Walter Fortson, 2012
Those sobering words, “You know your life is over,” reverberated like giant percussion cymbals in his ears. The police officer put his firearm back in its holster after holding it at Walter’s head. He removed the handcuffs from the case on his gun belt. The cold carbon steel pinched Walter’s flesh as he took the cop’s declaration to heart. He felt his dreams deflate as he thought to himself, “Yes. You’re probably right.” In that instant, Walter’s future looked bleaker than ever before. But today, seven years later, when you ask Walter about his feelings toward the officer who initiated the traffic stop resulting in his subsequent incarceration, Walter’s answer is:
I try not to think about that day too often, only because it can sometimes be frustrating. However, I think about where I am today, and I really cannot be mad.
He has said consistently, if he crossed paths with the officer again he would thank him.
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer is a former police detective. As such, I have qualified insight which informs my perspective about the circumstances of Walter’s arrest. Because of that I, too, am frustrated by Walter’s account of what happened the day he was arrested on a New Jersey street. There are aspects of the stop, the charges, and the lasting effects of his felony conviction that in my view illustrate the persistent imbalance tipping the scales of justice that plays out every day in our neighborhoods, and often begins with the discretionary actions of the officers who patrol them. Walter knows this, too. And yet he maintains an attitude of gratitude. His is a powerful story of graceful grit, dogged determination, and an inspiring drive to make the most out of a second chance.
Most of my peers while growing up were afraid to come home to their fathers after having a bad day at school or getting a bad report of some kind. In my house, we’d actually rather come home to our father in that case. My mother was who we wanted to avoid. Fierce, no nonsense, and stern where her ways, and that’s how she dealt with us – expecting nothing less than excellence. For me, early on, she set the bar really high. “’A’s are all you’re allowed to bring in this house” she proclaimed whenever my siblings and I received poor grades. However, while ruling with an “iron fist,” she was still the most loving, caring, and compassionate person I knew.
As a kid I loved to play basketball, and my mom was my biggest cheerleader. But in our house, extracurricular activities were privileges earned with good grades. My mom consistently maintained, “You’ll be an educated black man before you’ll ever be a dumb athlete.” She held me to this standard, and since I loved basketball so much, getting A’s became the norm for me. It was her standard, her rules, and her requirement.
I learned much later in life that my mother held the bar high for a few reasons. She grew up in the civil rights era, and experienced racism and discrimination overtly. With understanding the importance of the work of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and other leaders of the civil rights era, she knew that education was the surefire way to combat, overcome, and transcend the barriers of oppression to which blacks in America are subjected throughout their lives. And it was at my 2nd grade commencement/promotion ceremony, when I’d received the highest grade award for nearly every subject, my mother vowed to never allow me to achieve anything less while under her roof. My mom was a large proponent of my success during my adolescent years, and still is today. She was always my biggest supporter, critic, and confidant.
Walter’s plan after graduating high school was to avoid the crushing debt of going to college by working first and saving money to pay for his advanced education. He quickly realized that his plan was flawed. Obtaining employment without college credits forced him into low paying jobs which barely covered expenses and would never allow him to save for his education. So…unable to secure the income he needed to save for college by working for someone else, he decided to take charge of his own destiny by starting his own business. That way he could make a good living and afford to go to school at the same time. The problem – being an entrepreneur is an all-in proposition. Although he was generating a solid income selling sneakers on eBay, trying to juggle the responsibilities of being a new father, going to school and staying on top of the business proved to be unmanageable so he dropped out of his courses. To complicate matters, Walter’s parents divorced and moved out of their house. Walter found himself solely responsible for paying the mortgage and utilities, plus carrying the grocery bill for his siblings as well as the next generation under the roof. He had one child, and his sister had two.
Once he dropped out of college, though, he was able to focus 100% on his business which became very successful. He was able to carry the load for his family, and even put some money away. And then…
Everything was good with the world until the day I woke up to a message from PayPal saying that I needed proper licenses and paperwork if I was to continue selling these goods. I had no clue as to what these documents were, how to get them, or how to go about learning to get them. I was lost, and at a loss, completely. As time passed, my savings began to deplete as there was no cash coming in anymore. I knew I needed to do something quickly. Having never been around drugs or a part of that lifestyle, it wasn’t until it was presented to me like a business plan that it suddenly became a viable option.
Drugs, in my mind, was not about having hood credibility or street notoriety. No. It was a business – a means to an end. It was a way to support my family and keep my life afloat.
And so, back to that Sunday – May 20, 2007.
The officer, albeit correct in his assumptions, profiled me because I was double-parked next to housing projects talking to someone who lived there. I was blocking one of the traffic lanes, but I was only there momentarily and had my hazard lights on. He signalled me to move, and I did. I drove for over a mile, and he followed me. He called for backup. Once stopped at a red light nearly a mile and a half away, I saw two cop cars waiting at the adjacent intersection. I knew I was getting pulled over long before it actually happened. Once signalled to pull over, I did. The officer who approached my car first pulled his gun, pointed it at my car from afar, and yelled for me to turn off the ignition and put the keys on the roof of the car. Then, I had to put my hands out of the window while he approached. He asked for my paperwork, then immediately asked me to get out of the car. He then said, “I’m gonna search your car. If I find nothing, you can go.” Never asked my permission, just did it while I was detained (uncuffed) by another officer. Obviously, that account was not how the discovery read. Upon making bail from the county jail, I was greeted with 6 moving violations that justified the stop and gave the officer probable cause, apparently. Because of what he found, I didn’t have a chance in hell arguing against the legality of the stop, or so I thought.
He had found the narcotics I was carrying, and also two hand-guns I owned legally in the United States. And to make matters worse, while sitting in the back of the police car, I looked up and noticed that this traffic stop and arrest took place in front of a small middle school, making the felony charges I later received much more serious.
Today, despite what happened, I’d still thank him. I was, indeed, selling drugs, and living a dangerous lifestyle. I had plenty of opportunities to stop, but I didn’t. My life was being threatened continually, and I continued flirting with death. I feel like my arrest was God’s way of getting me out before I got killed. I wouldn’t say anything else to him. Just, “Thank you.”
In December, 2007 Walter pled guilty to two of the thirteen charges against him – (1) Possession of a controlled substance within 1,000 feet of an institution (school zone) and (2) Possession of weapons with intent to distribute drugs. He was sentenced to two consecutive 3 year terms, with conditions. In March 2009, Walter was released from prison to a halfway house when his security level was reduced to “community release status.” As a result, he was able to apply to school. It was a new beginning, thanks to what Walter believes was a divinely designed meeting shortly before his release. He crossed paths with Donald Roden, a history professor at Rutgers University, and was reintroduced to a realm of possibilities he feared had been lost forever. Professor Roden helped Walter get admitted into a program specifically designed for individuals coming out of prison.
I was admitted in July 2009, while I was still in the halfway house, and started that September. Every day, as I was only permitted to leave the house for classes, I commuted from the halfway house to Rutgers, and back, after my classes where done for the day. I was officially released from custody on 29 Mar 2010, and finished my custodial sentence on parole, which was terminated on 29 Nov 2011.
Getting the opportunity to attend Rutgers saved my life.
While in prison, I could only dream of the chance to ever go back to school again, and the day I met that Rutgers Professor in 2009 changed everything for me. While in prison, I was a part of a small group of model inmates who went out into the community on a monthly basis to speak about their experiences with narcotics and alcohol, how it led them to make poor decisions, and ultimately end up in the criminal justice system. This program was a Department of Corrections led initiative called Project PRIDE (Promoting Responsibility in Drug Education). Once or twice a month we’d travel out to middle schools, orphanages, churches, treatment facilities, and juvenile court houses to speak to crowds in an effort to deter them from making the same mistakes we made. I’d promised myself if I ever got the opportunity to go back to school, I’d take it, and never look back; and I did just that.
Once off of parole, I was impassioned to do all I could to help more people like me who had made mistakes in their lives and needed redemption. Our organization, MVP, was a student organization at Rutgers that primarily focused on prison outreach tutoring and mentoring to help incarcerated individuals earn a GED while in prison. As the founder and first president of the organization, leading this initiative was by far my most proud accomplishment at Rutgers. In 2011, I was nominated by Rutgers to apply for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship. In April 2012, I was notified that I was awarded the scholarship, and I was 1 of 53 recipients nationwide. At Rutgers, there had not been a Truman Scholar in 11 years prior to my selection.
In my senior year, I interned with the Rutgers Upward bound program as a coordinator and scout for their Ronald E. McNair program; a summer research camp that helps minorities and underrepresented populations prepare for graduate level studies. While at Rutgers, I was a graduate of the McNair program, and was trusted to find others around campus interested in taking on the program. As a program ambassador, I began to speak at several meetings, events, and gatherings, promoting the McNair program. In May of 2013, I graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree.
After graduation, I immediately left for Washington DC to work with the Justice Policy Institute. Through the Truman Foundation’s sponsorship, I was able to work there as an unpaid intern for 8 weeks. While there, I worked on a study that evaluated parole revocations in Maryland, and tried to suggest alternatives to incarceration for individuals with technical violations. After the eight weeks, I was offered temporary employment with the company until I left for my graduate studies in the UK.
Walter is currently studying Criminology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. As for what his plans are when his program is completed:
There are a few things.
1.) Primarily, I intend on taking a post with Princeton Universities “Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program.” I was affiliated with them while at Rutgers through my student organization: The Mountainview Project (MVP). Through our partnership Rutgers undergrads would travel to prisons weekly to volunteer as tutors to the students in prison. The Petey Greene program was started at Princeton in 2008, by several ’58 alums. They named it after Petey Greene, a famous and influential disc jockey who was incarcerated in DC for Robbery. Upon release, he and Charlie Puttkammer (Princeton ’58) became good friends. After Greene’s death, Puttkammer named this program for him. When I return to the states, I intend to work with this program as a project manager working on their expansion to other states.
2.) I will also work with NJ-STEP (New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison), a newly-formed, privately funded program in New Jersey. NJ-STEP, headquartered at Rutgers University, is a consortium of community and state colleges, Princeton University, the NJ Governor’s office of reentry, and the NJ DOC, and they offer college-level credit-bearing courses to college-ready students in prison. They also help them with transition to a four-year university upon release by streamlining admission, and the credits earned in prison seamlessly transfer because of the NJ Transfer Law (any credits earned at a community college must be accepted by state universities.)
3.) Lastly, a few friends and I are working on a small social action project called I.Am.You, which is a project that works to create international alliances between youth prison rehabilitation organizations to foster two-week exchange programs for justice-involved youth. By providing the opportunity to experience a world outside of their own, the I.AM.YOU project hopes to empower young leaders around the world.
Walter does not hesitate when asked what enabled him to persevere through an excruciatingly difficult time in his life and reclaim his incredible potential. It was quite clearly his faith.
I am a Christian. I was raised Christian. My grandfather (my dad’s dad) was a pastor of a Baptist church in southwest Philadelphia. I know a lot about Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, but it wasn’t until I was in prison that I began a relationship with Jesus. This changed my life – my outlook, my thinking, everything. My prison experience was so unlike anyone could ever imagine, but I think a lot of it had to do with the way I saw things. Indeed, I witnessed miracles happening around me every day…like when I met Professor Roden. That day, and many others, I attribute 100% to my relationship with Christ. That’s how I got through it all, and that is, indeed, why I am where I am today.
I wondered what Walter might say to his younger self in retrospect. His response is a powerful punctuation to his story thus far, and the perfect platform for the unfolding of his life’s continued impact throughout the remaining chapters:
That is a really tough question to answer, Renae, and here’s why. I’ve often thought about what would’ve happened if, say, I never got arrested back when I was dealing. Like, “Where would I be today, had my path been, somehow, diverted?” Surely, I was on a treacherous path that could’ve ended a lot worse. Although the end came with getting arrested and convicted of felony charges I’ll likely have to live with for the rest of my life, I am not sure that I would want things to happen differently. I am proud of where I am, and where my life is headed today. I believe that my God has used my plight as a blessing in my life. My experience with the criminal justice system in America brought awareness and reality to the mass incarceration of black men in the US, and furthermore, the injustices faced, even today, by minorities in our country. Therefore, knowing what I know now, if I could have a conversation with my 2006-07 self, it would focus on the privilege, bought with the blood of civil rights and equality activists, of being able to get a college education, and how foolish it was to forsake such an opportunity to make money (legally or illegally). Education, especially as a black man in America, regardless of class, is the single-most important and valuable asset one can have. Secondly, I would inform my old self that chasing money, legally or illegally, is akin to chasing the wind: meaningless. Instead, serving people in real ways is far more rewarding. Lastly, I would tell myself to stop obsessing over the future. As an alternative, being present in each day and each moment will allow tomorrow to take care of itself.