A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”

At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.

As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.

One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”

Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.

He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.

Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”

Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.

“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Change, get fired or quit

Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:

“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.

“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”

For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”

He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.

Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.

“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”

There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.

“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.

Life after football

Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.

After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.

Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.

He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Then verses 3 and 4:

For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.

“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.

“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.

“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”

I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.

Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.

“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”

The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”

Is there a downside?

“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”

Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.

“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”

It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.

Black and Blue: A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.

Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.

Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.

A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.

Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.

Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”

When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.

“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”

Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.

When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.

Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.

“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.

“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”

Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”

“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.

Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.

De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.

A scandal in the department

Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.

At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.

It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.

Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.

“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”

There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.

Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.

“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

Engaging the threat

After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.

Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.

A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.

“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”

A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.

Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?

“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”

Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.

Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.

Then Davenport tried one.

Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.

Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?

The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.

The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.

“This might have been my bad day,” he said.

A glimpse inside a high-tech police simulation at the Atlanta PD

The lesson of Jonah

Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.

Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.

Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.

The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.

“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”

The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.

HBO’s ‘Baltimore Rising’ shows a city stuck after Freddie Gray’s death An instant-message conversation about the documentary’s portrayal of a community and police department struggling to find solutions

A better name for Baltimore Rising, the new HBO documentary on black life in the city after the death of Freddie Gray, might be Baltimore Stuck. To characterize the city as rising, as director Sonja Sohn does, might be a reach, given the deeply entrenched problems of its poorest residents.

Baltimore Rising attempts to highlight ways community leaders and the Baltimore Police Department are addressing the divide between police and the citizens they’re supposed to protect. It’s a refrain that’s all too familiar: A young black man dies at the hands of police and his community reacts with anger, frustration and contempt for a criminal justice system that appears heavily tilted against them. By the end of the film, which airs Monday night on HBO, there’s not much of a resolution. The city’s problems of joblessness, drugs, violence, racism, structural inequality and intergenerational poverty seem far too complex for one documentary.

One of us (Fletcher) has lived in Baltimore for 36 years and once worked for The Baltimore Sun. When Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police, he wrote an essay about the many circumstances that converged to lead to Gray’s death. He’s also written about Sandtown, the neighborhood where Gray was from, and the parallels in the lives of Gray and William Porter, one of six officers charged after Gray’s death.

We shared our observations of Baltimore Rising in an instant message conversation that has since been edited for length.

Soraya: What did you think of the documentary overall? I felt it wasn’t able to get a granular focus on the historical causes behind eruptions like the ones after Gray’s death.

Michael: I really like how it started. I like how the focus immediately went to the roots of the uprising. It raised urgent questions. Why did this happen? Why do we tolerate entrenched poverty? But, in the end, I’m not sure it answered those questions.

Soraya: It says this tension between the community and the police started when cops began driving their beats instead of walking them. I was a little skeptical of that. Does that ring true to you?

Michael: It is one of those convenient things to say. Like when everybody talks about the good old days when neighbors would discipline kids. I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold. Back when cops patrolled the streets on foot in Baltimore, the city was hypersegregated. For years after they introduced patrol cars, black cops in Baltimore were not allowed to use them. The roots of the problem are so much more complex than the lack of foot patrolmen, or footmen, as some say in Baltimore.

Soraya: Right. I feel like this could easily be a documentary series, broken up into episodes. That would allow for an opportunity to look at everything with more detail and nuance.

Michael: That’s it. Just to linger on the police for a moment, you often hear things about policing such as cops should be from the communities they patrol, as if that would be some panacea. But here in Baltimore, where more than 40 percent of the cops are black, many officers are from the neighborhoods they patrol. Some of that is captured in the doc. But the tensions and distrust persist. Why? You could do an entire episode on that.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days, and I think those narratives, like many narratives, are oversold.

Soraya: You mentioned in your essay that Baltimore’s policing problems aren’t necessarily about race. So is it class? Is it just abuse of power? Given the Fraternal Order of Police’s reaction to any sort of community oversight, it seems like there’s just way too much concentrated power. And that always ends up screwing over the people with less.

Michael: Probably a bit of both, along with a lack of empathy. I am often struck by the disdain some cops display to people they are sworn to protect and serve, just as I am sometimes appalled by the lack of respect some people accord to cops. Add to that what I think is Baltimore’s biggest problem, the tens of thousands of people addicted to drugs, and you have what you have. Not to be too cynical, but I think you could staff the cops’ trial board with nothing but ACLU lawyers and the city would not be much better off. The issue is attacking poverty. We have to figure out how to do it as a society, and we haven’t.

Soraya: I kept thinking as I was watching that you have to address the social issues that lead to crime in the first place: namely, poverty. And Genard Barr, one of the community organizers working with the cops, said that too. When police commissioner Kevin Davis is asking him what’s needed to prevent another uprising, he’s like, ‘Jobs.’ He seems to have the most realistic perspective on what’s needed. And that’s not something that can be solved overnight.

But I was also frustrated with Davis. Because if you know that’s so much of the problem, is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

There’s this line in the movie where Davis is meeting with cops and community members and someone says that they want residents to ‘value [their] city.’ But it doesn’t seem to value them. And they know that. How are you supposed to feel ownership over something that’s not really yours, that really wasn’t built for you?

Michael: Exactly. And we have to be clear-eyed about the investment that takes and the frustration that is involved. And it is more than jobs, per se. We have to get people ready to work. National coverage sometimes creates the impression that Baltimore is an economic wasteland. It is not. I looked it up: Baltimore’s official unemployment rate is 5.2 percent (however flawed that number is). Yet, it is more than double that figure for African-Americans. And this city has had black leadership for more than a generation. But walking around town, you see ads for $13-an-hour jobs at the Amazon warehouse, for decent-paying jobs in restaurants and the tourist trade. So it’s all very complicated.

Soraya: So we’re also talking about specific neighborhoods within Baltimore, not the whole city, right? Is that because of redlining?

Michael: It is partially because of redlining. It is partially because of middle-class flight. It is partially because of the rise of poverty in some areas, and all that comes with that: disinvestment, crime, drugs, the disintegration of community and even many families. These issues plague huge swaths of West and East Baltimore. But there also remain many strong black working-class communities populated by teachers, bus drivers, postal workers, etc.

Is it fair to expect people to just ignore their situations because the city doesn’t want property damage and ongoing footage of flames on CNN?

Soraya: The film focuses on the neighborhood of North Penn, although Freddie Gray was from Sandtown.

Michael: They are basically adjoining neighborhoods in West Baltimore. Very similar too. Thurgood Marshall is from over there. Billie Holiday, and many other legends, performed on Pennsylvania Avenue during its heyday. Interestingly, the young activists we meet in the film seem to be from the ‘other,’ more prosperous (but still black) Baltimore.

Soraya: Let’s talk about them for a bit. Sohn [who played police Detective Kima Greggs on The Wire] focuses on three main characters: Genard Barr, Makayla Gilliam-Price and Kwame Roseborough. Makayla was a high school senior, and Kwame was 21 at the time this was filmed. It’s that age when you see things that aren’t right and you want to protest them. It’s always young people who are on the frontlines of that. Genard’s a little different, though. He’s a former gang member whose father was a cop.

Michael: They added an intriguing element to the film. To my mind, Genard — who works at a drug treatment center and has connections with gang members, and works to get the formerly incarcerated into the workforce — is the one most deeply immersed in the hard realities of Baltimore. The others, as you say, are committed, bright and passionate, but young. I found the conversations between them and their parents especially illuminating. At one point, Makayla is reading an autobiographical piece and her mother basically tells her she doesn’t recognize the person described in the essay. I found that fascinating. Kwame’s brunch with his parents, who are at best ambivalent about his choice to quit work to be an activist, was also interesting.

Soraya: Their parents seem much more pragmatic. And they’re side-eyeing their children’s idealism a bit. The parents are like, ‘Get your education so you can do something substantive about this.’ And the activists are like, ‘We have to raise our voices about this RIGHT NOW,’ which I can understand. When you see someone your own age or younger be killed, and no one faces any real consequences for it, I imagine that’s incredibly galvanizing. And also scary.

I wish the film, again, had a little more focus. Because Makayla actually seems to have a bit of a journey from when we first see her. By the end, she’s talking about recognizing that protest by itself doesn’t bring about change. I’ve said this about other documentaries, too, not just this one, but I always find myself wanting to know more about policy and what can be done to change people’s lives. I want to see illustrations of the way structural racism or bad policy is baked into governing and how that ends up resulting in black death, mass incarceration, etc. I don’t think we got enough of that. Though, given the FBI’s targeting of ‘Black Identity Extremists,’ I do think it’s important to include how modern protesters and organizers are targeted for retaliation. I had questions about Kwame, in terms of where he fits within Campaign Zero or other Black Lives Matter orgs that funnel money to protesters for bail funds, legal assistance, etc. Is he outside of that network? What’s going on there? I wish Sohn had spent more time on the Justice Department’s findings from its investigation into the Baltimore Police Department and tying that back to Gray’s death, and others.

Michael: I agree with all of that. And here’s maybe my bottom line on the film: If all I knew about the state of Baltimore police-community relations was what I saw here, I’d be confused. As portrayed here, the police are the only ones really getting their hands dirty dealing with Baltimore’s harshest realities. Talk about black death: The city has already seen more than 300 murders this year, as it did last year. The cops we see: commissioner Davis, Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, Detective Dawnyell Taylor, are shown on the street fighting what looks like an unwinnable fight.

There is no mention of the cops on the city’s gun squad indicted for stealing drugs and reselling them. Or the cops accused of planting evidence on suspects. Or the millions paid out to brutality victims. There is a backdrop of injustice, as we hear about the cops charged in the Freddie Gray case acquitted one by one. It feels infuriating, because Gray’s case is so stark. He is arrested, put into a police van and comes out with his neck broken.

But as someone who followed the trial closely, I can tell you that the evidence was thin. The presiding judge (who was the decider, as these were all bench trials) was a black man who formerly prosecuted bad cops for the Justice Department! I say all that to note that there is so much more to explore.

Soraya: Oof. I’m not sure, if you do a deep dive into all that, that you can still call the movie Baltimore Rising. It doesn’t sound like an accurate name. What I see is a city that’s stuck. And I just don’t think things like football games between gang members and cops fixes that. It’s a tiny, tiny Band-Aid.

Michael: At first, the football game came off to me as almost trivializing the deep issues the film raises. But its one virtue is that it humanizes people on all sides. Perhaps that is the only hope here: if we can see the humanity that exists behind these labels we all use — gang member, cop, ex-con, poor person.

Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate, no matter our problems Black Americans, as always, will stand as exemplars of America’s resilience, spirit and promise

Thanksgiving is a day to celebrate, no matter our problems. Let others dismiss Thanksgiving as an occasion where warmed-over family resentments and simmering political antagonisms are passed around the holiday tables as we stuff ourselves with turkey, apple pie and football.

But for those of us who look forward to the holiday, we know that Thanksgiving is the start of the season of giving and gratitude, a time when we seek to share our blessings and good cheer, a time when we seek to care for people who are neglected the rest of the year.

Which is to say Thanksgiving, like other national holidays, can be whatever we need and want it to be.

For some of us this Thanksgiving, our holiday family will be those who happen to be with us on or behind the line at the homeless shelter. For others, our Thanksgiving families will be composed of the men and women who will join us in workplace potlucks.

But for still others, especially the most fortunate African-American families, Thanksgiving will be a multigenerational celebration: a time when the Little Bobbys, Juniors and Treys commune with the Big Bobbys, the Nanas and the Aunties.

Consequently, we will be able to look around our Thanksgiving tables and see in the faces of others assembled there who we have been and who we will be, from the toddlers to the elders. And we will feel the presence of the ancestors in the retelling of old and precious stories.

To be sure, all Americans contribute to the nation’s greatness. We all own a piece of Plymouth Rock, the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty. We’ve all inherited the nation’s myths and traditions and transformed them.

On Thursday, we’ll sit around one long communal table, from sea to shining sea, but in a house divided by race, class and politics.

Nevertheless, black families have a lot to teach America this Thanksgiving and throughout the year. After all, black families are among the nation’s oldest and most diverse. Our genetic heritage is primarily African, European and Native American, though usually not as much of the latter as the elders have sometimes claimed.

Like America, black folks are defined by stark contrasts and contradictions. Our complexions range from parchment to obsidian. Our women are the nation’s best educated and least respected. Our men are the most feared and the most vulnerable, plagued by chronic illnesses, early death and mass incarceration.

Everything from the loss of farmland to the loss of factory jobs happened in our families first or most acutely, and we have survived. Our families have embraced our Muslim brothers and sisters along with other religious traditions from across the continents and around the world. Some may continue to struggle to embrace our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, just as others do, but our arms have been open.

We have loved America and fought to defend its highest ideals, from the battlefields to the voting booths, courts and picket lines. Far too often, we’ve been rebuked and scorned by an America that’s been blessed by our hard work, creativity and patriotism.

And long before the term “fake news” was invented, black Americans suffered the cruel lash of lies about what we’ve done and who we are.

We’ve survived that too.

Indeed, Thanksgiving is the great American holiday that celebrates survival and acclimation, endurance and transformation.

On Thursday, the nation gathers together and yet apart. Many will sit among family and friends and enjoy a feast of good fortune. And black Americans, as always, will stand as exemplars of America’s resilience, spirit and promise.

Happy Thanksgiving.

‘Survivor’s Remorse’ recap: When virtual reality meets your alcohol-laden stomach A reminder that graphic suffering and cocktails don’t mix

Season 4, Episode 5 | “The Gala” | SepT. 17

The writers of Survivor’s Remorse are fearless when it comes to using comedy to tackle tough social issues. But sometimes you just need a big belly laugh, and this week’s episode delivers.

Oh, dear. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “belly.”

Let’s explain: Cam (Jessie T. Usher) is holding a gala to raise money for his charity, the Calloway Philanthropic Trust, or CPT. And because it’s Cam, the road to money for fighting frozen nostril syndrome, mass incarceration and contaminated water supplies is paved with blue cocktails, doughnuts and vomit. Lots and lots of vomit.

Cam is a bleeding heart. And because he wants those around him to feel people’s pain just the way he does, he collaborates on a virtual reality experience for his gala guests.

There’s just one problem: Cam subjects his guests, who are gathered at his Buckhead, Atlanta, mansion in their swankiest black-tie ’fits, to a variety of way-too-real horrors. And so the gala attendees, wearing the virtual reality headsets developed by Chen’s (Robert Wu) company, experience life in prison, the world as experienced by a baby with “frozen nostrils” and the life of a child whose fingers get gnawed on by rats. By the time they get to maggot-infested water, everyone, full of too much sugar and alcohol, starts vomiting. And because they’ve neglected to take off their virtual reality headsets, they’re bumping into each other and slipping. Things got a little too real. Uncanny valley, indeed.

Written by Lauren Houseman and Allen Maldonado, The Gala combines a healthy dose of Survivor’s Remorse’s rapid-fire wit with some disgustingly funny slapstick. And it allows Erica Ash a spotlight to show off as M-Chuck.

When their diabetic professional auctioneer goes down, thanks to an inability to say no and an appetite for doughnuts, M-Chuck is forced to step in as auctioneer. Fortunately, this takes place before everyone’s emptied their stomachs onto the floor and tables and bathrooms of the Calloway residence.

M-Chuck is half shame artist, half insult comic and 100 percent talented at separating people from their money, as we see with her raunchy routine auctioning a pit bull puppy from one of rapper Pitbull’s own dogs. Once she finishes college, it’s not hard to envision M-Chuck as a director of development for a very, hmm, distinctive nonprofit.

Her brother, on the other hand, continues to inadvertently make the case for a life in politics once his basketball career is over. For one, it’s clear that Cam is driven by a need to help others, almost to a fault. But he’s also settled into a life of relying on others to think for him, which tends to get him into trouble. Although he put Missy in charge of organizing the gala, he took it upon himself to include the virtual reality project and instructed Missy not to watch it beforehand. And when his house was being blanketed in upchuck, Cam decided to yell at himself by yelling at Missy.

Cam: “How did you f— this up?”

Missy: “How did I f— this up?”

Cam: “I’m a professional athlete! A product of the culture of American idolatry, which means I am no longer capable of sound judgment. When I’m right, I’m right. When I’m wrong, I’m right and my people are wrong!”

I told you this guy could run for public office.

So, Cam is clearly good-hearted. But he lacks focus and he hates saying no. Which is how he ends up with a gala raising money for three unrelated causes. I keep wondering whether he’s headed for a major financial crisis from giving away so much of his money and committing to bad investments, but it’s Reggie’s (RonReaco Lee) job to protect him from himself.

As for the gala, it was miraculously successful because folks pulled out their phones and started giving money via the “Cam Calloway Get Woke” app as soon as their stomachs settled. You have to wonder what sort of saints Cam managed to assemble, as most folks in that situation would be demanding a refund and a pledge from Cam to cover their dry-cleaning costs. But maybe that’s just bad form.

‘Crown Heights’ — a story of wrongful conviction that plays it too safe Stories of black men victimized by the prison system have their tropes, but the characters here don’t feel real

Six years into a 21-year stay in a New York state prison, Colin Warner, the lead character of the new film Crown Heights, is writing a letter.

“Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here,” he writes. “But I don’t have that comfort.”

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights uses a 2005 This American Life episode as the basis for its story, charting Warner’s path from freedom to state-sanctioned captivity to freedom once again. The real-life story is harrowing: Brooklyn, New York, police badgered witnesses into falsely fingering Warner for a crime he didn’t commit, and prosecutors used the alternative facts squeezed from those compromised teenage witnesses to send an innocent man to prison for second-degree murder. Once there, he ended up spending more time behind bars than the man who actually committed the crime.

Transposed to a feature-length film, however, Warner’s story loses its gasp-worthy qualities. The film just isn’t biting enough to make Warner a mascot for the race-based injustice that pervades the American criminal justice system.

Instead, it’s a series of prison tropes held together with flashbacks and news clips of American presidents espousing how tough they are on crime. We see Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to comprehend the loss of agency over his own body as he’s checked into prison, and how he discovers every friendly gesture from a fellow prisoner carries a price. Crown Heights follows Warner’s life from the day he was arrested in 1980 until the day he’s finally released but does little to advance the narrative that black men are systematically victimized by mass incarceration.

Perhaps that’s because Warner, who is West Indian, doesn’t connect his plight with that of American-born black men. If that’s the case, Crown Heights doesn’t effectively communicate that point, and the clearest indication that it’s trying to is the one line from Warner’s letter about prisoners knowing that they put themselves upstate.

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner and Natalie Paul as Antoinette in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

We see Warner enter a relationship with a woman, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), whom he eventually marries while imprisoned. But lost are the details that would illustrate how their relationship went from platonic to sexual. Why does Antoinette like Colin so much? What does she feel about him, aside from anguish and pity about his imprisonment? It’s almost impossible to say, because we don’t see it. What’s missing are the small, intimate events of daily life that can slow a film down but are necessary for viewers to connect with its characters.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, husband of actress Kerry Washington, co-stars as Carl King, Warner’s friend who never stops working to exonerate him. We see King’s wife get frustrated that King is dedicating so many resources to freeing his friend that he stops paying attention to his own family. But it’s tough to get a sense of how all of these figures are coping with their lots. In the course of making too many safe choices, Crown Heights ends up not saying much at all.

As with previous roles in Short Term 12 and Get Out, much of what Stanfield brings to the screen he communicates through his eyes. Stanfield’s presence introduces a sense of calm and introspection when everything around him is clearly unstable, but Asomugha doesn’t provide enough of a contrast for Stanfield’s quiet suffering.

The story of Colin Warner is a tale of someone’s humanity being disregarded and discarded. Yet Crown Heights fails to push past that initial hook to communicate much else. The inclusion of Clinton, Bush and Reagan is a start, but Ruskin fails to connect their tough-on-crime policies to Warner’s life. In the film’s last political interlude, when the audience has been primed to expect to see the face of George H. W. Bush, Ruskin uses footage of New York Gov. George Pataki instead. This decision only muddles the message. Are these powerful white men responsible for Warner’s imprisonment, or are they mile markers for the time he’s served? Or both?

There are few conclusions to draw from the film aside from “wrongful imprisonment is bad” — and, well, that should be obvious. It’s a shame that beyond that, Crown Heights doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

For the sake of black fatherhood, stop the war on drugs I get to celebrate Father’s Day with my dad after 27 years thanks to President Obama

“Your father WAS a good man, Nique. He always looked out for folks.”

“Boy, Ralph could run. You run just like him. He WAS a legend.”

“You Ralph son? He HAD a brain on him. Smart. Sorry to see that happened to him.”

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, and playing sports made these common sayings that were spoken to me. My father, Ralph Warren, was a present memory in my life but a very distant one to friends and admirers. Hearing this, you might assume my father was deceased — maybe an accident, a bullet or maybe bad luck happening to a man many had fond memories of. That wasn’t the case at all. My father was alive and well living in Indiana, then Kentucky, then Illinois in a jail cell, sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense. He wasn’t deceased, but his sentence would ensure that he would never see freedom. He would die in jail. DIE IN JAIL.

That had always hung over me with great pain, fear and anger. I would not be able to see my father grow old nor pass away in the comforts of his home because he would be in a federal prison cell. That is why on Jan. 17, 2017 — when President Barack Obama, mere days before his term was up, commuted my father’s sentence for drug trafficking and firearm charges after 27 years — I cried for hours knowing that I would know my father as a free man.


On Feb. 8, my father arrived back at the Greyhound bus station in Toledo, Ohio, where dozens of family members, including my mom and sibling, and a host of friends welcomed him back. I introduced him for the very first time to my daughter, Lois Marie. Since his release, he has edited and re-released his novel Target, begun working at a local auto supplier plant and, most importantly, spoken to recovering drug abusers and young men who have come into contact with the prison system. Together, my father and I are advocating for reduced sentencing and more funding for re-entry programs to local and federal legislators. Our lives have been affected by this “War on Drugs,” and we are on a mission to ensure it won’t reintensify.

Between 1970 and 2005, America’s prison and jail population ballooned from 300,000 to more than 2 million. America’s “War on Drugs” began under former President Richard Nixon in 1971 as a response to the increase in recreational drug use and abuse in the 1960s. Initial appropriations were geared to clinical and drug abuse prevention efforts, increased funding for prisons, directives for harsher sentences and aggressive law enforcement geared at drug cartels. It escalated under President Reagan, with the creation of mandatory minimum prison sentences in 1986 after an influx of crack cocaine in American cities targeted black and brown communities.

The American presidency from 1970 to 2005 focused on “Law and Order” to combat drug trafficking and violence, resulting in 1 in 9 black children currently having an incarcerated parent. Ninety-two percent of parents in prison are fathers, and an overwhelming proportion of these fathers are black.

Children of incarcerated parents are faced with trauma, higher chance of being in poverty, and increased rates of incarceration that create a cycle of destruction in the black community. Mass incarceration of black fathers limits the financial stability of families. Coupled with other racially prejudiced systems, mass incarceration plagues the stability of the black community.

Attorney General Eric Holder established the Smart on Crime initiative in 2014 to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing and push more funding to programs that decrease prison recidivism. Researchers from the Pew Charitable Trust agree that federal mandatory minimums don’t deter crime or reduce the number of people who return to jail. Directing prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimums for low-level and nonviolent offenses, the Obama administration’s commutation and pardon policies allowed thousands to be freed and reunited with families and society. Unfortunately, these policies came to an end with the presidential election of Donald Trump and appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

In May, Sessions directed federal prosecutors to seek the harshest indictments for drug offenses and reinstated mandated federal minimums for all charges, which includes the “three strikes” provision when disclosing to judges all facts pertaining to sentencing. This reversal of policy is not just a setback for best practices in federal prosecutions and has widespread opposition by both political parties, but it is also a setback for black fathers and their children.

Current policies for the Justice Department directed by Sessions empower prosecutors to use the full power of the federal government to enact harsh sentences for low-level and nonviolent crimes and keep the current prison population, the world’s largest, growing. We know that federal sentencing grossly prosecutes a high proportion of black males, leaving their children fatherless, without dual incomes and suffering from extreme trauma. There are no winners in this scenario, only losers. The appearance of being tough on crime from the DOJ will not reduce crime, but it will ensure millions of fatherless children who will be at risk of committing crimes themselves.

If 21st-century federal sentencing policies mirror the past 30 years of “Law and Order” mandates, we will continue to see our prison population rise and spend much-needed funding on housing prisoners instead of investing in communities, families and children. The annual cost of housing a prisoner outstrips the cost of tuition in states such as California, costing more than $75,000. Frederick Douglass in the 19th century said, “It’s easier to build strong children than broken men.” As prison and education costs rise, we as a nation have to make a choice of where our priorities lie. If we believe that families matter and children need fathers, mandatory minimums that target black men must be a policy of the past. We need to reinstate the commutation policy of the last administration so that imprisoned citizens are reinstated back to their communities.

This is the first Father’s Day I will spend with my dad in 27 years. I won’t take it for granted, because I know that many children won’t be able to celebrate it with their fathers.

They were, like me, waiting and waiting for that dream of seeing their fathers on this side of freedom. I am also vigilant for black fathers who will be targeted by the Trump administration’s arcane policies that invoke echoes of the past and have destroyed communities and families of color in the name of “Law and Order.”

On this Father’s Day, celebrate black fatherhood and work to protect it at all costs. I plan to strap my daughter into her stroller, put on my best running shoes and run just like my father, next to my father.