Posted on 16 September 2013.
By D. David Kinney
Everyone knows the feeling. It’s the feeling that grips you when you see blue lights in your rear view mirror and hear a siren getting closer. It’s dread, regret, fear, and anxiety crashing together into an emotional experience that can leave even the strongest among us with wobbly knees.
Atlanta drag performer Shavonna B. Brooks was sitting on a United Airlines flight when this terrible feeling consumed her. Through the windows she saw the cops boarding the plane and she knew they were coming for her. This is the story of her fall and rebirth.
Brooks was at the airport traveling to a benefit for a friend who was competing in the Miss Continental Plus pageant. She’s traveled all over the country for gigs and there was nothing particularly unusual about this trip. Checking in for her flight and going through security all went smoothly. With little hassle Brooks boarded her Chicago bound flight and quickly settled in. Cell phone, iPad, and headphones were safely unpacked and stowed in the seat-back in front of her. She knew the drill.
Buckled in and ready to go she noticed something happening at the front of the plane. The police boarded the aircraft and starting walking down the aisle. “I packed up my belongings as soon as I saw them. I knew they were coming for me,” Brooks said.
What the other passengers didn’t know was Brooks’ checked luggage contained an illegal drug – marijuana, Cannabis sativa to be exact. Despite the fact that Brooks was traveling to Illinois, the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana, she was arrested because this is Georgia. While other states are working on legalization, decriminalization, or licensure programs for medicinal use Georgia seems happy with its war on pot.
In a report from the ACLU looking at marijuana possession arrest rates from 2001 through 2010, Georgia had the sixth highest arrest rate in the country. “[These arrests have] needlessly ensnared hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, had a staggeringly disproportionate impact on African-Americans, and come at a tremendous human and financial cost,” the ACLU report said. “The price paid by those arrested and convicted of marijuana possession can be significant and linger for years, if not a lifetime.” 32,473 people were arrested in 2010 for possession of marijuana in Georgia. Ninety-three percent of those arrested in Atlanta were Black.
But none of that mattered to Brooks as she sat on the airplane waiting for the police to find her. “This was completely my fault. I’ve traveled with [marijuana] for years. This one particular time, I put it inside a grinder and stuck it in with some bracelets. Stupid mistake. I know they check jewelry because it shows up like foil,” Brooks confessed.
Brooks immediately packed her things before the police got to her seat. She sat collected, calm and ready to face what stood before her. With no delay the police escorted her off of the plane and began to question her. “It was like a movie,” Books said.
An officer quickly asked her if she knew why she had been removed from the plane. “Y’all found it,” Brooks told the officers with little doubt in her mind. A nod from one of the other officers was the only confirmation she needed.
Some people would get upset in this situation. Others would get angry. It’s easy to get upset or angry when you’ve been caught doing something that bears consequences. But that’s not who Shavonna Brooks is. She held her head high, she told the truth, and she accepted the consequences. “It was my mistake and it hurt at the time. But my best friend and nephew were right by my side — all 13 dreadful hours of it,” Brooks said.
“The arresting officers were so nice. I asked that they get my bag with my wigs from underneath the plane and not make me walk through the airport being a public figure and knowing a lot of flight attendants. They honored my request and sent a car to the ramp,” Brooks said.
In handcuffs she was put into the police car and they made their way to booking. “I talked to the officers the whole way down Tara Boulevard. The female officer was asking where I bought the shoes I had on because she wore a size 12 in women’s,” Brooks remembered
And everything moved along smoothly until Brooks got to the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office for booking. In the Clayton County jail men wear orange and women wear green. If you look at Brooks it would seem obvious that she should get a green outfit. But Clayton County goes by the gender on your driver’s license. “The most horrible thing was when they made me put on the orange outfit. After that the boys went craaaaazy. When I moved to Georgia they changed my sex on my ID to male. Bitches. But you know, ignorance is beyond no one person.” Brooks explained
After attracting unwanted attention from the imprisoned men, the Sheriff’s Office put her in a cell by herself. When they didn’t have room for her to sit alone she was put with the female prisoners.
Eventually she was released and had her day in court. She pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge and a judge sentenced her to one year of probation, 40 hours of community service, and random drug testing. Instead of letting this defeat her or get her down she is using the experience to better her life.
“I wouldn’t have done anything differently. God has a way of doing everything in your life when you’re a believer. This was supposed to happen,” Brooks remarked. And her words aren’t ringing hollow. She’s turning her life around and getting sober. “I’m very proud of myself having smoked almost every day since the age of 16. I’m not messing this up. Any addiction in life can be overcome. It takes strength and belief in yourself and you can make that change. In my case I was forced. But it was what I needed in order to have a better chance at life. I’m ready to take on this new opportunity,” Brooks said.
Shavonna B. Brooks has been sober since July 22nd. You can see her perform at Burkhart’s Pub where she hosts the “EXTRAVAGANZA” on Saturday nights.
[This story was originally published in FENUXE Magazine's "Celebrating Atlanta Black Gay Pride" issue on August 29, 2013.]