This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Tell us about yourself.
ADO'NIJAH: My name is Adonijah Zaire Metcalf. People around here know me as Nijah or Triggz. I’m 23, you know, first out of Wichita, Kansas. Northside. My neighborhood, you know, I’m from 9th and Murdock. We got one of the like worst patrol police situations you can think of. It’s like a movie, you know, you got them police officers who’s always harassing you. They pulling over drug dealers, not even taking them to jail. They just take what they got on ‘em. That’s just to paint the picture of it, you feel me? I got friends who’d been killed by policemen.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How did you first start with Debt Free Campaign?
ADO'NIJAH: I learned about Debt Free Justice through Progeny. We're a group located out of Wichita, Kansas. We rehabilitate our communities from just shared values. It's a group that my auntie had come up with. You know, shout out to my Aunt Kita. She was the one who got me into this work.
The Debt Free Campaign, I first started with from a shared experience. You know, I got a lot of stories, as well as other individuals who are probably similar, dealing with police. How they affect your household, especially with funds and fees. People got a choice. You got the option either to pay your bills or pay these funds. You know what I'm saying?
The area where I come from, it's poverty-stricken, mostly. The income of the households is going to be slim to none. So we was faced with choices in life, and some of them kind of went against our own well-being.
People have fines and fees that they go through daily. And they're forced with a choice whether to pay their bills or pay the fines or the fees, buy clothes, buy food, or pay the fines or the fees.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: The group's name is Debt Free Justice. Can you describe what the word debt means to you? And what does the word freedom mean to you?
ADO'NIJAH: My perspective is...how can I put that, freedom for a black man at 23? Walking outside and not having to worry about if your life is going to get taken by the police or somebody your same skin color. That's what freedom looks like to me, in my eyes.
And I think debt would be a place that the government would like you to be in so that you can be dependable on them for the stuff that you need.
Debt-free, in my eyes, would be having the wisdom and the knowledge to understand and navigate through life, as well as teach others.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Would you tell us about your personal experience with fines and fees?
ADO'NIJAH: I got experiences from when I was a baby till now. Just recently, I was faced with a situation where a female ran the light and I end up hitting her car, but I got to pay the fines and the fees based on me not having insurance or my license being suspended due to fines from tickets.
In the past, we was basically going from house to house, bouncing from home to home to home, all due to fines and fees. My mom couldn’t get nothing basically in her name because of the fines and fees that she failed to pay. She either had to pay the ticket or she had to pay the bills. If she didn't pay one or the other, it was a consequence either way.
As far as the family, it's been tough. I've watched my mom struggle basically my whole life, working two jobs just to keep me and my people up.
So it kind of fell down on us too. As far as just being individuals in the same household, same neighborhood, stuff like that. So we automatically was targeted. I feel like they know whenever you can't really pay your fines and fees. So they pressure you to put more stuff on you.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Do you have an estimate on how much money have you had to pay to the system since you were enrolled in early school and middle school?
ADO'NIJAH: Man, that's almost probably 18 years' worth of funds and fees. You know what I'm saying? Not just for me personally. I got family members, my parents, my moms, and stuff that was passed down. I feel like it's in the hundreds of thousands, honestly. Collectively, my household alone, probably a hundred thousand worth, with court fees, fines, tickets, all that stuff like that, over the years.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you explain some of the consequences of non-payment?
ADO'NIJAH: I'm supposed to pay something to the courts and if I don't pay it, then they would, my license is already suspended. So they, I guess go to the furthest extent. You can serve jail time over stuff like that.
We come from a place where it's hard right now to even kind of get jobs as far as a youth, a young Black male at that, you feel me? As far as us, it's hard for us to get jobs right now. So it's like every day it's a battle. You got the police on you. You got people out here that's on you. You got a system literally built to ensure that you feel that type of thing.
Evictions, if we ain't paid the rent, we get evicted, get put out our household. But right before that, they don't even understand like, shoot, moms could have had court a week before that she had to come out of pocket for this ticket.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What are the consequences if you have your license taken away, for your job or your livelihood?
ADO'NIJAH: I've done lost jobs because of it. I ended up losing a job due to just being pulled over. We got pulled over and I had to be at work at that same time. I ended up getting fired from that, but what's crazy is, that they don't give you any restitution for it.
So I can get pulled over and lose my job, but then when I do need to make money for my car payments and stuff like that, what's going to be there now?
The way these funds and the fees are set up, I wasn't able to finance my vehicle. So they took it away from me. That left me in a worse situation where I can’t drive to apply for any jobs or anything like that.
There's a lot of people down here with no cars. We got a bad situation where it's no grocery stores or nothing on the Northside. So if you don't get a car, you're going to starve.
The way the city dynamics work for a lot of individuals, such as me, you not going to catch me walking out here, bro. It's a lot of stuff that's going on. As far as police, I learned that young.
Coming up, really trying to differ between the right and the wrong. A lot of the stuff that we're doing was actually just in good fun. And it first started with harassment. I used to be outside on the block, say like this... Me and the homies, we outside, it's like four of us. We could be chilling. The police pull up. First off, you are automatically a gang. If it's three or more individuals I guess, of my color type situation. We could be outside, four members deep, just chilling on a block. They'd come up, harass us. We wouldn't be doing anything like that. And then they come around probably like two months later, on the same type of situation, probably bust somebody for a little something. And then that process would go over and over and over.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: In your experience, how does that type of encounter lead to court fees and fines?
ADO'NIJAH: I'll give you a story: I'm outside. Me, two friends, in a car. And we was just sitting outside chilling, freestyling in the car. Matter of fact, that's exactly what we was doing, we was freestyling, and the police pulled up. I don't know why six cars deep for three people, but six cars deep for three people, claiming that it was a suspicious vehicle in the area. Mind you, at this time, I lived in an apartment complex, so every car's suspicious. You know what I’m saying?
Plus I had the proof of address on my ID and everything like that. So the search was basically extended because we supposedly match the description of a suspicious vehicle in the area. It was like, even after I gave him proof of my address and I stayed literally right next to the little apartment complex that we were outside chilling at.
I got to go to court for it afterward. So now we at court, they try to hit me with paraphernalia and stuff like that. You know what I'm saying? So they literally create a situation for you to be in trouble in. And basically, they was trying to make me a felon. I'm paying over $700 in court fines for literally I don't even really know what. I can't really give you a reason for what, honestly.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Do you remember the first time you had to pay?
ADO'NIJAH: I was in middle school, and you got to pay to get put on probation, I guess, I think that was probably my first introduction to it. It was like middle school, me personally, with probation fees and all that.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you talk about how it felt being a young person in the courtroom?
ADO'NIJAH: In the courtroom as a juvenile, you basically just sit back and watch the game as it goes. You don't really know what's going on.
Most of us don't have the money for an attorney, let alone to pay off the tickets type situation. So when they give you a public defender, they come, and then they try to give you the options the best way. You know what I'm saying? To handle your case, your situation. Luckily for me, I actually had a genuine good individual who tried to help me with my situation. Most of us don't get that.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you tell us how you first encountered the juvenile justice system? What happened?
ADO'NIJAH: It started back in like elementary, but worked up through middle school, out of a situation where basically, I'm going to just give it to you like this. So we kids, we outside playing at recess. You know what I'm saying? We're coming in from the playground. You know, kids are ecstatic and whatnot, so they tell us to calm down and disperse.
And in the middle of that, I turned around and I seen a janitor, you know what I'm saying? He's a figure of authority basically in the school. And as I turned around, I seen him put his hands around my brother's neck.
And me being at that age, and this is like middle school, seventh grade, eighth grade, and me being that age, the first thing you think is like, protect your own. So we went over there, and end up having gotten into a fight. After that, they expelled us.
So after that situation, that rolled over into my first time being on probation. And that all started just because I guess I was on a gang list. So, usually, they offer you diversions. They skipped that out, threw that out the window gave me straight probation. The funds and fees came with that as well. As well as what was crazy, me being a student, all my academics was A1. My attendance was A1, you feel me?
And it kind of rolled over into my adulthood, led into high school.
But yeah, I don't really feel too much comfortable giving too much information. Because I know that they like to target individuals of my stature, you feel me? So for educational purposes only.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What do you mean when you say they “target” you?
ADO'NIJAH: I'm not comfortable really sharing with people because where I'm from, they like to target us. You feel me? Like if you're an individual who they suspect to do crimes, criminal activities, and stuff like that, but you turn around and you actually do the complete opposite, they take that as a threat to them.
When I was young elementary, probably even before then second, third grade, we tried to participate in a little yard sale thing, you feel me? Just to raise some money for the household. And the police car had rolled past, so we tried to sell them a little toy police car. And instead of us getting treated with kindness, comfort, and compassion, they told us we didn't have a permit, and basically, we had to get out of our own yard selling this stuff if we didn't have a permit, you feel me? So like it's a lot of trauma growing up, that rolls over into from then until now you feel me. So it's like at that young age, I already grew up thinking, "Yeah, police are not your friend."
Like you come from this place, it's crime around you 24/7, you don't trust the police. So you can't call them if somebody's steal out your house or stuff like that. Like, you don't even know how many times people done came and tried to steal out our crib and stuff, and we can't even call and tell nobody.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Was there ever a time when you could say that you felt safe with the police?
ADO'NIJAH: At a young age, like third grade or so, this was when I really knew the police wasn't your friend or whatnot. I'm watching them pick up prostitutes and then dropping back off at their spot like it's nothing, you feel me. So this was when I knew I wasn't safe around the police.
And to answer the question, no, I don't think I can recall probably one time. Even when we was a victim in this situation, that would make you feel like you was the person who caused her or something, you know what I'm saying? Like you knew this individual or anything like that, you feel me? Instead of just doing their job.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: What did it feel like as a young kid, going into the justice system for the very first time?
ADO'NIJAH: If you've ever been in a life or death situation where you don't know if you going to make it home, it feels like that. You don't know if you going to make it home. So I could get arrested, but I still don't know if I'm going to make it home. I wouldn't say a lonely feeling, but I'll say it's cold. It's real cold.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How old were you when you started having those feelings?
ADO'NIJAH: A lot of them feelings occurred when we was young, in elementary school. When you just know, you know what I'm saying? Learning life. You just now figuring things out, you know? People have their own depiction of the world and they give it to you, but you still got to go out and see it with your own eyes. Your own point of view. And what I got from it was a cold feeling, honestly. You got your family and whatnot, but even them, they feeling the same way. How can you help an individual who needs help?
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How do those experiences and those feelings inform what you do now?
ADO'NIJAH: So with the work that I do now, I know the approach to certain people just because of our backgrounds, our atmospheres.
Sometimes a lot of people got in trouble because of stuff that stemmed from home, you know what I'm saying? Like, kid goes to school, he gets in trouble by his teacher, but the teacher not knowing like, man, that dude had no lights when he woke up this morning, he didn't have no breakfast when he woke up this morning and stuff like that. But me being an individual who does understand, can articulate in those ways to better inform them on this information that's getting passed around, as far as with the depth, injustice, you know what I'm saying? That's going on.
And as far as like letting them know, "Man, shoot, I was once you before." So it's like, I'm trying to tune in with it.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: You were into sports. How did your involvement with the justice system affect your ability to follow that passion?
ADO'NIJAH: I didn't like high school football games because the police patrol so deep outside, you can't really get into the game. You know what I'm saying? So me being a star athlete, a star player on the team, it made it hard for me to give my 100% all when I got to think of the stuff that I'm dealing with.
Even on my way to football practice, sometimes we would get harassed or on my way home from practice, you know what I'm saying? We couldn't walk certain routes just because we knew the police would be over there.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Now you're helping people your age but was there ever a time where you were angry, or you resented where you were at?
ADO'NIJAH: Of course, I always think about what it could have been. Like if I didn't get expelled in middle school for this, this, this, or this. And because I did this, then what could have happened? Or if this police officer didn't illegally put me over this day, would I still be going towards those goals that I was wanting?
It was tragic out here, man. It's still tragic out here where I'm at, so it's like, it's only one or two places. You end up dead or you in jail-type stuff, you feel me? And I wasn't trying to be no statistic or nothing like that.
I just tune in with the negative that happens in life, and I try to use it. I try to extract an equal seed of positivity from that. You feel me? So it's just as bad as something happened, I can extract something just as good.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: When you think about some of the consequences that you received, what alternative would you like to see that could have been done in those situations if it was a perfect world?
ADO'NIJAH: I feel like, the same effort that they would take to incarcerate a child, to not listen to their problems, to put them in jail for whatever reason it may be. They need to take that same effort, money, and energy and turn it around into coming to actual communities.
So I'm going to be frank with you, the suit and tie individuals who come to our schools, they try to tell you, "Oh yeah, we offer you this program and this, this, this to better your life," when they've never been to the hood, have no idea what they're talking about or who they're talking to. You feel me? About something that they need. I feel like that's disrespectful to the youth, to those individuals who come from those places.
Teach people how to properly spread love. Instead of the false news that people getting every day from their cellphones and whatnot. Even if you are going through a bad day, how do you articulate that with an individual to where they understand. We need to put money into programs like that instead of jails, and boot camps.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How do you stay positive and motivated?
ADO'NIJAH: I retain my peace by, one, not taking really nothing personal. We are humans. Everybody has their own regular life to live and we're going to make mistakes, so I don't really take nothing personal. I get most of my peace through music, though. Going in there, creating tracks that literally tell stories about what people go through in their day-to-day lives, I think that's where most of my peace comes from because when you got shared values and then you are an individual who can articulate in a way that people understand that on a massive level, I feel like that's a benefit, and a plus to not only you but your community.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: How do you see your involvement in this campaign in the future?
ADO'NIJAH: With the Debt Free Justice program, I see myself being an outlet. I want to be able to connect the people to the resources that they do need and feel comfortable doing it. Because there's a lot of people of my stature who feel like they don't belong in certain places, just because of we is when really, that's probably the best place for us to be.