There’s a young man, his name is Reginald. Everyone calls him Neli. He was on the high school wrestling team, wore a key on a chain around his neck, liked to hold three playing cards, loved his hoodie, repeated “television and movie lines ” and carried a “string that he runs through his fingers.” He was described as being shy and he liked going to his local library, which was two miles from his home. But one day none of that mattered. One day someone saw Neli sitting on the grass outside the library waiting for it to open. They called the police, reporting a “suspicious male, wearing a hoodie, possibly in possession of a gun.”
Neli is black.
Neli is also Autistic.
All the schools within a few miles of the library “went on lockdown.” SWAT teams were called in. That’s at least five schools, though one report said it was eight. Five schools. Eight schools. Lock down. SWAT team. All because an anonymous source said they saw someone suspicious sitting outside a library.
Suspicious could mean any number of things. Maybe it means someone who moves differently, keeps their head down, stares at their feet, doesn’t look you in the eye when you speak to them or doesn’t answer you at all when you ask them a question. Maybe they rock back and forth as they stand or sit, maybe it means they run a piece of string through their fingers or maybe they twirl it around and around the way my daughter does.
Neli was found, frisked and was unarmed. This is where the story should have ended. It is at this point that the situation should have been diffused. This is where the person who had the ability to calm things down could have, but chose not to. Maybe a parent, teacher, someone in the community who knew him, who could have vouched for him might have stepped in. Except the school resource officer who approached Neli and frisked him, did know him or at least had seen him at his high school. Whatever he knew or didn’t know wasn’t helpful as Neli’s life was about to get much, much worse. Neli was forced down over the hood of a car and told he was being taken in.
According to one report Neli cried, “I didn’t do anything wrong!” The arresting officer replied, “You don’t have to – Welcome to Stafford County.” Then he held a gun to Neli’s head and said, “I will blow your head off, nigger.” Neli fought back and in doing so the officer was hurt.
The jury deliberated for three days, found Neli guilty of “assaulting a police officer among other charges” and recommended a sentence of ten and a half years.
Ten and a half years.
The judge disagreed and sentenced Reginald Latson to two years in prison with time served. Except Reginald had done nothing wrong. Except that ONE YEAR in prison for seeming “suspicious” to someone is not justice.
“Suspicious” could mean someone who utters lines from a favorite movie or says something that is considered out of context or not relevant to the conversation. Or maybe suspicious means “not white” and when combined with any of these other things this results in people imagining there’s a weapon as well. Or maybe not being white is all it takes. But one thing is certain, being viewed “suspicious” and black and Autistic in today’s world can get you locked up, sentenced by a jury of your peers to ten and a half years, put in solitary confinement for most of your time in prison, and when you’re broken, when you give up the will to live and try to kill yourself, it’s enough reason to put you in a straight jacket, restrain you for hours, hours in a chair, and then slap you with another charge to make sure you never get out of prison.
The Bazelon Center wrote before sentencing last week:
This counterproductive and inhumane cycle continues with charges Latson is scheduled to face this week stemming from an altercation with a prison guard that occurred when he was being moved to a crisis cell while in psychiatric crisis and suicidal. There was no serious injury to anyone in this incident other than Latson, who was shot with a Taser and bound for hours in a restraint chair. Nonetheless, a new felony prosecution was initiated.
As I write this Neli has been sentenced to another six months in prison. This is beyond unacceptable. Neli should never have been charged to begin with. None of this should have happened. But it did.
A massive number of people have been working hard to gain Neli’s release. At this moment it could not be easier to do something that could help. If you only have a moment, sign this petition that my friend Kerima Cevik of the blog Intersected started.
Please. It literally takes less than 60 seconds to add your signature to this petition.
Grant a pardon to Reginald Cornelius “Neli” Latson
If you have more time, please contact the Governor’s office directly Phone: 804-786-2211; via email by clicking here or on Twitter @GovernorVA and add your voice to thousands of others.