By Vanessa Leal, Staff Reporter
On the evening of September 12, political theorist, Harvard professor and Washington Post columnist Danielle Allen came to Roosevelt University’s American Dream conference to tell the story of her cousin, Michael Alexander Allen, published in her book, “Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A.”
Eight years younger than Danielle, and raised in Southern California, Michael Allen moved to Los Angeles and was arrested at the age of 15 for an armed attempted carjacking. According to the police report, the victim of the incident was able to seize the gun from Allen, shooting him in the neck.
Allen confessed to robbing three people a day before the attempted carjacking and another a week earlier. Allen faced a maximum of 25 years at conviction for his four felonies – two attempted carjackings and two robberies.
Despite Allen’s young age, his clean criminal record before the spree and first time being arrested, he was sentenced to 12 years and 8 months in prison. Allen was paroled after only serving 11 years. Allen was released at the age of 26 and died in 2009, killed by his transgender lover that he met in prison.
Danielle Allen’s presentation at Roosevelt was an account of Michael’s life with questionings on claimed disproportionality applied by the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the societal problems regarding opportunities faced by young Americans growing up in challenging urban contexts.
The Allen family was shocked that Michael was tried as an adult at the age of 15. Michael Allen also had the three-strikes law applied to his case due to the prior offenses.
“There are millions of voices and stories that aren’t being heard because it is shameful to talk about being in prison and having family members in prison,” said Danielle Allen.
“But I think if we actually want to address the question of the criminal justice system that we have built we have got to bring those stories to the surface,” Allen said.
Michael exchanged letters and phone calls with Danielle during his time in prison, comparing his life to fine literature, such as Dante’s “Inferno.” He also thought about the concepts of fire, ice, desire and hate, inspired by Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice.”
“Michael perished because of fire and ice,” said Danielle Allen, comparing the carjacking to desire and the “merciless” court decision. Danielle made the comparison of similar offenses that received lesser sentences to that of hate.
Problems in the criminal justice system, such as racial discrimination and the war on drugs since former President Nixon, were also raised in the discussion.
The American dream was discussed in terms of the individual’s and societal responsibility. To Danielle, for young people growing up in tough neighborhoods of inner cities, most are going to “break their backs” while on some make it.
Allen defined the American dream using the second sentence of the Declaration of the Independence, which states all men are created equal and have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Governments are instituted to secure those rights but when they fail to provide the grounds to which Americans can pursuit the dream, it is the right of people to unsettle. In that spirit, Danielle moved the audience with the tragedy and loss of Michael Allen’s life.
Students in attendance also shared their thoughts of the speech Allen gave at Ganz Hall in the Auditorium Building.
“Listening to Michael’s story was very touching. When I came here I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think it was fair that they gave him the maximum sentence,” said junior biology major, Francis Lopez.
Others expressed their thoughts on how Michael’s sentence was carried by the criminal justice system. “He was charged with the three strikes law but he had only been arrested once. He was only 15 and he shouldn’t have served 11 full years,” said freshman psychology major Brooke VanHoutte.
“There are underlying problems with criminal justice that need to be addressed,” VanHoutte said.
A student from University of Illinois at Chicago also expressed frustrations with the criminal justice system.
“There is no sense of true care. It is about other factors, amongst them racism and hatred. My concern is how much do we believe in the power of love to change that?” said Dakota Burnett, a rehabilitation sciences major at UIC.