NEW YORK — I am writing this from inside a jail cell. I was put here for doing an unremarkable, routine bit of journalism, covering a sentencing in a murder. I won’t go so far as to say I was arrested since I was never read any rights. I am in the cell just the same.
I must have covered hundreds of similar hearings in my career. But this is the first time I ever ended up in the same cellblock as the subjects I was covering.
I had just shot video of a phalanx of court officers who came out of a courtroom and were followed by a pregnant woman in the throes of some kind of intense anxiety attack. She moved haltingly. She struggled to breathe.
You will never see this 28 seconds of video because I have just been forced to delete it.
I am composing this column in my head because court officers put me in handcuffs, escorted me to a holding pen and threw me in a cell while I was reporting on the fate of Taylonn Murphy Jr. He is a 20-year-old found guilty of murder for shooting Walter Sumter, who was 18 at the time. I will do my best to get it down on paper as soon as I get out.
A few minutes ago, one of the court officers handed me a pink piece of paper. It reads “‘Title of Offense: Dis Con’.”
For those unaccustomed to the penal code, this is common shorthand for “disorderly conduct.” Technically, it is a charge for a person who intends to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm. That includes someone making too much noise, fighting or blocking pedestrian or vehicular traffic and so on. In practice, it is a catch-all used commonly by law enforcement in New York to lock people up for whatever they want. Sometimes it’s for being black. Sometimes it’s for protesting.
I got it for doing journalism on June 24.
I can’t say that I am surprised. I don’t know what else to expect. Writing from a cell almost follows the perverse logic of the story I am here covering.
The sentencing was a bleak coda to a story that I started working on four years ago.
Since the murder of his daughter and the subsequent trials of the killers, Taylonn Murphy Sr. has dedicated his life to intervening and ending the violence that led to the killing. He has tried to salvage some meaning from her pointless death. Now, in the same courthouse where his daughter’s killers were tried, Murphy Sr. was awaiting the sentence in a murder trial where the tables were turned and his son — known to friends as Bam Bam — was the defendant.
I had arrived early at 100 Centre St., home to the criminal branch of Manhattan’s Supreme Court, to cover the sentencing. That’s not unusual. Any reporter wants to get interviews before a sentencing like this. You never know how people are going to react.
So, in front of the courthouse entrance, I conducted an interview with Taylonn Murphy Sr. about how he was feeling. Murphy Sr. was composed for someone who was going to lose another child to a bloodsoaked feud between two low-income housing projects in Harlem. First a daughter to a grave, now a son, his youngest, to a cell.
From where he stood, he could see the courthouse where over the course of a year he had watched two grueling criminal cases unfold that led to convictions in the murder of his daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy. Now he was about to hear the fate of his son, Taylonn Jr., who had been convicted of killing Walter Sumter, for being allied with the crews who murdered Tayshana on Sept. 11, 2011 and bragging about her killing on social media.
“Both sides of the gun, D,” he said, shaking his head wearily, “both sides of the gun.”
As we spoke, Taylonn Jr.’s lawyer asked to speak to Murphy Sr. in private. When Murphy Sr. returned, he said Justice Edward McLaughlin had ordered extra security for the hearing.
What else should I expect?
Murphy Sr. told me a sergeant assigned to the raid investigation had testified in his daughter’s murder trial that he had watched live surveillance footage from a command center while Chicken’s killers huddled outside their building, exchanged the gun and headed to the Grant Houses to shoot the promising basketball player. The sergeant said a New York Police Department team of investigators had watched as the killers prepared to hunt down Murphy Sr.’s daughter.
That they did nothing but watch has served as a haunting symbol to Murphy Sr., one that puts in sharp relief what he and others campaigning to end violence have worried about for years.
The NYPD started surveilling Taylonn Jr. when he was 15. The raid that swept up Murphy ended an investigation that started in 2010. So for 4½ years, investigators watched these teenagers, kids in some cases, grow into young men exchanging threats and hurling insults on social media sites and fighting and stabbing each other in the streets. All the while, job opportunities remained cut off and the hope promised from positive-change programs seemed like a cruel joke.
They didn’t do anything but watch.
The Department of Probation didn’t do anything. The Administration for Children’s Services didn’t do anything. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office didn’t do anything. Neither did the City Council. Or the mayor, or the mayor before him.
So it feels almost natural to be covering this story from a cell when everything else about this system seems so upside-down.
While still mourning his daughter’s death, Murphy Sr. formed a partnership with Arnita Brockington, the mother of Tyshawn Brockington, one of his daughter’s convicted killers, and Derrick Haynes, whose teenaged brother was also shot and killed decades ago, to end the feud fueling youth violence in the housing projects. Haynes’ brother was the first killed in this senseless feud that has pitted poor black kids against each other in a nihilistic death spiral for years.
Murphy, Brockington and Haynes filled the void because they looked around and felt that no one else was doing anything. There is a Department of Probation, a Department of Corrections, a Horizons and Crossroads and a special building on the sprawling complex of prisons on Rikers Island, cell after cell after cell, but there’s no Department of, of, well — this, whatever name you want to call this crisis — of stopping young black kids from killing each other to give some purpose to otherwise chaotic lives.
The prosecutors might be right that Taylonn Jr. pulled the trigger on the gun that shot Sumter, but we put the bullet out there. Society was, at the very least, an accomplice.
There was no intervention until The Raid. All that happened was Taylonn Jr.’s imprisonment, the length of which was now being decided upstairs, on the 15th floor.
There was no doubt that this was not being treated as a normal sentencing. There were at least triple the usual number of court officers for the hearing. They wore bulky bulletproof vests despite a thorough and arduous security process to get into the courthouse, including going through a metal detector.
By the time I made my way upstairs, members of the New York press corps had already assembled and were waiting on the floor as well. There were reporters and photographers from the New York Times, the Post, the New York Daily News and others, including a film crew from “Nightline.” I joined the mass of reporters and waited.
Eventually they started letting press in so they could set up in the jurors’ box. When I approached, a court officer asked to see my press credentials. Press credentials are handed out by the NYPD and are not legally binding in any way. I have had credentials in the past when I worked for daily newspapers but the NYPD has refused to give me one since I work for JJIE. So when the officer asked I told him I don’t have one. He refused to let me in.
So I sat outside with a photographer from one of the tabloids and waited. I asked questions and observed the young people out in the hallway making small talk. They had come to show support for Murphy Jr. but there wasn’t enough room to let them in.
After an hour or so, a court officer shouted to no one in particular: “Defendant’s family coming out!”
As I shot the video, a female court officer told me I should be ashamed of myself. And then another asked, “Is he shooting video?”
And another responded, “Yes, he is.”
I was approached by three court officers, all men, one in the middle flanked by two on each side, their hands on the handles of their guns. They are authorized to use deadly force.
“Who are you?” the one in the middle asked.
I told him my name.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m a reporter,” I said, handing him my business card, which was already in my hand. “I’m covering this story like everyone else.”
“Where’s your press credentials?” he asked.
“I don’t have any, NYPD won’t give them to me,” I replied.
The three left the office, leaving me with a man and a woman. The man stared at a computer screen and glancing down at my business card.
“Did you shoot video?” he asked absently.
“No disrespect, sir, but am I being detained?” I replied.
“Yeah,” he said, still not taking his eyes off the screen.
“Then with all due respect, sir, I’d rather not say anything,” I said. He shrugged.
One of his colleagues, a female sergeant with tattoos on her arms, didn’t take it as well.
“Well, can you hear?” she asked, her voice filled with sarcastic venom.
“You won’t talk, right, but you can hear, right? Right,” she said, jabbing her finger into my chest. “Because listen to this — you’re going to jail. Can you hear that?”
I tried to reason with her but she wasn’t interested. I sat there for a while before a lieutenant who refused to identify himself asked me to come out to the hallway. He fumbled to find the right words.
“Are you willing to show me the video?” he asked, as if memorizing a question for a test.
“Am I under arrest, sir?” I asked.
“We’ll get to that. Are you willing to show me the video?” he repeated. He suggested he’d let me go if I showed him the video.
I figured if I was reasonable with him he’d be reasonable with me.
I had a deadline to meet and I knew that the sentencing upstairs was going to be wrapping up soon. I showed him the video. I figured wrong.
“Turn around,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, almost bemused.
Imagine your own job. You get up to go get a drink from the water cooler. Along the way you are detained by guys with guns, and then, after an interrogation, you’re handcuffed and led out of your office building to a cell.
That’s the Kafkaesque quality of what I felt was happening to me. A prequel to “The Trial,” playing out in a nondescript government judicial building, but with the twist that I am never taken to see a judge.
“Turn around,” he said.
“Can I ask you a question, lieutenant?” I asked.
“No,” his reply came curtly.
I asked anyway: “Am I under arrest?”
“We’ll get to that later,” he said.
“Put him in handcuffs,” he said to his underlings.
They grabbed my arms roughly and I felt the steel close in on my wrists behind my back. As the metal dug tight into my skin, the cuffs squeezed my wrists so that my hands were immobile.
The court officers exchanged glances: “Take him down to the captain’s room.”
Three court officers led me down the stairs to the 13th floor, room 1307 and into a cell. One of the officers patted me down while the other watched intently with his hand on his gun. They unlocked my cuffs.
“Take off your shoes,” he said.
“Take off your socks,” he said.
I took off my socks.
“Turn them inside out,” he said.
After the court officers arrested me, they took away my notepad, my pens and of course my phone.
I shook my head at the absurdity of going from covering a news story to turning my socks inside out for some guy with a gun in a cell when I hadn’t been formally arrested or charged.
It struck me with a jolt that no one had any idea where I was.
So I am sitting here in a 6 by 6 cell with high ceilings while a young man I interviewed on a half-dozen occasions when he was still a teenager waits to see what happens next.
Murphy Jr. may very well be learning that he has to spend the rest of his life in a cell like the one I am sitting in now.
I went from covering a story to being a prisoner in the matter of a half-hour. No one tells me if I’m under arrest. No one tells me any rights. I am in a legal purgatory.
I’ve been arrested before while covering a story, but it’s always been interrupted before I’ve been processed. Calls to editors. Higher-ups not wanting to deal with the paperwork. But I’ve never been thrown into a cell for doing journalism.
I am someone who takes my liberty seriously. I am famous for asking what rights are enshrined in the First Amendment whenever I give a news quiz in the class I teach at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, so my mind is racing as these two guys deprive me of my liberty for doing what James Madison has told me is my right.
But I’ve dealt with these types enough — guys with guns and uniforms who have no patience for the Constitution that they swear to uphold — to know that any argument or complaint just makes them more satisfied with “detaining” me in the first place.
I can take comfort in knowing that however long I will be in here there is a tangible end to my ordeal, a few hours, a few days at most. That comfort does not extend to the young man two floors above me waiting to hear his fate. His will be a sentence handed down from a white judge to a young black man for killing another young man who looked like him, talked like him, grew up in the same Harlem neighborhood.
These violent deaths of black youth at the hands of black youth has plagued big cities like New York for years, and for years the bodies piled up, and for years our response has been the same. I’ve seen hundreds of their bodies over the years. I sit here now and wonder, if I could pile them all up, how high the mound would stretch toward the sky.
Sometimes they were covered up with some tarp, sometimes exposed, sitting on a pool of blood, their rail-thin, lifeless corpses surrounded by little plastic yellow evidence markers counting the shell casings in the streets of Brownsville and East New York and Harlem and Jamaica and the South Bronx and so on. I think about all the interviews, the conversations in cramped well-kept apartments, in stairwells and funeral homes, the parents and relatives, friends and classmates; I always got to know them intimately when they were already dead.
As for the murder, Bam Bam insists on his innocence. Whether he killed Walter Sumter or not, whether he pulled the trigger or not, whether the dead man took joy in the deaths of Bam Bam’s sister and other young people who were with this crew or that — whether he’s guilty of the crime does nothing to change an immutable fact as solid as the bars of this cell.
The fact remains that this cream-colored cage remains the closest thing we have to a public policy solution to this problem. It is a peculiar answer to the vexing question of how to get young people, all of whom look basically the same and dress the same and listen to the same music and communicate with the same lingo and carry the same guns, to stop firing the same bullets.
I stand up and wrap my hands around the bars. I look at the graffiti scratched into the bars and have a grim kinship with the kids upstairs waiting in the hallway to find out about Murphy Jr. Another tenant had written March 2011 “3 Stacs.” Another wrote “Harlem Savage.”
I wonder if I’ve talked to the authors of the graffiti at any point in my reporting, if they ever sat here in this cell wondering with some dull curiosity what was going to happen next. How long did they sit here? Where are they now? Are they dead? In prison?
I wonder, also, what my fellow New Yorkers would think if they had to sit here. Not poor black kids like Taylonn Jr. or Tayshana or Walter Sumter and his friends from the Manhattanville Houses, I don’t mean them. We know they sit here all the time.
I’m thinking of the ones who are insulated from the grindhouse of the criminal justice system, the ones who see it as a process that happens to other people from other communities. I’m thinking of the ones whose votes determine whether we as a city will see a raid as a response to children in crisis. The ones who watch MSNBC and listen to WNYC and go to sleep at night thinking they are good people.
I wonder if they could go through what I’m going through while routinely doing my job, if they could sit where I am sitting, wondering what is going to happen next.
I wonder, if they went through this experience, would it lead to an alternative to our current policy of steel bars and wooden coffins?
A court officer, a sergeant, walked in and interrupted my reverie.
“Do you have permission from the judge to do that?” he barked, referring to covering the story.
“I have permission from James Madison,” I replied. And that’s that.
“Let’s try this again,” he said and started talking to me with practiced condescension about approval and the like.
It reminded me about that woman in the video. And that I was here for a specific reason, the story that I am supposed to be covering.
I have so much I want to talk to her about. I want to go ask her why she was so upset. I wonder whether she was worried about the baby she is carrying. I want to ask her if sitting in on someone else’s sentencing hearing for the killing of a fellow teen was making her react that way. I want to ask her if she caught a glimpse of her child growing to be swept up in another raid.
I want to ask her but I can’t. I’m stuck here.
This story has been updated.
Daryl Khan is the New York bureau chief for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and an adjunct professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.