Justin Hill, also known as J.A. Hill professionally, is a threat. It’s not because he dresses like a thug. It’s not because he looks suspicious and is on the wrong side of town. It’s not because he is perceived as the most likely to go to jail.
Hill is a threat because he is a black man in America who chooses to challenge negative perceptions of the typical black experience by promoting examples of black excellence through his movement, Become A Threat.
Like many other students in their 20s, Hill, 24, began to self-reflect on what compiled the fabrics of his existence. He questioned his lineage. He questioned why he only learned about the civil rights era, and knew nothing about black existence prior to the slave-trade throughout his school-career. He even questioned why he never questioned it. Hill realized there was a void in learning about his culture, history and ultimately, identity.
He spoke to his best friend of 10 years, McKenzie Valentin, 26, and realized he was not alone. They spoke about the complexities of the African-American experience and their foundational ties. Frustrated and inspired by the accomplishments of Malcolm X and other civil rights leaders, he self-educated in areas where the American school system failed him. He read books on black history, culture, and challenged what he learned in the classroom.
As they grew into adulthood, they spent a lot of time reflecting on the broken education system and how it was failing them, sharing personal experiences. These enlightening conversations later inspired Valentin to become an educator and mentor for black teens.
“As a teacher, I’d work specifically with freshmen and the Head Start program,” Valentin said. “There were some things that came to light. Students would confide issues they would experience at home, such as lack of shelter or food. Some only ate at school, but funding has been cut from the program and continues.”
As a political science and pre-law student at Florida International University (FIU), Hill became inspired as well. He gravitated toward researching police brutality cases, which eventually opened the door for his research into the American justice system.
He garnered a passion for mass incarceration, a term used to describe the increasing prison population over the last 40 years since the War on Drugs in the ‘80s. Most of those affected by this era were people of color.
“According to one of my favorite reads, The New Jim Crow, during the War on Drugs, brown and black people were heavily targeted,” Hill said. “Although, countless studies showed discrepancies between drug use and race. Prison is the new form of slavery.”
Further into his research, he was intrigued by the school to prison pipeline.
“Valentin mentioned the most distressing fact for him as a teacher is that by third grade, zoning and institutions know whether a pupil will remain a student or a criminal. He says, ‘They haven’t even had a chance to develop their minds yet. The education system continues to fail us,’” Hill said.
Per an article published by Tavis Smiley, zero-tolerance policies, increasing security and police in schools are creating a culture where students get harsher punishment for smaller offenses, sometimes just behavioral issues. In these cases, the student spends more time at home which tends to be the epicenter of the behavior problems in school. Most of these kids feel forgotten and drop out and are the most likely to commit a crime.
“These kids get labeled as problem starters and are treated as such. The more you go into poverty-stricken areas, the more zero-tolerance policies are implemented, and the higher the statistics,” Hill said. “The same private corporations that consistently build prisons are the same ones making desks and chairs in the classroom and using free prison labor to do it. It’s disgusting.”
In January, Hill began posting viewpoints on social media surrounding these topics, backed up with facts and resources. After some time, fellow students and friends began commenting on the stories he shared. Many other black students were in-cognizant of the information he came across and would engage in discussions, likes or reposts.
“Give felons with minor charges the right to vote, equal opportunity to get housing, employment, right to proper medical help. They need to be reintroduced to society. They’re still human and paid their dues, they should not be outcasts,” Hill said.
“Justin draws from his personal experiences and that fuels his passion. It also incites passion in others because many find him relatable and his message resonates,” Danielle Lyn, a close friend of Hill, said.
Lyn and Hill became fast friends on campus when she created a student broadcasting organization.
“Justin applied for the e-board and since then we’ve been allies,” Lyn said.
Over the years, Lyn became passionate about human rights and they encouraged one another to apply to law school shortly thereafter.
“He has always been into social activism. I believe the Become a Threat movement is only making an impact because of his passion for activism,” she said.
As cases of police brutality surfaced on the news, Hill continued to write and speak about them relentlessly. Almost every paper he submitted in school was about the corruption. Hill had had enough.
People pay attention to him when he speaks and engage with him in complex conversations. That’s more important than how he speaks because people are getting the message,” Valentin said. “Tupac had that ability once.”
Hill chose to promote images of black people on his social media who are an inspiration to their communities and may have survived adversity.
“Black leaders were considered threats because they knew how the system worked. They were outspoken, charismatic and had influence to unify,” Hill said. “Instead of people seeing black people as a negative threat, I am changing the power and meaning in the word.”
People became attracted to the concept and began re-tweeting the phrase. Some have reached out to Hill to encourage him to continue making a difference.
“While I was at work, a follower of the movement from Facebook recognized me. She said, ‘I love your movement and you inspire me every day to be better.’ That was the moment I realized this movement is something bigger than myself,” Hill said.
The woman approached him in Jan. 2017 and since, he has gained more momentum. He did one interview in late Feb. and has just completed an interview with FIU’s school newspaper.
And he is already starting to get requests for more interviews.
“This movement will be different from others, in the sense that we will be making some bold statements,” Hill said.