On the street near the jail, Kerry Kennedy addressed the public-safety question. “If we were truly afraid, then Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be walking free.” She also noted that, as attorney general, her father, Robert Kennedy, addressed cash bail in the federal system. “Here we are now, having failed to address it at the local level,” she said.
In 2017, Kennedy’s group helped bail out Pedro Hernandez, a Bronx teenager who spent a year at Rikers for a 2015 shooting that he did not commit. Yesterday, the Bronx DA finally dropped the last remaining charges against him. Hernandez, like Kalief Browder, has been called a “poster child” for bail reform.
Common, Kennedy, and the film crew began walking toward the jail. In his new outfit, Common attracted even more attention than he did before. As they walked by, two white women sporting librarian haircuts stopped and stared at his shirt. “That’s a rapper,” one explained to the other. “He’s going to bail someone out.” Three teenagers in gym shorts tried to get Common’s attention—“I rap too! Check out my mixtape!” one shouted—but Common didn’t seem to hear them. I told them that Common was about to bail someone out of jail, and their eyes grew wide. “Oh, word?” said one. “Tell him to free my uncle!”
McMullen prepared Common to go inside to the room where bail gets paid. “It’s not the most efficient system,” he said. Once Common gave over the information—the woman’s name, her ID number, his name—the person at the window would fax it to Rikers; then we would wait for a fax back, which could take an hour or two. McMullen assured him that “we’ve arranged to go to a nice window,” where the officer would expedite the process as much as possible. Common was handed a file containing information about the woman he would be bailing out, and he nodded solemnly as he turned the pages.
Sign here, under “advocate,” McMullen said, helping him fill out the surety form. “You’re the advocate. That’s your relationship.”
“Now I’m an artist, activist, and advocate!” Common said.
They walked into the small bail room, and the lofty rhetoric gave way to bureaucracy. Common approached the bail window, one of two. “Hey, how you doing today?” he said with a smile. “I’m here to bail someone out.” The officer behind the window seemed indifferent—not hostile, not friendly, barely making eye contact. “ID?” she said. Common turned to McMullen: “This is the nice window?” Common handed over the paperwork, then started to wait. He asked if the officer could give him a courtesy call when the fax from Rikers came in, like a restaurant texting a patron when a table becomes available. No luck. He would have to wait in the bail room like everyone else.
At the other window, a woman talked to the officer in loud and frustrated tones. Her bailout attempt did not seem to be going smoothly. Behind us, a man struggled to use a JPay machine.
After about 20 minutes, an officer walked in and told the film crew to stop recording. “Look, Common, we are all very happy for you,” she said, in a tone that seemed to belie her words. “We get it. But you guys just can’t record in here.” The cameras were turned off. Another officer asked for Common’s autograph; a third officer asked Common to pose for a picture.
The bail captain returned with some good news: She’d called the women’s wing of Rikers and they were expediting the paperwork. “That’s where I used to work,” she explained. Even with this VIP treatment, Common would end up waiting nearly an hour. While we waited, he told me how, growing up on the South Side of Chicago, “it became normal to have friends and family members incarcerated. I would visit my uncle in jail. I accepted it as normal.” Then he met Michelle Alexander, the scholar and author of best-selling book The New Jim Crow. (Being Common means having experiences that are not at all common.) Alexander helped him connect the dots between slavery and the prison system, and he realized that mass incarceration was neither “normal” nor inevitable. “I almost felt like I’d been duped,” he said.
When the paperwork was ready, Common stepped up to the window. The officer showed him a photo of the woman, confirming that she was the person he wanted released, and he nodded. “Sign here and press hard,” the officer instructed, handing him some paper with carbon copies underneath. With three swoops of his pen, Common was done. He and the officer wished each other a good day, and he walked back onto the street.
As he headed off to his next engagement, he seemed invigorated by the experience. He even came around on the T-shirt, saying he wouldn’t change back. “I’m gonna rock this today and let people know what I’m about.”