by Dr. Boyce Watkins – Scholarship in Action
David Clarke was in prison for four years for a murder he did not commit. Clarke spent years trying to plead for his innocence and no one was listening. He was a National Honor Society student on his way to college, where he was a sure thing to receive a scholarship.
To fight for his freedom, he sent one letter after another begging anyone to look into his case.
“I feel like I’m trapped in a system that was designed to try to keep me in jail rather than find justice,” he said last year. “I am not looking for sympathy from anyone, nor am I looking for any favors, all I want is a fair trial to prove that I am innocent.”
Later down the road, in March of this year, Clarke was given a trial before his peers. The trial lasted a month, but the jury took just 20 minutes to let the judge know that they believed that the young man didn’t do anything wrong. He was relieved, believing that justice had been served.
Unfortunately, David’s reality came crashing down this week, as a seemingly meaningless, unrelated incident lead to the murder of the 23-year old Bronx native. His death was not, according to his family, related to his murder trial. So, a few months of release from the pain of being falsely incarcerated was followed by the disheartening trade off between a prison cell and a casket.
David Clarke is a victim of what might be accurately called “The black male paradox.” This is where the cultural tornado created for and unfortunately sustained by black men in America often leads to the death and incarceration of men who didn’t do anything wrong. For most black men in this country, it’s not enough to watch what you do; you can also have your life destroyed by what others around you are doing as well.
I’ve seen far too many cases of good kids, with good grades, doing good things having their lives ruined by men who have nothing to lose. You date the wrong girl with a killer for an ex-boyfriend, you go to a club and get into a brawl with a gang banger who grabbed your girlfriend’s butt, or you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when your best friend’s enemy rolls up with a machine gun. It’s the ultimate and worst form of bullying, and often ignored by the rest of society.
I am David Clarke. I was the 23-year old black male who chose to do the right things, abide by the law and make good grades in college (not high school, as some of you already know). But I also saw, around that same age, my best friend shot in the skull by black men who had no problem murdering him in front of his young daughter. The hurdles are complex, and when one considers urban war zones like South Central Los Angeles, you wonder how even the good kids make it out in one piece.
We’ve got to do something. We must be more diligent about protecting and raising kids in our communities. When a child in your space has no father or mother, this might mean that God has offered you the chance to become a surrogate. It’s up to you to decide if you want to accept the responsibility that has been placed before you. A few words of encouragement or a bit of mentorship can make the difference between that child becoming a Congressman or a convict.
When talking to your kids about running back and forth to the club or spending time in places where bad things happen, teach them how to play chess and not checkers. Help them to realize that in this dangerous world in which we live, the impact of personal choices is often multiplied and the consequences for black male mistakes are far greater than nearly everyone else in our society. Our boys must be educated, disciplined and willing to make choices that work for themselves, even if everyone else is “chilling” and engaged in counter-productive activities. Our children must be trained to be leaders, not the lazy buffoons that are advertised to us every single day on urban radio.
Finally, legislators who ask for the black vote must be forced to deal with issues such as mass incarceration and educational inequality. I don’t want to hear another word about global warming, reproductive rights, gay marriage and all the other issues that are placed ahead of us on the liberal agenda. If you’re not working with me to save our sons, daughters and families, then I don’t want to hear another word about what any politician has to say. Protecting black life is as important as any other issue on the political agenda, and it’s time that we stop accepting second class citizenship.
David Clarke did not have to die. But for every David Clarke we see, there are 100,000 others aren’t covered in the evening news. I am David Clarke, and I had the chance to survive my circumstances. So, it is out of respect for his memory that I beg you to help me change the experience of the black male in America.