Boys Like Us
I could tell by the sound of my mother's voice. Something was wrong.
"Ray," she said, taking a deep sigh before finishing her voice-mail message that day in September 1997. "I need to talk to you about something."
My mother, Verlene, then fifty-nine years old, is a proud Georgian, having spent nearly all her days in the 110 miles between the towns of Waycross, where she was born, and Savannah, where she eventually landed and raised her own family. Mom is a preacher with a God-given sense of spiritual discernment, or what some might call a sixth sense, and she could read people and situations better than anyone I've ever known. So, when she said she needed to talk, I was always inclined to listen carefully.
When she called me that day, I was living in New York City, pursuing a doctoral degree at Union Theological Seminary, and working as an assistant pastor at Harlem's iconic Abyssinian Baptist Church. As the eleventh of twelve siblings in our big family, I was the first to graduate from college, and my parents and siblings were protective of me. They tried hard not to distract me with bad news from home, which usually meant I was the last to know if something was wrong.
"So, Mom, what's going on?" I asked when I reached her later that day at home in Savannah.
"Keith got arrested," she said finally, referring to the brother one step above me in birth order, though we are five years apart. She sounded sad and exhausted. I was stunned. Hurt. Confused. My big brother, the proud police officer?
"Arrested?" I said. "For what?"
There was a long pause.
"Drugs," she replied.
He was charged with aiding and abetting the distribution of cocaine by providing security for drug dealers. He had been caught in an FBI sting that implicated eleven officers-ten current and former officers of the Savannah Police Department, and one from Chatham County.
This was incomprehensible. There must have been some kind of mistake. Not Keith, my stocky, clean-cut older brother, the high school football player who was so in love with the Dallas Cowboys that his friends nicknamed him Dorsett, after the team's celebrity running back of the 1980s. My mind flashed back to those joyful, carefree days.
Keith was the athlete of the family. He ran track and played football at Johnson High School, which first opened in 1959 on the east side of town as a laboratory school for Savannah State College (now Savannah State University), a historically Black college. The high school was named in honor of Solomon “Soll” C. Johnson, a prominent businessman who in 1889 became the second editor and ultimately the owner of The Savannah Tribune, one of the country’s oldest Black-owned newspapers. In our day, the school was better known for the uniqueness of its mascot, the Atom Smashers, than for the prowess of its football team. Despite Keith’s famous nickname and his pretty good skills on the field as a running back, Johnson High went almost two years straight during his time there without winning even a single game. That didn’t stop the fans from showing up each week, though, hoping for a miracle.
I played in the Myers Middle School band at the time. I'd switched from the trumpet to the baritone horn to fill a need in the brass section of our band. One special Friday night we got to perform during halftime with the Johnson High School band on the football field at Savannah State. The Atom Smashers were ahead, and I will never forget the thrill of counting down the last seconds of that game. The miracle we all had been anticipating finally happened. The team broke its long losing streak, and the crowd went wild, as if our boys had just won the state championship. Students rushed from the stands onto the field, and I joined the flow, with my eyes darting around, searching for my big brother. When I spotted his jersey, I dashed across the field and wrapped him in the biggest hug. And for a moment, the two of us-me in my band uniform and Keith in his dirty football gear-stood there under the glare of the Friday night lights, feeling like stars.
The Herbert Kayton Homes public housing project, where my family lived, sat in the school attendance zone for Johnson High. I was about nine years old when we moved there. My oldest siblings were grown and living on their own by then, which left six of us kids living in the four-bedroom apartment with our parents, and we all shared one bathroom. Occasionally, one of the older siblings would move back home for a short while, making our tight space even tighter. But we always made room. We were taught that next to God family trumped all else.
My father, Jonathan Warnock, had served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was self-employed. He hauled junk, mostly abandoned cars, salvaging their metal at the local steelyard in exchange for cash. In my youngest years, he also served as pastor of a small Pentecostal Holiness church. Mom stayed at home to take care of our big family.
I mostly remember Kayton Homes as a nurturing village, even in the 1980s when the crack epidemic and the deadly HIV/AIDS virus swept into and devastated poor communities like ours throughout the country. But in a place where there were too many missing fathers, I had two devoted parents at home, and they kept church at the center of our lives. On Sundays, there were two services, the first in the morning with a short afternoon break before the evening service. A few Sundays a year were designated as "Youth Sunday," and the young people of the congregation under eighteen years old conducted the entire program, sometimes even the sermon. One such Sunday night, Keith volunteered to deliver the sermon, and as I sat there, listening to him express his faith, I thought, "Well, I can do that!" Not long afterward, I took a turn in the pulpit, expressing my faith, to be sure, while also trying to one-up my big brother.
Keith and I, the two youngest boys in the family, shared a room. He slept on the bottom bunk, and I slept on the top. But, as I said, there were five years between us, and when you're a kid, that can feel like a generation. So he and my five other big brothers were my silent protectors, and they helped buffer me from the potential dangers of our neighborhood. God only knows how many times I might have been spared from being a target when a neighborhood troublemaker learned, "Oh, that's Keith's baby brother!" There was plenty of trouble around, but despite my surroundings I never felt unsafe or threatened. I don't even recall ever getting into any fights. The love, support, and validation I got from my family shaped how I saw myself and the world around me.
Keith and I were among the last to leave our crowded house. He proudly enlisted in the U.S. Army right out of high school in 1983. In a neighborhood where many kids did not even finish high school and those who did tended to go straight into the job market with no special skills, Keith was going to make something of himself. I was so proud. We all were. Going into the army would give him a chance to serve his country and a path forward, out of generational poverty. He would acquire skills, perhaps even a college degree, for the changing job market and enter safely into the middle-class life we imagined for ourselves.
Before Keith even left for the army, I was practicing the role of big brother. One Sunday afternoon, when my sister Valencia was eleven and I was twelve, we joined some friends-all pastors' kids (affectionately called PKs)-at their house for dinner, a ritual deep in the culture of the Black church, the soul food that always follows the food for the soul. Their parents and our parents were friends. Their dad, the Reverend Maurice RouchŽ, was the pastor of the church that we were by then attending as a family and where I had preached my first sermon about a year earlier. For all of us, Sundays were typically dedicated to church, except for the afternoon break. After our meal, we kids piled into a car and headed to a nearby grocery store.
Jheri curls were a very popular hairstyle at the time, and some of the girls were busy looking for their Care Free Curl activator and other products. I had a habit back then of walking with my hands in my pockets, which was just adolescent awkwardness. But as we moved about the store, a man, dressed in army fatigues, quickly approached us.
"Come with me!" he said authoritatively.
Instinctively, my sister started to move. I stopped her, reminding her that we were not to go anywhere with a stranger.
"Who are you?" I asked the man.
"Security," came the response.
I asked to see his badge, and he flashed one, responding sarcastically, "Is this good enough for you?"
As the security officer marched us through the store, I noticed the judgmental eyes of shoppers on us. The walk of shame seemed to take forever. Down the aisle. Past the cashiers. And up a flight of stairs to an observation room. He and other officers had been watching us. He informed us that we needed to be frisked. It was obvious what he suspected, but what good would it do to protest our innocence? He would see soon enough. Seeing that no female officer was present, I requested one to handle my sister. We were just children, but I felt protective of her. They searched each of us and of course found nothing. We had taken nothing. We were not shoplifters. With that, we were casually dismissed without an apology or even an acknowledgment of the humiliation we had just experienced. Instead, the officers lectured me to keep my hands out of my pockets while walking through a store. One of them even joked that the next time I entered the store I should just look up at the mirrored observation room from which they had watched us, smile, and wave. It was my first brush with the myriad ways in which Black people experience hurtful and demeaning racial stereotyping and discrimination in everyday life.
By the 1980s, America's booming, post-World War II industrial era was fading, and old rust belt towns and inner-city communities, like the one around Kayton Homes, were suffering badly from what the Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson would describe as "the disappearance of work" with all of its attendant consequences. It was a historical inflection point that cried out for historic investments in skills training for a new kind of industrial era: the emerging digital age of personal computers, information technology, and increasing automation. Instead, the country made heavy investments in a different kind of industry: a massive, increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex that would over a couple decades make the land of the free the incarceration capital of the world.
In the news reports I caught back then, Black boys, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods in the nation's cities, were discussed mostly as statistics. Numbers without names or faces. Or faces to be feared. The crack epidemic brought a lot of deadly weapons and gang warfare to a lot of streets. That warfare was met with more. They called it the war on drugs. And it devastated and hollowed out whole communities. The instructions given to boys like us were more about avoidance than aspiration: Young man, do not end up dead. Or in prison.
My brother was one of the lucky ones. He managed to escape the street war and entered into another. He would serve in Operation Desert Shield during the first Gulf War, in 1990, and survive it, too. A few years later, he returned home, worked for a while, and eventually joined the Savannah Police Department. We had stayed in touch through the years as I attended college and moved to New York City for seminary. As far as I knew, he loved his job. With a strong athletic build, my brother looked good in uniform. His army uniform and his police uniform. He had been a police officer less than two years when my mother called me in New York to tell me about his arrest.
The headline screamed, busted trust. I couldn’t make sense of the news story I was reading online about his arrest. I called my brothers and sisters. Had we missed something? Had something gone awry in the military? Had Keith seen things during the war that messed up his mental health? My siblings were all as baffled and heartbroken as I was. We’d grown up under the same roof and the same rules. Though Keith’s father, my mother’s first husband, had been largely absent from his life, my dad provided us all with an upstanding example. People today would call us a blended family, but we never thought of ourselves as half- or step-anything. We were one family. Together, our parents instilled good Christian values. Honesty. Humility. Hard work.
Exasperated, I uttered, "He wasn't raised like this."
I soon flew home to Savannah to help the family find an attorney, and the news was even worse than I thought. There were many hours of police surveillance tape, an attorney we hoped to hire told me. "Your brother is in a world of trouble," he said.
A magistrate judge had set Keith's bond at $50,000. Dad used a small piece of property he owned as collateral to post the required 10 percent of the bond. Dad didn't have to come up with actual cash, but his property would be forfeited if Keith did not show up for trial. This enabled Keith to wait for his day in court under house arrest with an electronic monitoring device attached to his ankle.
Ultimately, my family could not raise the attorney's $20,000 retainer fee. That was nearly more than my parents brought home all year, and everybody around us was not much better off. It quickly became obvious that we would not be able to afford a decent lawyer. As I got in the car alone and headed to the airport for my flight back to New York, the harsh reality of it all burned like hot coals in my chest. First a warm trickle, then a tear, and soon a flood poured down my face. His life-our lives-were about to change forever.
As I learned more about my brother's case, my disappointment in him was matched by my anger at the criminal justice system. All the defendants were Black. In a police force that was dominated by white officers, the FBI had targeted only African American officers. In my brother's case, the FBI controlled the entire operation, including the amount of drugs that were supposedly being transported-enough to meet the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and guarantee long prison terms. The operation had used a convicted felon to lure the rookie officers into a fabricated drug operation with the opportunity to make some easy cash.