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Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform
“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”
At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.
As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.
One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”
Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.
He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.
Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.
“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”
Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.
“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”
Change, get fired or quit
Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:
“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.
“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”
For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.
“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”
Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”
“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”
He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.
Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.
“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”
There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.
“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”
Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.
Life after football
Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.
After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.
Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.
He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Then verses 3 and 4:
For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.
“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.
“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.
“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”
I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.
Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.
“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”
The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.
I asked whether that’s a positive development.
“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”
Is there a downside?
“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”
Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.
“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”
It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.
Ferguson and Sunday dinner
The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”
It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.
Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.
Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.
A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.
Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.
Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”
When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.
“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”
Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.
When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.
Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.
“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.
“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”
Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”
“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”
“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.
“So he was the aggressor.”
“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”
“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.
Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.
De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.
A scandal in the department
Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.
“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”
He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.
In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.
At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.
It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.
Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.
“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”
There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.
Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.
“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”
Engaging the threat
After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.
Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.
A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.
“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”
A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.
Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?
“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”
Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.
Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.
Then Davenport tried one.
Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.
Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?
The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.
The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.
“This might have been my bad day,” he said.
The lesson of Jonah
Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.
Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.
Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.
God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.
The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”
“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”
The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.
“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”
The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.
Trayvon Martin wanted a snack. So he threw on a gray hoodie and headed out for some Skittles and a sweet tea. Thirty minutes later, Martin was dead, shot down by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The story of race, violence and death immediately dominated headlines. But soon the story became that hoodie. The narrative shifted from the racism that led Zimmerman to follow Martin in the first place to a piece of apparel as justification for killing a black person.
Hoodies, quite frankly, are cool as hell. And there are so many iconic black figures who wore hoodies and made them look badass. Tupac Shakur as Bishop in 1992’s Juice, staring daggers at Omar Epps’ Q in the climactic elevator scene. Raekwon in the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 video for “C.R.E.A.M.” Even now, Odell Beckham Jr. flaunts his hoodie looks on Instagram, and there’s always Beyoncé’s viral hoodie GIF.
But the hoodie also functions beautifully as Grocery Store Run chic. A comfortable hoodie with sweatpants and sneakers is my uniform for late-night milk runs, or dropping the kids off at school. It’s about not letting anyone see me sweat — ironic, considering the warmth of the hoodie. But the hoodie is a way to still look polished and casual while on the run so I don’t shame my momma by going outside in a wrinkled T-shirt. Black men have to keep our respective cools in public no matter what, and the hoodie gives the impression that I’ve got it together even if I don’t. It’s a look that Kanye West has perfected: the calculated image of having just thrown something on while still looking like a billion bucks, all thanks to the hoodie.
“I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies … I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” — Geraldo Rivera
On March 23, 2012, just three weeks after Martin was killed, Rivera went on the air and said Martin’s choice to wear a hoodie, and the politics of that choice, was his death sentence. The idea being, of course, that hoodies were associated with criminals. That people of color wearing hoodies were putting themselves in positions to be stereotyped because hoodies were associated with criminal activity because of their function of obscuring the faces of stick-up kids and graffiti artists. And being stereotyped as dangerous meant being followed by volunteer neighborhood watch guys and being killed for looking suspicious.
Of course, the notion of hoodies contributing to Martin’s death is nonsensical. Martin Luther King Jr. was wearing a shirt and tie when he was assassinated. Michael Brown was wearing a T-shirt when he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Seven-year-old Aiyana Jones. Emmitt Till. Alton Sterling. Medgar Evers. James Chaney. Laura Nelson. An unending list of black people killed for being black. No hoodies in sight. Hoodies never had anything to do with Trayvon Martin’s death. It was and has always been about the color of the skin the hoodie covered.
Want proof? Just look at how the hoodie is perceived by many white tech bros in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg proudly boasts that his closet is full of gray tees and hoodies. And when he ruffled old-school Wall Street investors for wearing his iconic hoodie to pitch sessions for the Facebook initial public offering in May 2012, just three months after Martin was killed, it was a sign that Zuckerberg was sticking to the edgy persona that made him and Facebook popular in the first place.
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30-for-30 Podcast: Hoodies Up
The story of a protest photo taken in 2012 by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat. Reported and hosted by Jody Avirgan.
The Washington Post, at the time, had a strong defense of Zuckerberg’s attire: “Just like its close cousins the gray T-shirt and the sneaker, the hoodie gives Zuckerberg a way to sartorially wink that he doesn’t like to answer to anybody and that he’s not losing his ‘hacker’ street cred.” The hoodie, for white tech billionaires, represents a cocky nonchalance, indicating they’re not willing to change for anyone. A far cry from the terror the hoodies can instill when worn by teenage black kids.
Rivera would later offer a halfhearted apology for his original hoodie comments, but the damage was done. Twitter was just 5 years old when Martin was killed, and black voices on Twitter weren’t yet as sophisticated with regard to shaping narratives. So when Rivera made his remarks, he was able to lead a discussion about exactly what hoodies had to do with how much danger black people were putting themselves in. The hoodie became a symbol of danger for black people who didn’t need any more reasons to put themselves in any danger around racists.
That’s when LeBron James and the Miami Heat stepped in. On March 23, 2012, the four-time NBA MVP gathered his team together for an Instagram photo. The entire roster donned hoodies, heads down, obscuring their faces. The caption read #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice. The statement was monumental. James, by donning the hoodie, showed that he was unafraid to speak up.
Black America has been working to reclaim the hoodie as simply a piece of clothing representative of our culture while also making sure the teenager’s story isn’t lost. On this season of Insecure, Yvonne Orji’s Molly wore a hoodie emblazoned simply with the word “TRAYVON.” During the NBA offseason, Carmelo Anthony was tearing up pickup games in gyms across the country. In the clips, Anthony is making just about every shot, and terrorizing defenders. And he’s wearing a hoodie.
The viral clips gave birth to the moniker #HoodieMelo, the mythology being that his hoodie gives him superpowers — and that he’d be better off wearing it during games. Anthony’s hoodie isn’t an overt political statement, it’s just what he wants to wear on the court. And his lighthearted take shows just how far we’ve come in reclaiming the hoodie.
And of course, the hoodie isn’t just relegated to gyms or to work as a symbol of nonchalance. It’s high fashion. The Wall Street Journal has pieces about the Rise of the High-End Hoodie. GQ offers tutorials on how to dress down suits by wearing hoodies while counting down the 31 best hoodies of a given year. At New York’s Fashion Week, hoodies are on display via Kanye West’s Yeezy Season, Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma, DKNY and more.
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Russell Westbrook wore a Reclaim Vintage “World Tour” yellow hoodie against the Warriors in January. He wore the $98 piece with a white hat, tattered jeans and sneakers. And now Nike has fitted athletes with hoodies to wear while they’re on the bench during games. At any given moment during the course of an NBA game, any number of players can have their hoodies on their heads as they watch from the bench or celebrate with their teammates. To show how far we’ve come with hoodies, the style move was initially pretty innocuous. However, Stephen A. Smith did sound an alarm.
“I don’t know why the hell Nike made these damn uniforms that have hoods attached to it by the way,” he said on the Oct. 24 episode of his radio show. “You got a lot of those white folks in the audience that’s gonna think this is Trayvon Martin being revisited. And I’m not joking about it. The bench is no place for someone to be wearing hoodies.” J.R. Smith wasn’t having any of it.
The problem with Stephen A. Smith’s logic here is that he’s echoing the language of Rivera and the masterful narrative shift that made the Trayvon Martin story about hoodies when it’s really about race in America. And who’s to say it’s a bad thing to remind white America of the black boys and girls in this country killed because of the color of their skin?
It’s hard to fault any black person for wanting to take the hood down at night when he feels endangered. Because in an era where we see people who look like us gunned down almost daily, it makes sense to take every precaution. But the hoodie as justification for death is pure misinformation. Blackness is the issue, always has been. But the hoodie has moved beyond simply being about Trayvon Martin because Trayvon Martin was — and, in spirit, is — far more than the hoodie he wore that night.
About halfway through Nature Boy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary (Nov. 7, 10 p.m. EST, ESPN) on WWE legend Ric Flair, the conversation turns to Flair’s transcending impact on popular culture. The flamboyant grappler, known for his loud fashion sense, “heel” tactics, braggadocio and quick tongue, was reminiscent of a young Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, captivating audiences not only with his physical dexterity but also with his ability to sell himself.
And Flair most surely sold himself. He was the man whom women wanted to be with and men wanted to be like. He was the 16-time world champion, no matter how much he would cheat to win, and made sure you never forgot it.
“I mean, why did people like Ali?” Flair asks in the documentary. “No one has marketed themselves in boxing like Ali.”
Moments later, rapper Snoop Dogg appears on the screen and explains how Flair pulled from and was an inspiration of the early roots of hip-hop and black culture. “As a kid growing up watching Ric Flair, he was very inspirational to myself and a lot of other hip-hop artists because he represented what we wanted to be,” Snoop Dogg said. “We wanted to be Ric Flair; we wanted to be flamboyant and the ‘kiss-stealin, wheelin-and-dealin,’ we wanted to be all of that.
“He was a part of our culture and our life. That’s why we love him and we cherish him. We’ve always held him high in the black community, because Ric is one of us.”
Snoop Dogg, who has hosted and appeared on WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw on multiple occasions and was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in 2016, paints a peculiar portrait of Flair, he of white working-class roots, bleach-blond hair and 1 percenter persona, as “one of us.” But between the luxurious clothes, brash delivery and unmitigated swagger, how was Flair any different, color aside, from an Ali or Denzel Washington or N.W.A.?
Flair was one of the greatest heels, or bad guys, in professional wrestling history, making you want to hate him as easily as Floyd “Money” Mayweather would some three decades later. But unlike Mayweather, Flair had the charm, personality and lifestyle to make every man envy him. He was also an early adopter of the overindulgent persona that took over 2000s hip-hop. To borrow from Jay-Z, Flair flaunted the “Money, Cash, H–s,” at one point owning 15 $10,000 robes, a pair of $600 custom-made shoes (gators, presumably) and a $15,000 Rolex. Not to mention all of the women.
“You see the Rolex watch, you see the glasses, you see the beautiful women, Baby Doll and Precious,” said Glen Thomas, 39, co-host of the Wrestling Marks of Excellence podcast. “You hear Ric Flair talking about the night they had in Vegas … and you see the sunglasses and the $5,000 Armani suits and shoes and you see the belt, you desire to be that. I didn’t know about Disney World, but I knew about Space Mountain.”
In recent years, the 68-year-old has been reborn as an apparent icon of black culture. Indianapolis Colts players mimicked Flair’s famous “Rolex-wearin’ ” promo during a postgame speech in 2015; rapper Pusha T shouted his trademark “Woo” catchphrase on 2012’s “Don’t Like”; and Flair “ran” for president with rapper Waka Flocka Flame in 2016.
But Flair, who hasn’t been a regular performer since retiring from WWE in 2008, is just one man in a long, complex history of professional wrestling. The “Nature Boy,” as a character, lives in a universe of offensive, sexist, anti-gay and, most glaringly, racist content — there are multiple instances of blackface being used in WWE. Which begs the question: Why do black fans continue to tune in?
There are many reasons, it turns out. Wrestling combines the visual presentation of cinema, the never-ending continuity of television and the pure athleticism of professional sports. In between the perilous stunts and knee-slapping comedy also lie real-world consequences, as evidenced by former wrestler Daniel Bryan having to retire because of repeated concussions. A bit of nostalgia is baked in as well. The average age of a pro wrestling viewer is 54 years old, compared with just 40 for the NBA, with many current viewers having watched the product since its heyday in the late 20th century.
“It’s one of those things where I can’t remember the start date,” said Camille Davis, 28, co-host of the Milwaukee-based TECKnical Foul sports podcast. “It’s kind of like when I think back about why I started sports: It’s just something that was always around.”
Whether it was a parent, aunt, uncle, cousin or deacon from church, most fans of wrestling had a familial introduction to the National Wrestling Alliance, World Championship Wrestling or WWE. Like anyone who grew up a fan of other sports, it wasn’t out of the norm to be a wrestling fan.
Black fans followed the established stars of the 1980s and 1990s like everyone else: Flair, Randy Savage, The Ultimate Warrior, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and Hulk Hogan. It didn’t even matter that none of these stars weren’t black; wrestling wasn’t immediately about race for those who grew up watching it.
But as black fans got older, many started to also gravitate to the male and female performers who looked like them. For older fans, there was Koko B. Ware, “Iceman” King Parsons, Bobo Brazil and “Sailor” Art Thomas. The most popular and transcendent of the early black wrestlers, though, was Junkyard Dog, who co-starred in Hogan’s Saturday morning cartoon show, Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling.
For younger fans who grew up in the 1990s, professional wrestling’s renaissance era, they had what felt like an abundance of talent to root for. There was Harlem Heat, composed of real-life brothers Booker T and Stevie Ray; strongman Ahmed Johnson; black nationalist stable Nation of Domination; female grappler Jacqueline Moore; and, of course, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The Rock, who debuted in WWE in 1996, was the biggest star in the company’s history, winning multiple championships and eventually becoming the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. As half-Samoan, half-black, The Rock was one of the most visible black people in the country, a role model for many young people.
“The Rock was more of an inspiration,” said Brian Waters, 31, who’s hosted internet radio show The Wrestling Wrealm since 2011. “Knowing that he was half-black, half-Samoan, I was like, well, it don’t matter, he’s black. It’s kind of like Barack Obama. It don’t matter, he got a little black in him.”
Once black fans become aware of their own blackness, they would tend to root for the black wrestlers, no different from rooting for the Doug Williamses and Mike Vicks of football, the Williams sisters of tennis or the Tiger Woodses of golf.
This partially explains the ascent of The New Day, an all-black trio of wrestlers who have been a fan favorite for going on three years straight. But, surprisingly, race wasn’t the only factor in the popularity.
“I didn’t like New Day because they were black,” said Davis. “It was more so because they were funny. And even then I’m like not really big on The New Day train. There’s no real black wrestlers I feel like that they even give a chance to achieve.”
For black female fans, like Davis, the female wrestlers weren’t given much of an opportunity to achieve either. There have been only five black women’s champions in WWE history: Moore, Jazz, Alicia Fox, Naomi and Sasha Banks. Moore, in 2016, became the first and only African-American woman to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Even with this black female representation for young women, the wrestlers had such unrealistic body proportions, from Moore’s bust to Jazz’s bulk, that not all viewers could relate to them.
“None of the women wrestlers are technically going to look like me, because their bodies are never going to look like how my body looked or was going to look,” said LaToya Ferguson, 29, who writes about wrestling for pop culture blog Uproxx. “I could enjoy them and appreciate them, but I don’t think I ever really had that connection a lot of girls wanted to have of the Divas.”
While children normally learn about race as young as 6 months old, research shows that they don’t learn about “racism” until they’re teenagers or young adults. For African-Americans who watched wrestling, this meant many didn’t notice the problematic storylines in WWE involving African-Americans until they were adults. And there were plenty.
In 1990, white wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper donned blackface while in a storyline with black performer Bad News Brown, who was supposed to be the bad guy in the feud. Less than a decade later, all-white stable D-Generation X, who, like Piper, were the supposed good guys, painted their skin black while facing off with The Rock and the Nation of Domination. In the 2000s, Shelton Benjamin, one of the most gifted athletes in the company’s history, was accompanied to the ring by a Hattie McDaniel-like “momma” character, while all-black duo Cryme Tyme sported cornrows and platinum grills and stole from other wrestlers as their gimmick.
But two incidents stand out the most. In 2003, white wrestler Triple H delivered a racially charged promo against Booker T, calling the black performer’s hair “nappy” and telling him that “people like him” don’t win championships in the WWE. “He almost called him everything except for the N-word,” Thomas said.
And it didn’t end there for Booker T. Two years later, WWE chairman and CEO Vince McMahon called John Cena, who is white and replaced The Rock as the company’s most prominent star, the N-word on live television as a perplexed Booker T walked past.
Despite these incidents, and many more in American professional wrestling’s nearly 200-year history, black fans haven’t wavered. They still make up nearly a quarter of WWE’s total audience, according to Nielsen, and have many reasons for not jumping ship.
Professional wrestling, like the NFL or MLB, is a form of communal entertainment, with fans tuning in live every week because their close friends or family members are following along as well. If they aren’t one of the 3 million people watching Monday Night Raw on the USA Network, they’re filling up more basketball arena seats than the NBA team that owns the building or watching thousands of hours of content on the WWE Network. Like any parent, wrestling fans can also pass down their fandom to their kids. There are times when the product will let you down or offend you, but how is that any different from a fan pushing his or her kids to root for the Cleveland Browns?
There is a lack of diversity and problematic storylines for wrestlers of color, but black viewers tolerate those same issues in other forms of entertainment. Many African-Americans watched network dramas in the decades before Kerry Washington became the first black female lead in a television show since 1974 when she starred in Scandal. Movie ticket sales still sold in the billions in the years leading up to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. And in sports, despite boycott threats from African-American NFL fans over treatment of black athletes, namely Colin Kaepernick, in response to player protests during the national anthem, NFL games still draw in tens of millions of viewers.
Fans of wrestling just want to be entertained. It’s the golden age of wrestling right now, with the most gifted performers in the history of the “sport” performing right now, whether in WWE or on the independent circuit, including Kentucky-raised Ricochet, the most popular non-WWE black wrestler in the world. And depending on who you talk to, wrestling can be both this amazing art form — “I feel like it’s one of the last true performance arts,” Ferguson said — and guilty pleasure.
“It’s the best soap opera I’ve seen, the best television,” Waters said. “I guess I’m one of those people that if you told me I could only have one channel, it would be USA [Network].”
Thomas added: “People watch Scandal, they watch How To Get Away With Murder, they watch Law & Order: SVU. That’s your TV show, that’s your escape for two hours. That’s your soap opera. Wrestling is my soap opera, where I can suspend my disbelief for three hours on a Monday or two hours on a Tuesday.”