Meek Mill has been fighting off the relentless grasp of the criminal justice system since he was 18 years old. In a 2015 interview with Billboard, Meek shared the details of the brutal 2008 arrest, for drug and gun charges, during which cops beat him badly. His mugshot bore his swollen and bandaged face. “I had a concussion, stitches, braids ripped out. My blood was on the ceiling, on the floor,” he said. After being convicted and sentenced to 11 to 23 months, he served eight and was ordered to five months probation. Nearly a decade later, the system continues to loom over his life.
Judge Genece Brinkley of Philadelphia’s County Court of Common Pleas has been ruling Meek’s case since 2008 and on Monday evening, she sentenced him to 2 to 4 years in prison for violating his probation, despite Meek’s probation officer, the prosecutor, and district attorney all recommending no jail time. His offense? A September arrest in New York for an unlawful stunt on a dirtbike. (In March, charges were dropped against him after a minor altercation in the St. Louis airport.) In Meek’s 2015 FADER cover story, writer Will Stephenson explained: “When Meek needs a refuge from the pressure of the studio and his burgeoning public life, he turns to dirt bikes.” Many other black youth similarly see them as a refuge in cities like Philly and Baltimore, but there are no safe spaces for the activity like there are skate or pedal bike parks. With little to no legal protection, it’s a risky passion that leaves riders vulnerable to criminalization: Meek’s bike ride is being rewarded with a lengthy prison sentence.
Figures in the rap community and Meek’s fans have lamented his fate and described the sentence as too harsh for such a trivial transgression. Some people, including Meek’s attorney, have suggested that Judge Brinkley is exercising a specific vendetta against him. Following the sentencing, his attorney Joe Tacopina told Billboard that Judge Brinkley showed personal interest in court when she told the rapper to leave Roc Nation and sign a deal with her friend to which Meek refused. She also reportedly asked that he shout her out on a remix to “On Bended Knee” with Boyz II Men and when Meek laughed at the request because he thought the judge was joking she said, “I’m serious.” Tacopina also said that, “Anyone who disagreed with [Judge Brinkley] or said anything decent about Meek, was removed from the case.”
“Meek has served his time but it’s like he’s being punished for being a product of his rough upbringing and its brutal environment.”
Complicating that is the specter of respectability politics. In a 2015 video interview with CCPTV, Judge Brinkley, a black woman, explained how impressed she was to see a man come back to court wearing a suit and tie after a rocky past with the law. And in 2014, before Brinkley sent Meek back to jail for five months for scheduling gigs without the court’s permission, she ordered him to take etiquette classes. For Meek, knowing which side of the plate his fork belongs on couldn’t protect him from the effects of a past ridden with poverty and loss or equip him with useful tools as a convicted black man to stay on the right path for his future.
But Meek had changed, in ways that matter. He’d buckled down in the studio, regularly gave back to his community through philanthropy and beyond, and had grown more introspective and accountable. In his music, he reflected on the realities that come along with getting caught up with the law and the pains of being black in America. He’d reached back to support and advise other young artists like Lil Snupe, YB Skola, and Chino. In a July interview on Hot 97, Meek said “I’m the one that got the connection with the younger people from my culture. The people that’s really going through the struggle, the people you see getting killed by cops, the people you see getting arrested and locked away for long periods of time for petty shit.”
Meek has served his time but it’s like he’s being punished for being a product of his rough upbringing and its brutal environment. It’s yet more proof that the perpetual surveillance of probation is practically impossible to escape. It’s designed to police a person until they slip up. In a “Somebody Save Meek Mill” petition on Change.org, creator Do4Self wrote to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, “The judicial system is adamant that defendants work in order to be productive citizens, but at times, made it difficult for him to be able to work. However, he still remained dedicated to making a difference not just in his city of Philadelphia, but worldwide.”
Meek’s sentence resonated with me because it took me back to the heartbreak I felt when my mother called me in 2014 to tell me that my older brother had been locked up for violating his probation. He’d missed a meeting with his officer because he couldn’t get off work without losing his job. As writer Judnick Mayard explained in a tweet this week, “it says a lot that we constantly speak of how the system unfairly treats black ppl but always believe they’re ‘stupid’ for getting caught up.” While Meek is away, time will pass. But the catalog that he’s poured his heart into will remain full of anthems for the hopeless and the resilient.