Hundreds call for release of Meek Mill, saying punishment was ‘excessive, cruel’

People holding Free Meek Mill signs crowd up to a barrier outside the center for criminal justice

A crowd gathers outside the Center for Criminal Justice to protest the jailing of hip hop artist Meek Mill. The rapper was sentenced to two to four years for probation violations. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hundreds of supporters of Meek Mill called for the Philadelphia rapper to be released from prison Monday night at rally outside the courthouse where a judge last week sentenced Mill to serve at least two years behind bars for violating his probation.

The event, heavily advertised on social media under the hashtag #FreeMeekMill, drew boldface names like NBA legend Julius Erving, also known as Dr. J, who connected Meek’s punishment to what he sees as the criminal justice system’s more entrenched ills.

Erving opened by quoting the famous Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. line, written from the Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The quote drew a loud cheer from the crowd.

“The punishment bestowed upon him is excessive, cruel and is motivated by unsavory circumstances,” Erving said. “Jailing people, against the recommendation of your own constituents,” he said, referencing how the judge’s sentence came despite prosecutors not asking for any jail time. “That has got to stop.”

Activist and movie producer Sixx King, one of the event’s organizers, told attendees that the two- to four-year sentence imposed by Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley was an abuse of power. He defended accusations that Mill, a chart-topping hip-hop star signed to Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation, may not be the best poster boy for illustrating the flaws of the criminal justice system.

“Many of you asked the question, ‘Why are we standing behind Meek?’ I asked the question, ‘Why are we not?’ He is the survivor of an environment that funds prisons over programs,” King said. “If they can do it to Meek, and he has the money to get the best attorneys in the world, then who else are they doing it to?”

An analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Brinkley has imposed prison time for probation-violators seven times in the last four years, suggesting Mill’s outcome was not an outlier.

Nonetheless, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins told the crowd Mill’s sentence shines a light on the “injustices people, especially black and brown people, face on the regular.”

“We’re not going to act like Meek Mill is an angel, that’s he’s perfect. He’s a man that made some mistakes,” Jenkins said. “We’re not here on his behalf for call for a pass. We’re here to demand that he be dealt with fairly,” he said. “Just go home and turn on your television to see someone who has made far greater offenses walking free, living their life and enjoying the realities of a second chance.”

Basketball legend Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J, speaks in support of hip hop musician Meek Mill. He was one of a host of local celebrities who turned out for a rally outside the Center for Criminal Justice in Center City
Basketball legend Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J, standing next to event organizer Sixx King. They both urged for the release of rapper Meek Mill from prison. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mill was first arrested on gun and drug charges back in 2007, when he was 19 years old.

At that time Brinkley sentenced him to at least a year in jail, but she allowed his early release after serving five months. Upon release, Mill was to be on probation for seven years.

Had Mill never violated the terms of his probation, the case would have been over last year.

Yet before Brinkley sent him to prison last week, she twice extended his probation and scolded him for breaking the rules. Among his issues, Mill was having trouble reporting his travel schedule to the judge. And prosecutors alleged he once submitted cold water as his urine for a drug test.

“How many times am I supposed to give him chances? You know I’ve been helping him since 2009,” Brinkley said in 2015. “I ask you, ‘How many times am I supposed to give him a second, third, fourth, fifth chance?’”

Last week, Brinkley showed Mill’s second-chances were over.

This followed Mill testing positive for the prescription narcotic Percocet in a court-ordered drug screening. He also was arrested for his involvement in a scuffle at the St. Louis airport, though the charges were dropped. Mill said he was merely breaking up a fight. And he was also arrested on reckless endangerment charges in New York for popping wheelies on a dirt bike without a helmet, a scene Mill captured and posted on Instagram, which is how authorities first noticed.

His fans called these infractions too minor to justify prison time, but veteran criminal defense attorney Bill Brennan said Binkley had awarded him leniency in the past, calling the judge’s punishment unsurprising.

“It’s tempting to say, ‘Oh, come on, state prison over poppin’ a wheelie and a scuffle in the airport?’ But it probably wasn’t over that. It was over all those other times he was there, when they tried to work things out and couldn’t,” Brennan said. “He went to the well one too many times. The judge clearly had enough.”

An online petition has attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters asking for Mill’s freedom. Tassan Howard, 33, a poet and designer from Newark, New Jersey, signed the petition then came out to Monday’s rally in Center City, Philadelphia.

“Ain’t nobody’s life perfect. He is famous, so of course the eye is gonna be on him, and it’s a big eye. And little things get you caught up. But this isn’t even that serious,” said Howard, who was wearing pants, a shirt and a hat dazzled with pro-Meek Mill messages in colorful paint.

“I feel as though the justice system is rigged,” Iyanna Goggans, 18, of Philadelphia, who was one of the first people to show up at Monday’s rally. “Especially for African-Americans. The system has failed millions of people, and now it has failed Meek.”

Essence Turner, 17, of Chester, Pa., was another fan who turned out.

“His punishment needs to be re-evaluated,” said Turner, “Give Meek Mill another chance. If he gets out, he can keep motivating the youth to do better.”

Jondhi Harrell, who runs the Philadelphia-based Center for Returning Citizens, watched the crowd rage and the speakers deliver their remarks and nodded his head approvingly.

“Meek is at the height of his earning power. He’s an icon in Philadelphia. Yes, he has made some mistakes. But link him with real mentorship who can help him turn himself around, don’t give him a harsh sentence,” Harrell said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Mill is currently serving his sentence at the state correctional institution at Camp Hill, which is outside of Harrisburg.

Attorneys for Mill have vowed to appeal his sentence, including claims that the judge’s decision was motivated by a personal vendetta, but no such filings have reached the court yet.

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