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

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Scott Barbour/Getty Images

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Dee rees

Dee Rees poses for a portrait in New York City on Oct. 11.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

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Courtesy the Bobsled and Skeleton Sports Federation of Nigeria

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munroe bergdorf

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sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after receiving her check for her victory against compatriot Madison Keys in the women’s singles final at the US Open tennis tournament on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

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rujeko Hockley

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Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images; David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images;

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lena Waithe

Lena Waithe

Steve Granitz/WireImage

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maame biney

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Harry How/Getty Images

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This tweet really says it all:

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A young black officer tries to bridge the divide between the police and his people

Officer Aundre Wright The Bridge Builder 3 years in uniform

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

One Saturday this fall, as little black boys collided between chalked white lines, officer Aundre Wright mingled comfortably with the crowd at Willie Stargell Field. A swarm of uniformed police patrolled this youth football venue, where the talent and style on the field is challenged by the potential for danger off it.

A woman had been shot in the face outside a game earlier in the season, and Wright wore a bulletproof vest over his blue police uniform. But as he hugged and dapped parents and coaches, everyone recalled a younger Wright wearing the colors of the Garfield Gators or Homewood Bulldogs, ripping across the turf in a blur of speed and aggression.

The 29-year-old went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh before a torn knee ligament derailed his NFL dreams. He wasn’t on duty today, but he came on a mission to “spread love.” Since becoming a police officer three years ago amid the national outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, Wright has waged a personal crusade to bridge the gap between black and blue.

That strained relationship is evident here in the Homewood neighborhood. This is one of the most deadly parts of Pittsburgh, a largely segregated city of 300,000 where blacks make up 20 percent of the population. The police department, which has about 900 officers, did not provide diversity statistics but has been trying to recruit more black officers. Asked about the police, spectators talk about being profiled and cops having bad attitudes for no reason. They mention Leon Ford, an unarmed black man who was paralyzed after being shot by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop. Metal detectors at the field entrance stand vigil to the violent Catch-22 of poor black life across America.

But the people here say Wright isn’t a regular cop — he’s “Dre” from the East Side. They know Dre’s mama. Their son or brother played against Dre the baller. They appreciate how Dre the cop treated their troublemaking cousin. They respect what Dre the man did when a 25-year-old mother of three was shot dead in her car outside the East Hills projects last year.

The murder of Myanne Hayes hurt Wright in a new way. Maybe because his reckoning of the gangster code says women aren’t supposed to be targeted, or because he had seen other men who threatened women walk free. Wright, who was off-duty when he got the news, drove to a Home Depot and bought some signboard and Sharpies. He parked his 2003 Camry on the corner of Wilner and East Hill Drive, not far from where Hayes’ body was found. Wearing civilian clothes, Wright inked out his feelings and placed three signs on his car:

I CARE STOP THE VIOLENCE STOP SHOOTING

He held a fourth sign aloft:

HONK 4 PEACE

Kids getting off school buses stopped to watch the one-man protest. Moms came off their porches with hot chocolate. Every honk from a passing car felt like a chip out of a prison wall. A passer-by put the scene live on Facebook, where 611 people tuned in. Hours passed. Night fell. The December temperature dipped toward freezing.

Wright felt liberated.

“At least somebody knew I cared,” he recalled. “I do think it made a difference. When somebody sees a young black man trying to be positive, everyone gravitates toward that. Even if I reached one person that day and they would think, ‘Maybe I should chill. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot women.’

“Even if it touched that one somebody — that’s all I wanted.”

“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”“If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

A wild child

Wright thinks often about his first encounter with police. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother, Charise, told him the story. She was on drugs and nodded off downtown. Three-year-old Dre’s stroller rolled into the street. He was grabbed by a passing cop and placed in foster care.

That inspired his mother to clean up her life for good — Charise became a prison counselor, social worker and devoted mother. Money was tighter than young Dre’s cornrowed hair, and she moved him and his older brother through more than a dozen apartments across Homewood, East Liberty, Garfield and the rest of the city’s black neighborhoods. Nowadays, Pittsburgh feels like a small town to Wright because he can hardly drive a mile in his patrol car without running into a familiar face. Except his father’s. Wright doesn’t know who he is.

Wright was a wild child, full of energy and what he now recognizes as anger. Football was a perfect outlet. He started at age 4 in the all-black City League, which has a different flavor from predominantly white leagues in other parts of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Players sport two differently colored socks, two-toned face masks, and back pads sagging below their jerseys. Outside the lines, there’s gambling, occasional arrests of coaches and, every few years, gunfire. Many parents choose to avoid the danger and play their boys elsewhere, which only increases the City League’s fierce pride.

Despite his small stature — Wright stands 5-foot-8 today — he terrorized other tykes as a runner, receiver and defensive destroyer. People still remember how he stiff-armed a defender into a backflip. “He was a monster,” said Melvin Lewis, a City League coach who grew up with Wright. “Fast, elusive, vicious, smart. Not too many like Dre. He’s something like a ’hood legend.”

That ’hood was no joke. At age 13, Wright saw a friend’s head shattered by a bullet. He was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with firearms numerous times. While a freshman at the Perry Traditional Academy, a public school across town on the North Side, Dre was so poor he wore the same outfit 30 days straight – black thermal crew neck, black Dickies, black Timberlands. His hair stayed in four thick, fuzzy braids. But Dre was also a cutup who made everybody laugh, according to Desmond Brentley, his best friend and quarterback of the football team.

The inseparable Des and Dre followed the ’hood rules for dealing with cops: “You don’t talk to them, you don’t deal with them,” Wright recalled. “When you see them, you leave. If you see them coming in that wagon, you run.”

The pair got pulled over while driving all the time. Wright didn’t consider it harassment — just the normal course of life, like hearing gunfire or getting robbed. Why dwell on the negative when there were touchdowns to score and girls to chase? Plus, he didn’t engage in criminal activity. So if the cops wanted to search him? Go right ahead.

“You’re usually not as upset if you’re not guilty,” Wright said.

He graduated in 2006, spent a year in prep school to raise his abysmal grades and signed to play football for Pitt. He had a promising first season, averaging 21 yards per kickoff return, and his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash tabbed him as an NFL-level talent. But his role was reduced as a sophomore under a new offensive coordinator who liked big receivers. He moved to cornerback in spring practice and tore his ACL trying to toss a 300-pound lineman.

While rehabbing his injury, Wright interned with the Police Department. During a ride-along, his trainer responded to a call about a girl whose bracelet had been snatched. Despite instructions to watch from the car, Wright couldn’t help himself when the suspect was spotted — he jumped out and gave chase.

“As soon as we brought her stuff back,” Wright said, “it was like, I want to do this.”

Wright wasn’t healed enough to play his junior year. Afterward, the coaches said he was no longer in Pitt’s plans. He graduated in May 2011 with a degree in criminal justice, two years of eligibility remaining and an infant son with his college girlfriend. He accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania but left after a month, doubting that IUP could get him to the NFL and in need of money to support his son.

He spent the next year working as a security guard for $8.80 per hour and driving a school bus for $33 per trip. One day, he was assigned to pick up the football team at Perry, his alma mater. Coach Bill Gallagher boarded the bus, looked at his former star player and said, “Dre, what happened?”

“That was pain, right through the heart,” Wright said. He went home and Googled “how to become a police officer.”

Three years later, Wright was patrolling his old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.

Showing we’re human

At first, he didn’t know how the ’hood would receive him. Every patrol and call brought a familiar face. Most of the response was positive. But sometimes, making an arrest, he would hear “Uncle Tom this and Uncle Tom that. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t run from it, I try to explain it to them. ‘What else you want me to do? You know I played football, blew my knee out. What am I supposed to do now?’ ”

He realized his mere presence could help defuse tensions: “Let me get in the middle of it so I can bridge the gap in case it turns bad. I want to be able to calm the officer and assure him, and calm the subject.”

Then there were the foot chases.

“When I first got here, for some reason there was a spike in stolen cars. They would jump out and start running,” he said. “It was like a dog and a ball. When they try to run from me, you’re just like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You’re not chasing them to hurt them, you’re just chasing them like a sport.

“You’re running? OK, come on, let’s run!”

Still, each time he put on his uniform, he wondered whether he would make it home. He drew his weapon many times while responding to calls about armed suspects, although he has never pulled the trigger. He began to dream about being forced to shoot someone. Slowly, the dreams turned to nightmares.

After a year and a half on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he wanted more of a sense of normalcy. Wright got an assignment as a community resource officer in a racially and economically mixed group of neighborhoods. He attends community events, mediates neighborhood problems and backs up officers who respond to 911 calls.

“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”

His main goal is to show that he cares and that he wants to help. That starts with listening, really listening, to what a person has to say. Patience is one of his most useful tools. Another is assistance. That could mean explaining why someone is being arrested and how to bail him out. Other times, just being black and sympathetic helps. If things are already hostile, he might give both cop and citizen an avenue to back down.

“It’s love. Just spread love. Not many police rep it,” he said.

Why him? Wright goes back to the cop who grabbed his stroller out of the street, and how it changed his mother’s life: “You never know who that person is and how you can change their life just off of anything.”

It doesn’t have to get that dramatic for Wright to believe that’s he’s making a difference.

One December morning, Wright parked his cruiser near the blighted corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. Walking past the barbershops and liquor stores, he received the same pounds and daps as at the football game. A toothless drug addict stopped Wright to ask about another cop who’d promised to get her to rehab. Wright pulled the officer’s number up on his phone and texted him. He listened to the addict ramble on for five minutes.

“People ask for me by name over here,” Wright said. “That’s all I need.”

Harassment or normal life?

Asked about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has torn apart America’s most popular sport, Wright stepped into his familiar place in the gap. But this tightrope isn’t so easily navigated with charm and goodwill.

“I commend Kaepernick. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If you feel like you should stand up for something, stand up for it,” Wright said — and then tried to balance the scales. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t know if it’s a legit angle from him. If he feels like he has a purpose, I respect him. It cost him his spot in the league, so I have to respect it.”

Kaepernick started the protests by citing police violence that left “bodies in the street.” That statement doesn’t sit well with Wright, although he won’t come out and say so. Killer cops don’t jibe with Wright’s three years of experience on the Pittsburgh force — there have only been two fatal police killings during that time, both of them of armed black men — or with his life lessons as a law-abiding youngster.

When Wright turns on his flashers, the camera in his police car is recording everything. If he detains or arrests someone, his report needs to include a solid reason for the stop. There may be a few bad apples, Wright says, but they should and will be held accountable.

His friends at the football game may complain about harassment. But Wright thinks back to his experience as a young man joyriding in his hooptie with his best friend Desmond, screaming out the windows at girls and blasting music through their crummy speakers. The way Wright remembers it, there was always some legal reason, however thin, for them to get pulled over. They missed a stop sign, or circled the block five times, or had beads hanging from their rearview mirror that technically could obstruct their vision. The cops were looking for guns, drugs and drunken drivers. None of that applied to them. Getting stopped wasn’t harassment. Just a normal part of life.

Today, Officer Wright asks how police are supposed to keep drugs and guns out of the black community if people object to legal stops. “If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”

What about the Freddie Grays, the Tamir Rices — all the times when police have not been held accountable?

“Go to your legislator, representatives, speak out, [tell them] this is outrageous. And if he ain’t do nothing, go over his head.”

Speaking out is what Kaepernick and the NFL players are doing. But the chasm they have opened is so wide even Wright has trouble reaching across it.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset.”

‘I’m laying you down’

Wright was at his best friend Desmond Brentley’s house one Saturday, watching college football on the television in the kitchen. After high school, Brentley played quarterback at Grambling State and Robert Morris, and he now handles corpses as a city medical examiner. If you see Des and Dre at the same time, “it’s a real bad day for you,” Brentley said.

The childhood friends started talking about the arrest of Michael Bennett. The Seattle Seahawks defensive end had accused Las Vegas police of racial profiling and excessive force. After a report of shots fired, Bennett was tackled and handcuffed. He said the officer put a gun to his head while he was facedown and threatened to “blow my f—ing head off.”

Wright sided with the police. “There’s shots fired, it was a black male, black hoodie. If a black male in a black hoodie comes by, you’re going to put him on the ground — ”

“It wasn’t a black male in a black hoodie, though,” Brentley said. “It was just a casino, shots fired.”

“We don’t know what came on the radio,” Wright responded. “But if that happens, I will put you down. He said he was going to blow his head off. The only reason I think that would be necessary is because you’re running towards the fight and you’ve got to psych yourself up. … It’s going to turn into bolder language.”

“Everything you’re saying, you think that’s right or wrong?” Brentley asked.

Wright stood up.

“If there’s shots fired and somebody runs past, and I’m the fastest dude, I’m laying you down,” he said.

Wright didn’t want to vouch for the specific actions of the officer who arrested Bennett: “I don’t know the angle. I don’t know how far he was away from the shots fired.” What he wanted his childhood friend to understand was the emotion of a cop in that situation, and why he would threaten to kill a suspect.

“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset,” Wright said. He crouched in a stance, poised to burst off the line of scrimmage. “I had to rev myself up to take you down. You’re not a robot. You’ve got to talk yourself up to it, or it’s not going to happen. At that point, if you’ve got to kill that dude, that’s what you’re saying. That’s going to be the process in your head.”

Brentley, seated at the kitchen counter, asked Wright whether he had seen the video of Bennett’s arrest, when he was facedown and handcuffed. The video looked like excessive force to him.

“It was probably warranted,” Wright replied, still standing.

Later, Brentley said he tries to empathize with Wright’s descriptions of life as a cop.

“I still don’t know,” he said. “I still get scared by the cops, all these years later.”

The nightmare

Every four or five months, the nightmare returns.

Wright’s gun is in his hand. He says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” The suspect ignores his commands. “And you’re screaming, you’re screaming, you’re screaming. And then, you just have to.”

Wright’s bullet hits the suspect.

“And you know at that point, your life is probably over, regardless if you’re right, wrong or indifferent. So it’s a nightmare.”

The nightmare nearly turned real one day last year. Wright was driving alone in his cruiser when a call came over the radio. Officers were pursuing robbery suspects on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood. They were chasing a white Honda Civic with a broken window. The occupants were four black males, armed.

Wright joined the chase. Through East Liberty, up Negley Run Road, around the Hill District. Wright had been driving these streets his whole life. Every turn the suspects made, he knew where it led. Up in Oak Hill, the Honda crashed and the four people in the car jumped out and ran. Once again, the chase was on.

As he sprinted down the street, adrenaline surging, Wright thought about a local officer recently killed while responding to a domestic dispute.

He tripped one suspect, lay him down and kept running. His second target bent over. Wright wondered whether he was about to get shot. “I just dove. Boom. I tackled him.”

The suspect was a teenager, no more than 17. He didn’t have a pistol — just a BB gun.

“Ouch!” the kid said. “You hurt my shoulder!”

Relief flooded through Wright’s body, then heartache and disappointment at another young black life derailed.

At that moment, there was no gap to be bridged, nowhere to spread the love. Just a young cop trying to keep himself and his community alive.

Kings’ Garrett Temple and George Hill adopt Sacramento high schools ‘The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems’

SACRAMENTO, California – What do you think about the Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest? How do you handle losing? How do you deal with adversity off the court?

Those were a few of the questions Sacramento Kings forward Garrett Temple fielded during his first day as a student-athlete mentor at Sacramento Charter High School.

“At first, they started asking about basketball,” Temple said before the Kings lost to the Toronto Raptors 102-87 on Sunday. “But then they started asking great questions, life questions. It was a good start. I want everyone to know this is not a one-time thing. This is something I want to continue to grow and I plan on building a relationship with that school and those athletes.”

Temple, who is African-American, said he began thinking about adopting a school during the offseason because of the race issues in America. He ultimately decided that he wanted to become a mentor to student-athletes as well as offer financial assistance to a local high school that primarily included underprivileged kids of color. Sacramento Charter High fit Temple’s criteria.

Sacramento Charter High is a predominantly black school that also includes Latino and mixed-race students. It is in Sacramento’s challenged Oak Park neighborhood, and the school’s alumni includes former NBA star and former Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. Temple credited Galen Duncan, vice president of the Kings Academy and Professional Development, for doing research that identified Sacramento Charter High as a solid choice. Temple also plans to donate money to the school for computers, which he expects the Kings to match.

“Sacramento High felt like a place that could really use some help. That is why I chose it,” Temple said.

Temple’s town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High on Dec. 6 was the first of several he plans to have with students playing basketball and other winter sports. He plans to attend a boys basketball tournament at the school to show his support and perhaps even talk to some teams individually.

During the first meeting with the Sacramento Charter High kids, Temple mostly answered questions about life off the court. He was impressed that he received strong attendance of about 100 enthusiastic student-athletes.

“With Colin kneeling and other things going on bringing awareness to police brutality of that nature, I thought about things I can do to actually help,” Temple said. “The education gap in this country is something that is not talked about anymore because there are so many other problems. I read a statistic that said we may be more segregated in schools now than we were in 1954 because of the private schools. All the white kids are going to private schools while the black kids are going to public schools that are very underserved.

“Education is important to me and my family. I wanted to try to help [make a] change.”

Temple said Kings veteran point guard George Hill also decided to choose a local school to mentor after he heard what Temple planned to do for Sacramento Charter High. Temple wasn’t surprised that Hill yearned to get involved, because of his previous charity work.

George Hill (No. 3) of the Sacramento Kings.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

“George is basically a humanitarian,” Temple said. “Every game there is a veteran [military] crew that he talks to and takes a picture with. He went to Haiti right after the earthquake. He is just a great guy.”

Hill’s reasons for participation were similar to Temple’s.

“I have always been big on the community stuff, especially as crazy as the world is today,” Hill said. “More guys of our stature and more guys that are successful need to really try to give back and take some of these young men and women right underneath our wings and just guide them a little bit.”

Hill chose Sacramento’s Encina Preparatory High and is scheduled to meet with their student-athletes Monday in the first of what he hopes to be a monthly meeting this season.

Hill said it was important for him to be in a school environment that had black and Latino students because “most of those schools are looked over.” Hill’s fiancée, Samantha Garcia, is Latina, and he is African-American. Racially diverse Encina meets Hill’s criteria as it is 37 percent Latino, 29 percent black, 21 percent white and 6 percent Asian, according School-Ratings. Moreover, 93 percent of Encina’s students are eligible for free lunch.

Hill plans to talk to the students about his challenges growing up in a tough neighborhood in Indianapolis, leadership and working hard to meet their dreams and goals.

“I’m more about being a better person than a better athlete,” Hill said. “I’m going to touch base on helping others. Not judging anyone over the cover of their book. Get to know people, respect others, respect your classmates, your teachers and your peers. Teach the fundamentals and get the love back in the world, because that is something that we are missing.”

Hill and Temple also could offer kids motivation with their far-from-easy roads to the NBA.

Hill starred in college at little-known Division I mid-major Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) , which has made the NCAA tournament just once in school history. Despite scholarship offers from Temple and Indiana, he chose IUPUI to stay close to home with his ailing great-grandfather, Gilbert Edison, who died before getting a chance to see him play. The 10th-year NBA veteran was drafted 26th overall in the first round of the 2008 NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Hill said. “Believe. Hard work pays off. I wasn’t one of the nation’s top players coming out of high school. Everything we had to do had to be earned. It wasn’t given to us. With some of this new generation, people give them so much that when they have to go on their own, they are misguided. They don’t know how to work for it.

“I’m trying to touch a different audience saying, ‘You have to work for what you get. Don’t expect nothing. Have fun doing it.’ But at the same time, you being a better person on and off your sports life is the biggest thing that we want them to contribute to.”

Temple grew up in a stable home in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, led by his father, Collis, the first African-American to play basketball at Louisiana State University. Garett Temple, however, faced adversity when he went undrafted out of LSU in 2009 while his former teammates Brandon Bass, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas were all selected in the first round. Eight years later, Temple is the only one of the four former Tigers still in the NBA.

Temple’s well-traveled basketball career has included four stops in the NBA’s G League, a season playing for Associazione Sportiva Junior Pallacanestro Casale Monferrato in Italy and time with the Kings, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards. The National Basketball Players Association vice president is in the second year of a three-year deal with the Kings.

“I credit a lot of [my success] to my faith in Christ and my ability to withstand things,” Garrett said. “There have been times where I’ve been cut. Things have happened when there has been really no explanation for them. I just trust in the Lord and everything happens for a reason.”

The Kings’ roster includes nine players with two or fewer years of experience in the NBA, including standout rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox. Sacramento also has veterans in Temple, Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph, who have made it a point to mentor their younger teammates.

Kings rookie guard Frank Mason and injured rookie forward Harry Giles shadowed Temple at his first town hall meeting at Sacramento Charter High. Mason and Giles served the student-athletes a dinner that included chicken, jambalaya and greens. They also sat with the student-athletes as Temple addressed them, engaged with them on social media and took pictures. Temple hopes that Mason and Giles can do something similar for a school in the future. Kings rookies Bogdan Bogdanovic and Justin Jackson are expected to be on hand when Hill makes his first appearance on Monday.

“I was kind of looking at the bigger picture,” Mason said. “Garrett did a great job speaking about the future and the past, being a role model to those kids and telling them what he’s been through. With what we’ve been through at a young age, we just want to help them to not make those mistakes, take advantage of opportunities and work hard every day.”

Said Temple: “Mentoring [teammates] isn’t just on the court. It’s showing them off the court how to impact people.”

Temple’s and Hill’s meetings with the Sacramento high school student-athletes could offer life-changing inspiration. Temple isn’t underestimating the impact it can have on him, too.

“I probably will get more from it than the kids,” Temple said. “It continues to keep you grounded. It humbles you. It reminds you that at one point you were in the same shoes as these kids and had a dream of playing professional basketball. To get here, you need to understand that it’s a blessing and you’re very fortunate.

“But other people don’t have this chance. You have to pour in to the kids that won’t be [in professional sports] that athletics isn’t the only way to make it out.”

This is what happens when a black cop calls out racism in her own department

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”“I’m black and I will never be blue enough. I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

Black and Blue: Meet San Francisco PD’s Lt. Yulanda Williams

On her day of reckoning, Sgt. Yulanda Williams did not wear the blue. Stomach churning, too nervous to eat much breakfast, she drove across the Bay Bridge into the city. Her mother had pleaded with her to reconsider, but she had given her word: She was going to tell the world about the racism in the San Francisco Police Department.

Williams entered the massive white stone library on Larkin Street, within sight of City Hall. A blue-ribbon panel organized by the district attorney was investigating a shocking string of racist text messages exchanged by 14 officers. Williams would be the only black police officer to testify in public. Others were too afraid.

Waiting to speak, Williams, 61, thought about the years of struggle between black and blue in San Francisco. About promotions denied, slurs hurled, disparate discipline. About complaints filed by the black Officers for Justice organization, and warnings to keep quiet from the police officers union, which wielded considerable influence inside the department. About the text messages from fellow officers that called her a n—– b—-.

Then Williams told her truth: The police force suffered from systemic and institutionalized racism. Not all cops are racist, she said, but the culture of the department allowed racism to fester, to corrupt, and sometimes to explode.

“I’m black, and I will never be blue enough,” she testified. “I will never be able to prove to some that I deserve to wear the same uniform as they do.”

The date was Jan. 14, 2016. Within weeks, the president of the police union all but branded her a traitor in a public letter, making Williams fear for her safety on the job. Internal affairs investigators accused her of several questionable violations, including wearing her uniform while shopping off-duty in a Walmart. Someone broke into her house and stole her laptop, but ignored her jewelry and six guns.

As the problems mounted, Williams took the lieutenant’s exam in late 2016 and scored ninth out of 145 candidates. That should have made her a lock for advancement — but officers cannot be promoted with unresolved disciplinary actions.

“Blue is a profession and a career. Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement,” Williams said over the summer as she waited for a decision on her promotion. “However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.

“Blue is a color,” she said. “Black is my self, my skin. And that cannot change.”

No more than a toehold

San Francisco’s black neighborhoods are in the southeast corner of the city, against the shipyards and docks that in the 1940s and ‘50s attracted refugees from the Jim Crow South. But unlike other urban endpoints of the Great Migration, African-Americans never secured more than a toehold inside San Francisco’s city limits. In the 1960s, even as the city’s reputation for liberalism and tolerance grew, African-Americans were segregated into the Bayview, Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods.

Conditions there were so oppressive that famed essayist and novelist James Baldwin said during a 1963 trip to the city that “there is no moral distance, which is to say no distance, between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham.” In 1966, Hunters Point residents rioted for three days after a white cop shot an unarmed teen running from a stolen car. The city’s black population peaked at 13 percent in 1970, then steadily declined to its current 6 percent.

Williams grew up with three siblings in a two-story home in Potrero Hill that her father, a city plumber and assistant church pastor, built himself. Her mother, now 95, still lives there. Williams attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked her way up to a position as regional credit manager for Holiday Inn. In the late ’80s, divorced with two young daughters, she bought her first home, near the corner of Third Street and Newcomb Avenue in the Bayview.

This was the height of the crack epidemic. The drug traffic on her corner was crazy, and the police seemed ineffective. Williams sent her daughters to stay with her mother and helped organize a “take back our streets” march along Third Street that drew hundreds of citizens, clergy and politicians.

Williams speaks with a young man who approached her on the streets of San Francisco.

After the march, she began working with the local police and met several members of Officers for Justice, which had successfully sued the city in 1973 to increase diversity on the force. They urged Williams to sign up.

“I didn’t want to lose my feminine qualities by doing something I considered was primarily a man’s job,” she recalled during an interview at the OFJ headquarters while wearing large hoop earrings, a tiny diamond nose stud, eight rings, nine bracelets, and long, glittery nails with pointed white tips.

The pay was about the same as her hotel position, but the benefits were better. “I told [OFJ] I was not willing to cut my hair, I was not willing to not wear makeup, I wasn’t willing to give up my manicures and my pedicures.” She hit the Bayview streets on foot patrol in June 1990, with her hair pinned up in a bun beneath her cap.

Williams loved being able to help her people. The drug trade persisted, of course, and some nights she had to leave her house wearing a robe and carrying her gun to talk to the boys on Third Street. But everyone knew she cared, and she earned the street nickname “Auntie.”

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

The OFJ headquarters was four blocks down Third from Williams’ home. When she first joined the force, she thought OFJ had already won the battle for equality. In 1965, only 55 of 1,726 officers were black, three were Asian-American, and almost every police chief since the start of the century had been a white, Catholic man. The OFJ’s lawsuit changed that. The 2,200-member department is now 50 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black, 6 percent Filipino and 17 percent other Asian.

Williams figured everything was kumbaya. Soon, though, she started to notice things.

On patrol, she saw cops targeting African-Americans. White officers seemed to get lighter discipline — especially if they had gone to high school at Archbishop Riordan, Sacred Heart or St. Ignatius, the source of generations of the city’s cops. She heard of a lieutenant who told a black officer wearing gold chains, “What are you doing wearing that n—– jewelry?” When tests were administered for promotions, black officers rarely advanced. After taking the lieutenant’s exam, she wondered whether she would be another casualty of the system.

Williams put in 11 years on the street, then moved on to work as an academy instructor, field training officer, precinct captain’s assistant and school resource officer. She sold her house in the Bayview and moved to a four-bedroom home in a suburban East Bay neighborhood. She made sergeant in 2012 after placing 46th out of 382 officers who took the exam. She was elected vice president and then president of Officers for Justice and also served on the board of the police union.

Police in uber-expensive San Francisco are among the highest-paid in the country, and Williams’ annual base pay reached $144,000. She indulged her passion for Mercedes automobiles, eventually collecting five used but pristine Benzes. She remarried, enjoyed her six grandchildren, continued to advocate for officers of color and prepared to retire on a pension that will provide 95 percent of her salary for the rest of her life.

Then Sgt. Ian Furminger got arrested for robbing drug dealers.

A horrifying exchange

“My [wife’s] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black!” Furminger texted another cop. “[He is] an Attorney but should I be worried?”

“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots … not against the law to put an animal down,” was the response.

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

“You may have to kill the half-breeds too. Don’t worry. Their (sic) an abomination of nature anyway,” his fellow officer responded.

Those were some of the milder bigoted messages exchanged by 14 San Francisco Police Department officers on their personal phones over nine months in 2011 and 2012. Equally horrifying was that so many references to N-words, savages and cross-burnings remained under wraps for years, only coming to light in 2015 because of an appeals court filing in Furminger’s conviction.

The case scandalized famously diverse and progressive San Francisco. How could the police department’s culture allow such virulent racism to persist?

To find out, District Attorney George Gascon, who had briefly been chief of the Police Department, formed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement. Denied city funding for an exhaustive investigation, Gascon secured the pro bono services of judges, law firms and law schools and started gathering evidence.

His every step was resisted by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”“I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

Blurred lines

When Williams testified about institutional racism, she fired a direct shot at a historic foe.

The officers’ union fought the 1973 lawsuit to end discriminatory hiring practices. As far as the union was concerned, any lack of minority representation was the result of a lack of ability among the minorities themselves. “Our attornies (sic) are confident they can refute all charges,” soon-to-be union president Bob Barry wrote in the June 1978 issue of the union newspaper.

Police unions across the country serve as a combination guard dog, priest and defense attorney for cops. Circling the wagons is the default. In San Francisco, the union fought case after case in which African-Americans were slain by police under questionable circumstances, from George Baskett in 1968 to Aaron Williams in 1997 to Mario Woods in 2016. Recently, the union beat back reforms such as more access to police disciplinary records, stricter use-of-force guidelines, and rules to prevent officers from watching body camera footage before writing arrest reports.

In 2016, union consultant and former president Gary Delagnes complained on Facebook about officers reporting another cop’s offensive racial remarks: “Officers are now being encouraged to be trained snitches. … This officer did nothing wrong other than making an ill-advised statement and now they want to hang him and then brag about it to the media. Disgusting!”

The San Francisco Police Department is run by the police chief, who is chosen by the mayor. But the union represents officers up to the rank of captain, giving it a huge amount of influence over promotions, work assignments and the culture of the department.

“The lines were blurred between the department itself and the union,” said Gascon, the district attorney and former chief. “They became so blurred, they were basically working in concert.”

The San Francisco police union does many good deeds, including giving money to officers in need, donating to organizations in minority communities, paying the expenses of tourists struck by tragedy in the city and sponsoring a trip to Africa for black youths.

But its primary function is to defend cops.

From the start of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s work, the association told its members not to talk without a union lawyer present — even though they were not under criminal investigation, according to the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian. Except for Williams, he said, no officers of color would testify on the record: “They felt like their career advancement and day-to-day interaction was threatened and jeopardized by public participation in this process.”

“I have never seen so much resistance to reform in a police department as I’ve seen in San Francisco,” said LaDoris H. Cordell, a retired California Superior Court judge who has worked on police oversight cases nationwide and served on the Blue Ribbon Panel.

Union president Martin Halloran did not respond to phone calls and emails for this story. Last year, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that the union isn’t opposed to reform: “Any time there is a little bit of pushback from the POA … the perception according to certain politicians is that we’re the elephant in the room, that we’re the obstructionists. We’re not. We just want to make sure this is done right.”

But his combative views are clear in acidic union newspaper editorials and frequent public letters — such as his response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest.

In August 2016, the then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback cited police killings and cops “getting paid leave and getting away with murder” as a reason he would not stand for the national anthem. Halloran’s response sent to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell accused Kaepernick of pushing “a false narrative and misinformation that lacks any factual basis.”

“Perhaps he could lend his commentary to the over 8,000 murders that African Americans inflicted on one another in 2015,” Halloran wrote.

Williams doesn’t follow sports, but she noticed Kaepernick’s protest and the movement that now engulfs the NFL. She didn’t take Kaepernick’s protest personally: “I know he’s not talking about me.” She saw his stance as speaking up for the voiceless in the black community, and she was delighted when NFL players responded to President Donald Trump’s profane insult by increasing their protests.

The parallels to her own faceoff with the union were inescapable.

“I felt a kinship with Kaepernick because of the fact that, here’s a man who had the conviction to stand for something he believed in. Whether it was right or wrong, it was his belief, and it was his feelings and he expressed them, and he explained why. I did the same thing, and then look what happens to us,” Williams said.

“I felt like he was a whistleblower for what he was talking about, and I was a whistleblower. And the whistleblowers unfortunately seem to never win. They seem to be ostracized, and people try and fight against them and shut them down.”

Worried about her safety

The worst part of her ordeal, Williams said, came from the letter Halloran published in the union newspaper about her testimony, characterizing her statements as “uninformed, inflammatory and disparaging” and insisting there was no evidence of widespread racism in the department.

“Yolanda,” Halloran wrote, not only addressing the 61-year-old officer by her first name but misspelling it, “the references to you in the text messages were disgusting. However, I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair.”

She resigned from the union, and her decision was plastered on precinct fliers. She had to explain to her subordinates that she hadn’t called them racists. She feared that if she needed backup, other officers would not respond.

“When you work with someone in this type of environment, your life’s on the line every day,” she said. “You expect people to come for backup. … You trust them with your life. You depend on them for your life.”

As the Blue Ribbon Panel investigation proceeded, cellphone footage of the shooting of Mario Woods fueled national outrage. Three months later, another batch of racist texts was discovered, from a separate set of officers.

In February 2016, the Department of Justice announced a review of the department. On May 19, police killed an unarmed black woman in a stolen car in the Bayview. Hours after that shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr lost his job — despite strong support from the union.

In July 2016, the Blue Ribbon Panel released its final report. It concluded that the Police Department lacked transparency and oversight, needed to rebuild community trust and should pay greater attention to the potential for racial bias. The report noted that black and Hispanic people were more likely to be searched without consent but were less likely to be found with contraband than other ethnic and racial groups.

“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”“Blue pays my bills. Blue is my retirement. However, when I sleep, I don’t sleep in blue, I sleep in black, with black, and I know I am black and I’m reminded of that when I’m not in blue.”

In October 2016, the Justice Department released its report, recommending 272 changes designed to correct “deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices.” The report also identified “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups” — exactly what Williams had testified about seven months earlier.

But vindication in the Justice Department’s 414-page document was cold comfort. A decision on Williams’ promotion was still pending.

After Suhr’s departure, the union urged Mayor Ed Lee to replace him with interim chief Toney Chaplin, a black career San Francisco officer. Instead, Lee chose an outsider: William Scott, the highest-ranking African-American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott pledged to fulfill the recommendations of the Justice Department report. In an email to union members, Halloran said the mayor had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.”

On Sept. 25, Williams learned that Scott would promote her to lieutenant.

Williams’ work in the community ranges from meeting residents to mentoring youths to trying to open a dialogue between the police force and residents.

A new lieutenant at last

On a brilliant Saturday in October, the soon-to-be Lt. Williams left her house for a community event in the Bayview, her old neighborhood. She chose her black 2006 Mercedes S430 sedan with YOOLOGY plates and the glass tinted dark. She calls the car Black Beauty.

Sipping a smoothie behind the wheel, nails cut short because of a new departmental directive requiring them to be no more than an eighth of an inch long — she refers to it as the “Yulanda Rule” — Williams reflected on her journey.

“It feels a little victorious. I don’t want to claim that there’s nothing else to be done,” she said. “I feel pride right now in knowing that I gave it my all and when I needed to be tested, instead of just whimpering down and going off and huddle away from everyone, I instead just decided to stand my ground.”

She parked outside the Bayview Opera House, where several dozen community organizations and a lively crowd had gathered for Neighborfest. Williams’ old house was across the street, within sight of the corner where drug drama pushed her into policing almost 30 years ago. She kept her gun in her purse.

People inquired about her mother and congratulated her on the promotion. She spoke briefly to the crowd, urging everyone to consider a career with the police department. The band played Sly and the Family Stone.

“Auntie!” cried Vincent Tally, known as Tally-Ho. He used to roam the corner drunk, loud and disorderly. Williams would send him home, but she never arrested him. Now he’s been sober for two years.

“She loves everybody. She treats everybody the same. She doesn’t discriminate,” Tally-Ho said. He kissed Williams’ hand. “One thing she will do, though. She see you out of pocket? You in trouble!”

Two weeks later, Williams and two other black sergeants were sworn in and received the gold collar bars of a lieutenant. Three black lieutenants were elevated to captain.

There are now 19 black officers in leadership positions — the most in the 168-year history of the San Francisco Police Department.

Pistons, Cavs, Jay-Z and the Red Wings: 72 hours in the New Detroit Three new arenas have changed the face of the D’s downtown, and a hometown girl wonders if it’s for the better

Digital images of perhaps the world’s most famous rapper flash across giant screens. The screens rise toward the ceiling of Little Caesars Arena, the most recent of three new sports venues to emerge in downtown Detroit. It’s where the Pistons play.

Near one side of Jay-Z’s 360-degree stage, LeBron James, perhaps the world’s most famous current NBA player, can barely control his fandom as Jay-Z delivers his 1999 hit with UGK, “Big Pimpin’.” James and the rest of his team are in town ahead of a Pistons game. For nearly two hours, the arena is roaring. And as the last few fans spill onto Woodward Avenue — the drag in downtown Detroit that also houses Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, where the Detroit Lions play — the party ain’t over. Far from it.

The sold-out Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

313 Presents

That’s because the area is a far cry from what it was 15 years ago, when the downtown landscape was practically bare. Empty and windowless brick buildings were the standard. Every now and again you could fall into a hidden gem — a teahouse in neighboring Corktown, near the old Tiger Stadium, served a good quiche, and crumpets with fresh preserves. But those kinds of places were few and far between.

But now? There are sports bars, dive bars, throwback juke joints and new late-night spaces thriving next to revived longtime staples. Taxis line the streets, and people are texting friends to find out where the after-after-parties are. The basketball, baseball and hockey arenas, which also host concerts and even Catholic masses, are central to this bustling scene, daytime as well as nighttime. It wasn’t until this new NBA season that all of the Detroit teams, finally, were playing within the city limits. Welcome, kindly, to the New Detroit.

Now where are all the black folks?

Women hold a coat to shelter themselves from the rain as they enter Little Caesars Arena for the Jay-Z concert.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated


In the fall of 1998, I was wrapping up an internship at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and heading to my first full-time job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. A roommate’s mom, who was white, asked about my plans. When I told her about Detroit, her reply was, “Ugh. Detroit. The armpit of the Midwest.”

The armpit. Insulting, of course. And, I think, racist. I say that because we’re talking about a majority-black city, and one that has been through so much — too much. In the fall of 1998, it seemed the city was only and absolutely declining, although around the dinner table we’d delight in announcing the city’s upswing, based on the smallest of developments. For me, though, the best development was that I was home.

“It’s like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.” — Rick Mahorn

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, in Oakland County. In one of the white-flight townships to which so many families, white and black, moved after the ’67 riot. Yet I have many memories of my maternal grandparents’ home on Indiana Street between Lyndon and Eaton on Detroit’s West Side. They’d moved after the riots, so Mother actually grew up on Lawton Street. Her childhood home and the block it was on burned down decades ago, never to develop again. It looks now like too many Detroit neighborhoods do.

But downtown Detroit? Working at the Free Press, I drove in at least five days a week. And after the day was done, there wasn’t much to do. Near the newsroom was The Anchor Bar, a socially/racially integrated dive beloved by both Red Wings fans and newspaper reporters. I had more grilled cheese and steak fry lunches there than I care to recount. The Free Press’ offices were about a mile away from where the three new stadiums have sprouted. While cafes and chain restaurants abound now, a week before I started, the big news story was that a Starbucks was opening on East Jefferson. It’s right near Belle Isle, a 982-acre island park that functioned as a student hangout on summer weekends.

An abandoned building in June 2005.

JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

And the city of Detroit was nearly throwing a ticker-tape parade for the cappuccino outlet. Legendary Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn remembers with a laugh that Starbucks excitement. “When I first got to Detroit, in ’85, I was living downtown because I wanted to be close to water, and it was a beautiful view. Wasn’t a lot to do downtown. … I made that commute all the way up to the Silverdome and then the Palace.”

A Detroit native suggested we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places.

The Silverdome, which was imploded on Dec. 5, was in Pontiac, about 31 miles from Detroit’s city limits. The Palace of Auburn Hills, which is soon to be flipped into a “high-tech research park,” is a good 35 miles away from the 313 — Detroit’s area code.

“We love [being back],” said Mahorn, who’s now a radio analyst for the Pistons. “It gives you a more up close and personal feeling. [Team owner] Tom Gores saw a vision to partner up with [Red Wings owners] the Ilitches and the Dan Gilberts [who has invested nearly $2 billion in downtown Detroit] and [current Lions owners] the Ford family. Those things used to be a competition, and now it’s a togetherness to develop the resurgence of Detroit.”

It’s also of course about business and jobs, this downtown sports district with both Comerica Park and Ford Field less than a mile away from the multipurpose arena. “When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden. You see people enjoying being outside and you’re hearing great stuff about Detroit.”

Scenic view of downtown Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

But before downtown’s Woodward Avenue was filled with shiny new spots such as Nike Community Store, Lululemon and Under Armour Brand House, as well as line-out-the-door breakfast spots such as the Dime Store or Hudson Cafe — Detroit had not only decades of segregation and decline from which to rebound. It had what felt like a singular tragedy.

A new, fresh, black mayor was elected in 2001. Kwame Kilpatrick was 31 years old, had played on Florida A&M’s football team, was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha and became the youngest mayor in the city’s history. Ridiculously long story short, he was a massive disappointment — it started with him using his city-issued credit card to rack up thousands of dollars in personal, luxurious charges, and it ended with an FBI felony corruption case that got him thrown in a federal prison for 28 years. The Kilpatrick case featured sex and money and race and captured big headlines just about everywhere. My old newspaper earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of his misdeeds.

But the story, the trajectory of Kilpatrick’s life, still makes me sad. And what makes me sadder is that Detroit was the biggest loser. Eventually, in 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy: the biggest “municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.” Even with some new crowds bringing money to Detroit’s casinos — and those came with much conflict and pushback — Detroit was officially broken.

Ben Wallace came to the Pistons in 2000. He remembers the first piece of advice he and his teammates were given. “People were encouraging us not to go downtown, not to hang out downtown. ‘Whatever you do, avoid going downtown,’ ” said Wallace, who led the Pistons to their third NBA championship in 2004.

The Pistons retired Wallace’s jersey last year; he’d returned to the team after stints in Chicago and Cleveland and finished his career in Detroit in 2012.

He lives in West Virginia now but finds himself periodically in Detroit, like last summer when he was hanging out downtown and marveling at the new arena, which wasn’t quite finished then.

“To see the city coming to life, and people actually walking downtown and enjoying themselves, having a great time. To see people, to see things going up, it was amazing,” Wallace said. “It was a proud moment for me to see the city breathing and finding the light again. It was great for me to actually … see the city thriving.”


At the Free Press, we used to have a weekly features meeting. All were welcome to attend and discuss story ideas. One attendee, a Detroit native, suggested that we do a “hole tour” of Detroit: go to the spaces that used to be places and talk about the history that used to be there. All over there was emptiness where grandeur used to exist. Detroit wasn’t 360 degrees of pretty. But it was home.

I sold my small suburban condo and moved to downtown Detroit to live with my college roommate Joy, a white woman who grew up in Brighton, Michigan. Brighton neighbors Howell, a town known as the KKK capital of Michigan. Robert Miles, grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, lived in a nearby township and hosted rallies there.

Joy and I both worked downtown, she for the rival Detroit News, and quite frankly, as girls from the ’burbs, we wanted that authentic Detroit experience. We saw things that were starting to happen and figured it was an ideal time to be part of building a community.

“When you look at what happened in the late ’60s, and how everybody started moving out, now [Detroit’s] like a phoenix all of a sudden.

Comerica Park had just opened, and with it came new life. Hockeytown Cafe was erected next to the historic Fox Theater — a place to grab grub and a brew and head to the rooftop lounge. I remember hanging out with some Detroit rappers and managers there for an open bar event, and you couldn’t have told us we weren’t Hollywood lite.

Downtown Detroit on an uptick? It seemed like it. Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 2006, and everyone was amped to flex and show the sports world how we’d grown. As is the case in most Super Bowl host cities, empty spaces were quickly rented out, transformed into magical one-night-only party venues with the aid of corporate checkbooks. But daily conveniences were scarce.

Joy and I spent our weekends on Interstate 75, driving 22 miles north to a grocery store in Troy. The headlines back then were that the entire city of Detroit was a “food desert” with no major supermarket chains in the entire city. Joy and I lasted downtown a year. But now there’s a Whole Foods on Woodward, technically in midtown. It opened in 2013, a 21,000-square-foot location, and it’s apparently doing well.

Something Jay-Z rapped to the crowd on Saturday night resonated. See, Jay-Z is from the public housing projects of Brooklyn, New York, and knows about struggle, and about seeing your worn and torn neighborhood transformed into something greater than anyone could have imagined. All this happens as the black and brown people who kept that place alive aren’t able to benefit from the new richness: gentrification.

Paul’s Liquors next to Little Caesars Arena before the Pistons Game. The store has been there before the changes began downtown and is a stop for many of the regulars in downtown.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

There’s an area of Brooklyn called Dumbo, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. In his recent and Grammy-nominated “The Story of OJ,” he raps, I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million/ That same building today is worth $25 million/ Guess how I’m feeling? Dumbo.


Fans cheer after a goal is scored during the Red Wings game on Nov. 19 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night, the crowd at Little Caesars Arena was different — as I expected. Twenty-four hours before, a hip-hop icon stood center stage and told a sold-out, mostly black audience that kneeling during the national anthem is an act of patriotism and not something for which athletes should be persecuted.

But on this night, there was a white crowd, a characterization that could very well be a stereotype of hockey fans. They were there to take in the Red Wings vs. the Colorado Avalanche. And it did seem like a lot of folks wondered why a lone black woman was roaming around, taking in Gordie Howe’s statue (one of three statues of Red Wings legends that were brought over from Joe Louis Arena, where the team played the season before).

A man stretches on the escalator during intermission at the Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

As happy as I am for all of the new development in downtown Detroit, it comes at a cost — a feeling that hit me as I was sitting perched high in the press box looking down as the Zamboni smoothed the ice rink where Jay-Z’s elaborate stage had been the night before. Culturally, as well as geographically, things just feel so segregated.

On one side of the coin is a pristine new district, one that should be celebrated, as it’s taken exactly 50 years for Detroit to rise from the dust of the 1967 riots. On the other, much of this has come at the expense of long-standing businesses such as Henry the Hatter, which couldn’t afford the 200 percent rent increase and was forced to shut down.

Hallie Desmet, 21, and Megan Elwart, 24, hold each other during a Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. The two traveled from Marquette, Michigan, to see the team play for Hallie’s 21st birthday.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“I’ve lived all of my life in Detroit,” said David Rudolph. He’s a small-business owner who played outside linebacker on Michigan State University’s 1988 Rose Bowl-winning team. “What I’m used to is a city that basically lacked a lot of things, so it is kind of special to now live in a city that looks like and starts to feel like other places across the country. Now we have a cross-section of different types of restaurants. We now have all of our sporting [goods] in the area; you don’t have to travel.”

The flip side is there, though. “It’s always been a black town,” he said. “I was born in a time when the legislative body was African-American. Now you’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. … Their presence is way more noticeable. Boutique businesses, small businesses, entrepreneurs coming from all over the place. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes of ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ [But] I never left Detroit. I was really keeping a seat warm … keeping warm whatever was viable about this city through my presence and my business, which has been here for 23 years, through my tax dollars.”


The Detroit Pistons play the Cleveland Cavaliers at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

The next night at the arena, the Pistons game hosted its biggest crowd of the season. The Cavaliers were in the building, and seeing King James live, even if you’re a diehard Pistons fan, is a moment. Fans mill about the newness of the arena loading up on Detroit-famous coney dogs, burrito bowls and Little Caesars pizza.

Pistons fan at Little Caesars Arena.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

This night, it’s a diverse group of people, an aesthetic that looks like what some pockets of greater Detroit look like. At a Detroit NBA game, there’s no one culture defining the fan base of Detroit’s newest and shiniest sports arena. It just feels like everyone.

I took my dad with me to see the Pistons. He came to Detroit after he graduated from Alabama State University, and he’s told people he’s from Detroit since forever — he arrived in ’71. He and my mom still live in Oakland County, about 15 miles from downtown, and don’t have a real reason to head downtown with any regularity. Dad marveled at the jam-packed traffic that hit about a mile before we got to the parking structure. There was never traffic on a Monday night in this part of downtown, not that either of us could recall.

Piston fans at Little Caesars Arena on Nov. 20 in Detroit.

Ali Lapetina for The Undefeated

“It’s good, in terms of what’s happening,” said Rudolph. “Revitalization. There’s so many good things that I see. I only live seven minutes from downtown. I’ve found over the last couple of years is that I actually travel less out of the city to do a lot of things. Which is what we’ve always wanted. Not always to have to go to metro Detroit to eat. Everything was always outside [downtown]. I slept in Detroit, but I spent all of my time outside of Detroit. So now things have changed. It’s kind of fly. … We’re rediscovering our own city.”


There’s nothing like summertime in Detroit. Nothing.

The downtown festivals gave us life. At Hart Plaza, every weekend there was something different to do. The African World Festival was the spot to go to and stock up on shea butter, black soap and incense for the year. Each summer there were gospel festivals: Detroit staples such as The Clark Sisters, Fred Hammond and the Winans family would perform. And the Electronic Music Festival featured some of the best house music and Detroit-based ghetto-tech music you’ll ever treat your ears to. There was one festival that was noticeably different: the downtown Hoedown, which was the country music festival that would take over Detroit’s downtown streets. It was the one weekend where you would see white people out on, say, Larned Street.

“You’re starting to see people who are non-African-American come to the city. There seems to be a spirit that is attracting these folks to the city, which is great. I remember those bad jokes: ‘Can the last person please turn off the lights?’ But I never left Detroit.” — David Rudolph

To be at Hoedown, metro Detroit white folks had to engage with the city. They probably felt it was “an armpit.” Homeless folks, with few exceptions, were black. In our minds, they gazed without context at the burned-out buildings and gutted areas — a painful reminder of what racism did to this city 50 years ago during the 1967 Detroit riots.

But today, downtown Detroit is filled with a sea of white folks. I barely counted anyone who looked like me as I dined two days in a row at The Townhouse for brunch. The second day, I took Jemele Hill with me and we sat in an atrium where a DJ played and where of all the patrons, there were four black folks — including us. This is the new Detroit.

On the Pistons team is former NBA player (and native Detroiter) Earl Cureton as Community Ambassador, a role he’s held since 2013. He’s helping the team embed in all kinds of Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Cureton, who played forward-center at Finney High School on Detroit’s east side back in the early ’70s, is charged with connecting the franchise to real Detroit. Cureton grew up in the infamous Mack and Bewick area.

“Tom Gores’ plan was [get] the team to be impactful for the city, not only to entertain basketballwise,” Cureton said at halftime of the Cavaliers game. “We made an attempt at doing that, out at the Palace of Auburn Hills, but now that we’re back — which makes me so happy — we have the opportunity to connect, [and] not just to the downtown area but to areas away from downtown that desperately need it.

“And by the players being right here, it gives them the opportunity to mingle and mix with the kids. The kids get a closer relationship, seeing them, just like I did when I was a kid.”

It’s all different, though. Soon, once the Pistons’ practice facilities are completed, many of those players will take a look at the plush residential lofts popping up on downtown Detroit’s landscape, and at some of the restored historic neighborhoods located not too far from where they punch in. There’s a side that says the white people are here, and so goodbye, poor people. And there’s a side that says wealth is needed to help ease inequality. The way forward likely is someplace in between.

Folks wanted the best for this city. So many black folks stuck around, through the riot, and then the recessions, in hopes of seeing this city rise again. It’s rising again now, and their place in it is uncertain. But it feels like some moves are being made, so that new Detroit is still theirs. Maybe, as the sign flashes when you’re on the escalator at Detroit Metro Airport, my hometown can be America’s Greatest Comeback City. Maybe it can be true for everyone. It’s time.

Five highlights from the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep and ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’: You won’t want to miss these moments when the Honors are broadcast

Sometimes you need a bit of black tie glam to remember there’s beauty in the world, and that it’s worth celebrating.

Thank goodness for the Kennedy Center Honors.

On Sunday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., held its 40th Honors ceremony to fete contributions to American culture. This year’s Honors were a celebration of Gloria Estefan, Norman Lear (at 95, the oldest person to be honored), LL Cool J (at 49, the youngest), Carmen de Lavallade and Lionel Richie. LL Cool J was also the first rapper to be recognized.

Certainly there’s plenty of darkness these days. Have you read a newspaper? Sunday, as journalists and spectators huddled around velvet ropes for a word with the night’s VIPs, CBS chairman Les Moonves and his wife, Julie Chen, quickly swooshed by and managed to avoid being harangued about the firing of CBS This Morning host Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct. Rapper Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., and LL Cool J were confronted about multiple allegations of sexual assault leveled against Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons. LL Cool J declined to discuss the allegations, while D.M.C. condemned Simmons’ actions. Both rappers were key players in the success of Def Jam, the record label Simmons founded.

But the Honors reminded us that the performing arts aren’t just a distraction from the serious, gloomy issues of the day but rather the thing that makes us able to persist through them.

Here are five magical highlights from the evening that you can see Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. EST on CBS.

Meryl Streep’s salute to Carmen de Lavallade

Carmen de Lavallade, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Meryl Streep is always fun to watch during awards shows. There’s a reason that her reactions turn into viral GIFs. She was on the list of expected guests for Sunday evening, as a former honoree, but it was a pleasant surprise to see her take the stage.

Streep was a student of de Lavallade’s at Yale School of Drama, and she lovingly described her dance teacher’s soft-spoken methods and teaching philosophies. Streep affected de Lavallade’s famous hand motions, which she’s executed for decades with an enviable and flawless seeming grace and natural ease, as she spoke about her admiration for de Lavallade as a role model and dance pioneer.

Replicating de Lavallade’s soft-spoken manner, she cooed, “No one is late on the second day of class.”

The musical tribute to LL Cool J

In person, the Honors can be a bit of a staid Washington event. Its attendees are not known for taking chances with fashion, and it’s the one night of the year there’s probably enough brocade in the building to make curtains for the center’s many windows. But this was the first time in the history of the event that a rapper was being honored.

The tribute to LL Cool J was loud, boisterous and funky, and some of the younger audience members, namely Becky G, a young singer who performed earlier in the evening for Estefan, could be seen bobbing their heads and rapping along to “Mama Said Knock You Out.” This wasn’t polite hip-hop, toned down for the opera house. This was the real deal, and the audience was treated to footage of an oiled-up, shirtless LL Cool J as Queen Latifah extolled his position as “rap’s first sex symbol.”

The elephant not in the room

Norman Lear, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

Months ago, the president and first lady announced they would not be attending the ceremony. Richie, Lear and de Lavallade said they would boycott the annual White House reception that’s part of the weekend’s celebrations.

But the president’s absence was noticeable, especially during the tribute to Lear. You can argue that all art is political, but few make it as obvious as the storied television producer. In expressing gratitude for Lear’s cultural contributions, the video short about him focused on his decision in 2001 to buy one of the last remaining original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he sent on tour around the country so Americans could see it up close.

Dave Chappelle was on hand for Lear’s tribute, and after expressing surprise that a copy of the country’s founding document could simply be purchased with enough money, he dropped the hammer: “I’m sure we’ll fetch a lot of rubles for that.”

Then, the U.S. Air Force band performed “America the Beautiful” while Lear’s copy of the Declaration sat center stage.

A surprise appearance by Stevie Wonder

The honorees have no idea who will be performing their work until they see them on stage, but those who keep an eye on the red carpet can guess. Leona Lewis, D.M.C., MC Lyte, Questlove, Kenya Barris, Anthony Anderson and Rachel Bloom were among the glitterati spotted in the center’s Hall of States early in the evening.

But the real magic takes place when the Kennedy Center sneaks in some unexpected cultural royalty, and Sunday it was Stevie Wonder. There was an audible gasp in the audience when he turned up on stage to honor Richie by singing “Hello,” one of Richie’s many solo hits.

Paquito D’Rivera’s national anthem

Gloria Estefan, one of the 2017 honorees, walks the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2017.

Gabriella Demczuk for The Undefeated

With Estefan in the mix, this year’s class of honorees included a Cuban immigrant who made Latin pop part of the fabric of the country. The Kennedy Center quietly thumbed its nose at nativism with the inclusion of Paquito D’Rivera, who got the evening started with a jazz saxophone rendition of the national anthem. He even worked in a couple of bars of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” in the middle of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Rishard Matthews brings Colin Kaepernick back to football Miami artist Marcus Rivero on how Matthews’ custom ‘My Cause My Cleats’ were created

On Sunday at Nissan Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee, Colin Kaepernick will once again grace the field of an NFL stadium and take a knee in protest of social injustice in the United States. Now, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback won’t be there physically for the divisional matchup between the AFC South’s Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans. He’s not listed on either team’s roster, having gone unsigned by every squad in the NFL since March 3. But Kaepernick will be present. An image of him kneeling, with his fluffed Afro taking the shape of a Black Power fist, is painted on the custom-designed cleats that Titans wide receiver Rishard Matthews will don against Houston.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

It’s Week 13 in the NFL, marking the return of the league’s “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which began in 2016. The leaguewide initiative allows players to bypass uniform guidelines and wear customized cleats in support of a charitable cause of their choice. For his cleats, Matthews, a close friend and former college teammate of Kaepernick’s at the University of Nevada, honors his friend’s youth awareness campaign, the Know Your Rights camp.

“I dont have a foundation, so I have chosen to support my brother @kaepernick7 foundation @yourrightscamp for #MyCauseMyCleats,” Matthews wrote on Instagram, where he debuted the cleats on Wednesday. “He has paid the ultimate sacrifice in order to bring true everyday issues to light. Please follow the page & go to the website to learn more. We Should ALL Know Our Rights & Be Able to Express Them Freely.”

Instagram Photo

The cleats were designed by Miami artist Marcus Rivero, aka SolesBySir, who’s been customizing shoes for football players for the past five years, with an NFL clientele that includes Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Tom Brady, J.J. Watt, DeSean Jackson, Terrell Suggs, Jalen Ramsey and more. Before Matthews takes the field against the Texans, The Undefeated caught up with Rivero, who detailed the design process of the shoes, from the wide receiver’s mind to the artist’s final brushstroke.


How did the idea for Matthews’ Kaepernick cleats come about?

Rishard and I have been working together all season. Our first pair was very calm because it was Rishard’s first time doing customs. As the weeks progressed, a lot of current events were coming up and he wanted to take stances. With My Cause My Cleats coming about, he basically told me … ‘I want to stand with Kaep.’ There’s been a bond there since the beginning. I was like, ‘OK …’ We went back and forth, and believe it or not, this was a hard design to do.

What made it hard to execute?

We didn’t know whether we wanted to color the cleats. Whether we wanted to do all-black, all-white, gold. Rishard thought about it, slept on it. And last minute, he said, ‘You know what? Let’s just keep it simple, black and white.’ So my job as an artist is just basically to take what people give you — so, with Rishard, black and white — and make it a loud message, which is difficult. If you’re working with neon green, neon yellow, you can play to your advantage. But when you’re working with black and white, which is the standard color for all cleats issued, it’s hard.

I told Rishard he needs 100 yards and at least a touchdown. Because that’s what the shoes deserve.

What was Rishard truly looking for?

The first thing I said was, ‘Rishard, I want to go one and one. Let’s make each cleat not look like the other.’ He loved the idea. He sent me over the logos of the Know Your Rights Camp, so I put it on both outsides of the shoe. On the inside of his right shoe, it says ‘Know Your’ and on the opposite shoe, it says, ‘Rights Camp.’ So if you put your heels together, and open them up like a V, somebody in front of you can read the opposite of what you’re reading.

I still wanted to add something. He goes, ‘Let’s put Kaep’s name, and some sort of logo.’ We kept bouncing ideas back and forth. One was a fist, like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. I just did a cleat for DeSean Jackson with a brotherhood-type theme, and we used a fist. So I really didn’t want to do it again. I wanted to stand on our own on this. Literally, Rishard and I are FaceTiming. And sure enough we’re Googling images, and then the idea hit us, like, ‘Oh, let’s do Kaepernick on a knee and use his Afro as a fist.’

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Was it hard to draw the image of Kaepernick kneeling with his Afro as a fist?

It wasn’t so much. I have a Microsoft Surface Pro that I use to make designs. Then I turn them into a stencil, which helps me out. Unfortunately, I can’t hand-draw every letter. We have to do a lot stencilling so that I can lay down the stencil, spray and then peel it off, just timingwise. With the Surface Pro that I’ve been using, it’s generally been like a walk in the park for me. The Kaepernick logo has a lot of detail, but at the same time it doesn’t. It’s very simple. It’s a cool logo.

The idea hit us, like, ‘Oh, let’s do Kaepernick on a knee and use his Afro as a fist.’

How long did it take you to complete the cleats — and what was Rishard’s reaction when he saw the finished product?

I spent about six or seven hours on them because those cleats were both navy blue and that Tennessee light blue to begin with. Sure enough, I did it, and he falls in love with them. Then he says, ‘I’m gonna send him to Kaep.’ He sends them to Kaep, and Kaep loved them. He sent him the fire emoji, which is the same response I got from Rishard when I sent him the photos.

Is this the first time you’ve customized a pair of cleats in honor of Kaepernick, or his stance?

Yes and no. Rishard has been focusing on the equality theme on his cleats this season, and that was due in part to his friendship with Kaepernick, dating back to Nevada. Rishard is an interesting mix in the bunch because his brother died in the line of duty, and he comes from a military family. So he’s kind of a hybrid — because a lot of people believe Kaepernick disrespected the military. Rishard stands on both sides, but he believes there’s a huge injustice in the world, and he just wants everyone to be equal. … But as far as putting the name ‘Kaepernick’ or putting him kneeling on something, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. I’ve done other political shoes that athletes have wanted. The thing is, as an artist, my job is not to show my political stance, my job is to make sure my clients are happy. If they want to put Kaepernick on their shoes, that’s what I’m here to do. Everybody has a right to do what they want.

How important do you think the My Cause My Cleats initiative is in the NFL?

I’m biased as heck, but I’ll be the first one to tell you I think it’s amazing. I started doing this five years ago … and back then it was frowned upon. Back then, tons of my guys were getting fined. There were so many silly rules, and now it’s changed. … Last year, My Cause My Cleats went great, but not a lot of guys knew about it, so not a lot of guys did it. When the league opened it up again, it showed they were happy with it. It brought a lot of positivity. It raised a crap ton of money because 99 percent of these shoes — for example, Rishard’s will be one pair of them — they’ll go up on the auction block. All of the money that the shoes generate goes to the fund of whatever they stood for. It’s a win-win. Cool shoes. Athletes get them. Fans get their hands on them afterward. And all this money goes to a whole bunch of great causes. It’s making the league fun again.

Kaep loved them. He sent Rishard the fire emoji, which is the same response I got from Rishard when I sent him the photos.

How many pairs of My Cause My Cleats did you design for Week 13?

Last year I did about 105 pairs. This year, we’re at about 250 to 280 pairs, and that’s just me. I found out from the NFL on Wednesday that supposedly between 800 to 850 guys signed up for this My Cause My Cleats this year, so I literally almost did 40 percent of the cleats. It’s frickin’ bananas to me. And by the time the season’s over, I’ll have done at least 800 to 1,000 pairs, leaguewide.

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Just how important are Rishard’s cleats right now?

It’s been a crazy year when it’s come to the protests, and I’ve heard both sides of the story. I work with a lot of players who have knelt or not gone out for the national anthem, and I work with a lot of players who come out and stand for it. It’s a touchy subject … but Rishard was able to touch on it in a way so this gets the attention it deserves — but at the same time not negatively bring attention to it. We need to find a happy medium. Both sides of the line need to come together, figure it out and get it moving in the right direction.

I think these shoes brought more attention to Rishard Matthews. I told him, the only problem he has now is with all the attention these shoes got, if he doesn’t have a 100-yard game and a touchdown, then they’re not doing what they should be doing. So all the pressure is back on Rishard right now. I told him he needs 100 yards and at least a touchdown. Because that’s what the shoes deserve.

Daily Dose: 11/29/17 Timbaland battled opioid addiction

What up, gang? Wednesday’s a TV day, so tune in to Around The Horn at 5 p.m. on ESPN. Also, if you missed #TheRightTime on Tuesday, you can check out the program here.

Matt Lauer is officially out the paint at NBC. The longtime Today anchor, who was reportedly being paid $28M a year, along with access to his own personal helicopter to fly from his home in the Hamptons to New York City, was let go after accusations of sexual misconduct were raised with his parent company. In addition, Minnesota Public Radio personality Garrison Keillor was also fired for similar reasons. You might know him from A Prairie Home Companion. Not to be forgotten, the accusers are adding up for Democratic congressman John Conyers of Michigan.

Now that we’ve decided sexual misconduct is an offense worthy of losing one’s job, there are other questions. Namely, how will this affect not only celebrities and politicians but also people who apparently make the apps we want to love yet haven’t come into fame or notoriety? Mainly, how will this affect upcoming elections in 2020 for both sides of the aisle? FiveThirtyEight has a chat.

Timbaland is a hip-hop legend. The Virginia producer and rapper who rose to fame alongside Missy Elliot has been around the music game for years, crafting hits for stars in different genres over the years. He hasn’t exactly been on the scene recently, and for good reason: He’s had a drug problem. And not like a “he’s been smoking too much fire weed” problem — an opioid addiction that was making his friends tell him to get out of the public eye. This new profile in Rolling Stone is quite revealing.

The NFL looks like it finally wants to engage in social justice. Mind you, this is the same league that went nearly haywire when Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem. It legitimately almost brought down the entire sanctity of the operation. Now they’ve offered a proposal to put $100M toward efforts in conjunction with players, but not everyone is feeling it. A few prominent players have said they’re not supporting this cause, as altruistic as it may seem on the surface.

Free Food

Coffee Break: You know what is one of the hardest parts about being a manager on any job? Managing people’s schedules. It many cases, it can be the most difficult task if you don’t know what you’re doing. Just ask American Airlines, which is now scrambling after a computer glitch basically let all their pilots take the holidays off.

Snack Time: Want a full sit-down with Jay-Z talking about life? The New York Times has you covered. He’s really looking to nail these Grammys.

Dessert: Click and listen. Thank me later.