By Brandon Harrison
We are the product of Stockton and the opportunities it has provided us with.
My name is Brandon; I’ve been in and out of the Stockton school system since the second grade, suspended over 60 times, expelled twice and began on a destructive path. Expectedly, by the age of 16 I was a survivor of gun violence. Two years ago I became a part of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin and joined their statewide coalition, where my life took an unexpected turn. I am now 19 years old, a community college student and a Youth Leader at Fathers & Families – where I am a youth expert and speak nationally on youth empowerment, racial justice, and civic engagement.
Just as my community had a clear and painful path predestined for me as a “troubled youth,” my community also provided me with a source of healing, empowerment and opportunities. Fathers & Families found me at a critical time in my life, when systems of incarceration could have easily intercepted me – the reality of many fellow community members, including my colleagues Raymond and Rocky.
At the age of 16 years old, Raymond Aguilar was tried as an adult and sentenced to 19 years in prison for homicide. Raymond lived his childhood and youth within systems, including the foster care and juvenile systems. These same systems repeatedly failed him and allowed him to be tried as an adult, despite being underage and having the education of a fifth grader. The system didn’t care that he was a child, the product of generations of trauma, or that his victim had robbed a family member of Raymond’s. To the system, Raymond was a statistic who belonged behind bars and undeserving of healing. He served 25 years in prison.
Adriano (Rocky) Rontal was sentenced to 27 years to life at the age of 18. Rocky’s childhood was spent defending his mother from his drunk and abusive father, and enduring beatings himself. After his father left, Rocky became the provider of his family, stealing and selling what he could to keep food in the pantry. At the age of 15, the juvenile system intercepted him, gangs followed. His adult sentencing came after he killed another young man, who had threatened his family. While serving his sentence, totaling 32 years, his teenage sister was raped and murdered, and both his brother and mother became heroin addicts, resulting in their deaths. Rocky, full of pain and rage dreamt of the day he would be released from prison – to avenge his sister’s death, until he learned forgiveness and became inspired to help others who are suffering from loss of life. Rocky’s story of forgiveness is especially powerful, years after the murder he committed, he asked for and received the forgiveness of his victim’s mother.
Both Raymond and Rocky have returned to the Stockton community as formerly incarcerated individuals ready to forgive, be forgiven, and heal. Just as their community failed them, their community also provided them with the opportunity to heal themselves and their community.
Today, Raymond, Rocky, and I work at Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, advocating for the investment of restorative justice and community healing over the punishment and incarceration of Stockton’s youth. It is our passion to shine the light on the injustices that led us all down such narrow and damning paths.
Stockton Unified needs to stop spending money, which is meant to support high-need students and improve school climate, on police – and instead invest in what works: restorative justice. Years of pain could have been avoided had a restorative justice program intercepted Raymond and Rocky over 20 years ago and provided them with the opportunity to heal, have a voice, and be valued as individuals – instead of being quickly labeled and dehumanized as a statistic.
“Whoever said slavery is over, is kidding themselves – those prisons are plantations,” said Rocky. “That’s why we’re here now, to help keep our community’s kids out of prison,” responded Raymond.
I couldn’t agree more; it is advocates like them who have kept me out of prison. We believe Stockton can be a safe place – of real opportunity – once our leaders and policymakers finally recognize that investing in school police and locking up youth is not the answer. Our community needs to invest in programs that heal and educate, because we are products of what our community chooses to invest in.
By Brandon Harrison