A Mother Reflects on her Son’s Path from Activism to Prison

When Khadijah Shakur’s phone rang one recent evening, it startled diners close to her table at Junior’s in Brooklyn.

Dun-dun

It’s the sound from “Law & Order: SVU,” the sound that comes on when white text appears on a black screen, announcing the date, time and place of the next step or process in criminal cases.

Her phone rang again, three times.

Dun-dun

Dun-dun

Dun-dun

She reached for her purse on the booth across from her and took out her phone.

“I just love this show,” Shakur said she looked at her phone screen to see who had texted her.

The dun-dun sound is her text tone; the show’s theme music is her ring tone.

These days, the “SVU” tones could also symbolize Shakur’s life and that of her son, Justin Sarkodie, 25. In 2015, Sarkodie was convicted of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and is now serving 25 years to life at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y.

Shakur said Sarkodie, who is also known as Hannibal Rushadeen, first became involved in political activism when he was only 5 after she started taking him to demonstrations.  She said he began acting more mature for his age by informing his classmates about black history or refusing to stand for the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance.

It began with the case of Nathaniel Abraham. In 1997, the then 11-year-old Abraham was arrested and charged as an adult for murder in Detroit. The case drew national attention because of his age. Shakur said the Rev. Al Sharpton and his organization, the National Action Network, traveled to Pontiac, Mich., to protest the arrest and charge. She took her son along on the trip.

“I felt that he should go as a child to support another child.” Shakur said, even though it meant taking him out of school. “So that was his first exposure to rallying for justice.”

Although they lived in Brooklyn, the young Sarkodie would accompany his mother to the Nation of Islam Temple, Mosque No. 7, in Harlem.

“He always liked the way the brothers in the Nation of Islam were very militant,” Shakur said, “the way they did the drills.”

While he never joined the Nation of Islam, his mother said he admired the militancy. “The brothers in the Nation were impressed with him and kind of took him under their wing,” Shakur said.

She added there is one brother in Mosque No. 7, a prison reform minister, who still keeps in touch with her son. “He’s known and loved Hannibal since he was 5,” Shakur said.

Shakur also took her son to Harlem to attend First World Alliance lectures, lectures that supposedly teach what was omitted in history books.

“That was where we met the black history greats, like the late Tony Martin, the late Frances Cress Wesling, author of the Isis Papers,” Shakur said.

A young Sarkodie, center, with members of the New Black Panther Party. (Photo courtesy of Khadijah Shakur)

At the age of 10, Sarkodie told people to start calling him Hannibal Rushadeen, although his legal name is still Justin Sarkodie. Shakur said her son chose the new names for specific reasons.

Hannibal Barca of Carthage was a warrior and general in the second and third centuries who led an army and war elephants utilized in battles to intimidate the Romans across Europe. She said Sarkodie had always like his story.

“And he always identified with him, saying he was going to be a general to raise up his people,” his mother said.

Rushadeen came from Harold Rushadeen, also known as Dr. Khalid Abdul Muhammad. Muhammad was a top aide to the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, and became a national chairman for the New Black Panther Party.

“You know, I think people go through different stages in their path when they’re changing their name,” she said. “You know, they’re trying to find their way.”

When he was 12, Sarkodie and Shakur joined the New Black Panther Party.

Shakur said many people she met within the New Black Panther Party admired the relationship between mother and son. “I told them, I just started teaching him about his history,” Shakur said. “I didn’t teach him to hate white people, I always like to make that very clear.”

But she said she did teach him to love being black and to be proud of being a black African.

When Shakur tells people she took him to rallies, their response often is, “Well isn’t that dangerous?”

“I said being black in America is dangerous, and your children have to learn,” Shakur said. “It’s better for them to learn now than for them to learn later on. … You have to mold them like clay from the time they’re like 5 or 6 years-old.”

Sarkodie was never into sports. However, he was a serious kid. His mother said his teachers would speak to her about how serious her son was. Sarkodie would visit the school library and checked out books about black culture. His teachers worried he was too inundated with black history.

“It was all he read,” Shakur said. “At school he would learn other things, but at the library, that’s when he would pick out the book about Harriet Tubman, or the safe books [teachers] were comfortable with like Oprah Winfrey.” Sarkodie would educate his classmates about black history, his mother said.

At the age of 15, he was in charge of field training his platoon within the Black Panther Party, leading drills, giving military commands, and reciting creeds, like “The Five Duties of a Black Panther” or the “Twelve General Orders.”

“Hannibal was very strict about the way he did it,” Shakur said. “And if we didn’t do it right, he’d make us do it over.” At times, Shakur said, he would correct his own mother, even if she missed a word or two. “We would call him Hannibal the General because that’s exactly how he acted,” Shakur said.

Sarkodie was a perfectionist and she adds she’s not sure where he got that from. “From when he was 5, everything was about our people, the struggle of our people and how we have to be free, which there’s nothing wrong with that,” Shakur said. “But he was almost inundated with that.”

Sarkodie with Louis Farrakhan. (Photo courtesy of Khadijah Shakur)

All that changed when he was 17.

Police said that on March 19, 2013, at a deli in Brooklyn, a man named Binky allegedly began yelling and cursing at Sarkodie over a woman they both knew.

Binky pushed Sarkodie and a scuffle ensued, police said.

Sarkodie walked away and left the deli, but not before Binky’s friend, Farrell Nestor, 28, allegedly threw a bottle of Hennessey at Sarkodie’s face. The two men got into a scuffle, police said.

According to the police report, Sarkodie said that he stopped fighting and left the deli. He then allegedly called one of his friends, Charles “Junior” Drennon, and told him what had happened. Drennon told Sarkodie to meet him on East 22d Street and Newkirk Avenue in Brooklyn.

When Sarkodie met up with Drennon, Drennon allegedly raised his shirt to show Sarkodie a handgun in his waistband, police said. Drennon told Sarkodie that he needed to take of this, that “nobody fucks with us,” and that he needed to do the work, according to police. “If you don’t, your pussy ass will get hurt,” Drennon supposedly said.

The two men walked around in search of marijuana, and then they walked into 490 East 23rd St., police said.

“You need to do this now,” Drennon allegedly said after he lifted his shirt once more to show Sarkodie the gun, only this time Sarkodie took it out of Drennon’s waistband and headed upstairs, police said.

Nestor was shot in the head. His sister, Murielle Price, told The New York Post that Nestor had just been released from prison and was looking for jobs and trying to better himself. “My brother is a sweetheart, and he’s lovable,” Pierce told the Post. “He’s a nice person. He’s very kind.”

The two men headed to another building and from there, Drennon called a cab. When they entered the cab, Drennon put the gun under the seat. They didn’t get far; the police stopped their cab and took them into custody.

The trial lasted five days;  Sarkodie entered prison in February 2015.

Shakur said visiting her son is hard because it’s a six-hour bus ride. The prison is 30 miles from Canada. “I think they deliberately put inmates up there, because they know it’s going to be hard for the loved ones to get up there and see them,” Shakur said. Buses or trains go only to Plattsburgh, N.Y. From there, visitors drive or take a cab the additional 15 miles to Dannemora.

Sarkodie is trying to get his case appealed.

According to Samuel Karliner, Sarkodie’s lawyer for the murder case, one issue is that some video surveillance did not fall in line with the evidence. “Another issue would be the Court’s failure to charge coercion as a defense, and third would be excessive sentence,” Karliner said. While Karliner will not be the main lawyer working on the appeal, he is assisting another lawyer on the case.

Shakur is trying to raise money online for legal bills. “These lawyers cost $100,000,” Shakur said.  “Even though I’m a registered nurse, I don’t have $100,000.”  Shakur said she told Sarkodie to start the appeals process with a court-appointed lawyer.

“I don’t know if he feels that, because she’s free, that they’re court appointed, that they’re not good,” Shakur said. “I said, ‘You can’t think that.’”