by Raneen El-Barbarawi / Staff Reporter
Since 1945, Roosevelt University has recognized and allowed minorities and other marginalized groups to shine beyond the adversity they have faced in their lifetime. Roosevelt continuously emphasizes the importance of social justice and allows students to have a chance even when they are overlooked by others. Troy Gaston, 37, describes himself as one of those students able to blossom because of the second chance that he was given by the university.
When he was 6-years-old, Gaston would take the train with his younger siblings to ride past Roosevelt and admire the African American students attending the university in the late ’80s.
“It almost seemed surreal to see that,” said Gaston. “This gave me a sense of determination to want to become one of those African American students attending Roosevelt too.”
He was accepted to Roosevelt in 2018 to study political science as a senior. He said that his interest in political science arose because of his love for hip-hop.
“I believe that hip-hop shines light on an illuminated caged bird, like myself,” said Gaston. He describes hip-hop as a social movement while political science is the education that can be used to break through the injustices that are occurring in this world.
“Roosevelt culture breathes identity to lives of students who have not experienced the blood, sweat and tears of other cultures,” said Gaston, who is originally from the South Side of Chicago. “When these students get here, they are able to get in tune and have those one-on-one experiences with individuals who go through these hardships.”
“I think it is important for professors to know what students are struggling with because that sometimes affects how they perform in class and that extra assistance can mean a great deal to a student,” said Margaret Rung, director of Roosevelt’s history department and a former professor of Gaston’s.
Gaston said that he was wrongfully convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison for 10 years, serving from 2007 to 2017 and spending three of those years in solitary confinement at Stateville and Pinckneyville prison. While there, officers stopped him from making phone calls and interacting with other inmates.
“Solitary confinement is all about how you make it through,” he said.
Gaston stated that he was arrested because he was “caught up” with two friends. He then further stated that one of his friends fought and stole someone’s credit card and since he was at the scene, he received consequences as well.
“I cannot justify why they did what they did,” said Gaston. “But to give someone 10 years for that scenario while a white man receives two years probation doesn’t add up.”
“As a black man, being wrongfully convicted happens too much, too often,” said Deriall Reed, a 23-year-old senior majoring in business management. “But this is a lesson that we need to be aware of our surroundings.”
“I knew I had to make something good out of my bad situation, though,” said Gaston. During his time in prison, he educated himself by reading about political movements and prominent leaders such as Thurgood Marshall and Ida B. Wells. He said most of his time was spent studying constitutional law so he could prepare himself for law school after his time in prison. He also went on hunger strikes in prison to receive materials such as food and first aid kits.
When Gaston was released from prison, he did exactly what he knew he had to do.
“My freedom was my motivation,” said Gaston, who has now been out of prison for about two years. He plans on attending law school next year to fight for the Innocence Project, an organization that gets wrongfully convicted people out of prison, and expanding his fight for injustices by working for the NAACP.
On a day-to-day basis, he often attends protests against gun violence and has an interest in women’s rights. He is passionate about criminal justice and housing reform.
“There’s a lot of change that needs to happen in this country,” he said.
Gaston recently decided to get his prison records through the Freedom of Information Act from the Daily Center on Washington Street with the help of some of his professors.
“It was a terrible experience and has been extremely deterrent,” said Gaston. After spending $800 and standing in line for hours to receive eight pages, Troy found out that the records stated that his post-conviction petition that he filed on his own in prison was granted. The decision of the trial judge was reversed and his case was remanded back for a new hearing in 2013. However, the court never reviewed this decision, leaving him to spend four more years in jail.
He is now in the process of meeting with lawyers to see if he can file a 1983 class-action lawsuit against the state and federal government.
“I am filing this because it has never been just about me,” said Gaston. “A black man needs to be heard to fight against all the wrongful convictions and disproportionate sentences they receive compared to their white counterparts.”
He hopes that this lawsuit will be taken to the Supreme Court, which will reverse the rulings that specifically target minorities. He said he also plans to use this case as a platform to ratify constitutional amendments and exclude the government from having power to endorse wrongful convictions.
“I am not the first person to go through this, but I hope that I’m the last,” said Gaston. “Even if I lose, I will continue to fight.”
“I do truly wish and hope Troy’s path forward is smooth and that he is able to graduate and go on to law school to do good things,” said Rung. “Troy has a really strong moral compass and I think the world needs people like that who are compassionate and willing to help others who have struggled too.”
Gaston is currently in the student government association at Roosevelt and hopes to persuade others to have similar passions and to be seen as a motivational figure for those who have lost hope.
“I hope students take a look at this paper and realize society is becoming more influential by faces that look like mine,” said Gaston.