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Where I Come From


By Lionel Foster | Posted 6/16/2010

For a full month in 2008, I spent most of my waking moments researching the costs, scale, and impact of the American criminal justice system for an article. I spoke with researchers at a Washington think tank, interviewed corrections officials, and thumbed through hundreds of pages of studies on who ends up behind bars and why.

The statistics were staggering. The United States imprisons a greater number of people and a larger percentage of its population than any country in the world. By 2008, nearly one in every 100 American adults was incarcerated. The picture was even bleaker for my own demographic: young, African-American men. That year, one in nine of us was behind bars. According to a 1997 U.S. Department of Justice study, black men have a 28.5 percent chance of seeing a prison cell in their lifetime and an even greater chance of spending time in jail.

As troubling as all of this was, little of what I learned that month was completely new to me. But living with and thinking about those numbers for days at a time led to a minor personal crisis. I contacted friends, quoted them the figures, and asked how they managed to cope. One of the hardest parts was believing that it wouldn't necessarily matter if I'd actually committed a crime or not.

My innocence, I decided, wouldn't protect me. Back in college, whenever my friends and I walked around after dark, campus police leaned into their walkie talkies to warn other patrolmen that we were moving into their sector with a code: "number one male." "One" was short for "black." In the eyes of the law, I was 6 feet, 200 pounds of probable cause. Convinced a pair of handcuffs was waiting for me somewhere down the line, I contacted a few of the lawyers and law students I knew for recommendations. I wanted a criminal defense attorney on speed dial.

I can't say that I ever fully snapped out of the statistics-driven funk I was in back then. I just let my next assignment and the blessed mundaneness that characterizes most of my life--eating, working out, paying taxes--fill that space.

Then June 5 happened.

According to newspaper accounts, that morning at 1:30 a.m., shortly after leaving Eden's Lounge, a Mount Vernon nightclub, a 32-year-old East Baltimore resident and former U.S. Marine was shot 12 times by an off-duty Baltimore Police officer named Gahiji Tshamba. The victim was unarmed. His offense? Touching the rear end of the officer's female companion.

My roommate texted me about the shooting. Both of us have been to Eden's Lounge on several occasions. To think that a minor incident in an area we frequent could turn so deadly--Tshamba unloaded his clip, 13 rounds, in the Marine's direction--was unsettling. But I didn't think much of the news. It was tragic, yes, but not beyond the realm of possibility--not in this town. And fortunately, no one I knew was hurt.

Except that wasn't true. A few hours later, my sister informed me that the man on the wrong end of the gun was Tyrone Brown, a childhood friend.

Growing up, we called him "Apple" because of a huge bump he once had on his head, earned after slamming into the lockers while wrestling in the hallway at school. Our neighborhood, south of Chase Street and just west of Broadway, was often dangerous. Drug dealers stashed dime bags near shrubs and utility boxes, and the alley that led from our home to the Browns' was lined with abandoned houses, the occasional dead animal, and trash. Yet you rarely saw Tyrone without a joke or a smile. He was only three years older than me but bigger, stronger, and part of the group of teenage boys the younger kids in my neighborhood looked up to.

Eventually, we both experienced life far beyond East Baltimore. I went to graduate school in England, and he survived two tours of duty in Iraq. But more than anything, as I heard snippets of news about him now and then from a mutual friend, I was just glad we all made it out of childhood intact.

Now he's dead.

As playfully as his gesture might have been meant--Tyrone's sister insists he meant no harm--Tyrone had no business putting his hands on that woman. What he did was inexcusable. But his biggest mistake was one I wanted to make myself. For at least one moment, he forgot about the numbers that have defined so much of our lives as young black men. Everyone makes mistakes, but for me those 13 shots are proof that, depending on who you are, the cost you pay for messing up may be infinitely higher than what anyone deserves to pay.

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