The Case of Bobby Shmurda Illustrates The Need To Reform America’s Justice System

GS9 Rappers Bobby Shmurda (Right) and Rowdy Rebel (Left)

This coming Tuesday, on February 23rd, rap superstar Bobby Shmurda will finally be released from prison. Although Shmurda’s requests for parole back in September were initially denied, the Clinton Correctional Facility has now agreed to grant Shmurda a conditional release contingent on good behavior.

Shmurda, real name Ackquille Pollard, was incarcerated in 2014 when he was arrested by the NYPD in a raid on the rapper’s Manhattan studio. The NYPD had tapped Pollard and his crew GS9’s phones for well over a year prior; the resulting charges that had come down were sweeping — one count of conspiracy to commit murder, several counts of conspiracy to posesss firearms, and multiple counts of conspiracy to possess and distribute narcotics. For the next two years, Pollard would spend his time going between state correctional facilities and courtrooms, until eventually, in 2016, Pollard was sentenced to seven years of jail time after he pleaded guilty to the charge of 4th degree conspiracy to criminally possess a weapon.

Some have labeled the saga a lesson in the exigency of leaving the streets behind when you make it big time, a warning to other rappers to ‘watch how they move’ once the bright lights are on. In some respects, this assessment is fair — many who were close to Pollard at the time have since said that they had tried in vain to warn Shmurda of this beforehand. But, this is a one dimensional summation of Shmurda’s story, and it is imperative that we acknowledge that there is more to be learned from it than just this. No doubt, the story of Bobby Shmurda should be taken as word to the wise. But it is so not just for other rappers, but for Americans everywhere — it is yet another urgent sign that America’s criminal justice system, from top to bottom, needs reform.

To contextualize, the NYPD has a long history of targeting hip hop stars in the boroughs. Since 1991, a special division of the NYPD named “the rap unit” has, regardless of whether there is probable cause or not, unconstitutionally carte blanche surveilled and harassed rising rap stars in New York City — with the NYPD keeping tabs on everyone from Jay Z to even Drake. This most recently includes the Rap Unit’s harassment of ascendant Brooklyn drill star Sheff G, who has had shows and video shoots repeatedly shut down by the NYPD, despite the fact that Sheff G has been time and time again absolved of any wrongdoing after the fact.

Pollard was no stranger to this behavior — on more than one occasion prior to his arrest, he was targeted and harassed at gunpoint by overzealous NYPD officers. Pollard even recalled to NPR one time in which the police had entered his apartment without a warrant and planted an illegal firearm on him. Of course, the NYPD would later dispute this account of the events, but Pollard’s version matches up with a well-documented pattern of corruption in East Flatbush’s 67th Precinct at the time; between 2008 and 2014, around the time of Shmurda’s come up, the Brooklyn D.A. looked into six verified instances of police officers of the 67th Precinct planting firearms on suspects and booking them on the charge.

The message the NYPD’s and the Rap Unit’s blank check surveillance and harassment sends is clear: regardless of whether Shmurda — or any other rapper coming up in New York — have actually committed a crime or not, the system and the NYPD will treat them unequivocally as though they have.

This abuse of the law against Shmurda did not stop here. Once Pollard was booked into the state’s court systems, the hefty conspiracy charges the state levied against him— which were initially created for usage against mafia crime syndicates — attempted to paint him as the ringleader of what was represented as an organized, well-oiled criminal enterprise, and as such equally responsible for the worst of crimes committed by others in the indictment (for instance, the charge against Pollard of conspiracy to commit murder). However, at no point in the 63-page transcript of the wiretaps did Pollard ever direct anyone to commit any acts of violence; in fact, if nothing else, Pollard seemed apprehensive at various points in response to other members of GS9’s shootings.

Further, these RICO-style charges implied organization, hierarchy — and GS9 didn’t exactly fit that bill. The transcripts didn’t reveal any sort of pecking order, and the way the members took individual ownership of the narcotics proceeds in conversation on the transcripts suggested a degree of independence and agency between defendants. “A group of kids growing up in an oppressed neighborhood with no organization, no structure, no pattern, no suppliers, making no money … that’s not an enterprise,” said Pollard’s defense attorney Kenneth Montgomery at the time.

This misapplication of conspiracy charges against Shmurda is important to note because it illustrates how prosecutors abuse our court’s sentencing systems to get the results they want from a trial. For, even though Pollard ended up only being successfully charged on the count of conspiracy to possess a weapon, the looming threat of heavier charges, like the count of conspiracy to commit murder, helped in ensuring he would take a plea deal. It’s a common tactic used by prosecutors; by labeling the case a conspiracy, they can throw the farm at the defendant and hope that they plead guilty out of fear that one of the more severe, baseless charges might end up sticking.

One of the more recent, most egregious examples of this is the Bronx 120, a case in which the Brooklyn DA rounded up 120 alleged gang members under a federal RICO case that included conspiracy charges of racketeering, distributing narcotics, and conspiracy to commit homicide. These conspiracy charges held 120 different people accountable for just 8 homicides — or, in other words, the homicide charges were applied to 112 defendants who did not commit a murder, many of whom were included in the conspiracy for things as menial as the possession and sale of marijuanna. Unsurprisingly, 115 of the defendants ended up taking plea deals.

This usage of conspiracy charges as a legal bludgeon which both Pollard and the Bronx 120 experienced is almost always exclusively used against defendants of color. One University of Cambridge study found that over 86% of prosecutions of conspiracy charges were against gangs that were affiliated with one more racial minority groups — despite the fact that, contrary to popular belief, surveys of young Americans have shown that 40% of those who identify as gang members are white.

Then, last September after Shmurda had spent some six years in prison, rap fans received the disappointing news that Pollard was denied parole by the Clinton Correctional Facility parole board. Pollard had told the parole board that once he was released he wanted to get his GED and volunteer his time to mentor at risk juveniles. Some detractors might have at the time dismissed this as Pollard just saying what the board wanted to hear, but Pollard’s professed aspirations are in line with much of what he has said in interviews from the past few years. For instance, in a radio interview from March of 2019, after he spent some time entreating other rappers to “move more like businessmen” and stay out of trouble, Pollard told the radio host that he felt an obligation to “enlighten the kids more … to make smarter moves.”

And yet, the parole board did not buy Pollard’s claims. It is likely the numerous violations Pollard incurred during his time in prison, such as getting into fights and being found in possession of a shank,were a large part of this decision. But in fairness to Shmurda it’s important to note that Rikers Island — the prison in which he was at the time of his violations being held — is one of the most notoriously violent and abusive in the country. In 2015, the year Pollard was found with the shank, there were a record high 108 stabbings in the prison. Further, a report released by the state attorney’s office that same year found that the facility was home to “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force and widespread violation of civil rights by correction officers against inmates.”

Evidently, Pollard did not feel safe, and that he had to protect himself somehow. “I feel like I started trying to learn how to … not get in trouble, but I came to Rikers, it was so crazy weird,” Pollard told the parole board. “I had it to defend myself.”

So where some might have take these violations as the evidence needed to affirm Pollard’s parole denial, in another light they further illustrate the issues which are endemic to our country’s carceral system and its philosophy. If prisons are supposed to be “correctional” facilities, but prisoners like Pollard are placed into environments that in order to survive in they feel they need to get into fights and smuggle in shanks, does this not mean our prison system is doing the exact opposite of “correcting” convicts? Incarceration that is just for punishment’s sake is counter-productive to the wellbeing of society at large. This system of needlessly punitive environments like Rikers Island strongly encourages recidivism in convicts, and it is in absolutely nobody’s best interest that this is so but the wealthy investors who back the private-prison industrial-complex.

And so, from top to bottom, the saga of Bobby Shmurda illustrates the need for reform in America’s criminal justice system. Shmurda’s treatment by the police prior to his arrest, regardless of Shmurda’s guilt, exemplifies the culture of abuse and harassment which so many other minorities experience at the hands of our nation’s police departments every day. Shmurda’s time in the state’s court systems exhibits the system’s heavy-handed, racialized usage of conspiracy laws. And finally, Shmurda’s time in prison, and the rejection of his parole request, demonstrate the inherent issues with our country’s retributive, counter-productive carceral system.

Although Shmurda’s transgressions against the law might not render him as neat and tidy a symbol of the systemic racism inherent in our country’s criminal justice system as other rappers like Meek Mill or Drakeo the Ruler, his story is story is still incredibly important. After all, advocating systemic change in our criminal justice system requires us to advocate for it ubiquitously — even for those, like Shmurda, who might be guilty.

Hip Hop / Politics Writer

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