A crowd of hundreds gathered for the Free Tony Lewis rally on Saturday.
"I've got a few things ... that I've been wanting to say to my whole city," Tony Lewis said to a crowd of hundreds gathered at Black Lives Matter Plaza Saturday. He was on speakerphone, calling from a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, his voice amplified by a microphone and sound system.
"I want to first say I'm sorry, I'm sorry, and I'm remorseful for all the damages that I've caused with selling drugs in the city in the 1980s. At that time I knew not really what I was doing, but I really understand now," he said.
Lewis, now 58 years old, has been in prison for 32 years. He was given a life sentence in 1989 for his role in one of the largest crack-cocaine operations in the region. Twenty-eight others were arrested as part of the same federal conspiracy case—including his partner, Rayful Edmond III.
On Saturday, hundreds of people joined his son, Tony Lewis Jr., for a Free Tony Lewis rally at Black Lives Matter Plaza. Lewis Jr.'s main demand is for President Joe Biden create a path to clemency for Lewis and others who are serving long sentences without parole for drug-related crimes committed decades ago. For Lewis Jr., the rally was an opportunity to make his father's case in front of the White House, in a location that's become known over the past year as a place to fight for racial justice.
"Mass incarceration has been the greatest destabilizer of the Black community, particularly Black communities like the one I come from," Lewis Jr. said shortly before the rally started, as people were trickling in with matching "Free Tony Lewis" t-shirts and sweatshirts. "We want to talk to President Biden about not just my family, my father, but the moms and dads all across this country that have been separated for far too long: people that have been held accountable for their crimes, but their sentences outweigh their crimes."
The Free Tony Lewis rally, held at Black Lives Matter Plaza, was demanding that President Biden create a more robust clemency program.
To many, Tony Lewis Sr. has come to represent the very concept of redemption. At one point, he was extremely prominent in the city's drug trade. Now he's known as a very different kind of community pillar: someone who mentors younger men in prison and tries to get them on a good path.
"He's incredibly remorseful for the damage he caused to the city," Lewis Jr. says. "It's something that he ... deals with every day. And he's tried to his best from where he is to help repair [that] not only through his actions, but through what he poured into me."
Lewis Jr. says his father is the reason why he does the work that he does as a community advocate. For his day job, Lewis Jr. is the Vocational Development Coordinator at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, connecting people coming home from prison with job training, education, and employment. He's also involved in other kinds of community service and anti-violence work. And he's hopeful for a day where he can work with his father in-person on these issues.
"We dream about him being able to stand side by side with me, helping the city," he says.
There's recent precedent for resentencing—both for the federal operation Lewis was convicted in, and more broadly. A federal judge recently reduced Edmond's life sentence to 20 years, citing his extensive cooperation with federal prosecutors.
Dozens of other people have come back to D.C. from federal prison through a resentencing program called the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, or IRAA. The bill, passed by the D.C. Council, created a path for people convicted of serious crimes when they were under 18 to get their sentences reduced—though federal prosecutors have routinely tried to block these sentence reductions. The Council also recently approved a bill that would expand eligibility to people who were convicted before they turned 25 years old.
Shannon Battle was given a sentence of 35-to-life as a juvenile. Because of IRAA, he was able to come home in 2019 after 25 years of incarceration. Now, Battle offers peer support to men in similar positions.
"Our community needs men like [Tony Lewis]," Battle says. "They need men like me, that did decades behind those prison walls and understand the influence that our environment subjected us to ... guys look up to and will listen to him."
Battle and his fellow IRAA recipients wore matching t-shirts at the rally with their original sentences on the back to show their support for resentencing and clemency efforts.
IRAA recipients at the rally wore matching t-shirts.
Anthony Petty, who also attended the rally, was released through IRAA in December after being incarcerated for 30 years. Now 46, Petty had been in prison since he was 16 years old. His best friend knows Tony Lewis personally.
"My best friend is in the same prison as him," Petty says. "Tony's like a mentor to him. He's changed his mindset so when he comes home, he'll do the right thing. And people like that—they deserve another chance in life."
Domonique Stepp, a 50-year-old D.C. resident who also attended the rally, came because he saw the event being advertised on social media. He was a senior at Ballou High School in Southeast D.C. when Tony Lewis was sentenced.
"Now, I'm a 50 year old grandfather, so when I compare and contrast for myself and my own life, it's just amazing that he's still in on those charges," said Stepp. "32 years is just way too long, in my opinion."
Stepp says that, looking back, he better understands the context that surrounded D.C.'s crack epidemic—and the way that poverty shaped the choices of young people who got involved in the drug trade.
"The things that you needed were barely being met," Stepp says. "The things that you wanted were nonexistent. And the drug trade explodes right in your very neighborhood. Very little choice for poor kids at that time ... it was a literal choice, but what choice was it really?"
Tony Lewis Jr. stands in Black Lives Matter Plaza at the Free Tony Lewis rally.
For Tony Lewis Jr., fighting for his dad has never been about proving his innocence—but rather about asking people in power to consider whether the punishments they doled out for drug crimes of the 1980s were too harsh.
"We understand now that young Black men like my dad weren't solely responsible for what happened not only in D.C. but in urban America," Lewis Jr. says. "They did have a role—a role that they have been held accountable for ... [but] somebody that has served 32 years for a narcotics offense should be given a second chance. And so that's really what this is about."
Throughout his 32 years in prison, Lewis Sr. and his son have remained close through frequent phone calls and visits —though they haven't been able to see each other in-person since the Federal Bureau of Prisons restricted family visits because of the coronavirus. Lewis says now that he has daughters of his own, he feels like he needs his father home even more urgently.
"They've never sat down at a dinner table with their grandfather," Lewis Jr. says. "There's much about him that they don't know—that I don't even know—based on this situation that we're in."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.