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‘At The Expense Of My Life’

Cover image for podcast episode

CREDIT: AARON HARVEY

Above: Aaron Harvey poses on the UC Berkeley campus after his graduation in this undated photo.

Today on KPBS Investigates, Aaron Harvey’s journey from wrongful gang charges to UC Berkeley graduation.

In the summer of 2014, a swarm of police arrested Aaron Harvey near where he was living outside Las Vegas. Harvey is from San Diego, and was charged as a test case by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis using a law that had never been used before.

It said someone could be charged for conspiracy for gang shootings, even if that person had nothing to do with the shootings at all. That was the case for Harvey. He was charged because he was in social media pictures wearing gang colors and making gang signs.

A judge dismissed the charges against him, but not before he spent seven months in jail.

Now, Harvey has done something that when he was in jail seemed like an impossible dream: graduating from UC Berkeley.

This KPBS Investigates episode was reported and written by Claire Trageser. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Kinsee Morlan is Podcast Coordinator. This episode was edited by Megan Burke. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content.

Stay tuned for more episodes of KPBS Investigates right here in your podcast feed.

So it was the summer of 2014, and all of a sudden a swarm of police arrested Aaron Harvey outside Las Vegas.

Aaron is a San Diego native, and he was charged as a test case of a law that had never been used before.

It said someone could be charged with conspiracy for belonging to the same gang as other people who had carried out a series of gang shootings.

A judge dismissed the charges against Aaron, but not before he spent seven months in jail. Now, He has graduated from UC Berkeley-- and I’ve spent the last 3 years talking to him during that journey.

I’m Claire Trageser, and you’re listening to KPBS Investigates.

Today, I’m bringing you the story of what Aaron has been through… mostly in his own words.

Midroll 1

______________

AARON SOT
I remember sitting in jail. And a Berkeley commercial came on and I remember telling... His name is Diondre Cooper, we were cellies on the same case and I was like, if they ever let us out of here, I'm going to Berkeley and everybody goes ahhh, you sound stupid, you know?

BEAT

This is Aaron Harvey in November 2018...during his Thanksgiving break from his first semester at UC Berkeley. I interviewed him in the midst of what would be a huge challenge for him--graduating from one of California’s best universities.

BEAT

AARON SOT
Sometimes I feel like if I don't graduate from this school, I can never come back to San Diego. You know what I mean? Because it's it's just a lot of pressure. You know, I have to get.. I got a B on my midterm and flipped out, you know, one I've never gotten a B on anything. So I was like I was, you know, that was very humbling. But then at the same time, like, oh, oh, this is going to mess up my GPA, because I have to have high GPA because I got to go to Harvard, you know, for law school. But I'm putting all this pressure. It's like, chill out. It's a midterm. It's a B, relax.

BEAT

KHALID SOT
The community in general kind of did place a lot of I don't know if I want to say expectations, but kind of a burden of being successful on him fairly early on

BEAT FADE

That’s Khalid Alexander, a community leader who’s known Harvey for a long time. He says Harvey’s case--which so many people saw as unjustly putting him, plus rapper Brandon Duncan in prison--made the expectations that much higher for a true redemption story.

BEAT

KHALID SOT
There was a huge amount of community outpouring while they were actually in jail. And so you had the community was a part of this movement to have them released kind of from the very beginning, once released, instead of the two of them kind of disappearing into obscurity and just kind of working on their own or just being thankful enough to have been released. Instead of that, they ended up dedicating a large amount of their time...to, you know, not only be active in the community, but to be active voices calling for reform of the system or for addressing some of the wrongs that have happened...I think it's pretty clear that he would have been just as happy, if not happier, without all of the attention being able to go back to school, go to Berkeley, get his degree and decide to go in whatever direction that he wants to. So that's why I say it's unfair. I think it's unfair. Any time a community puts their hopes on any one individual, I think it's an enormous amount of pressure and responsibility that you didn't necessarily ask for.

BEAT TRANSITION

AARON SOT
There's a lot of good things that came out of that case and a lot of people's lives changed for the better and you know, we got legislation passed in a lot of good things have come. But at the expense of my life, though, at the same time, you know, so it's like. Yes, great. We got all these things, but kind of like ruined my life as well, you know, so it's almost like so almost same thing with like Berkeley now.

This was over Thanksgiving break, and Harvey said in some ways, it was difficult for him to be around his old neighborhood. Because he felt everyone he was was putting pressure on him.

AARON SOT
They’re like, when are you going to start law school? And I'm like, I'm only halfway there my first year. You guys are talking to me about law school. Like it. I this is OK now I got to, you know, get to law school...I don't think I've ever said this before, but... I of course, I care about social justice and, you know, I'm pretty much dedicated my whole life to it. But you know, people ask me, like, well, what do you want to do and study law? But to be honest, like I yeah, of course I'm going to study law, but really, I'm doing all of this like it a it was a guy on our case, his name is Justin Anderson. He's doing life on our case. And he's like I was like he's like my brother, you know? We grew up six houses down the street from each other. And I am becoming an attorney to get him out of jail. I'm going to get him out of jail. And then after I do that, I might not want to study law anymore.

I talked to Harvey again during his winter break, and I could tell, his college experience was taking a huge mental toll. He showed up looking tired, looking thin, and you could hear the exhaustion in his voice.

BEAT

AARON SOT
Four or five weeks ago, I'm ready to drop out. All right. So this is it was tough. I got through it, but again, I think. I don't feel like it was tough. Necessarily like academically, in a sense, I didn't understand the information. But there's a language that you have to decode. There's a. There's like a you have to, like, demystify a lot of things up there that I wasn't necessarily aware of going up there. I'm just thinking, you know, go to class, read, study, turn in your paper. But like building relationships with professors, being in relationships with the grad students, actually grades your papers, the professors. Yeah, I'm like, nobody told me this. Like, why am I still going talking to this professor and he knows nothing about my work that I'm turning in. Oh, I just need him for that recommendation like, oh, OK, this is how all of this works. And it sounds so simple, but this is very complex for a person who doesn't know and then just the nervousness of, you know, in a sense, like going to jail is easy. I could physically do that. But you asked me to go talk to a professor during office hours and I'm about to have a panic attack.

BEAT FADE

KHALID SOT con’t
He kind of became a representative of the community in general. And so as such and unfairly, you know, his success was tied up in what people I think felt was their own success. And similarly, his failure, I think was connected and tied up in what the larger community would see as their own, as their own failure

Again, Khalid Alexander.

SOT con’t
...He also, as an individual, I think can represent kind of what it's like to be Black in this country, what it's like to be an African-American in this country, where you do have to work harder. If you do mess up, there's going to be more attention.

AARON SOT
I always feel like I'm being almost like interviewed, every time I see somebody face, like, then you can't just be like, oh, it's, you know, fine or I'm not really working on anything. Like you want to present yourself as like I've been doing really well..I can't give them, like, how I really feel about being up there, you know?

Harvey remembers people who’ve left his neighborhood in Southeast San Diego before. They went to college or law school. And when they came back, they talked differently and dressed differently. He resolved not to do that--but it’s challenging.

BEAT

AARON SOT
They call it like code switching, I guess, or whatnot. So when people were like, still feel like, OK, he's still the same person, he's just doing other things. It kind of like motivates them. They're like, OK, well, I can still do this... I've had professors tell me, you know, OK, we need to use more academic language. And I challenged her. Well, like, who set the standard for what's academic language like, you know? So you want me to speak white is what is there to tell? She said that like in class. Yeah, this is that way because I told I told her one of her articles. I said, you know, I felt like you wasted my time. This article was trash. Right? And she said, well, why was it trash? And then I critiqued it, which isn't that why we're in these academic settings is to analyze and critique. So she says, well, I'm going to need you to have a more critical analysis on this article, on these articles when we're discussing in class. And I said, No….well, you mean like you just don't like the way I'm talking about it. Yes. I need you to speak more academically. I don't know. And then what does that even mean? Define that. Right. Who set the standard for what is, you know, the correct way of speaking?

I talked to Harvey again at the end of his first year, and he was much more confident in his abilities at Berkeley. And was already thinking about what he’d do when he graduated.

AARON SOT
I want to go to Ivy League school, I just want to shoot for the moon, so, Harvard's Yale's Columbia NYU, um, if I stay in California, of course, I'll apply to Berkeley, like Stanford, Davis, UCLA. Um, yeah, I would like to stay in California, but definitely I honestly, I go wherever whoever except me. But I'm applied to like a top ten, fifteen law schools.

BEAT FADE

But he was also still thinking about his mental health. Because Harvey was arrested suddenly in a police raid and spent time in prison for gang crimes he had nothing to do with, he has traumatic memories.

BEAT

AARON SOT
I'm super paranoid, too, as well, I'm always. Who is that why is that person looking over here? You know, I'm always thinking that. Uh. Somebody is a police or somebody, you know, taking pictures, I just I don't know. Like, I'm always just like super, you know, crowded in, like, crowded spaces. That's that's like the perfect recipe for, like a panic attack, you know?... When you're having these episodes of, like panic attacks and anxiety attacks, certain. Kind of like brain tricks to kind of like, uh. You know, so they won't really the last as long or be as intense kind of things, I think that was more like my second semester is really I almost feel like I put myself in position for these kind of episodes to happen because of what I'm choosing to study, right. And then I'm at Berkeley, which is home of everything political. So like staying off social media. Right. And not really reading these crazy stories or leaving the news alone. Like, don't don't torture yourself more than what you're being assigned is automatically doing anyway.

We gotta take a short break. But when we come back….We talk to harvey just after graduating from Berkeley. I have him listen to some of our interview clips throughout his journey... and he he reflects on all that's happened.

MIDROLL

Ok We’re back… so...Two years and one pandemic later…. Harvey graduated with a degree in political science. I talked to him again--this time at an outdoor park with ducks around us instead of a studio. Also... he told me his plans have changed.

AARON SOT
I think I figured out law school wasn't for me like my first year at Cal, because the more and more I started digging into the law, working with attorneys, dealing with cases and things like that... they're still finding ways to just incarcerate people. So it's like I'm not saying I was wasted energy. I don't feel that way, but. That's not good enough, that's not that wasn't good enough, as laws get created for us, as laws get created against us and they're still doing, you know what I mean? I feel like they've being an attorney boxes you in, you know, I'm dealing with the law. And if the laws are immoral, then it doesn't matter.

Now he wants to work in real estate, and do development jobs that would hire people with felony records.

AARON SOT
What can I provide poor people to kind of minimize the risk they're willing to take that's going to put them in prison? You know, I think that's what I'm yeah, I'm going to disappoint a lot of people
Claire: That’s what I was going to ask, do you have the pressure to you know, it's like, oh, you did this. Now what's next? Where are you going to do?
Aaron: Yes, because people are like, what are you going to do, I'm like, I don't know, maybe I just want to go to sleep. It’s been a long seven years like and I'm exhausted. I'm tired, but I'm like excited too, because now I feel like I can do what I want to do. I feel like I can be more impactful outside the law...my my my circle, we have these conversations and they are just like man do like what makes you happy, you know, kind of thing. And I stick with that.

But he’s not really just lying around...he’s working with a nonprofit, helping people who’ve been to prison write college essays and do their applications.

AARON SOT
We have 100 percent acceptance rate into the U.Cs. So I think my acceptance race in Berkeley is like 87 percent right now. So I'm like telling people like if you go to my program, I guarantee you you'll get into a U.C..

I played for him a few of his old clips...about applying to only Ivy League law schools, about having a panic attack over the “B” on his midterm, and he laughed.

AARON SOT
Yes, I feel none of that anymore. I think it's just, well, one therapy, right? Man, a whole lot of that, right? Oh, and just like you're human, and it's either going to happen or it's not.

BEAT

Because that had me.. I see pictures of myself like three, four or five years ago. And I'm like, you look sick, like bags under your eyes and am I super skinny. And I just remember, like, oh, that was when you just really weren't sleeping or you weren't eating. And every strange face you thought was a detective, you know what I mean? And just like. You know, if your phone makes a weird noise is tapped like it was just I was driving myself crazy on top of like, you have to be the, like, Moses, you know? And it was just like, you can't even, you’ll kill yourself, you can't do this. This is not going to you know, this is not sustainable...I just kind of let that go... really kind of forcing myself to tell it like I was lying to people, but like forcing myself to tell the truth to people of like you know what, actually I don't know if I want to do that, you know, or actually no, I'm not going to do that, you know.

KHALID SOT
Oftentimes we have expectations for this one individual to make us feel better about an entire system and, you know, thousands and thousands of people who are in the same situation.

Again, Khalid Alexander.

KHALID SOT con’t
And while we should definitely celebrate Aaron's success and certainly be proud of all of the accomplishments that he should make, that certainly shouldn't happen at the expense of us recognizing that people like Aaron are kind of the exceptions who were able to be successful in spite of the system and not because of the system and all of the people who, you know, are continuing to fight cases today or who have already lost their case and in doing serious amount of time on gang enhancements, I think is as big. I'll say the one other expectation...was this idea that they had to be kind of more than human, that they needed to try to pretend as if they were these kind of square people who were unfairly labeled as gang members instead of saying, hey, even if you are a gang member, this is absolutely unfair that nobody should be treated this way...whether or not they're from a gang, whether or not they're from a certain neighborhood, whether or not they fit into this nice, pretty box of what we expect, you know, a black man, young man in this country to to be, is it really the point? The point is that they were victims of a system

Now, Harvey does seem lighter--less exhausted, less weighed down, and with some of the ease and carefreeness you’d expect a brand new college graduate to have. He has a young daughter and plans to move out of San Diego for a time, but says he’ll eventually be back to buy a house and raise his family here.

AARON SOT
My moods are changing. I'm just starting to feel just a lot lighter on my feet, more energy. And now that is really giving me the clarity on how or what I'm going to do. Oh. So I think I think I know and again and again, it was guilt and everything else, I was trying to take care of everything else and I wasn't taking care of myself. And now I'm like, now I got to take care of myself.

Park Ambi Up then Fade

Beat fade out

This KPBS Investigates episode was reported and written by me, Claire Trageser. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Kinsee Morlan is Podcast Coordinator. This was episode was edited by Megan Burke. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is the interim associate general manager of content.

Stay tuned for more episodes of KPBS Investigates right here in your podcast feed.

KPBS Investigates podcast branding

KPBS Investigates

KPBS News serves the people of the San Diego region with trustworthy, in-depth information that allows the community to hold its leaders accountable. We show how global and local current affairs change our lives, and how San Diego changes the world. We tell you more than just what is happening—we tell you why. In our first series, Dr. J's, KPBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser explores a horrific crime and its lasting impacts on Southeast San Diego, a lower income and predominantly African-American pocket of the city.