Once convicted, always guilty? (Photo by Steve Schwartz).
Cruising along Interstate 4 on a recent afternoon, it would be hard to describe the sheer euphoria I experienced while enduring something that would have driven a lot of other people absolutely crazy.
Seated next to me in the passenger’s seat was a good friend, 24-years-old, who has been through some very tough times lately. In a state of mind that could only be described as absolutely giddy, he cranked up the volume to a song on my compact disc player …. and every time it ended, he’d immediately hit the replay button. He did this over and over – and over – again.
I’m sure everybody, at one time or another, has fallen for a song they can’t resist playing repeatedly, but what left me feeling so high on Cloud 9 was the song that had captured him so fully, which can only be described as an “acquired” taste: Queen’s camp classic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which may be one of the world’s most unique novelty songs. Some people love it (me included, though in far smaller doses than my buddy) and some people find the song positively annoying, although if you’ve ever seen “Wayne’s World” and their spoof on the song as a sing-along classic, you know it actually works quite well as a tune to croon while cruising in your auto.
And that’s exactly what my friend did, multiple times – he sang virtually the entire song, full volume, from start to finish.
Some people would have been ripping their hair out by the third chorus of him belting out “I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the Fandango?! Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me! Galileo, Galileo.”
As the cast of "Wayne's World" proved, who can resist crooning to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in their car?
While this isn’t everybody’s idea of a fun afternoon, watching him, I felt like I’d be given a burst of laughing gas myself. My friend, you see, just got out of prison a few months ago, where he endured some miserable times trying to survive in a place that, ironically, is now a part of history, courtesy of the state’s budget cutting that forced the closure of seven Florida prisons and work camps.
On weekends when I’d visit him, sometimes there was so much tension and anger built up inside him that I worried about whether he’d carry it with him, long after he had gotten out from behind bars. I worried about the psychological scars he might carry from this experience.
So it was nothing short of a joy to watch my buddy sit there in the car, singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” like a man who had positively fallen in love with freedom, and the freedom to do something as silly and enjoyable as this.
As it turns out, there was a lot of anger a week or so later — but I was the one who felt so enraged. I was on the phone with another friend of mine who is a convicted felon – this one a woman, in her 40s. I felt a true rush of anger as she told me about how she’d applied to become a Notary Public through the Florida Division of Corporations …. only to be told that as a convicted felon, she was prohibited from doing so. She would first have to get her “civil rights” restored, which the state of Florida has told her she can’t even apply for until she’s kept her nose clean for seven years after her release. The disappointment and frustration in her voice was real; it was one step forward, two steps back.
Knowing not one but two convicted felons has been a unique experience for me, because I’m sadly aware of how – in the minds of the general public – we expect them to act: predictably.
Convicted felons, we’re all told, should be viewed with plenty of skepticism, maybe a dose of apprehension, and a high degree of outright suspicion … because once upon a time they violated the law, got caught, then went to prison. And since we all believe in rehabilitation in theory — although not so much in practice — convicted felons fit our comfortable stereotype of being greasy, mean, a bit dangerous, and almost certainly trouble from day one.
They’re so far below the rest of us, who – you know, cheat on our taxes every once in a while, and have a few too many to drink but drive home anyway, and steal small things from the office, and speed on the highways while we text and drive …. and a whole host of other illegal things that our law enforcement system is too small to catch up with. But hey, we never landed in jail or prison, so we’re the “honest” ones. And convicted felons, we all love to assume, have demonstrated they’re bad and just can’t be trusted.
That’s a sorry stereotype, because my two friends — one male, one famle, one black, one white — are both good people who about as close to being a threat to society as Bambi was to the great forest. Too many people — including, I’d say, most of our politicians — write them off, even as the Florida Department of Corrections invests in Re-Entry programs to help them get their lives back together.
It’s ironic that we spend money on programs to help them succeed, and expect them to make an effort to succeed, but then we assume they probably won’t. They’re felons, and we know what that means.
George Zimmerman in a police mug shot by Orange County Corrections from a 2005 arrest.
George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford, may or may not get arrested, prosecuted, and sent to prison for that tragic death. He claims he acted in self-defense, and Florida has its “Stand Your Ground” law that allows the use of deadly force if you believe your life may be in a danger. Some legal experts think that law alone will make it doubly hard to prove intent to kill.
So in the meantime, he’s presumed innocent under our legal system.
Too bad my two friends, who have both completed their sentences and paid their debt to society, don’t get the same presumption.
Today, do I see hardened criminals in them?
I see a hard working middle-aged woman trying to build a career in a tough economy, who started her own business and is doing all she can to promote it. The doors keep slamming in her face.
I see a young man who is so overjoyed to be free that he cherishes the ability to sing along with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” to sit back in that car and let that song carry him away, after nearly two years in a tough prison work camp.
I don’t see criminals at all, or anyone who poses a threat to society.
It’s ironic that some people are suggesting that Zimmerman, who hasn’t given his side of the story yet in a media interview, is being prejudged as guilty, in a way that’s completely unfair.
I suspect my two friends who are convicted felons know exactly what that feels like.
Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.