April is National Poetry Month. We caught up with Leo Mercer, a musician and community organizer in Oakland, to learn more about how he uses poetry and music to build community and advocate for reform.
Claiming that I’m the source,
Trying me as an adult,
Disregarding my vote,
They call me a predator, acting like you would know,
Only if you could see mama struggles to eat,
Everything on my feet is justice for me.
I need justice for my mother,
I need justice for my people,
I need justice for my brother,
‘cause they claiming that we’re equal.
California’s Proposition 57 stands as something of a milestone in the fight to end mass incarceration in the state.
“Before Proposition 57, youth were charged as adults at alarming rates, fitting right into the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Leo Mercer, a community organizer and young leader who raps with DetermiNation Black Mens Group in Oakland, California. DetermiNation Black Men’s Group is a project of the community-based organizations United Roots and the Urban Peace Movement.
Mercer’s own cousin is one such young person. At age 17, Da’Jon Ford, also called Young Baby Huey, was charged as an adult for his first arrest. He spent four years in jail awaiting trial before the passage of Proposition 57 helped give him a second chance.
The 2016 law changed policies on juvenile prosecution, most significantly by requiring that young people have a hearing before a judge in juvenile court in order to determine whether they should be transferred to adult court (which, until Prop 57, could be decided solely by the prosecutor). It also increased opportunities for parole consideration for people serving time for nonviolent felonies, and allowed sentence credits for rehabilitation, good behavior and education.
When his cousin was first charged, Mercer says, “all hope really looked lost. I would send letters, they would be sent back. I would try to visit, visiting hours were extremely inconvenient.”
“I was nearly at the brink of giving up when I was approached by a late mentor of mine, Dr. Prince White [then Director of Urban Peace Movement], who asked if Huey was my cousin,” he says. “He told me his wife would take the case and, ‘We are going to get your cousin out.’ With the given circumstances, I decided to make a song that eventually turned in to the video for Free Young Baby Huey.”
Making a lyrical case for justice was not new to Mercer. “I grew up in Oakland, and always thought and dreamed in sound, rhythm and beats,” he writes on his website, Mercer Brotherhood. “I was rarely given the chance to speak growing up, so giving youth the opportunity to speak is everything they need.”
Ford was released in 2017, after the District Attorney reduced the charges to misdemeanors. Mercer says the grassroots campaign efforts from the community played a role.
“Community-based organizations worked tirelessly to uphold Prop 57 and make sure the local politicians and other government officials knew about and kept it going,” Mercer says. “And that meant releasing people who were charged as adults at the time.”
The DetermiNation Black Mens Group, which raps about social issues affecting the black community both in California and nationwide, is part of the DetermiNation youth programs launched by United Roots and the Urban Peace Movement in 2013. The program is designed to support the success and development of young African American men between the ages of 16 and 24 from the Oakland area, and is especially tailored to support young men who are struggling to advance in their own life goals, ranging from employment and career to educational and personal goals.
The media program helps young people develop their media production skills and produce projects like short films, music and graphic designs. At the heart of its work is supporting young people to find creative ways to share their personal stories and envision what’s possible for their communities.
There is a special focus on supporting young men who are or who have been involved in or in close proximity to the ‘street life,’ or who have had contact with the justice system. To learn more about the program, visit DetermiNationMedia.org.
Artists featured in the video above: Leo Mercer, Ronnie Bo, O-Zone da Don, DeliGod, Malik Omar, Natural Keyz, and WolfHawkJaguar.
Men from the Determination Black Men’s Group get together with the Urban Peace Movement in Oakland in efforts to release Da’jon Ford (Young Baby Huey) from Prison.