“Racism is integrated into the system, no doubt about it,” says Shabaka Shakur, co-owner of Brownstone Bar and Restaurant, located at 277 Gold Street in DUMBO. Derrick Hamilton, Shabaka’s good friend and the other owner of Brownstone Bar, nods in agreement.
Derrick and Shabaka– both Bed-Stuy residents– sit across from me at the front of the bar. The place is closed, except for some of the employees in the back watching TV and conversing with one another. The oversized touchscreen jukebox behind us illuminates the sleek counters of Brownstone and the bottles behind it, giving the place a hip vibe.
Derrick and Shabaka’s stern expressions contrast with the employees lighthearted laughter in the back, marking the somberness of the conversation. “The NYPD is unconscious of how their careless practices affect minority communities,” says Derrick. “It needs to be fixed.”
While there are those who are quick to defend police officers and the legal system against claims of rampant abuse and carelessness, Derrick and Shabaka are prime examples of when a flawed system goes unchecked. Both men are the victims of wrongful imprisonment, serving years in jail for crimes they didn’t commit.
“We want to empower people here, especially in the Trump era. People have come to this bar from Baltimore, D.C., and Connecticut just so they can meet us and tell us their stories.”
Derrick was released in 2011 and finally exonerated in 2015. Shabaka was released in 2015 when former Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson threw out his case. Derrick and Shabaka knew each other in prison and while there, never lost sight of their goal of winning back their freedom. They spent much of their time in the prison libraries, becoming self-taught lawyers and helping others who they believed were innocent.
“People came to Derrick and [me] while we where in the law section of the library. While we were serving time, we helped those who were wrongly imprisoned just like us,” said Shabaka. “Both of us realized that we had to be proactive in getting ourselves out of prison. Reaching out to families and friends on the outside helped strengthen our cases.”
“Our family and friends were able to hold rallies at City Hall,” Derrick adds.
“A Daily News article was written about the rally, which was the turning point in the battle for me to get out. By making that noise, we were able to begin the battle for freedom.”
Today the two are free and owners of their own small business.
“When I first came home, I remember walking by the Barclays and thinking to myself a restaurant would be a good idea. Not just because of money, but because it would be a great way to meet people,” said Derrick.
Once he was able to find an available space, the two decided that Gold Street in DUMBO would be suitable enough. Despite their lawyers telling the two to take their time before purchasing the place, they decided to jump in right away and get to work. “Our only previous experience was the prison mess hall,” Derrick jokes.
The restaurant has quickly become a hub and community resource to hold such events as book signings and multiple pop up shops. T’yanna Wallace, the daughter of Brooklyn icon The Notorious B.I.G, recently held a sale of her own merchandise at Brownstone. “This restaurant is for the success of everyone in the borough,” Shabaka says with pride. “We want to empower people here, especially in the Trump era. People have come to this bar from Baltimore, D.C., and Connecticut just so they can meet us and tell us their stories.”
However, Derrick and Shabaka are not just content with becoming business owners. Since attaining their own freedom, the two use their legal skills to continue the fight against the gross injustices of the legal system and to fight on the behalf of innocents imprisoned like themselves. Derrick mentions two of the high-profile cases the pair are working on now: Nelson Cruz and Daniel Rincón.
Despite the descriptions given by two police officers matching a different suspect, Cruz was taken into custody, convicted and is serving time for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. Rincón is also serving time for a gang-related murder. Rival gang members of Rincón’s crew have stepped forward to claim responsibility and testify on behalf of his innocence. However, the judge threw out the testimony and decided to convict him anyway.
“Cases like these are why we do what we do,” Derrick explains. “Overwhelming evidence that these guys’ convictions are unfair, yet the NYPD and legal system are willing to stick anybody with a crime and call it a day. What bothers me is that prison is not a nice place to be. You can walk out of your cell at any time and be killed.”
Derrick and Shabaka’s work spreads by word-of-mouth. “Just today, I got a phone call from a gentleman who was pointed our way because he was having trouble with the law,” says Shabaka, who is also one of the founders of Absolutely Innocent Inc., a nonprofit that serves wrongfully convicted persons in New York.
“Look us up, give us a call, and find out what we are all about. Law students looking for experience feel free to reach out. This is real life experience, not the classroom! There’s a lot of work to be done.”
Shabaka and Derrick are proponents of police surveillance, as footage is a valuable tool to hold officers accountable for irresponsible actions. Derrick suggests that the NYPD start using what is known as double blind lineups as standard procedure. A double blind lineup is where neither the person administering the lineup nor the witness knows which picture is the real suspect. “Cops should not be suggesting perpetrators from the line up,” Derrick firmly says. “False confessions, erroneous identification… We can solve these flaws.”
“Racism doesn’t just exist in the courts. The landlords here have actually been asked to remove us.”
Shabaka vigorously nods in agreement: “Wrongful convictions happen so much, and you know what? Prosecutors are never held responsible when their work ends up taking away 15 years of a man’s life. Instead, they get promoted,” he continues. “No fines, and no firings! They just sentence with impunity. Careers are made on these convictions, while the NYPD routinely targets communities of color.
Derrick shifts around in his chair as he collects his thoughts. “When you arrest somebody, we are talking about breaking up families. When the NYPD unfairly targets communities of color, it tears the families of these communities apart.
“Poor people who can’t fend for themselves have crimes slapped on them, and public defenders don’t have the funds to do their jobs. Basically, this is genocide, and it needs to stop.”
Looking forward, Derrick and Shabaka have their work cut out for them. This summer is the election for the seat of the Brooklyn District Attorney, and the two have some advice: “They better know that we will be watching, and whomever comes next better pick up where Ken Thompson, the last DA, left off.”
Shabaka and Derrick both admit that while they didn’t always see eye to eye with the last District Attorney who passed away recently, they respected him for his ability to address the shortcomings of the NYPD’s practices. Derrick and Shabaka urge people to follow the Absolutely Innocent podcast and social media pages on Facebook and Twitter.
“Racism doesn’t just exist in the courts.” Derrick somberly states. “The landlords here have actually been asked to remove us. Seeing successful black people is scary to some. But all I have to say is that we don’t scratch or bite.
“We aren’t animals. Everyone is welcome, police officers drop by all the time. When you are in here, you’re family. Brownstone’s motto, after all, is, Come in as a stranger, and leave as a friend.”
So far, Derrick and Shabaka seem intent on following that mantra.