Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark says criminal justice is more than locking people up The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in New York is working ‘to change minds and hearts’

Outside the office of Bronx, New York, District Attorney Darcel Clark, a protest rally for Pedro Hernandez this summer began and closed with prayer.

Hernandez, 18, had spent 13 months awaiting trial in Rikers Island prison on questionable weapons charges in the shooting of another teenager because his mother couldn’t afford his $255,000 bond. Eventually, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights group paid a reduced bond of $100,000. Between the prayers for people unjustly locked in the criminal justice system, those gathered at the rally called on Clark to dismiss the shooting charges.

Some local politicians and advocates said the situation was painfully reminiscent of the case against Kalief Browder. Browder spent three years on Rikers Island, two of them in solitary confinement, because he was unable to make $10,000 bail after being charged with stealing a backpack as a 15-year-old. That case was eventually dismissed, but it left Browder a broken man who later took his own life.

The Browder case has haunted Clark. The first woman of color to be elected district attorney in her state, she campaigned as a change agent who understood the burdens the criminal justice system imposes on black and brown lives. But in her previous role as a judge, Clark presided over six of Browder’s 31 court dates while he languished in jail — and admitted during her campaign that she couldn’t remember them.

“This happens all the time,” said Akeem Browder, Kalief’s brother, a few moments before the rally for Hernandez in August. Clark grew up in the Bronx, he noted. “Like, you were raised in our community. You should use it to our advantage and not to lock up kids.” Browder, a long-shot Green Party candidate for mayor, said the presumption of innocent until proven guilty often does not apply to black and brown residents of the Bronx. “District Attorney Clark is guilty of this,” Browder claimed. “The community has to say enough is enough.”

Weeks after the rally, Clark’s office dropped the weapons charges while continuing to pursue an unrelated robbery case against Hernandez. DNAInfo reported recently that the prosecutor in the shooting case is being investigated over allegations that he helped coerce people into falsely identifying Hernandez.

“Prosecution of violent crime is challenging,” Clark said in a statement after the charges were dropped, “especially when victims and witnesses decline to cooperate, but this is the reality we face in the Bronx every day as we continue to build trust with the community.”

“I am very thankful and very appreciative that they did the right thing,” Hernandez’s mother, Jessica Perez, said at the courthouse that day. “But let’s not forget, Pedro is just one of them. I hope this exoneration of his bail can be used for another kid who’s in the same need.”


Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (center) during the Another Chance event, which allowed participants to resolve outstanding summons warrants, clear their record and attend a resource fair.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Numbers have long painted a cruel reality in the Bronx. The borough north of Manhattan is home to 1.5 million people, most of whom are black or Hispanic. More than 8 percent are unemployed, almost double the national average. More than 30 percent live below the poverty line. The South Bronx has the bleak distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the country.

Lawyers in its court system routinely handle crimes of poverty, such as subway turnstile jumping. The Bronx also has the highest rate of violent crime in the city and a notorious backlog of felony cases. It’s a system that processes misery day in and day out.

Clark came into office promising a new day. “I want to change the narrative of the Bronx,” she told the crowd at a community meeting last December, a few weeks shy of her first year in office.

Clark, 55, was elected in November 2015, as national headlines questioned the police-involved deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray and the acquittals of the officers involved. She is one of several people of color recently elected as local prosecutors who are vowing to aggressively pursue a reformist vision for the criminal justice system, especially in its interactions with people of color.

In Chicago, Cook County State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx argued as a candidate that prosecutors have a conflict of interest in handling police-involved shootings because they must work regularly with law enforcement. In St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has said she will work to restore residents’ trust in the criminal justice system and work to divert nonviolent offenders from entering a courtroom.

Clark has a 30-year résumé as a former prosecutor, a criminal court judge and an appellate judge. But her election was controversial. Her predecessor, Robert Johnson, held the job for 27 years. After running unopposed in the Democratic primary in 2015, Johnson resigned a few weeks before the general election to seek a judgeship. Critics blasted the move as politically corrupt, saying it essentially allowed the Democratic Party machine to handpick the next district attorney: Clark. In the Bronx, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 12 to 1. In the general election, Clark won 85 percent of the vote, easily beating Republican Robert Siano. With the party registration numbers so lopsided, insiders say Clark can be district attorney for as long as she wants.

During the campaign, Clark said she would push the office to be more effective, cut the colossal backlog and build a stronger relationship with residents who distrust the legal system. Clark said she would send prosecutors into neighborhoods to hear firsthand the concerns of residents and work with them to prevent crime, particularly gun violence.

“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community,” Clark said in an interview earlier this year. That includes defendants as well as victims, she said. “Criminal justice includes all of the community,” said Clark, “and as a prosecutor, I have to see myself in that way.

“You have to change minds and hearts,” Clark said, “and somewhat the court culture, in order to get it done. But you know, it’s doable. You just have to do it.”

Some say she’s not doing it fast enough, though, and question how much Clark can truly reform a system in which she was a longtime cog.

More people are in jail waiting for their trials in the Bronx than in the rest of the city’s boroughs combined, Siano said. “Hopefully we see changes in four years,” Siano said. “When her term is over, I hope the Bronx will hold her accountable.”

“A 21st-century prosecutor is not just about prosecuting cases, you know, having people arrested and locked up and throw away the key. We are here to service the entire community.”

Clark has been in office less than two years, arguably not enough time to judge her office’s results. But others are hopeful about Clark’s ability to bring change.

“We were obviously very happy and encouraged that one of our own, a black woman lawyer and judge, would be in this role,” said Paula Edgar, president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “When there is diversity in thought, diversity in experience and someone who has committed so much to justice in the Bronx, change has happened.”

“She grew up like us,” said Aldo Perez, a community activist who has met with Clark. “She knows what we need, but she also knows her role. She also knows that we don’t need to prosecute for low-level crimes but focus on violent offenders.”

Perez believes that Clark’s experience growing up and living in the Bronx offers hope. “There’s nothing she cannot understand when it comes to how we feel about crime,” Perez said, “how crime affects the community, because she’s seen it. She knows who was selling drugs in the neighborhoods. She knew how to stay away from that. She knew what was going on in the projects. She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried. She knows. She knows. And you can’t fool her.”


Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark (center) during a news conference during the Another Chance event sponsored by her office and the Bronx Defenders.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Clark grew up in the Soundview Houses public housing development in the South Bronx. Her father, Daniel, worked there for more than two decades as a groundskeeper. Her mother, Viola, a nurse’s aide, headed the tenants organization. Clark said she was the first in her family to attend college. “It was just really, you know, it took a village,” Clark said of growing up in the Bronx. “It was like if you did something wrong, before your mother came home from work, she knew because someone had already told her. There was always that kind of connection with people. That’s what I grew up on.”

She still lives in the Bronx with her husband, Eaton “Ray” Davis, a detective and 30-plus-year veteran of the New York City Police Department. His perspective deepens her understanding of the police, she said.

After Clark graduated from Boston College in 1983, and from Howard University Law School in 1986, she was hired as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx. She spent 13 years in the office, was supervisor of the narcotics bureau and later deputy chief of the criminal court bureau. In 1999, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Clark as a judge in criminal court. In 2006, she was elected to the Supreme Court in Bronx County, the trial-level court in the state’s system. In 2012, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed her to be an appellate judge covering Bronx and New York counties. Clark stepped down from the bench in 2015 to run for district attorney.

Clark is described by colleagues as laser-focused, a clear thinker and down-to-earth, as well as someone who possesses a holistic understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in the criminal justice system.

“I think she is a formidable individual,” said Daniel Karson, who co-led Clark’s transition team, recalling how she came into office “brimming with confidence.”

With a 2017 budget of $71.6 million, Clark began hiring, adding new prosecutors, for a total staff of more than 850 people. There is no reason that her office should not be ready for trial, she said. “And if there is, we need to take that in account as to what our approach is going to be on those cases.” Clark said she meets with her staff weekly to review upcoming cases and the oldest cases to determine whether they are still viable. Those measures have cut the backlog from more than 15,000 pending cases at the end of 2015 to just over 11,000 at the end of 2016.

Clark shifted the office to a vertical prosecution model in order to cut delays and build accountability. That means one assistant district attorney handles a case from beginning to end, from charge to disposition, instead of cases being handed off to other assistant district attorneys at various stages.

“She can identify with the common person who is the victim and the common person who is being tried.” — community activist Aldo Perez

Clark opened a 14-person bureau on Rikers Island that includes investigators, administrators and prosecutors to work on cases against inmates and correctional officers. Clark also created a conviction integrity unit. One of its first cases involved Steven Odiase, 31, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 2013 for the killing of 15-year-old Juan Jerez.

Odiase’s attorneys later came across a redacted police report in evidence that the district attorney’s office had turned over. Blacked out was a witness’s description of Jerez’s killer that did not match Odiase, said Odiase’s attorney Pierre Sussman, who alerted Clark’s office. Prosecutors then asked for Odiase’s conviction to be vacated. In April, he was released from prison, and Clark announced last week that he will not be retried.

“We don’t know whom eliminated it,” Sussman said of the evidence that four years later cleared his client. He did, however, credit Clark and her office for their response. “Once they turned that over to us and it was discovered by us, they did the right thing and the only thing,” said Sussman. “They joined us in helping the court overturn the conviction.”

Sussman also credited Clark for staffing the conviction integrity unit with veteran defense and appellate lawyers. “That tells me that she’s taking it seriously,” Sussman said. But he cautioned: “It’s a nascent unit, so we’ll see what happens in the next few years.”

Clark’s time as district attorney so far shows the complexities and contradictions of her role.

At the community meeting in December, many residents voiced concerns about policing and police brutality. Clark assured them, “If the police want to run wild, they have to come through me.” Many applauded, but one man stood up and challenged her. Even if her office brought charges against a police officer, he said, Clark had little to no sway over a conviction. Some applauded in agreement.

Asked about that moment later, Clark said that “still, the district attorney is the gatekeeper.”

“Police could arrest a whole lot of people, but if the DA doesn’t prosecute them, what is the point?” She added that she has a “fair relationship” with the New York Police Department “and they get that message loud and clear.”

“I’ve had to work side by side with the police. We need the police. You know, people say they don’t like the police until they need them.” Still, Clark pointed out, the Police Department in New York and others throughout the country also need reform.

“How many times are the courts going to dismiss cases?” Clark said. “How many times are there going to be federal monitors on a police department? How many times is a judge going to declare that the tactics of the police are unconstitutional?

“If they keep getting that message over and over, then they’re going to have to change with the times as well.”

Last year, Clark confronted the shooting death of Deborah Danner, 66, by a police officer.

Emergency crews and police officers had come to Danner’s seventh-floor apartment in the Castle Hill neighborhood on Oct. 18, 2016, in response to a 911 call about an emotionally disturbed woman screaming in the hallway. Danner allegedly refused to go to the hospital. At some point, she held a pair of scissors, then swung a wooden bat toward Sgt. Hugh Barry. Barry opened fire, shooting Danner twice.

The mayor and police commissioner both criticized Barry, saying he should have used a stun gun instead of his gun. But the state attorney general, who has the power to investigate police shootings of unarmed people, declined to proceed, stating that Danner was armed when Barry shot her. In response, Clark impaneled a special grand jury to hear evidence in the case.

In May, seven months after Danner was shot, Barry, 31, was indicted for second-degree murder, manslaughter and other charges in the killing of Danner. The grand jury found that Barry should have used other ways to subdue Danner or should have waited for a specialized emergency service unit to arrive before he used deadly force. He was released on $100,000 bond. His next court date is Nov. 27.

In a statement, Clark offered her condolences to the Danner family and acknowledged “the heartbreaking loss they have suffered.” She also thanked them for their patience.

“The men and women of the NYPD protect and serve us and face the possibility of danger every time they respond to calls of emotionally disturbed persons, domestic violence incidents and other crises,” Clark said in her statement. “They answer thousands of these calls each year without incident. I hope that measures will be taken to prevent another tragedy such as this.”


Joseph Ramos cleared a warrant for an open container, a summons he received on his birthday, during the Another Chance event, where participants can resolve outstanding summons warrants, clear their record and attend a resource fair.

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

Organizations such as the Legal Aid Society have been pressuring Clark and other borough prosecutors to stop pursuing low-level crimes such as subway fare evasion and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are disproportionately targeted for such violations, advocates say.

“When you think about justice and the communities that are being impacted, this goes all the way to the womb,” said Edgar, of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “If you have a broken system, there are so many things that fall into the brokenness of that system. … It’s that long-standing institutional racial bias that affects our communities in a much more detrimental way than other communities.”

Over the summer, Clark held a second Another Chance event as part of an effort to address the concerns. In the first event, held during her first year as district attorney, she partnered with public defenders and judges to bring a warrant forgiveness program to the Bronx. In a makeshift courtroom at Mount Hope Community Center, 270 people had 355 summons warrants erased, many for offenses such as public alcohol consumption, disorderly conduct or possessing a small amount of marijuana. Because these offenses are handled in criminal court, convictions can prevent people from getting housing, employment and immigration visas.

During the event in August, held in the basement of Eastchester Presbyterian Church, a few men sat in metal folding chairs waiting for their cases to be called. In case after case, the summons was for having an open container of alcohol on the street. Bobby Diago, 56, had eight summonses, the oldest from 2011. After his case was called, the judge vacated his warrants in a matter of seconds.

By noon, more than 100 warrants were dismissed. It was “a drop in the bucket,” Clark said, compared with the 355,000 open summonses in the Bronx and the 1.5 million throughout the city. Many of them, Clark admitted, could not be tried.

As a judge, Clark said, “I presided over these very same summonses when people had them in court, and I can tell you that a lot of them are not prosecutable.” Sometimes the records are missing addresses, the defendant’s name is incorrect or the allegations don’t sustain the charge, she said. “So that’s why I really wanted to do this.”

Standing outside the church and holding his disposition certificate, Diago, a construction worker, said that he had not taken the summonses too seriously (“What, they gonna give me life for an open container?” he said), until his wife told him a police officer had come to their home looking for him.

Clark said outside the church that more of such offenses are being moved to civil court from criminal court. “We’re doing anything that we can to try to keep people out of the criminal justice system and provide them with resources so that they can be stable and really be productive members of the community,” she said.

Another certificate holder, Joseph Ramos, remembered the date of his summons clearly — it was his 26th birthday, June 12, 2015. The whole block in his Bronx neighborhood was seemingly outside celebrating with him, Ramos recalled. “The cops came and gave everybody tickets,” according to Ramos, who said he works as a security guard. One officer, Ramos said, took the plastic bottle Ramos had in his hand and poured its contents, an almost full bottle of Hennessy, onto the ground.

Now, Ramos said, “I don’t have to stand outside and be worried about getting locked up.” But he predicted, “Most likely it’s going to happen again.”


The Bronx court system still runs on delays. On any given day, a long line of defendants with court appearances snakes out the door and onto the sidewalk. A holding room is filled with those transported from prison, awaiting trial. Judges routinely adjourn cases, attorneys say. “It’s a horror show,” said Sussman, who has been an attorney for more than 20 years.

“The Browder case was the kind of illustration,” said Sussman, “the horrible illustration for what can go wrong when a backlog means that a case for theft of a backpack, if that is even what it was, takes three years to unfold in court. And the result is breaking a man. It’s not that Browder was shot down in the streets. He took his own life. They broke him.”

With the Browder case still echoing through the system, Clark says the most challenging aspect of her job has been dealing with youths.

“It’s scary that we really might be losing a generation to some of the things that are happening,” said Clark, who made a point to note the many young people who are succeeding in lives that don’t make headlines. “When I was judge, those were the most difficult cases. Because even though they’re accused of criminality, and may in fact be guilty of it, what do you do really with them? You don’t want somebody’s life to be ruined forever, but you don’t want them to think it’s OK to just prey on their community and do the things that are wrong and that there are no consequences. So it’s just really deciding to figure out that balance between what is wrong and what is right, and how to go about getting a result that is going to be beneficial to the whole community.”

Time will tell which case will determine that balance and define Clark’s tenure as district attorney.

On the fifth anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city,’ California athletes reflect on the epic ‘Sing About Me’ DeMar DeRozan, Chiney Ogwumike and Arron Afflalo remain emotional about Lamar’s most powerful song

I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo / He was the one to follow.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Black Boy Fly”

Now in his second stint with the Orlando Magic, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, recently of the Sacramento Kings, was one of the key pieces in a 2012 offseason blockbuster: then-superstar center Dwight Howard’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers. Five years ago, Affalo’s name wasn’t only ringing off in the city internationally known as the home of Walt Disney World — it was also popping off in his hometown of Compton, California.

On Oct. 22, 2012, Afflalo’s fellow Compton native, Kendrick Lamar, had released his much-anticipated second album, good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope). Among big hits songs like “B— Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Poetic Justice” (featuring Drake), “Black Boy Fly” was a bonus record — an homage to hometown heroes whose talents survived the streets of South Central Los Angeles: He was the only leader foreseeing brighter tomorrows / He would live in the gym / We was living in sorrow. Lamar rapped these lyrics, remembering the days when Afflalo was the star of their Centennial High School basketball squad: Total envy of him, he made his dream become a reality/ Actually making it possible to swim/ His way up outta Compton/ With further to accomplish.

Caption: Fan-made video of Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Boy Fly.”

Lamar and Afflalo knew of each other, even if they didn’t run in the same crews. Aside from being a star athlete, Afflalo was the school’s biggest supplier of music. “If you heard [50 Cent’s] ‘In Da Club’ coming from a car stereo in Compton in 2003,” he told The Players Tribune, “there’s a really good chance that CD was burned by Arron Afflalo.” Business was so booming that teachers and students alike flooded him with requests ranging from Marvin Gaye to The Hot Boys. One student in particular made an appeal for Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt. That classmate was Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, who would eventually become a seven-time Grammy winner with 22 nominations.

DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors looks on during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 7, 2017 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Good kid, m.A.A.d city, five years old this week, is of course a modern hip-hop classic, one of the true cultural linchpins of the 2010s. The project is a product of a teenage Lamar’s fascination with The Autobiography of Malcolm X as well as his own experiences on Los Angeles’ Rosecrans Avenue, the Louis Burgers where his Uncle Tony was murdered, Gonzales Park, and street corners where gang members served as gatekeepers. It’s a gospel of a Compton life — stories that don’t make it to CNN, and rarely ever leave the neighborhoods. The album reflects growing up in Compton “one thousand percent,” said Toronto Raptors All-Star guard and Compton native DeMar DeRozan. “It takes you back to exact moments of growing up in there. Everything was the norm. Growing up, that’s just what we knew.”

The album’s standout track is an epic bit of storytelling called “Sing About Me. I’m Dying of Thirst.” The song was produced in 2011 by the three-time Grammy-nominated Gabriel “Like” Stevenson of the Los Angeles-based hip-hop trio Pac Div while on Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park tour. “He hit me back in a couple hours like, this is crazy,” Like recalled Kendrick’s text message after hearing his beat. “I’m writing to it right now in a room with lit candles. I’m like, word, that’s tight,” he said, laughing.

An appropriate setting given the haunting chorus: When the lights shut off and it’s my turn to settle down/ My main concern/ Promise that you will sing about me/ Promise that you will sing about me. The overall narrative of the song is all too familiar to Lamar, Afflalo and DeRozan. The three verses emerge from three different perspectives. The rage inflicted on black bodies unite them. The tales of gun violence, societal ignorance of women’s pain, and survivor’s remorse are common in the United States and around the world.

Arron Afflalo #4 of the Orlando Magic handles the ball during a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 9, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

“[Kendrick and I] grew up in the same environment,” Afflalo says. “I didn’t really get a sense of nobody else seeing big things in their life the way I did. It’s fulfilling to know there was another young kid, at the same school, that had the same types of dreams. If not bigger.” Those dreams, though, were cultivated through nightmares.

Dumb n—-s like me never prosper/ Prognosis of a problem child, I’m proud and well-devoted/ This Piru s— been in me forever/ So forever I’ma push it wherever, whenever/ And I love you ’cause you love my brother like you did/ Just promise me you’ll tell this story when you make it big/ And if I die before your album drop, I hope… **gunshots**

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

“‘[Sing About Me]’ is the song version of an epic movie,” said Chiney Ogwumike, a rising ESPN broadcaster and forward on the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick and Rookie of the Year is a native of suburban Houston. She was a star sophomore at Stanford University — 200 miles north of Compton — when good kid, m.A.A.d city dropped five Octobers ago.

And she’s right. In many ways, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a remix of Tre Styles’ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) viewpoint in 1991’s landmark Boyz N The Hood—a young black male who grew up in the ‘hood and witnessed its daily joys, pains and fears from the frontline. It’s a comparison Lamar embraced on the song’s second half “Dying of Thirst.” Whereas YG’s 2014’s seminal debut My Krazy Life pinpoints the revolving door of gangbanging and street life seen through Doughboy (Ice Cube).

“The whole purpose … is to describe that lost child that you don’t hear about,” said Ogwumike, focusing on the song’s first verse. Featuring a conversation between Lamar and “a friend” (voiced also by Lamar), following the murder of the friend’s brother, the moment recalls the legendary Either they don’t know Tre and Doughboy conversation following Ricky’s death in Boyz. Twenty years year, Lamar’s friend reasons in the song, America still didn’t know didn’t show or didn’t care what happened in his ‘hood and to his brother.

“It’s crazy, because you never notice it until you’re on the outside, when you’re able to look back at it,”said DeRozan. “I went to a Crip high school [Compton High]. I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I talk just like him. I walk just like him. I do this just like him. It’s instilled in you, and you follow those rules in a sense of what comes with it. It’s crazy. A lot of people don’t make it out.”

“But now,” Ogwumike said, “you do hear about this child. Now … because of these protests.”

DeRozan said a lot of people should just sit down and dissect “Sing About Me.” “They should understand what he’s talking about. This is an everyday thing! It’s still going on all over the world. There’s all types of inner cities.”

Instagram Photo

The verse is deeper than rap. It’s what Keisha Ross of the Missouri Psychological Association describes as historical trauma. Life in the ghetto is traumatizing. I’m fortunate you believe in a dream, Kendrick raps from the perspective of his slain friend. This orphanage we call a ghetto is quite a routine. Anger, hatred and aggression, she said, are both self-inflicted and inflicted on members of one’s own group. “A lot of people know Kendrick Lamar for who I am today,” he said in 2013. “[But] for me to think the way I do, I had to come from a dark space.”

“I think of people I grew up with, that love basketball and love music in my community,” said Ogwumike. “It’s unfortunate because I feel like not a lot of people understand this day-to-day. A lot of hoopers come from certain situations where they are — or they know people that have been — affected by violence. It’s ingrained within sports culture. It’s a humbling reminder that you have to play every possession with a purpose. You gotta live your life with a purpose overall because you want people to sing about you when you’re gone.”

This is the life of another girl damaged by the system / These foster homes, I run away and never do miss ’em / See, my hormones just run away and if I can get ’em / Back to where they used to be, then I’ll probably be in the denim / Or a family gene that show women how to be woman / Or better yet, a leader, you need her to learn something / Then you probably need to beat her.

— Kendrick Lamar, from 2012’s “Sing About Me”

If the first verse is an example of the suddenness of the loss of black life as it relates to men, the second leans into the harrowing experience of how black women are expunged from society. While it’s tempting to think of it as a 2017 version of Tupac Shakur’s 1991 “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” the verse is actually a continuation of the cautionary tale “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” found on Lamar’s “final warm-up,” 2011’s Section.80. In it, Keisha is a prostitute who is raped and murdered. In “Sing About Me,” her sister (voiced by Lamar) responds, furious that Lamar would use her life for gain. This, too, is based on real life.

“I met her … and she went at me about her sister, Keisha,” Lamar told MTV days after the album’s release, “basically saying she didn’t want her … business out there and if your album do come out, don’t mention me, don’t sing about me.” Keisha’s sister falls down the same path. How could you ever just put her on blast and s—?/ Judging her past and s—?, he raps, Well, it’s completely my future / Her n—a behind me right now asking for a– and s— / And I’ma need that $40 / Even if I gotta f—, suck and swallow.

She doesn’t die in a hail of gunfire. And with beings such as Shaniya Davis, Sandra Bland and the 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram as tragic contemporaries, Keisha’s sister, her voice, her pain and the resentment for the only society she knows just fades away. Almost as if she was never here.

Chiney Ogwumike #13 of the Connecticut Sun prepares to shoot a free throw against the Minnesota Lynx during a WNBA game on September 4, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

“When you have a man who uses his platform to show how women are independent, but then also face even more adversity than their brothers — it’s everything,” Ogwumike said with a sigh. “That was superpowerful to me, about how she’s trying to make a way for herself in any way possible. But that way may end up being her demise. It needs to be told. It needs to be destigmatized.”

And you’re right, your brother was a brother to me / And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me / In a direction to speak on something / That’s realer than the TV screen / By any means, wasn’t trying to offend or come between/ Her personal life, I was like ‘It need to be told’/ Cursing the life of 20 generations after her soul/ Exactly what would happen if I ain’t continue rappin’/ Or steady being distracted by money, drugs and four-fives …

Kendrick Lamar and DeMar DeRozan are friends. They’re both from Compton. Their high schools are separated by three miles. What links the two creatives isn’t recognizable off the rip — both suffer from survivor’s remorse.

For Lamar, stories of those who never escaped Compton are spirits tattooed on his soul as his career continues to ascend, as his all-time great portfolio has fans including former president Barack Obama, Beyoncé, Compton’s own Serena Williams, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Dave Chappelle. These tattooed spirits will never see the birth of the “new Compton” led by Mayor Aja Brown. Why did they have to die while I live? How could God let this happen Did they suffer?

For DeRozan, a three-time All-Star and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, success does little to erase the pain of the past. In many ways, it only intensifies. “It’s something I deal with,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends that was with me when I was younger, but I took a different route … Then you get a phone call hearing something happened. You start to say, ‘Damn, if I just would’ve took them with me, or if they would’ve stayed with me, this wouldn’t have happened.’ ”

good kid, m.A.A.d city, a half-decade later, is a form of counseling for DeRozan. It’s way deeper than words over beats. It’s his life on what has become the metaphorical wax. But perhaps more than any lyric from the song, its final lines resonate more than anything as he prepares to enter his ninth season in Toronto — 2,500 miles from the place he first called home: Compton.

Am I worth it, Kendrick ponders. Did I put enough work in?

“That’s everything,” DeMar said. “You get to a point where you start questioning yourself sometimes. People don’t feel my pain, and my passion that I’m putting into it. But in the midst of questioning yourself, you find a new inspiration to keep pushing, and be even greater to get that point across.”

He pauses for a second. “I take that approach in everything that I do.”

#MeToo should also expose the vileness of what happens to black and brown women Is America only protecting the white victims of sexual harassment and violence?

“… I have been following the news and reading the accounts of women coming forward to talk about being assaulted by Harvey Weinstein and others. I had shelved my experience with Harvey far in the recesses of my mind, joining in the conspiracy of silence that has allowed this predator to prowl for so many years. I had felt very much alone when these things happened, and I had blamed myself for a lot of it, quite like many of the other women who have shared their stories … “
Lupita Nyong’o, an Academy Award-winning actress, in New York Times op-ed on Oct. 20

“… I knew enough to do more than I did …”
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Quentin Tarantino in New York Times interview Oct. 19 where he discussed Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misbehavior with women

A black woman with a stop sign in her hand, a gleam in her eyes and a smile on her face sprinted into the middle of the street to protect me.

“Go ahead, baby,” the school crossing guard said. It’s been a long time since I was a schoolkid. But I remember the enduring lessons of how to safely cross the street, though I haven’t always heeded them.

This time, I looked both ways and stepped confidently into the street to continue my early-morning errand. A warm October sun illuminated a light blue sky, a chambray blanket stretched overhead. When I drew abreast of the crossing guard, I said, “Thanks for looking out for me.”

My protector said, “Anytime, baby,” punctuating her words with a gap-toothed smile.

Black girls and women have been protecting me all my life. Indeed, the strength, resilience and generosity of black women have been so consistent in my life and America’s that they have come to be expected more than appreciated, by me and the rest of the nation.

Perhaps that’s why we haven’t done more to protect black women.

You know, American society often seeks to use spectacular events to talk about routine yet horrific circumstances that cry out for change and justice: The O.J. Simpson murder trial and our racial divide, mass shootings and gun violence, accused celebrity predators and sexual harassment.

And so, allegations against longtime movie mogul Harvey Weinstein prompt a discussion about sexual harassment, which is endemic to our society; it is universal, a grim tie that binds women from the shacks in the valley to the mansions high on the hill.

But it’s the famous names accusing Weinstein of sexual misconduct, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Mira Sorvino and Lupita Nyong’o, that will have us talking for a time.

To be sure, victims of abuse deserve justice, whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds. Movie stars, groped and prodded, mocked and shamed, intimidated and humiliated, deserve our compassion. And they will get it.

But it’s poor women, women of color and especially black women who suffer sexual harassment and exploitation in a society that doesn’t care enough to see it. Poor women don’t endure sexual harassment for movie roles. Instead, in real life, they endure the harassment and humiliation to get favorable work schedules, to keep their lights on and their children fed.

These women, often young and vulnerable, will be expected to shake off their traumas and go on, especially if they are black, strong and resilient. And they will, just as their ancestors did after being pinched, prodded and paraded on the slave auction blocks.

Whenever and wherever women are routinely made victims of unwanted sexual advances, whenever and wherever women can’t assert their unassailable sovereignty over their bodies, the society loses a little bit more of its soul and decency.

For a time, allegations lodged against a rich and powerful man made by famous and glamorous women will be front-page news, something titillating to discuss.

At some point, the talk will end. Everyone from the brown-eyed girls being groped on the back stairs in housing projects to the blue-eyed women being fondled on the casting couches will look to America with damning eyes. Their eyes will ask a wrenching question: What more will America do to protect its women from sexual assaults, especially women made most vulnerable by an indifference that’s rooted in race and class hostility?

How will we answer?

Women’s March organizers have received unexpected donations for upcoming convention Detroit is the backdrop, and the city’s sports figures want to make sure people can attend

The revolution was televised. On Jan. 21, networks tuned in to watch 2.6 million people across the world come together for an iconic moment. A five-hour rally known as the Women’s March took place.

The event highlighted topics dealing with criminal justice reform, social justice, racial discrimination, domestic violence and women’s rights, and it implored entertainers, celebrity speakers, actors and activists to help progress the cause.

Now, the Women’s March organization is taking its activism further. The first Women’s Convention will be held in Detroit from Oct. 27-29. The massive gathering, which will bring together thousands of women and allies of all backgrounds for a weekend of workshops, strategy sessions, inspiring forums and intersectional movement building, will aim to continue the preparation going into the 2018 midterm elections in Detroit.

The convention is set to bring first-time activists, movement leaders and rising political stars to the forefront. And it’s all happening a few short weeks after NFL players sat, knelt or raised their fists in protest during the national anthem in direct response to President Donald Trump’s recent comments regarding on-field protests.

Now, Detroit-based players, coaches and their families are taking their causes a bit further and stretching their likeness to organizations such as the Women’s March for their upcoming Women’s Convention. To date, former Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy and his wife, Desire Vincent Levy, recently donated $30,000, along with Detroit Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy and his wife, Kim, who have also donated $10,000 to a scholarship fund for the convention.

Activist Tamika D. Mallory, national co-chairwoman for the Women’s March and founder of Mallory Consulting, said players coming together to help with the cause isn’t surprising.

“I think that has really garnered the attention of NFL supporters,” Mallory said. “With all of the issues we see happening with the NFL and how it sort of intersects with some of the issues that the Women’s March has been bringing to the forefront, it would make sense that there would be players and others within the sports industry who would want to support and help.”

Mallory notes that while the Women’s March did not have any past relationships with players, the Gathering for Justice, the organization that the Women’s March is part of, has a relationship with Colin Kaepernick.

“He donated to the gathering prior to the Women’s March and has had a very strong relationship with us,” she said. “I think that it [the decision to donate] was really important for us because it lets us know that people are not disconnected from the issues. That just because a person is playing for a sports team and it may sometimes seem as though they’re not necessarily connected to what’s happening on the ground, that’s not in fact the case. That people are actually listening, that the work that we’re doing resonates with folks from all industries. So it is certainly very encouraging to have the support of people from the sports industry, for certain.”

The organization’s decision to choose Detroit as the place to hold the Women’s Convention was made during the summer and “very intentional.”

“We were looking across the country, looking for cities that we thought represented all the issues in our Unity Principles, a place that’s sort of a microcosm of the issues that we know are happening to marginalize people in America,” she said. “Detroit specifically, you’re looking at a place where gentrification, workers’ rights, the police accountability issue, right down the road from Flint, where the water crisis continues to today. Looking at economic stability, or instability, and just looking at the displacement of black and brown folks and how that plays out within the Detroit area. Even gun violence, a major issue there. We looked at Phoenix, Arizona, we also looked at Atlanta, Georgia, and Detroit was always the No. 1 choice for us, so when we were able to find dates that worked, we went there.

“We wanted to go to a place that we could bring folks from across the country to hear from people who are dealing with very, very serious challenges, but also we know that Detroit is a place where you have so many great organizers, people who have organized and done great work throughout history, and so we know that there’s also a great cultural experience that people coming from all over the country can benefit from. Lastly, we wanted to make sure that when bringing resources into a particular city, that we as Women’s March would bring our resources to a community that needs those resources and needs an infusion of care from people across the country.”

The Levys attended the Women’s March in January. The two made their donation to the Women’s Convention “to support women and girls from Detroit to be able to attend the conference” and “for local vendors to be able to vend in a social justice city.”

“I was really excited when I learned that it was going to be coming to Detroit,” Desire Vincent Levy said. “This is important because it’s a convergence of a lot of different individuals from Detroit, from around the country, coming together to connect and build and learn. Supporting that, the connection and convergence, just given the climate of the world right now, I think is very important.”

The Levys are no strangers to giving. They host a fundraiser called Our Issue, which raises money for the backlog of neglected rape kits in Detroit.

“We also have a scholarship in partnership with the Detroit Food Academy that is funded through a dinner series called Regenerate Detroit,” Levy added.

With the climate of what’s going on right now with football players’ silent protests, Levy believes the NFL and Women’s March organization can collaborate more.

“I think both are looking for solutions and sparking and continuing conversations about inequality and injustice that’s occurring in our society,” Levy said. “To me they both have the same aspiration: to spark conversation, to get people engaged that maybe wouldn’t normally be engaged and, quite honestly, need to be engaged.”

The organizers refer to the convention as a place where people can get the tools that they need to organize locally and connect with other organizers so they are able to continue their local work.

“The resources that we have received and continue to receive from people in the sports industry and other influencers alike, it’s helpful to give us the space and the opportunity to provide them these necessary tools to organizers and activists,” Mallory said.

LeBron James makes plea for Americans to spread love ‘The only way for us to be able to get better as a society and us to get better as people is love’

LeBron James is one athlete who isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

As one of the most notable advocates, outside of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick, to speak out against police brutality and social injustices plaguing the country, James has made it his responsibility to use his platform for a greater good. On Tuesday, James called for peace during his annual We Are Family Reunion hosted by the LeBron James Family Foundation in Sandusky, Ohio.

“I know there’s a lot of tragic things happening in Charlottesville,” James said while addressing the crowd of more than 7,000 people. “I just want to speak on it right now. I have this platform and I’m somebody that has a voice of command, and the only way for us to be able to get better as a society and us to get better as people is love.

“And that’s the only way we’re going to be able to conquer something at the end of the day. It’s not about the guy that’s the so-called president of the United States, or whatever the case. It’s not about a teacher that you don’t feel like cares about what’s going on with you every day. It’s not about people that you just don’t feel like want to give the best energy and effort to you. It’s about us. It’s about us looking in the mirror. Kids all the way up to the adults. It’s about all of us looking in the mirror and saying, ‘What can we do better to help change?’ And if we can all do that and give 110 percent … then that’s all you can ask for.”

James was prompted to speak against hatred and bigotry after a rally led by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend turned deadly. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and 19 others were injured when a car plowed through a group of counterprotesters. The driver, 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr., has been charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failure to stop in an accident that resulted in death. He was denied bond at his first court appearance on Monday.

James tweeted in response to the events:

Although the tweet was met with criticism by those believing President Donald Trump should not bear the brunt of the blame, it didn’t stop James from calling out Trump once again after the president’s news conference in which he held “many sides” accountable for the violence in Charlottesville and drew criticism for failing to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis. A few days later, James tweeted again.

James’ activism has been both lauded and criticized by some people since 2014, after the Cleveland Cavaliers star wore a T-shirt that read “I Can’t Breathe” while warming up before a game against the Brooklyn Nets. The words emblazoned on the front of James’ shirt were yelled 11 times by Eric Garner, a New York man who died after a confrontation with New York police. One sergeant was charged internally two years after Garner’s death.

Last year, James, along with fellow NBA players Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, opened the 2016 ESPYS with a powerful speech that addressed police brutality, racism and gun violence.

“We all feel helpless and frustrated by the violence,” James said. “We do. But that’s not acceptable. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask ourselves what are we doing to create change. It’s not about being a role model. It’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. … Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves. It’s for these issues. Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence. And most importantly, go back to our communities, invest our time, our resources, help rebuild them, help strengthen them, help change them. We all have to do better.”

In June, James fell victim to what had been deemed a hate crime when a racial slur was spray-painted on the front of his Los Angeles home. James, shaken by the incident, used a news conference to express his sentiments about being a black man in America.

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough,” James said. “We have a long way to go for us as a society and for us as African-Americans until we feel equal in America. But my family is safe, and that’s what’s important.”

Although there have been detractors urging James to abandon his activism and stick to basketball, James remains steadfast on his journey to make his community a better place for future leaders. Before wrapping up the event in Ohio, James addressed the crowd again, speaking specifically to a third-grade class who will be the first students to enroll in his foundation’s I Promise campaign.

“Without you guys, there’s no me, seriously,” James said. “You guys make me get up every day, be a role model, be a father and be a husband, friend, son. You guys make me be everything I can be and try to be as perfect as I can for you kids, because I can’t let you down. I refuse to let you down. Thank you for allowing me to be your inspiration. Thank you for allowing me to be a father figure at times, your superhero at times, your brother at times, and all the above. Thank you so much.”

Derrick Rose donates $7K to man walking from Chicago to D.C. to raise awareness of gun violence The Cavs guard showed his support on Demetrius Nash’s GoFundMe page

Chicago native Derrick Rose, who recently signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, stepped up when he heard that Chicago resident Demetrius “DNash” Nash had set out Aug. 4 to walk from Chicago to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the epidemic of gun violence in his city.

Rose donated $7,000 to help Nash and left a heartfelt message on his GoFundMe campaign page.

“We’re proud of all the great work you’re doing to save the youth of Chicago and providing a framework for at-risk youth for sustainability by providing training for a trade and mentoring via positive & successful mentors. God bless you with safe travels on your journey. From Derrick Rose & the Blackman-Reese Family.”

Nash’s goal is to get support for programs that will help youths find alternatives to street life. Nash founded Replace Guns With Hammers, which aims to provide training and mentors to those in at-risk situations. His fundraising goal for the walk is $50,000.

“It’s 672 miles from Chicago to the White House,” Nash wrote on his campaign page. “Walking will take 223 hours. Walking 10 hours a day will approximately take 22.3 days, at roughly about 10-12 hours a day.”

Nash was incarcerated for drug trafficking when he was 26.

“I’m very serious about giving back to my community and using my own life as a testimony,” Nash wrote. “I was incarcerated for eight years and recently completed four years of successful probation. Thank God! That’s right 12 years of bondage!!! I was inspired by a book written by Nelson Mandela, A Long Walk to Freedom, in which he writes about his 27 years of imprisonment.”

Rose, formerly with the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, has paid for funerals of victims of gun violence and has donated $1 million to After School Matters, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization devoted to providing out-of-school programs for teenagers.

Including Rose’s donation, Nash has raised more than $23,000 for his efforts.

AAU team plays for a national championship and to ease a coach’s grief Trying to create a safe haven for young boys in Louisville, Kentucky, coach loses his brother to city’s violence

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The boys sweating and gasping for breath in this community center gym are AAU state basketball champions and will leave soon for Orlando, Florida, and a shot at the national title. Coach Patrick McGee reminds them to pack toothbrushes and deodorant.

“I love all y’all,” he says, “but I don’t want to smell you.”

The team, accurately if immodestly called We The Best, has just finished running a seemingly endless round of full-court sprints because of some missed free throws. But McGee has no patience for their tears or exhaustion.

“All that crying stuff is done,” he tells his team huddled up at midcourt. “You ain’t third-graders. You’re fourth-graders now.”

Patrick McGee talks to his team as they prepare for their upcoming national tournament.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

These kids look exhausted and undersized, but they play an aggressive, up-and-down style that’s hard for players this young to execute as consistently as they do. After an impressive romp through the Kentucky state AAU tournament for 9-year-olds in March, one in which their coach says the team crushed their six opponents by about 20 points a game, We The Best will begin play in Orlando on Sunday.

The trip, which will be the first time in Florida for many of the boys and their families, comes as a much-needed distraction from historic rates of violence in their hometown. In Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, there were 123 homicides in 2016, breaking the previous high set 45 years earlier. It’s a city in crisis that’s largely been overshadowed. One of the most telling examples of this was when it was left out of President Donald Trump administration’s new federal program to help reduce violent crimes in a dozen cities — some that had homicide totals that are dwarfed by Louisville’s.

And the violence isn’t slowing down. From the start of the year through June 29, 66 homicides have been investigated by the Louisville Metro Police Department, 20 percent more than the same six-month period last year, according to the department’s Homicide Unit.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, but you try not to think about it,” said point guard Brandon Heath, who lives in the city’s West End, where a large portion of the violence and gang activity unfolds.

Jermaine “Chief” Cameron Jr shoots hoops on the street outside his home in the Portland Neighborhood of Louisville. Gun violence has become an issue in this community and murders in Louisville are already outpacing 2016.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

But there’s another reason the rise in homicides isn’t lost on this group of rising fourth-graders. Three weeks after they won their state title, McGee’s brother, Lee, a star high school basketball player in Louisville during the mid-2000s, was gunned down outside of a convenience store in the West End. Since then, the team and their families have rallied around their coach in his time of need. Playing for a national title and getting a trip to Orlando is cool, but keeping the days busy in an area that’s going through a significant uptick in violence is just as important for the families — and the man who leads them.

“One of the bright moments I have to look forward to is going to practice,” said Patrick McGee, 30. “I look forward to just being around them. They make me feel better.” He added: “If it wasn’t for them boys, I don’t know what I’d be doing.”


The 10-minute drive to Louisville Cemetery is a recurring punch to the gut for the McGee family. “This has been the longest 90 days of my life,” Patrick McGee says, using his white T-shirt to wipe away the tears trickling down his face. “I’ve tried to keep pushing. I think about my brother a lot and miss him a lot.”

Patrick McGee holds up a photograph of his brother, Lee Andrew McGee, who was killed in a shooting in March.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

Patrick McGee and his mother, Aretha McGee, walk toward a corner of the expanding cemetery. The grave, still awaiting both grass and a headstone, is marked by an empty bottle of Remy Martin cognac buried in the dirt. Lee McGee won’t be alone here: No more than 75 feet to the right of where he’s buried are similarly bare plots for two of his friends who were both killed recently. Mother and son exit Patrick McGee’s black Chrysler 300, which has newspaper obituaries of family and friends covering the dashboard. “I lose friends around here on a daily basis,” he says.

Surrounded by friends and family, Aretha McGee Bond holds balloons before releasing them at the grave of her son Lee Andrew McGee.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

It’s been three months and a day since Lee McGee — a 26-year-old brother, son and father of two — was killed, but the passing time is not making these visits any easier. Aretha McGee, wearing a pin with a picture of her deceased son, picks up a stick and writes his name where the headstone will go. As the wind blows through the trees, Aretha McGee tells me that it always comes in like that when they arrive; it comforts her.

Patrick McGee bends over the Remy Martin bottle and quietly talks to Lee.

“Miss you, baby,” he whispers.


Childhood was a struggle for Patrick and Lee, the first and third of Aretha McGee’s six children, who grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and the South Side of Chicago. By the time Patrick was 7, his single mother had checked herself into rehab for her addiction to crack. (Aretha says she’s been sober for 22 years.) The regularity of drive-by shootings at their apartment complex forced the children to sleep on the floor to avoid the bullets. “It was a normal routine,” Patrick McGee said. “You heard gunshots and you got on the floor.”

Aretha McGee Bond hold a picture of her son Lee Andrew McGee.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

Basketball was the boys’ lifeline amid the chaos. It was in their blood. Aretha McGee played for her high school team, and their uncle, Lee Lampley, was a schoolboy legend in the early ’90s and an all-state selection in 1994 who rode a silky-smooth jumper to average nearly 30 points a game that year for Rockford’s Boylan Catholic High School. Lampley’s low grades kept him from getting a look from a major school, and he was later kicked off two junior college teams. If not for a series of felonies, Sports Illustrated wrote in 2015, Lampley could have been one of the best shooters of all time.

Though family and friends laud Patrick McGee for coaching and his own play — he stuffs the stat sheet as a 6-foot-4 guard for the Kentucky Flash of the semiprofessional Midwest Basketball League — it was his younger brother who was dubbed “Lee-Bron” by those who saw him play at Central High School, Muhammad Ali’s alma mater, where he averaged 18.9 points per game as a sophomore. But, much like his uncle, that greatness didn’t last. Sorting out some disciplinary issues, Lee McGee graduated from a different high school and stopped playing organized ball altogether.

But Lee McGee felt connected to the next player in the family’s basketball bloodline: Patrick McGee’s son Da’shawn, one of the players on We The Best. He attended a lot of Da’shawn’s games, regularly played his nephew in games of one-on-one and celebrated with team members as they won the state AAU tournament.

After a day filled with basketball camp and football practice, Patrick McGee plays a game of one-on-one with his son Da’shawn.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

“He always said if I could get 20 points, that he would give me $20,” Da’shawn recalled, proudly stating that he won that bet three times.

People talked about what could have been for Lee McGee on the basketball court right up until the early morning hours of March 28. At 1:13 a.m., Lee McGee left Club Legends, a local nightclub, with some friends. He wanted to take his girlfriend and others out for margaritas, Patrick McGee said, but first decided to stop at Dino’s Food Mart, a block from the club. As Lee McGee walked toward the entrance to Dino’s, Charlie Shoulders, 24, allegedly pulled a gun from under his hoodie and shot him three times in the chest.

Shoulders was free on bond for drug and firearms charges from 2016, and police believe the two had recently gone back and forth over a woman. In security video footage, Lee McGee is seen trying to shield his head and face. He was rushed to an emergency room at the University of Louisville Hospital.

“It was just an overt, brazen act by his perpetrator,” said Louisville police Lt. Emily McKinley, who oversees the Homicide Unit and has responded to at least 400 homicides since 2011. “I think that resonated with everybody. He clearly wanted something to happen to Mr. McGee.” Shoulders was arrested two weeks after the shooting and indicted for murder by a grand jury in April.

Patrick McGee stands in front of Dino’s Food Mart, where his brother, Lee Andrew McGee, was killed in a shooting in March.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

Asleep at home that night, Patrick McGee was awakened by someone beating at the door. His phone was out of commission, and the woman at the door, a family friend, handed him hers. On the line was Erica Dotson, the mother of his two children, who told Patrick McGee that his brother had been shot. He dropped the phone and went to pick up his mother, doing 100 mph on I-65 toward the hospital. When they arrived, he estimated there were more than 200 people outside waiting to learn of his brother’s fate.

Aretha McGee has relived that night every day since then.

“I know mothers lose their children,” she says through tears, “but to lose one of your own is the worst feeling of pain ever for a mother to feel.”

On the three-month anniversary of the shooting, Patrick McGee took me to the spot where his brother died. It’s only the second time he’s been there since March 28. He notices that a makeshift memorial of flowers and photos for his brother outside Dino’s is no longer there. People filling up their cars at the gas station next door and shirtless customers walking in and out of Dino’s shoot glances at us, wondering what we’re doing there.

“He got shot down right here,” Patrick McGee says, pointing to the pavement. “I don’t like coming down here. It brings back so much pain and so much hurt.”

We leave less than a minute later. Patrick McGee doesn’t look back.


Inside the Lighthouse Community Center in nearby Newburg, it’s all about family during practice. Sure, Patrick McGee and his assistants will get on the boys for sloppy defense or poor free-throw shooting. But since Patrick McGee has coached most of them since they were 5, these critiques come from a place of love and familiarity.

“He’s cool, but sometimes he makes us run and do 20 push-ups,” center Keriawn Berry said with a grin.

Members of the We The Best Basketball Team practice for their upcoming national tournament at a gym in Louisville, Ky.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

Parents and guardians stay through practice from beginning to end, with toddlers and other children running and playing on the sidelines. They say the team has come a long way since it started practicing in a small gym in one of the area’s most troubled neighborhoods.

“This team gives our boys hope,” said West End resident Anna Reynolds, the mother of frontcourt player Ahmad Shelton. “I’m still in awe.”

Sitting in the stands and patrolling the sidelines, the parents are candid about why they keep their children’s days full of sports and other activities. The West End is filled with boarded-up homes, rundown businesses and vacant lots. Though Louisville won a $30 million federal grant for the redevelopment of a public housing site, residents say more is needed to fight the drugs and violence that have the city in a vise grip. As in many of Louisville’s regional brethren, heroin remains the main drug game in town, both for the addicts and the 25 active gangs that help traffic the product. Although the 150 nonfatal shootings through June 28 represent a dip compared with this point last year, the increased homicide rate means the incidents are becoming deadlier.

Whether it’s a morning at Rajon Rondo’s youth basketball camp (Rondo was born in Louisville and played three years of high school ball here) or an evening at football practice, the days are packed so that the boys can go from one thing to the next without having to think about the violence, or see the yellow police tape, happening around them.

Jermaine “Chief” Cameron Jr shoots hoops on the street outside his home in the Portland Neighborhood of Louisville.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

“I know that when they’re at practice that I don’t have to worry about them being caught up in gunshots,” said Anthony McClenney, Berry’s uncle. “You know for these two hours that these kids are going to be safe.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Toni Wilcox, the mother of another We the Best player, Marlon Harbin III.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the wrong things with the wrong people,” she said. “I’m happy my son has something to do.”

The week of Lee McGee’s death, the assistant coaches and parents didn’t plan to see Patrick McGee for the team’s Thursday practice. Yet he was there for the 6 p.m. start. He needed the players for support as much as they needed him for his coaching and leadership.

“He didn’t want to let the kids down,” said Allen Evans III, an assistant coach who helped start a GoFundMe campaign to help cover expenses for the Orlando trip. “Even though he was going through things, we could see how much he loved being there.”

The message? Play as hard as they could and for the love of each other. From there, the team got to running.


Last week, about 30 minutes before the start of practice, Patrick McGee and a group of 14 family and friends, including three toddlers, carry 26 blue, white and gold balloons toward where Lee McGee is buried. It’s 16 days before what would have been his 27th birthday. Sipping on a couple of bottles of Luc Belaire Luxe champagne, his brother’s favorite, Patrick McGee and a couple of others pour some out on his plot. On the count of three, they release the balloons, staring at them as they drift into the blue Kentucky sky.

“Love you, Lee Andrew,” his mother says.

Patrick McGee shows a dog tag he had made to remember his brother, Lee Andrew McGee, who was killed in a shooting in March.

Philip Scott Andrews for The Undefeated

Smiling and jumping up and down near his father’s final resting place, Lee McGee’s 4-year-old son, Lee Jr., has a message of his own: “Love you, Daddy!”

Patrick McGee pours out some more champagne before saying his goodbyes. Now, it’s time to make the 15-minute drive to the gym. Nationals are almost here. The team needs its coach. And the coach needs his team.

Her Sister’s Keeper In Chicago, tragedy touches even the most celebrated families. But Dwyane Wade’s mother and aunt have learned that hope can follow despair

The sound of distant police sirens drowns out the first notes of gospel music as Jolinda Wade’s extended family hurries inside the church. There have been 19 shootings in Chicago this winter weekend, and the family’s chapel has become a safe haven on the city’s far southern edge. An usher guards the door, on the lookout for gang members. A sign near the entryway reads: put the guns down.

Jolinda, 62, steps to the pulpit and looks out at her small congregation of friends and family members, a group shaped in many ways by Chicago’s gun violence. There, offering a welcome prayer, is a great-nephew who survived being shot twice while buying a snack at a convenience store. There, asleep in the back, is a 5-month-old baby already orphaned by gunfire. And there, standing in the far corner of the church, is Jolinda’s sister Diann Aldridge, 64, whom Jolinda worries about most of all.

“It’s not like this violence just came knocking at our door,” Jolinda preaches. “It kicked our door down.”

The church was purchased for Jolinda by her famous son, Dwyane Wade, who left the Miami Heat in the summer of 2016 and returned to his native Chicago to find a family and a city in crisis. There were 787 homicides in Chicago last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, the most in two decades and far more than the total for New York and Los Angeles combined. No one is exempt from the gun epidemic here, not even members of one of the city’s most well-known families.

Pastor Wade preaching at New Creation Binding and Loosing Ministries in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

Now Jolinda paces the aisles of the church as she preaches, bouncing on her toes with excitement, punching her hands against the air and stopping to wipe sweat off her forehead with a towel. She looks out often at older sister Diann, who stands still and quiet in the back. The two of them have always been tight, a bond that helps form the backbone of both their church and their close-knit extended family. Diann was the first person Jolinda had ever saved—“my pillar, my strength, my spiritual goddaughter,” Jolinda once called her—and now in some ways Jolinda feels as if she is trying to save Diann again.

Twice in the past 19 years, Diann has had to identify the body of a child killed by gunfire. After her first daughter was killed, in 1998, Diann left the morgue and ultimately went back to the trap houses of south Chicago, hoping to numb her pain with drugs and alcohol. She spent more than a decade getting high, she says, “searching for something that might make the hurt go away.” Then, last summer, she’d been called back to the morgue, and now she’s come to her sister’s church searching for answers to painful questions.

She sways in the back row with four grandchildren who are hers to raise, trying to quiet the baby as Jolinda preaches.

“This is our issue now,” Jolinda says, walking through the pews toward Diann. “All of us have been hurt. All of us will rebuild together.”

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An Undefeated Conversation: Athletes, Responsibility and Violence

For decades, it had been Diann who worked to rescue younger sister Jolinda. They had grown up sharing a bedroom in a small rental house on the South Side of Chicago, two of nine children raised by their mother during the ravages of the drug war. All nine siblings eventually became addicts, but none fell quite as fast as Jolinda: from cheap wine, on to marijuana, on to cocaine, on to heroin. Meanwhile, the youngest of her four children, Dwyane, was born in 1982, around the time Jolinda began selling drugs herself. By the time he turned 8, Jolinda was failing to pay rent and trading the family’s monthly food stamp allotment to support her drug habit. She sent Dwyane to live with his father across town, then began disappearing herself.

“There were whole months when she was kind of lost to the streets,” Diann says. “I didn’t know where she was or if she was dead or alive. I would get a tip and then go off searching.”

Sometimes Diann would find Jolinda in jail or in a halfway house. Other times she would find her sister living among addicts and prostitutes in the foreclosed homes their brother helped manage on behalf of a property company. When Jolinda was dope sick and in withdrawal, Diann gave her money for another $10 bag so she could function through the day. “That kept me from ever having to start prostituting for money,” Jolinda says. “She helped save me from all of that.”

Diann Wade

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

The two sisters would sit together, drink and talk about their problems. Jolinda was always cycling through her feelings of shame and regret over the ways in which she had failed Dwyane, whom she rarely saw as he moved into high school. He was becoming a basketball star, known throughout the city, and his successes only magnified her sense of failure and grief. “He was this great kid, and I didn’t even get to see how he grew into that,” she says. Diann, meanwhile, was a high-functioning addict, mostly a drinker, and she had managed to help look after her siblings and her own three daughters while holding jobs at a call center and as a home health aide. “She is a protector,” Jolinda says.“There were some feelings of, ‘If she can manage to help take care of her kids even as an addict, how come I can’t?’ It was a reminder of the love that other people had and I felt like I didn’t deserve.”

And then, in 1998, Diann got a phone call about her oldest daughter, LaTonda—beautiful, stylish, 27 years old and just recently married to a Chicago Housing Authority official named Marvin King. Neighbors had heard gunshots at LaTonda’s apartment, a noise so commonplace in that part of the city that nobody had bothered to call police until King failed to show up for work the next day. When officers came to investigate, they concluded that LaTonda had been shot by her husband, who had then turned the gun on himself in a murder-suicide. When Diann arrived at her daughter’s apartment, the crime scene was still so bloody she couldn’t bring herself to step inside. She asked a friend to sort through LaTonda’s belongings, then left most of the funeral arrangements to relatives.

“I got lost in my madness for a long while,” she says. “I would drink until I had little blackouts. I wanted that relief of just thinking about nothing.”

Something about seeing her older sister so broken made Jolinda want to get clean. She wanted to rebuild her relationships with her own children and help take care of Diann. Jolinda went into a rehab program in the late 1990s but relapsed. She turned herself in to police again in 2001, and this time she stayed clean of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes while in jail. She studied the Bible in her cell, devoted herself to ministry and then began pastoring to her earliest congregant, Diann. Jolinda gave her sister a Bible and taught her to pray. She brought Diann into the church that Dwyane paid for in 2008 and put her in charge of its charity programs. The two sisters began meeting regularly to talk about grief, religion, new beginnings and forgiveness.

Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, left, and his mother Jolinda Wade, center, and pastor LaDell Jones cut of the ribbon during the Opening Day Celebration of their new church edifice at the Temple of Praise Church on Sunday, May 18, 2008 in Chicago.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Eventually Diann began to feel a little less angry about LaTonda’s death, a little lighter, and with that clarity came a revelation: For her, a new beginning meant leaving Chicago. She moved to the suburb of Justice, Illinois, then began asking her two surviving daughters to move too.

“It’s just not safe around here anymore,” she remembers telling them.


Solutions are rarely so simple on the economic margins of Chicago. Diann’s youngest daughter, Nykea, was a single mother of three children, with a fourth on the way. Her health aide job paid minimum wage. She was stuck living with her family in the one place she could afford: Parkway Gardens, a housing project of 35 buildings where Michelle Obama had spent her earliest years.

It was known as “O Block,” and it was the location of several shootings each year. But the violence also had its own sort of order, and Nykea had built a routine around keeping her children, ages 12, 11 and 9, safe. She made sure they stayed inside the apartment after dark, when drug dealers started roaming near the project’s playground. She took the children across town to stay at her sister’s house on the weekends, when gang violence was at its worst.

Diann herself didn’t like to visit O Block, and she kept asking Nykea to move. Eventually, Nykea agreed: “I’m done with this mess,” she told her mother early last summer.

Nykea had tried to apply for Section 8 housing in a safer neighborhood of Chicago, but the waitlist could sometimes stretch on for 15 years. So instead, Diann drove Nykea out of the city and continued three hours south, all the way to Indianapolis. They toured a Section 8 condo with new hardwood floors and a two-car garage. The city felt quiet. The neighborhood looked safe. Nykea took dozens of photos on her phone and filled out a Section 8 application. Then she came home to Chicago and waited for her clearance to move.

But the paperwork took time to process, and the move kept getting delayed. Nykea gave birth to her fourth child, daughter Da’Kota, in early August and later that month decided to re-enroll her kids in Chicago’s schools. One afternoon, she loaded the baby into the stroller and took a trip toward the school’s main office. Two convicted felons came running down the street with guns, chasing and allegedly firing at someone else in the neighborhood. A stray round hit Nykea in the arm. Another shot hit her in the head.

Diann got a phone call from a family member minutes after the shooting while at home in the suburbs. She started heading back toward the city but couldn’t maintain enough focus to drive. A friend met her at a gas station and took her the rest of the way. As they drove, Diann called Jolinda, who had been busy in recent weeks helping her own son, Dwyane, move back to Chicago into a 19th-century mansion on the city’s Gold Coast. Diann was confused and talking fast on the phone. She didn’t yet know whether Nykea was injured or dead, and Jolinda tried to calm her down.

Jolinda headed to the hospital and called her son from the road. Wade had already learned about the shooting on Twitter. Nykea was a year younger than Dwyane, and he had often listened to her read her poems or screenplays at the family’s annual reunion, during which everyone was required to perform.

“Another act of senseless gun violence,” Wade tweeted about his cousin as he made plans to return home. “4 kids lost their mom for NO REASON. Unreal.”

By late that afternoon, a few dozen family members had gathered in the hospital waiting room even though they suspected Nykea was dead. A doctor came out to confirm. Then two police officers asked Diann whether she wanted to go see her daughter. Diann began to follow them, then stopped. “Wait,” she said. She gestured back at Jolinda, then turned to the police. “I want her to come with me.”

The officers led the two sisters back to a small hospital room in a ritual that had become routine in Chicago, where 96 people had been killed that August, the highest monthly total for the city in two decades. The officers told Diann not to look at her daughter’s face, but she did anyway. They told her not to remove the bandage on her forehead, but Diann reached over and pushed the bandage back.

“All the weight in my legs went out from under me,” she says. “I couldn’t move. I just dropped.”

Jolinda tried to lift her off the floor, and soon a nurse came in to help load Diann into a wheelchair. Jolinda attempted to console her, whispering prayers into her ear about God’s plan, but Diann didn’t seem to hear. She was lost in her own head, disoriented and overwhelmed. She kept repeating the same phrase over and over as if in a trance.

“Please, not again,” she said.


Now it is five months and 355 homicides since Nykea’s death, but in some ways Diann is still every bit as overwhelmed and disoriented as she was at the hospital. She has taken over care of Nykea’s four children—“the only option and the best option,” Diann says—and together they’ve worked to forge new lives on the outskirts of Chicago. The children have squeezed into Diann’s two-bedroom house, into her creaky old Chevy sedan, into new schools in the suburbs. “Just jamming everybody in,” Diann says.

Diann shares a room with the baby, waking up to feed her four times each night and then sometimes lying awake as doubts crowd her head: Do the children need a grief counselor? Has she signed them up for the right summer camps? Is the baby doing OK on formula? And how, at 64, can she summon the emotional energy to raise four more children when two of her own are dead?

Diann Wade and her grandchildren in her car at New Creation Binding and Loosing Ministries in Chicago, IL.

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

It is too much to process, and so late one wintry day she drops the children off at school and continues driving with the baby into Chicago, to her sister’s church. It is the place where she feels most at peace and where she finds the person who understands her best. Diann has never seen a professional counselor, but ever since Nykea’s death she has come a few times each week to talk to Jolinda at her church office.

“How you doing, sis?” Jolinda says now.

“I can’t get Nykea out of my mind some days,” Diann says. “When [LaTonda] died, it was a hazy blur. Now I feel everything.”

“It hurts, don’t it?” Jolinda says.

They sit down next to each other in the empty pews. The church is quiet as Diann rocks the baby against her chest.

“At least this time I can process it. I can forgive,” she says.

“That’s right!” Jolinda says, punching her hand against the air. “And we have the strength to do something.”

For the past few months, they’ve worked obsessively to make Nykea’s death into a turning point for Chicago. Her killing—and the subsequent indictment of two brothers for the crime, Darwin Jr. and Derren Sorrells—became one of the city’s biggest news stories of 2016, resulting in promises of greater police presence from the mayor and tweets from then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “This could be our family’s biggest contribution right here,” Jolinda said in the weeks after Nykea’s death, and everyone in the family had taken on a role.

Jolinda had written a rap about gun violence and invited gang members into the church to discuss a neighborhood peace treaty. Wade had partnered with the Bulls during home games to honor Chicago students who had overcome the city’s violence. Diann had given an interview to CNN as Jolinda sat nearby for support. “I truly try,” Diann had said, between sobs, “from the bottom of my heart—I forgive them. They’ve taken a person’s life senselessly. And I just love them.”

The family’s most ambitious effort in memory of Nykea is to expand Jolinda’s church into a state-of-the-art community center for at-risk children. The building’s huge hallways lead to empty rooms and unfinished space, and architects have developed plans that reflect the vision the family has for the church. A few weeks after Nykea’s death, Jolinda invited the city to a “soft opening” of the center, hoping to generate some fundraising momentum. Hundreds of children were bused to the church. Nickelodeon provided waterslides and video games. Several politicians put on hard hats and followed Wade for a tour of the empty rooms, where loose wires still ran across the floor. One room was supposed to become a basketball court. Another would be a recording studio. Others would become theaters, culinary institutes and classrooms, Wade explained.

“In memory of Nykea,” Diann told the group.

“We can save lives here,” the mayor said.

“A model for Chicago,” a senator said.

“The turning point,” Jolinda said.

The obituary for Diann Alridge’s daughter, Nykea.

Ryan Lowry for ESPN

But now, as they sit in the pews four months later, the church looks just as it had before. Diann and Jolinda are still waiting on fundraising money, on architectural plans, on a callback from the mayor’s office. On some nights, lying alone in bed, Diann wonders: Would she ever experience any true form of relief from her pain? No matter how many ways she has tried to escape her grief—with blackout drinking, with prayer, with work and forgiveness—all that sadness waits on the edges, ready to come rushing back. “You can work ’til you’re tired and do as much as you can, but when you stop to catch your breath, the reality is still the same,” she tells her sister.

“For our family, it’s all about Romans 12:2,” Jolinda says. “‘Do not be conformed to this world but be … ’”

Diann interrupts: “‘ … transformed by the renewal of your mind.’”

“Yes!” Jolinda says. She reaches out and grabs her sister by the shoulder. “That’s our story.”

“It’s true,” Diann says, sounding more convinced.

They lean against each other in the pew, two sisters who’ve supported each other through one transformation after the next. Diann grabs the baby and stands up from the pew. “We’re going to be fine,” she says.

The two sisters make plans to meet back at the church in a few days, then hug goodbye. Jolinda heads downtown to see her son before a road trip. Diann packs the baby into the car and starts driving out of the South Side, back to her house, away from Chicago.