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Editor’s Note: Mere hours after the publication of this story, Meek Mill was surprise-released from prison; out on bail after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned Judge Brinkley’s sentence. This piece still stands as an incisive look at the circumstances that led to his incarceration and as an analysis of why his unruly punishment was allowed to continue for such an inordinate amount of time.

Like most rappers in the game today, Meek Mill is no stranger to animosity. Having grown up in the suburbs of North Philadelphia, he spent his adolescence on the breadline, trying to make a name for himself as a whip-smart lyricist in a city that has spawned barely a handful of prolific stars.

In 2005, he was walking to the store with a gun in his pocket – hardly unusual, considering there was a genuine need for young men to protect themselves in the city at the time – when he was stopped by two police officers. According to Meek in a now deleted Instagram post, they found his gun, beat him up, and arrested him on drug and gun possession charges. Around three years later in 2008, he was arrested again on the same charges, this time by Officer Reginald Graham, and was given a prison sentence of 11-23 months, but got an early release based on his good behavior. These moments were the start of an ongoing legal battle between one of America’s most prolific modern rappers and a criminal justice system that was keen to make an example out of him. The reverberations of what happened back then are still being felt and actively dealt with by Meek and his loved ones today.

Meek’s first release from prison acted as a catalyst to make more music. After years of being a battle-rapper, he went on to sign his first deal with T.I., before joining Rick Ross’ Maybach Music Group and releasing a debut album that peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard 200. Over the next few years, he linked up with the likes of Ross, Future, and Trina for his Dreamchasers mixtape series, before topping the Billboard charts with his LP Dreams Worth More Than Money. After finding love with his equally prolific fiancée (now ex) Nicki Minaj, they too made music together. And just last summer he dropped a new record, titled Wins & Losses, that nabbed him a spot in the top three album charts too.

But just four months later, Meek was back behind bars. Still on parole a decade after his first jail sentence, he committed a reckless driving offence (doing a wheelie on his motorbike in Downtown Manhattan, apparently as part of a music video shoot), and instigated a mild spat with a member of staff at an airport who repeatedly asked the rapper for a photo. No charges were brought to him in either of these instances, but that didn’t stop Judge Genece E. Brinkley – a Philadelphian criminal justice figure that has presided over Meek’s case since he was first jailed at 19 – from using these circumstances to exercise her power and impose a strangely lengthy sentence, against the advice of two senior figures in the case. After years of back and forth with Brinkley, she opted to send him to prison for 2-4 years, justifying her choice by highlighting these two menial offences that, in the grand scheme of things, had no real detrimental effect on Meek’s character.

“I truly can’t understand why Judge Brinkley has taken such an unusual personal interest in Meek Mill’s case,” the Philly rapper’s lawyer Joe Tacopina told Highsnobiety in a statement. “…both the probation officer and the District Attorney recommended no jail time. Refusing to grant him bail when the District Attorney and Governor agree that Meek should be out on bail, because of newly-discovered information that his arresting officer who testified against him has a history of lying under oath, would likely overturn his conviction. Judge Brinkley’s conduct in this case has been appalling.”

He continues, “In my 25 years as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, I have never witnessed such inappropriate behavior from a judge at this level. But I do know this: she will not be able to hide her conduct from the scrutiny of the justice system forever.”

The inappropriate behavior Tacopina told us about are some of the strangest allegations you’re likely to hear of in a high profile criminal court case. In an apparent attempt to strike a bargain with Meek, Judge Brinkley supposedly had an off-the-record meeting with Meek and then-girlfriend Nicki Minaj about how he could get into the Philly law figure’s good books. These proposed acts of atonement included asking Meek to re-record Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” – a song about begging for forgiveness – while shouting Brinkley out on a verse. She also allegedly requested that he leave his current label, Roc Nation, and sign with a local manager – prolific in the state’s rap scene – who Brinkley is friends with. Tacopina went into the gritty details of these unorthodox requests when he appeared on The Breakfast Club earlier this month. All of this lead to reports from Page Six that Brinkley herself was being questioned by the FBI for misconduct. But of course, the bureau wouldn’t be allowed to confirm or deny any of these allegations.

However, a moment of reckoning may come sooner rather than later, if recent revelations in the case are anything to go by. As Tacopina mentioned, “[Meek’s] arresting officer who testified against him has a history of lying under oath.” Further research brings up a flurry of news articles about corruption at the heart of the Philadelphia police force – and rightly so: Reginald Graham, the man who arrested Meek back in 2008, was, according to court documents, “investigated by federal authorities for several alleged acts of corruption,” but had retired before the Police Board of Inquiry could look deeper into it.

This could be the key to help Meek get out of jail sooner than Judge Brinkley suggested – it’s just a shame that it’s come 10 years after the officer in question first arrested him. This entire debacle is traced to issues well beyond the point of relevancy, catalyzed by a black teenager being arrested (some may say wrongfully) by a white cop who is now having his professional capabilities questioned. If Officer Reginald Graham hadn’t put Meek down back then, there’s every chance he would have never encountered Judge Brinkley, and he could have spent the past decade bringing unfettered joy to his fans, friends, and young son instead.

Getty Images / WireImage for 2K Sports / Johnny Nunez

The fight is far from over though. Over the past few months, the hashtag #FreeMeekMill has been spotted everywhere, from placards at IRL protests to the social media feeds of some of rap music’s biggest stars. Everybody from civil rights leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton to Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots, have visited him during his time behind bars. Support from icons and collaborators JAY-Z, Rick Ross and T.I. has skyrocketed his case into mainstream media outlets, alongside calls for peaceful protests and advice from friends such as Kevin Hart.

That pressure has reached the District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office, who has agreed that Meek deserved a retrial, based on the evidence of Officer Graham’s misconduct. In a statement to Meek’s lawyers, he revealed that “there is a strong showing of likelihood of his conviction being reversed, in whole or in part.” Whether or not that will happen with a new judge at the helm still remains to be seen. But if the power of protest can push an establishment this far, there’s no telling how much of an impact it could have on the freedom of Meek – and the unfairly persecuted people who followed him.

Getty Images / Brian Stukes

The implications of his case will surely reverberate across the country, and help highlight every crooked cop and unjustifiably harsh judge’s wrongdoings. According to NPR Music, as protesters gathered outside the courtroom last week where Meek’s case was being discussed inside, a professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University, Marc Lamont Hill, shouted to the crowd that “it’s not just about Meek Mill. It’s for every single person locked up in these cages that can’t have a news camera, that don’t have expensive attorneys.”

A student at Temple, 23-year-old Larriya Rice, echoed Lamont’s sentiments when speaking to the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying the case was “symbolic of something larger. I expected Philly to come out full throttle. It’s just us as a culture. We’re aggressive. We fight for what we know is right.”

The mass incarceration epidemic that’s spread throughout the US, in which prison sentences reign over actual rehabilitation, is something that has historically targeted people of color: right now, 37% of inmates are black and 22% are Latinx, while just 32% are white. A recent study by the Bureau of Justice showed that an 18 or 19-year-old black man (the age Meek was when he was first arrested) was 11.8 times more likely to be incarcerated than an 18 or 19-year-old white man.

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While nobody would argue Meek’s fame should allow him to use a ‘get out of jail free’ card, it’s harder to deny that his public platform has allowed law enforcers to abuse their power, opting to make an example out of him. Celebrity or not, Meek deserved a fair hearing, but based on the court reports and lawyer’s statements we’ve heard, his career has played an intrinsic part in how his case reached this strange and misjudged point.

In an op-ed describing the current state of the American criminal justice system for CNN, the Democratic senator for Delaware Chris Coons argued that it “[was] broken, focusing far too much on criminalization and incarceration and far too little on rehabilitation”. Perhaps that’s a point we should consider here: what good will come from sending a rapper with an esteemed career – one that has already earned him millions of dollars and international fame – to prison, other than to use him as a poster boy for others who are considering stepping out of line?

There’s nothing about his imprisonment that will rehabilitate him; once he’s served his sentence, he’ll come out a free man with a career intact. Having spent the past decade attempting to put his troubled past behind him, all the while focusing on his burgeoning superstar status and family life, there are few lessons left for Meek to learn now; even less that could have a seismic effect on his path in life.

Instead, this feels like a warning to young black America. Whether you’re a kid trying to make it on the streets of East Philadelphia, or a ‘made man’ like Meek, the criminal justice system seems designed to bring down people – young people of color, in particular – as a flaunting of their influence rather than dwelling on what the endpoint should be. Keeping Meek Mill incarcerated, while his trial plays out on social media and TV bulletins, feels like a voyeuristic, Big Brother-style dive into what happens to those who don’t comply to every whim of the criminal justice system. There’s little sense in it, but a life behind bars when you could be free becomes even more terrifying when you know a rap star with an ultra-famous fanbase and millions of dollars is struggling just as hard to get free.

That disparity between black and white young inmates is quite haunting, and it plays a huge part in helping us understand why the fight to free Meek is so fervent. A battle for fair trials and justified sentencing with Meek in the middle of it is one that uses his status in the right way. If, somehow, Judge Brinkley can be swayed, and Meek’s sentence is overturned, we suddenly have a spokesperson for a group of people who, for so long, have been shunned by the law system. Change can come: just last Friday, three people who were arrested by Reginald Graham, Meek’s rookie arresting officer, walked free. How long do we have to wait to see Meek become one of them?

For more like this, read one writer’s opinion-piece on why we should be boycotting Coachella here.

Words by Douglas Greenwood
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