Here we are again.
First there was the rapper Meek Mill, whose 2017 incarceration in Pennsylvania on the basis of a probation violation sparked a backlash that we told ourselves put the spotlight on injustice throughout the legal system, but mostly played out in the rapper’s fans making the easy plea #FreeMeek.
Then there was actor Jussie Smollett, who before his whole hate-crime mess got even messier this year was portrayed, hour after hour, as the poster child for hate crimes, despite all the hate crimes — nearly 20 a day, according to the FBI — that take place across the country.
And now rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle, whose sudden and tragic shooting death last month in Los Angeles has filled our news feeds with shocked citizens and celebrities calling for an end to gun violence in our cities.
This has to stop, came the mournful pleas.
You don’t say. No doubt having a young man who by every indication was a beloved figure in his community being shot down in his prime is a tragedy that should be mourned.
It just happens to be one of thousands of deaths of young, promising black men across this country that generate nowhere near the attention or fanfare, let alone the urgent response from law enforcement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34. Hussle was 33. More than 300 people have been shot in Philadelphia so far this year, most of them young, black men.
Two days after Hussle died, police arrested his alleged shooter. How many people have waited years, if not lifetimes, I thought when I read that, for an arrest after their loved one’s murder?
At least Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore had the sense, during a news conference about the murder of the Grammy-nominated rapper, to note Hussle was one of many recent victims of violence on the city’s streets. But how many of those victims merited news conferences with the chief?
And that brings us back to the intersection of celebrity and justice. It’s not just that we have a habit of paying attention to bad things only when those bad things happen to celebrities. It’s that we give special treatment that’s never afforded to people who aren’t rich or famous.
In the Smollett case, it’s being able to make a case go away that people are still scratching their heads over.
And for all of Mill’s good intentions, the average person released from prison, as Mill was in April 2018, isn’t whisked away in a helicopter and taken to a 76ers game. (I recently talked to a woman who recalled being released with little more than a T-shirt imprinted with “Department of Corrections.”) And they sure as hell aren’t courted by ambitious politicians, team owners and hangers-on hoping to catch some of their shine.
If anyone needs the help of an outraged public, it is not the guy who’s going to have a chopper waiting for him when he gets out of prison, or hundreds of people pouring into the streets after their death.
It’s the countless others, the no-names, screwed over by the same broken systems.
It’s hard not to think back to how it took O.J. Simpson, of all people, to hold the LAPD to account for its racist behavior, however fleeting that attention was.
Not to take away from good intentions — celebrity can certainly elevate an issue, and even lead to change. Good on Mill for continuing to push for criminal-justice reform, including as recently as last Tuesday, when he spoke outside Philadelphia City Hall in support of legislation aimed at reforming the Pennsylvania probation and parole system that has dogged him.
“I’m here to speak for the ones that don’t have a voice,” Mill said.
But for justice to stick, the same energy people apply to the rich and famous must be applied to everyone else. And by the way, Meek, they do have a voice. Some of the very people courting you have just chosen not to listen to them.
“This can’t go back to normal,” Mill said after Hussle’s death.
It shouldn’t. But for that to have any chance of happening, we have to stand for the cause, not just the celebrity.