Meek Mill's Controversial Case: Activist Carmen Perez on His Prison Sentence & Mass Incarceration Reform

Meek Mill, 2017
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Meek Mill arrives at the criminal justice center in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 2017.

"This isn’t just about Meek Mill. This is about the hundreds of thousands of young black and brown men and women that are incarcerated."

News surrounding Meek Mill’s recent two to four year prison sentence for probation violation has evoked a range of emotions: disappointment, confusion and flat out rage. In the midst of it all, though, are organizations and people working to protect future generations and championing for justice, not just for the "All Eyes on You" rapper, but for the issue of mass incarceration as a whole.

One example of those taking action towards criminal justice system reform is social activist Carmen Perez, who hosted a radiothon at Power 105.1’s the Breakfast Club starting early Thursday (Nov. 16) morning. The event garnered support from DJ Khaled, Eminem, Nick Cannon, Ludacris, Talib Kweli, Remy Ma, and Master P, raising over $700,000 to bring awareness to Meek Mill’s case and raise funds for justice advocacy organizations.

As national co-chair of the Women's March, co-founder of Justice League and executive director of the Harry Belafonte-founded The Gathering for Justice, Perez has been heavily involved in shedding light on injustice centered around racial inequality and women's rights for over 10 years. More recently, her team has brought widespread attention to the issues of police brutality and criminal justice reform across the country -- particularly around the cases of Freddie Gray, Pedro Hernandez and Kalief Browder.

"It’s important that we show Meek that we stand with him and that the community is with him, because what this judge is actually trying to show his fans is that regardless of you having the financial ability to hire legal representation, regardless of if you are contributing positively back into society and regardless of you actually having changed and transformed your life, you can still be funneled into the criminal justice system,” she tells Billboard. “We don’t want that to be the only message that people are receiving, so it’s important that we make sure that he gets justice. Because once he does, I know he will champion stopping mass incarceration long-term.”

We caught up with Perez to get details on her involvement with the case, where she sees it going from here and how people can get involved in helping change mass incarceration.

How did you first get involved with The Gathering for Justice organization?

I was one of the young people that was brought in by my mentor, Nane Alejandrez, in 2005 after Mr. Belafonte brought him to the table. Mr. B had seen a 5-year-old girl by the name of Jaisha Scott being handcuffed and her charge was "being unruly." And so he convened his peers and my mentor was one of his peers. I was brought on as a huge advocate and was then an executive committee member that actually built The Gathering for Justice. My first position within the actual organization was national organizing director. Since 2010, I’ve been the executive director.

Then in 2013, I actually co-founded Justice League to give a platform to my generation, understanding that we may not have the financial resources to tackle police brutality or to dismantle the criminal justice system but we do have human capital; we do have the authority to come together and build collective power. There are so many different skill sets within Justice League, and we have people that were formerly incarcerated. So those of us that are doing the work within the Gathering and Justice League are also directly impacted by violence, by poverty, by incarceration. So we want to demonstrate to other people that you also could be involved, no matter the circumstances. We just try to use the resources that we have and connect to individuals that are influencers because Mr. Belafonte constantly talks about how artists are the gatekeepers for truth.

What is your specific involvement with the Meek Mill case?

Our organizations are providing the “rapid response public awareness” about the case, thinking about ways to actually bring light to it, which happens to involve somebody like Meek Mill who is an African American. He’s a rapper and has the financial ability to hire legal representation. It’s not unique in the sense that this is not an isolated incident; this actually happens in American every single day to black and brown men. So we wanted to make sure that we were able to bring awareness to the communities across the country and use Meek Mill’s platform to ensure that we are talking about how we can reform the criminal justice system.

The fact that this judge, after she was advised not to and it was recommended in court by the DA and the probation department that he not be sentenced to jail, still sentenced him to two to four years, is a miscarriage of justice. She overrode the recommendation of the probation department as well as the district attorney. During the time in which he was actually volunteering at a homeless shelter, she showed up. That’s not heard of.

It’s what we want to do, because at the end of the day this is a man who does not belong in jail and we will make sure that we continue to fight for our communities and those who are being affected by mass incarceration.

And you have people that will say, "Well, you know, he violated probation and people who violate their probation should do their time." But again, this isn’t justice. It’s a miscarriage of justice in the sense that Meek Mill was popping a wheelie during a video shoot where there were police officers. Nobody arrested him during his video shoot, yet they came and arrested him when he was meeting with young people a couple of days later. And so it’s important that groups like ourselves, like Justice League who are mentored by people like Harry Belafonte who worked alongside Dr. King actually connect with these influencers and be the bridge between the community and them to help them realize that if this is happening to him, it could happen to anyone else.

So what’s your opinion on Judge Brinkley being investigated and Meek’s lawyer filing a motion to get her off the case?

I mean, I think it’s the right thing to do. Justice League NYC has crafted a letter that you can find on our website where we’re asking the governor to also follow the investigation and to remove the judge from this case.

In your opinion, as the case develops, is it being handled appropriately? Do you see the verdict changing after all this attention that has been brought to it?

Well the fact that the FBI is now investigating is a step. We’re going to continue to apply pressure and we’re going to continue to demand justice for Meek by getting people engaged. There’s a community in Philadelphia that rallied this past Monday and it turns out a lot of other artists are coming to the table speaking out on this injustice. I know that JAY-Z has also made a statement  -- we want justice.

I do feel that as long as we all are holding the system accountable, Meek will be released. But we have so much more work to do. This isn’t just about Meek Mill. This is about the hundreds of thousands of young black and brown men and women that are incarcerated. So we all understand that this is bigger than Meek Mill. This is really about our children. It’s about our communities, and it’s about the future of the criminal justice system.

Like you said, this is an example of things that happen everyday to countless people. How do you think that this being a high-profile celebrity case can open more doors for dialogue about regular people who go through it?

We’ve seen this in the past. This isn’t anything new. We saw this with Harry Belafonte chanting and sitting alongside Dr. King. I think that now, this allows us to have a greater debate across the country especially because of his influence and it also allows people to be connected to him, you know? He has a lot of fans and his fans want him out. Hip-hop, for many people, activates you and gives you an opportunity to feel connected to something larger. And so I think the fact that he is a rapper and is going through this himself again, only allows other people to be like, "Wow, this can happen to me, so what can I do at this moment?"

And there are different things that people can actually do. They could go to Color of Change and sign the petition. They could sign the letter for justice for Meek Mill on our website. There’s also different actions that are going to be coming up. People should stay tuned. This is, again, only one small portion of the criminal justice system in Philadelphia and this isn’t anything new. This is the way in which it has been and there’s an opportunity for us to change it.

You did the Change4Change radiothon this morning at the Breakfast Club raising money for your organizations which help fight against these issues, which is a great way to bring awareness. What do you think are some other ways to get people to pay attention to mass incarceration in reference to racial inequality if it’s not something they necessarily see around them or have to deal with in excess, especially outside of minority communities?

Well I mean, we know that even though something doesn’t personally impact you, you can show up for it. If police brutality does not personally impact you or mass incarceration doesn’t, we still need you to be involved. If you’re an artist, we say make music for the movement. If you’re somebody who teaches yoga or knows how to do some, provide a healing space for people -- not just for those in the movement, but those that are directly impacted, too. We always say we don’t need all experts from one discipline in the movement, we also need people that care deeply about humanity, and whatever skills that they have, they could bring it to the work. It’s important that we understand that there’s a link for everybody. Just because it hasn’t happened to you, don’t wait for it to happen to you or not fight against it.


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