By Santonio D. Murff
Being a father in prison is like being a lifeguard with no arms or legs. A very hard, very stressful job to say the least. You can educate, encourage and warn one of the lurking dangers that seek to steal one’s breath, but physically there is next to nothing you can do to save a life...even if that life belongs to your firstborn son. Nevertheless, the love within the chambers of your heart leaves you no choice but to do your best. To be the very best father that you can be from a distance.
Prisoners--forced to reside in a world of ravenous, perverted wolves who will attack at the first sign of weakness--guard their emotions like Fort Knox guards its gold.
You don't want anyone too close or knowing what means the most to you, as it can be used to get under your skin. Because it'll almost surely be used against you.
Prison movies and books dwell on the physical challenges and tribulations of incarceration. Few ever delve deeper to adequately explore the emotional side. What goes on after rack time, lights out, when everyone is sequestered away in their cells alone with only their thoughts, regrets, and worries. None I know of have ever touched on the pains, the problems, and the perseverance it takes to be a daddy from a distance. To try to provide your child with the tools he'll need to survive and succeed from a prison cell.
I have intimate knowledge of the many restless nights and frustrating days spent worrying about your child. Praying for his well-being. Trapped in a warehouse of violent, manipulative sickos who have been convicted of everything beneath the sun, you're ever aware of the horrors of the world. Ever conscious of your inability to physically protect your child from harm, if it comes his or her way. So you put your faith in a Higher Power of protection, pray that knowledge is power, and arm them with as much of it as you can.
It is that seldom-spoken-of love, that compassion, that longing to protect the most innocent among us that led to The Texas Department of Criminal Justice having to create "Safe-Prisons," where they hoard and go overboard to protect pedophiles, child molesters, and rapists. Yes, there are some sick, demented people who need to be incarcerated, but there are also a multitude of good hearted people in prison due to a chemical dependency, an adolescent mistake, or the foul play of an unjust system that has never been blind to the color of one's skin nor the weight of one's wallet.
The victimization of a child is the quickest way to unite all of the gangs, hustlers, and races in disgust and anger, to put them all on a single mission. A single mission of stomping your ass out! The violence is swift and brutal; usually fatal. I don't applaud it. I've never participated; but because this system has proven itself grossly unreliable, if not callous when it comes to convictions of the poor and minorities, I do understand it.
The victimizer of a child brings home all of our greatest fears: our children being molested or murdered. He brings to the forefront all of the restless nights. He gives a face, a flesh, to the evilest of the lurking dangers that have tormented us when faith faltered. Above all else, he provides a prisoner the power to eradicate that evil, to eliminate that danger from the world and his child.
Again, I don't condone it, but I want you to understand it. Rapists and child molesters have proven to be repeat offenders. I believe it is a sickness within the brain that they have about as much control over as an alcoholic. Yet they are on average given two to six year terms. Typically, they serve mere months before being released on parole to traumatize other women or children for life. No one is more aware of these sickening statistics than the young prisoners incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses who've been sentenced to decades.
As one Caucasian brother of mine and father of three put it, "When the courts fail our children, we must not!"
Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, Asians, and others all appear to agree on that point.
When I received a letter from my son's mother stating that she had to speak with me in person, hinting at our son being in danger, but not wanting to say too much due to the administrations prying eyes, I lay on my bunk for hours afterward in deep contemplative thought. Pooh's life in danger? Restless snakes writhed around my stomach. I commuted the unit with hard eyes and a tight mouth, lost in my own thoughts and agitated with so many unanswered questions.
The weekend couldn't come soon enough. I prayed fervently that nothing would arise to prevent the visit. I couldn't take another week of the suspense and worry. Thankfully, my prayers were answered. At 2:15pm, Saturday afternoon my name was called for a visit.
I very nearly ran to the visit. A visit that blew my mind and put tears in my eyes.
My son's life was indeed in danger. But where that danger, that evil was coming from was almost unfathomable in 2015 America. It reminded me of something my grandmother, who was born in 1917 used to say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Joy Cherelle Avery was my high school sweetheart. My first true love. Our unadulterated love blossomed into a handsome baby boy. Santonio Demond Murff, Junior was only two years old when I was incarcerated. Joy was little more than a child herself at 18. The outlooks on our futures were grim at best.
Now, 20 years later, I couldn't help but to marvel at the beautiful accomplished Black woman that "Dr. Avery" had grown into. I couldn't help but to love, respect, and praise her for the strong God-fearing intellectual she'd reared in a son. A young conscientious scholar who has flourished and achieved against all odds and statistics, Santonio, Junior, our lil Pooh Bear, had won a full academic scholarship to the University of Texas in Arlington, where he was majoring in engineering. I couldn't imagine Pooh doing a single thing to land himself in trouble, let alone something that endangered his life.
Joy and I had settled into a supportive friendship of co-parenting long ago. I wrote Pooh often. He usually responded pretty quickly; his sense of urgency diminishing as the years past. My mother had brought him down regularly for visits throughout his childhood and adolescence. I seldom wrote Joy. She seldom responded. She'd never been to visit me in prison. For her to be here now, told me just how serious the situation was.
From the moment Joy stepped out into much-coveted outside visitation area with its six wooden picnic benches positioned beneath a blue-cloth canopy, I knew that something was dreadfully wrong. The muggy afternoon fit the mood. The sun dipped behind a cloud, dimming the day's ambience. I rose to greet her with a smile.
Her bright and beautiful cherry red smile of full luscious lips were now tight firm lines of sternness, with only a touch of gloss hinting at their past grandeur. The glistening raven curls that once danced merrily about her shoulders were now firmly snatched back in a no-nonsense ponytail of hurry. Her once contagious countenance of joy was now a brooding bundle of worry, tinged with sadness. The lively colors she once favored were now replaced by a black turtleneck that showcased her handful, black jeans that hugged her curves, and black suede boots that completed her solemn look.
I stepped to her with the concern etched in my face; my eyes frantically searching over her shoulder for my son. "Where's Pooh? Is he okay?" I forgot all pleasantries, shooting the questions with a rapidly growing uneasiness that only a father forced to watch his child grow up through pictures can understand.
Joy rocked her ponytail side-to-side with the weariness of a woman who couldn't find the words to express her worries. I took her hands in mine, "Talk to me. What's going on? Where's my son?"
She let out a deep sigh. "He's in the bathroom. I needed a moment alone with you. San, you have to talk to him."
"Thank God." I pulled her to me for a quick hug, then ended up holding her for a comforting moment. A comfort that we both needed. "Don't you ever scare me like that again."
"I've been living with that fear that you just felt. Every time Pooh leaves the house, it's in my throat, my stomach, my heart." I searched her eyes, looking for answers. She searched mine, looking for answers.
"Like a fine wine, you've only gotten better with time." I remembered my manners, whispering the pleasantries to break the silence.
She gave the hint of a smile, brushing away the compliment. "Sit down. Our son is in trouble."
We sat on opposite sides of the picnic table as policy dictated. This time it was her who sought out my hands. Her distressed eyes locked on mine. "The world has gone crazy, San. They are murdering innocent children now. They're going to kill our son!" Her voice rose in a speedy panic.
I gave her hands a calming squeeze. "What? Who? Calm down, Joy." My own voice rose a bit in agitation at the unknown threat, then dropped again in a deadly whisper. "No one is going to hurt Pooh now. No one," I reiterated. "So calm down and tell me what's going on. Ya'll are safe." I gave her the tilted head smile that she once proclaimed was the most seductive in the world.
She must've remembered, because she smiled back, took a calming breath, and nodded. She gave my hands an appreciative squeeze. "Yes, it would take a small army to harm him now, huh?"
“It would take a little more than that to do either of ya'll harm in my presence," I assured her. "Tell me what's going on, Baby?"
Joy gave a helpless shrug, struggling to make sense of it all. To vocalize the unthinkable. "It's like they've declared war on us. Physical, emotional, and psychological WAR!" I squeezed her hands calmingly, as her voice began to rise with emotion. "Senselessly killing men, women, and children on public streets, in public parks," she continued. “San, our baby could be next,” she squeezed my hands hard enough for the joints to pop. Her eyes welled up with tears, as her voice caught on "Pooh." "Pooh could be next," she choked out the words.
My heart was drumming with adrenaline, ready to meet the threat head-on. My mind was reeling trying to make sense of what she was saying. Pooh had never been in trouble before in his life. Joy had to be making a mistake "Pooh's never been in trouble. Never messed with gangs or drugs. An honor roll student in college--"
"These folks don't care about any of that!" Joy cut me off from tallying off all of the reason that she had to be mistaken. "They’re animals. The worst of the worst. Racist murderous animals. She shook her head with aggravation. "It's not about what Pooh has done. It's about what he is. What we've done: Created a Black child in this sick society where he'll be feared and hated without cause."
A light bulb went on. It was pure madness what she was speaking of. Women and children being killed. Racist murdering on public streets. She was talking about America, 2015 America, not some foreign country under the tyranny of extremist. Her eyes, as much as her words, spoke of terrorism on American soils. I struggled to digest it all. "Who is they, Joy?" I asked plainly.
"Everyone knows what's going on, but no one wants to say it," she met my eyes morosely, her mouth twisting with distaste. "The Klan ain't dead."
I nearly came out of my seat, "The Klu Klux Klan?" I temporarily lost control of my pitch. "Them dress wearing cowards?" My tone was one of disbelief and outrage without an iota of fear. "I wish one of them--"
"You're in here, San." Joy took all of the steam out my sails. "The Klan is alive and thriving, murdering innocent black and brown people across the nation with the Court's stamps of approval. Justified homicide," she spit out the words with the utter contempt she felt for a system that had never valued Black lives. A system that had proven that it couldn't be trusted to protect them.
I shook my head in disbelief. I wasn't blind to the racism which was as much a part of America's heritage as apple pie. The Klan weren't stupid though; I couldn't imagine them crossing that line in 2015 America, and turning all of that Black and Brown rage that pollutes most varrios and ghettos on them. Messing with our mothers and children was the quickest way to unite us all in stomping your ass out.
I was momentarily lost in a fog of too many emotions to express. Joy's next words punched through the fog to my heart, and set my eyes ablaze with enlightenment. "Those cowards, those animals, aren't hiding behind sheets anymore. They're now doing they're murdering behind the protection of uniforms and badges. Ropes and fires have been exchanged for guns and illegal chokeholds."
She shook her head. "Klansmen. Klansmen who've infiltrated the police departments, or maybe just taken over the judicial system, because they've been a part of it long
before Dred Scott or Emmet Till."
I nodded my acknowledgement of the fact, remembering The Dred Scott decision, where the Court had ruled that a negro had no rights that a white man was law bound to respect or honor. I'd never forget the police officers that had kidnapped and murdered the teenage Emmet Till and three civil rights workers. I tried to remember that this was 2015 America. Rogue and racist cops abusing their authority, robbing, and murdering within impoverished communities was nothing new. It was actually something very old, as old as bread. A shameful bygone era that Americans of all nationalities had worked hard to progress from.
Joy gave a snorting scoff at my skepticism or maybe at their audacity, that steel spirit that had gotten Black women through centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow, and lifetimes of struggle descended to turn her eyes hard with anger and compassion. "The Klan is riding again...in squad cars with the approval of their new Grand 'Klan' Jury of men and women who don't think that all lives matter."
Her words were now slow, steady, and measured. Her eyes focused and unwavering. She left no room for doubt or disbelief. She spoke of UNARMED Ezell Ford murdered by LAPD; UNARMED Michael Brown murdered by Ferguson cops. She told me of UNARMED Eric Garner murdered by NYPD; her frustrations nearly bubbling over as she described the killings: Ford being shot in the back area, Brown being shot with his hands up, Garner being choked to death on a public street--NO ONE BEING INDICTED.
Her voice grew stronger as she talked passionately about scores of other Black and brown UNARMED men and children murdered by police officers. Kimani Gray, Jordan Baker, Jaime Gonzalez, Omar Abrego, and Rashad McIntosh to name a few. “They’ve declared war, San,” her eyes pleaded with me for understanding. I nodded that I did. "Even women of color are not safe. My Sister, Tyisha Miller was unconscious when Riverside, California cops murdered her!" Her tears flowed freely as she told me of UNARMED Rekia Boyd murdered by Chicago cops, UNARMED Tarika Wilson, murdered by Lima, Ohio cops, and UNARMED Yvette Smith who was murdered by Bastrop County Sheriff, Texas cops.
Her face balled up in bereavement. "Aiyana Stanley-Jones was only seven years old, San. Seven years old," she cried. "They are even killing our babies."
I took a couple of deep calming breaths. Tried to control the emotions. But, as she told of the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice my own tears finally fell. His young cherubic face, bright innocent eyes, and easy smile broke me down. Tamir was murdered by Cleveland Police on November 22nd. Pooh's birthday is November 20th. Joy carried a photo of him on her phone. I knew I'd carry it in my mind and heart forever. So much stolen potential.
We sat in silent contemplations and prayers for a moment, our hands locked in solidarity.
"The Righteous One is here," Pooh's deep voice startled us from our reveries. We had to chuckle at our simultaneous rush to swipe away tears. Pooh turned away with a fake cough to give us a moment to compose ourselves.
I rose to give Pooh a hug. "Aww, man. What mama been telling you?" he groaned from the mighty squeeze of love and pride that I put on him.
"You never mind all that," Joy rose to peck at his cheek. "You, talk to him," she rocked an index finger at me, before rushing off to the restroom to get herself together.
Pooh took his seat with a broad smile. "Them allergies bothering you, Pops?"
I smiled and met his eyes. He knew that I didn't have any allergies. "Nope. I shed a few tears for Li'l Tamir and the other innocent souls murdered in cold blood by those sworn and paid to serve and protect. Shed a few more for the injustice of it all. Shed a few more for the young men and women and children of color whose lives are in danger; not because of something they've done or someone they're associating with, but because of what God made them: Black or brown."
"A Black man in a hostile land," Pooh smiled my smile, letting me know that he understood, but wasn't bothered at all by the realities. His courage, his confidence, gave me a calming peace.
"The hunt is on! And, you're the pray!" I shot an index finger at Pooh with the quote from one of my favorite movies, Menace to Society.
We shared a tension-relieving chuckle. "They are playing for keeps out there, my son. And they're not playing fair."
"When have they ever played fair with us, Pops?"
He had a point. I acknowledged it with an arched brow and a nod of silence.
Pooh has always been wise beyond his years. He spoke like he was decades beyond his 22 years. "I understand ya'll's concerns, but trust me, Dad, trust in God, I'm good." He gave my hand a comforting pat, "You built me to Survive and Succeed, remember?"
I laughed a hard serious laugh of relief. I'd been pushing The Righteous Movement, which is committed to educating and empowering the next generation (the children) to Survive and Succeed, since Pooh was ten years old. Pooh'd been my first Righteous protégé. Survive and Succeed is our battlecry against poverty, miseducation compensating for lack of education, discrimination, oppression, and all of the other evils of the world that seek to prohibit the youth from reaching their full potential.
"What's happening now is nothing new to those in the know, Dad. Technology has just made it easier to capture the brutalities and murders, and disseminate them throughout the world. Now, the world can see that these aren't isolated incidences. From Ferguson, Missouri, to Cali to the N.Y. Cops are rolling like occupying armies, killing at will."
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," I sighed.
"We see it, Dad. We know what is going on around us. The attacks on Affirmative Action, the crippling changes to voter's registration, these heinous murders—society is trying to regress, but there is a young Righteous educated class of patriots who aren't going to allow that to happen."
“Do tell, my son."
"They don't show it on the news, but college students all over the country are rising up in protest against these atrocities; different races across the nation are coming together to put an end to it. Mama is going to worry, but I'm always conscious of the fact that I'm a Black man in a hostile land where some ignorant people will hate me and seek to do me harm for no other reason than my skin is a shade darker than theirs."
"But, we don't make excuses. We make a difference! So you have to--"
"Work harder and operate smarter," he finished another Righteous mantra I'd been drilling into him since adolescence.
"You come in contact with an officer you--"
"Trust in God!" He cracked in all seriousness. "Dad, they are murdering without reason or remorse." 'The Grand Klan' Jury, as mama calls them, have given them their stamp of approval by failing to indict a single one of them. Some of the murders were captured on camera, clearly showing that the victim wasn't resisting or anything and still--" he broke off with a dismal shake of his wavy college-cut.
I sighed my own frustration. "Dad, really I'm good. I'm your SON--I know how to handle any situation I'm thrust in. I can surely handle a couple of ignorant racists."
"So how do you handle them ignorant racists...with guns?"
"Just like the wild, rabid animals they are." His voice dropped to a low spooked whisper, "You never make eye-contact with them, because they'll take that as a challenge. You never make any sudden movements, because they'll attack. You keep your hands where they can see at all times, because at heart most are unstable cowards looking for an excuse--"
I laughed with a nod, but Pooh wasn't finished. "And you never-ever-ever forget that are ignorant racists with guns who won't hesitate to take your life, because the Grand 'Klan' Jury done showed them repeatedly that they can get away with it.”
Pooh's voice turned serious, his eyes held no mirth. "You play the submissive role, comply with their orders, and give them their 'Yes, sir--no sirs' even if they are 100% wrong to survive the encounter. Then you file and follow through on a complaint detailing their wrongdoing. ALWAYS file and follow through on a complaint so that there's a paper-trail documenting their history of abuses when they do finally cross that line."
I gave myself a modest pat on the back. "Boy, I've done a marvelous job with yooou!" I drawled, finally enjoying a real laugh with my son.
Pooh's laughter held genuine joy at his finally having comforted and given his Pops peace. "I live within the perimeters of the law, Pops, but I know how to deal with them. I know they want complacent; they want respect based on fear. I know how to play that role while they have the power, the pistols."
"Exactly. Play that role. Never let them know what you're thinking. That you are thinking. The only thing they enjoy killing more than an angry Black man is an educated one."
Pooh burst out laughing. "I remember the flyer you sent me when I was like 13 that said 'They aren't afraid of guns. They have millions of guns.' And, it showed the brother with his little pistol and hundreds of big ones pointed at him."
"Yeah," I laughed. "It was the brother with the diploma and the book in his hand that sent them running for cover."
"And, I keep one in my hand, Pops. I know my rights and how to get them addressed in a court of law. So again, Santonio Demond Murff, Junior is good. My Pops built me that way."
"Umm, excuse me. I think I had a lot to do with that, too," Joy snuck up on us. Pooh stood and gave her a big rocking hug and kiss to her smooth chocolate cheek. "Indeed you did, Mama. Indeed, you did," he laughed. "So why do you worry so much?"
Joy waved away his words, taking her seat. "It's a mother's nature, boy. Deal with it."
We laughed as she spread a variety of snacks across the picnic table. I rubbed my hands together with eagerness, "Right on time! I am famished after all of this straightening out I done had to do."
"Good," Joy smiled.
Pooh winked. I winked back. I mused for a moment on how the roles had already begun to change with him comforting us.
I took one of Joy's hands in mine, took one of Pooh's hands with my other. Met his eyes, "Are you good?"
"I'm great, dad!"
I met Joy's eyes and smile, "Are you good?"
"I'm great, Daddy!" She purred, causing us all to laugh out loud.
"Ya'll great, I'm great. Now, let's feast."
And so we did; feasted on the food, the memories, and the laughter that has been getting us through for centuries.
OVERSTAND! If you hold down a complacent Eric Garner's legs, help pin his torso to the pavement while he is murdered by your co-worker with an illegal chokehold—YOU TOO ARE A MURDERER! The State of Texas calls it The Law of Parties. How disturbing is it that not a one of the half dozen officers participating said, "Okay, that's enough.” Not once the brother was completely subdued and complacent. Not during the two minutes that he lie in acquiescence with his hand open, repeatedly stating that he could not breathe. Not once he slipped into unconsciousness.
Not once did a single one of the offices sworn to serve and protect try to render any aid or medical assistance to Eric Garner even as he gasped for his last breath. Each and every one of them should have been prosecuted for his murder just as if they were gang members or terrorists who acted in the same fashion. Only then will whistles be blown, truths be told and dirty secrets exposed to avoid jail time. Only then will officers step up and say, "Okay, that's enough" and prevent such senseless murders.
OVERSTAND! When an unarmed 18 year old has his hands up and is still shot eight times, two to the head, we don't need a Grand "Klan" Jury of men and women who don't think that all lives matter to tell us what has happened. We know what murder looks like. When that very same massacred teenager is left uncovered in the streets for hours, we understand the message, the terror, which is trying to be sent to the other children and residents of that community. And, you've seen the response.
Come on, America! We've come too far as a nation to turn back now. We've made too much progress towards manifesting the words of the forefathers and Dr. King--a nation where all men are created equal with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; a nation where people are judged by the contents of their character, not the color of their skin--to allow a klan of evil, sadistic murderers to take us back to civil unrest, shame, division, and the destruction that comes from rioting and revolution.
The horrific murders that are plaguing our nation aren't questionable calls. STOP lying to yourself. STOP allowing yourselves to be divided along racial lines. The cold blooded murder of Tamir Rice is not a black and white issue. It is not a cop versus minorities issue. It is, point blank, a good versus evil issue.
If you don't speak out, take action against that heinous crime, then you, poor soul, have joined the darkside and blinded yourself to truth and righteousness. That innocent child's murder is beyond comprehension only if you've turned a blind eye to history. As the poor will always be among us, so too it seems will be the wicked. Tamir is the 2014 Emmet Till. An honor roll student playing in the park with a friend's toy gun. Doing what children do: playing.
The cop rolls up. The cop gets out and shoots him dead. It mattered not that the dispatcher had said that the gun was probably a toy. It mattered not that as he rolled up he had to have taken note of Tamir's short stature, that he was a child. It mattered not that as he took aim he had to have seen Tamir's cherubic adolescent face. He fired!
There was no "Stop!" There was no "Drop it!" There was no "Freeze!" He pulled up and within two seconds of getting out of the car, he shot little Tamir dead. And, the most telling of all: even after seeing that it was a toy gun, even after realizing that he'd unnecessarily shot a child, there is no rush to aid or comfort. There is no attempt at rendering CPR on him. There is no frantic call for an ambulance. There is no regret nor remorse shown as further brutalities are inflicted upon Tamir's 14 year old sister and mother.
AMERICA!!! It took over 50 years for Emmet Till to receive any semblance of justice. Will Eric, Michael, Tamir, and the scores of others have to wait that long? Will they ever get justice?
I believe they will, because I believe in America….
|Santonio Murff 773394|
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601