jeopardized long-running spy operations, and caused vast outrage. However, Snowden was aggressively defended and sympathetically portrayed by a broad range of liberal, moderate, and even conservative sources. Multiple pro-Snowden documentaries which are essentially puff pieces have been written about him. With the exception of a few deranged neo-cons and people still hung up on the 2016 election who believe Snowden to be part of a vast and arcane Russian plot, he’s generally seen as someone who did the right thing. He’s an easily likeable and palatable figure whose political sympathies seem decidedly non-partisan, and thanks to that he’s a celebrity.
By contrast, Chelsea Manning got none of that. Her gender identity, long-standing grievances with the military culture she worked in, methodology for leaking and explicitly political critique of state information management (as opposed to Snowden’s milquetoast “encrypt your phone”) made her extremely politically unpalatable. As some of her defenders pointed out, the same people who were most fervent in their defenses of Edward Snowden were also the most rabid in their attacks on Manning. Despite the fact that she was held in jail for seven years under spectacularly inhumane torture, the mainstream media saw fit to vilify her and let the vilest dregs of opinion chastise her for doing exactly what Snowden did, except with arguably more objectionable material.
How does this connect to Meek Mill? Chelsea Manning is now free and a strong impassioned advocate. Yet when she needed support most, and when she was most under attack, the people who should have helped her did not. Her record is unimportant, and whatever mistakes she made were immaterial. She was treated unjustly, and for that she deserved our support. The same thing is happening with Meek Mill. Let’s say he actually is a drug-popping devil-may-care criminal. Just because some people find his lyrics offensive and his record doubtful doesn’t make him any less of a human being who’s being victimized by a probation system which many have justly criticized as deeply unfair and inhumane.
Yes, Meek Mill is a celebrity rapper. That might not sit well in many people’s throats. Yes, there are people who are probably more virtuous than Meek Mill who deserve support. Honestly that has nothing to do at all with Meek Mill’s case. There’s plenty of ground to argue that he shouldn’t be treated in the way he’s being treated. If supporting someone who might well be a dirt-bag means that one less human being is subjected to the monstrous evil of the world’s most disproportionately bloated prison system, then that’s no problem at all. So let’s keep Meek Mill out of jail – even if it’s just a small drop in a big bucket, it still matters. #FreeMeekMill