Can ‘grown-ish’ avoid the chaste, safe reality of ‘A Different World’? ‘black-ish’ spinoff a fresh start for actress Yara Shahidi, and a world of uncertainty for her character, Zoey

For better or worse, A Different World, the Cosby Show spinoff that began airing in 1987, following Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) to Hillman College, has provided the blueprint for sitcom depictions of black middle-class college existence.

That blueprint now extends to grown-ish, the offshoot of black-ish starring Yara Shahidi as college freshman Zoey Johnson, which premieres at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Freeform. It’s one in which an attractive, personable, well-behaved girl learns the basics of adulthood, such as the perils of taking classes that start at midnight and the importance of sticking by your friends, even when the cost may be broader social suicide.

Girls modeled on Denise are smart, but their intellect isn’t necessarily reflected in their grades. They’re sheltered, and they move through college under ideal, manageable circumstances. And they’re presented as typical, pleasant girls who should be completely relatable for white America.

There are some key differences between Zoey and Denise. Zoey is a student at the fictional, predominantly white Southern California University. Setting A Different World at a historically black college or university (HBCU) allowed the show to elide a backdrop of subterranean racism that comes as part of the package of being a person of color attending a predominantly white institution (PWI). And grown-ish exists in an America 30 years older (though arguably not much wiser) than the idyllic cocoon of Hillman, one squarely in the age of the internet and social media. What does it mean to be transitioning into adulthood in a country that’s using these new tools to reveal all its identity-based hostilities?

It’s worth asking how grown-ish, created by Kenya Barris and Larry Wilmore, the two men behind black-ish, will address that question, given that black-ish has made a place for itself by addressing race and identity head-on. The show’s hallmark is Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) narrating his life as an upper-middle-class family man in Southern California. Andre navigates the audience through conversations about race as he and his wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), grapple with what it means to be black, well-off and existing in a world where they’re largely surrounded by white people. One answer? Their high-school-age son Junior (Marcus Scribner) quotes Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Zoey’s interactions with sticky topics such as systemic racism have been less overt. In one episode of black-ish that addressed police shootings of unarmed black people and the civil unrest that followed, Zoey had to assure Rainbow that just because she wasn’t saying much didn’t mean she wasn’t taking it all in. She just processes things differently.

With grown-ish, Zoey joins a cross-network sorority of sitcom upper-middle-class black co-eds: Whitley Gilbert (A Different World), Denise Huxtable (A Different World), Samantha White (Dear White People), Moesha (Moesha), and even Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell (Sister, Sister). All these shows gave us a safe environment for black people dwelling in the world of higher education — perhaps so safe that they ignored the harsher realities, especially for those who are the first in their families to attend college. No one had to worry that Denise, Moesha, Tia or Tamera might drop out because their parents couldn’t afford tuition, or that their optimism might be tainted by sexual assault.

Which prompts another question facing this new show: Is it possible for grown-ish to exist without becoming too Denise-ish?

Freeform

A Different World began as a show primarily about the sweet-natured, poofy-haired bohemian of the Huxtable clan, but she quickly was upstaged by the tart-mouthed Whitley (Jasmine Guy). Once Debbie Allen, a Howard alumnus, stepped in after a lackluster first season to make Hillman actually feel like an HBCU, A Different World became far more interesting. That difference was reflected in just about every aspect of A Different World, including the second season title sequence, which featured vignettes of the multiple facets of HBCU life, from ROTC to black sororities and fraternities to marching band to sports. Season two introduced the naive Freddie (Cree Summer) and the pragmatic, focused Kim (Charnele Brown) and dispatched Denise and Marisa Tomei’s character, Maggie. Whitley, who was always the most magnetic character, became more of a centerpiece.

No one had to worry that Denise, Moesha, Tia or Tamera might drop out because their parents couldn’t afford tuition, or that their optimism might be tainted by sexual assault.

But one thing remained the same: the largely chaste atmosphere. A Different World avoided sex and gender politics in a way that’s not especially realistic now. And it made a conscious decision to do so, which is part of the reason that Bonet didn’t return after its first season. She was basically banished to A Different World from The Cosby Show because of rifts with creator Bill Cosby. Bonet and Cosby disagreed about her decision to do the film Angel Heart, in which Bonet appeared nude and covered in blood. She appeared topless in an April 1987 issue of Interview magazine. Bonet married Lenny Kravitz in 1987 and gave birth to their daughter, Zoë, in 1988. In her real life, Bonet was pushing back against Cosby’s prescribed vision of respectable, good-girl wholesomeness.

I hope grown-ish will offer a corrective to this and delve headlong into all the things that come with being a female college student in 2018. It should include not just the usual coming-of-age topics, such as learning to do laundry, but also an awareness of campus sexual assault, racism and the Trump administration. Such awareness means dealing with mental illness, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, discovering and questioning your sexuality, having fair-to-middling to just plain bad sex as you awkwardly figure what you’re into, grappling with internet porn and the way it warps boys’ expectations surrounding sex, and finding out exactly what it means to chart your independence before you finally cut the tether to the mothership and get your own cellphone plan.

Both Barris and Wilmore have established themselves as skilled writers in crafting black male characters who break the fourth wall to tell us about their lives, from Andre Johnson to Bernie Mac. I don’t doubt that this is possible with grown-ish — one of my favorite episodes of The Nightly Show included a boisterous discussion of menstruation. And Wilmore was instrumental in the creation of Insecure, which is about as genuine a depiction of young, black, middle-class adulthood as one could ask for. Barris’ writing has only gotten more ambitious on black-ish. Its fourth season saw Rainbow suffer through postpartum depression before seeking professional help, without any stigma for doing so. Still, the audience experienced Rainbow’s depression through Andre’s perspective. He narrated her trauma, because he narrates every episode of the show.

Grown-ish is built on the same model of storytelling via voiceover narration, but the voice we hear is Zoey’s, not her father’s. For the show to succeed, especially with Freeform’s young, female audience, Zoey has to sound and feel like an 18-year-old girl. It needs to be timely like black-ish, but with less of black-ish’s didacticism and ornery middle-aged-black-man speechifying.

Freeform/Eric Liebowitz

Thanks to the bounty of Peak TV, there are now multiple shows centered on black college life: The Quad on BET answers the question “What if Scandal took place at an HBCU?”; Netflix’s Dear White People captures the slow-boiling rage (and absurdity) of becoming woke at a PWI; and now grown-ish.

All of these shows are serving two audiences. If you’re an adult, the appeal is in watching stories about people who are unformed, who are making decisions about which way their lives are going to go, and then reflecting on the same period in your own life. If you’re in high school or younger, they provide a way to imagine how your future life might play out, similar to the way tweens of an earlier era used to leaf through YM or Seventeen or even the dELiA’s catalog. These were the media that gave you an idea of what it was like to be, well, grown-ish. Nowadays, it’s Teen Vogue.

Shahidi is basically the Teen Vogue It Girl as conceived by its editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth. She’s energetic, engaged with the world around her and unabashedly woke. She wears her natural curls and embraces her multiethnic background. She feels like a real person, not a celebrity cipher. Capitalizing on the relationship, black-ish featured Welteroth in a storyline in which Zoey did an internship at the magazine.

grown-ish needs to be timely like black-ish, but with less of black-ish’s didacticism and ornery middle-aged-black-man speechifying.

Shahidi is a charming, sparkly joy to watch, and grown-ish feels like a reset button for Zoey. As the senior sibling of black-ish, Zoey radiated confidence, coolness and, when necessary, withering retorts. She inherited her father’s up-to-the-minute fashion sense, which she set off with poppin’ lip gloss and an array of funky-fresh hairstyles. College Zoey is just as stylish, but she’s unsure of herself and her surroundings. She gets into scrapes such as beginning (and then quickly ending) an Adderall habit. She parties too much and falls behind on her class assignments. She falls into a humiliating texting shame spiral with an oh-so-dreamy rattail-sporting crush played by Trevor Jackson.

Zoey represents the new reality for younger millennials and Generation Z. It’s one where adolescence ends somewhere around 26, when you finally have to get your own health insurance.

Freeform/Eric Liebowitz

Grown-ish isn’t dependent upon black-ish, which airs on ABC, as a lead-in. Freeform, the channel formerly known as ABC Family, has fashioned itself into a purveyor of shows tailor-made for Teen Vogue’s readership. Pretty Little Liars, The Fosters and The Bold Type are notable for their refusal to condescend to the young women who make up large portions of their viewership. Grown-ish isn’t gunning so much for black-ish viewers as it is other Freeform ones, and it’s worth considering how that will affect its focus.

Shahidi has everything she needs to carry a show that could see Zoey inheriting her father’s penchant for addressing challenging social issues with aplomb. What ultimately doomed the first season of A Different World was that it was too polite. On television, there’s still an instinct to be protective of the image of black middle-class girls, one that stems from Denise and the worries of her creator. The result is a string of mostly perfect young women who rarely get the chance to screw up in the way that all girls screw up, to be just as irreverent, mistake-prone and horny as, say, the teens of Gossip Girl.

Here’s hoping that with grown-ish, Zoey gets to be a little bit of everything, a trait that would make her blessedly real, and completely appropriate for our modern age.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

David 'Dee' Delgado for The Undefeated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Black female gun owners speak about Russian Facebook ads ‘I don’t want to be used as propaganda’

Black women who own guns don’t necessarily fit the common conceptions of gun owners. They’re rarely the picture of recreational shooting or gun classes. And some fear that even if they procure the proper training and licensing, they’re not protected by laws designed to shield gun owners from prosecution.

The distance between perception and reality surfaced this week when The Washington Post reported that imagery of a black woman firing a rifle was used in the Facebook ads that Russians bought to influence the 2016 presidential election. The image, which has not been publicly released, might have been intended to encourage African-American militancy and also fan fears among whites, according to the Post report.

Without context, a picture of a black woman firing a rifle is not a neutral image, said Kaitanya Bush, a 42-year-old paralegal in Austin, Texas, who recently bought a 9 mm pistol to protect herself and her family.

Bush said she immediately thought of the cartoon of Michelle Obama on the cover of The New Yorker before the 2008 election. Obama was depicted as a rifle-wielding radical sporting a bandolier and giving her secret-Muslim husband a “terrorist fist jab.” The cover was meant to be satirical — pointing out the ridiculousness of the worst fears of Obama opponents, given that the Obamas were moderate, well-to-do liberals, not the second coming of Assata Shakur and Fred Hampton.

“You can see how that imagery [in the Russian ads] can evoke the same feelings that those had about Michelle Obama bringing this militant side out of the nice and gentle Barack,” Bush said. The New Yorker cover depicted Michelle Obama as “threatening, and fearful, and manipulative, that there is an ulterior motive to this. That we are the temptress.”

Bush said the fear of black women’s radicalism reminded her of the reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab, after she tweeted an unflattering image comparing Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Ray Lewis to characters from Django Unchained.

Lewis attributed the Ravens’ decision not to sign Kaepernick to the tweet, which he called a “racist gesture.”

Outside the context of law enforcement, military service, or criminality, images of black people with guns tend to be associated with political radicalism, whether it be the Black Panthers, the photo of Malcolm X holding a rifle and peering out of a window, which Nicki Minaj adopted for the album art of her 2014 single, “Lookin A– N—-,” or The New Yorker cover of the Obamas. Images of gun-wielding black people are metonyms for black militancy.

Black gun ownership is historically connected with defending oneself from state violence or lack of state protection, from Harriet Tubman to violent uprisings of enslaved people. And of course there’s a long history of black people who hunt, or shoot for sport, like the women in this 1937 image of the Howard University women’s rifle team. But such representations of black gun users aren’t as well-known.

Black women with guns don’t enjoy the same positive associations as someone such as Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde or Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, who made the empowered and unafraid gun-toting archetype a key part of their appeal as movie stars. That tide may shift slightly with the upcoming film Proud Mary, which stars Taraji P. Henson as a sexy, skilled hit woman. There’s also Lana Kane, the smart, sensible spy in Archer voiced by Aisha Tyler, whose biting comebacks and uniform of clingy sweater dresses set off by two TEC-9s made her a cult hero. But at the end of the day, Kane is a cartoon.

And so the limited context in which armed black women are seen may have provided an opportunity for Russia.

“It makes complete sense to me that they would do that just to incite some sort of rise out of people,” said Marchelle Tigner, a 25-year-old firearms instructor in Savannah, Georgia, who calls herself the “Trigger Happy Panda.” “When articles came out about me or videos came out about me, I would read the comments. And a lot of the comments were extremely negative, like, ‘Oh, black women have guns now. They’re gonna start shooting people. They’re angry and irrational, and the crime rate in black neighborhoods is gonna go up now.’ They were really hurtful, really mean, and really racist comments coming out, so it makes sense that if Russia wanted to get a rise out of people or incite some kind of hateful feelings in a lot of people, they would post pictures of black women with firearms.”

Tigner is an Army veteran who began carrying a gun as part of her job as a military intelligence officer. It made her uncomfortable, but after she was sexually assaulted at age 19, shooting at the gun range became cathartic instead of anxiety-producing. She now travels the country instructing black women in gun safety. When Tigner saw the news that Russia may have used an ad featuring an image of a black woman firing a rifle as a way to sow division and disrupt the election, she was not pleased.

“Although I might not agree with a lot of people’s beliefs, I would never want to be used as propaganda,” Tigner said. “I never want to be a gimmick. That’s why I carry myself professionally when I’m teaching because I never want my words or my images to be twisted and used against me, or against people for making that decision.”


Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.

Courtesy of Marchelle Tigner

Black women interviewed for this story believe they will not necessarily be afforded equal protection under the law as licensed gun owners because of their blackness. As a result, there’s a cost-benefit analysis that takes place. On the one hand, they feel unsafe in America because of their blackness, and that includes experiences as a gun owner. But they have decided that it’s still worth having the gun to protect themselves from, among other things, racially-motivated violence.

Even though North Carolina is an open carry state, Dione Davis, a 32-year-old cosmetologist and mother, said that she chooses to conceal carry her Glock with a permit. The reason is because she’s black, Davis said.

“I guess I feel like I’m covered but I’m not covered,” Davis said. “I would say … there is a double standard as to how we’re viewed, black gun owners versus white gun owners. Nobody’s looking at my husband or myself as … college-educated … law-abiding citizens when we have a gun. Nobody’s thinking about whether I have four kids at home when you look at me at with a gun. Nobody’s thinking about those things. … White America always has the positive view: They’ve got a family at home, they’re always viewed with life behind them. Black Americans, we’re viewed with no life behind us.”

Philando Castile had a permit for his gun, but died in 2016 after the Minnesota police officer who pulled him over shot and killed him, citing fear that Castile, who disclosed that he had a weapon, would kill him. Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville, was imprisoned for firing a warning shot in self-defense at her abusive husband after a judge rejected her defense under the state’s “stand your ground” law.

In every class she holds, Tigner said, black women voice their worries about not having their rights respected or acknowledged. “I’ve even had women say that they didn’t want to be in the photo that we take at the end of the class because they didn’t even want anyone to know that they were in a firearms class,” Tigner said. “It’s kind of scary to think that you can’t learn how to defend yourself without being a target or being looked at as a threat. Even Tamir Rice, he was a kid and had a toy. Not even a real firearm, being a child, and was killed in less than two seconds after [police] arrived on the scene. Things like that are why a lot of parents don’t even want their children to learn about firearms or to take a class, because they don’t want them to be seen as a target, like my parents didn’t. We talk about that in the class a lot.”

For Tigner, the decision not to open carry is a tactical one. “If I was a bank robber and I walk into a bank and you’re open carrying, I’m definitely gonna make sure I take you out first. It just makes you an immediate target and an immediate threat. That’s how criminals think. They look for the harder target. Nobody’s expecting me, this 25-year-old black woman, to have a firearm and to be able to draw and defend myself, and I like that. I like that I’m underestimated.”


With regard to the Russian Facebook ads, Tiffany Ware, the 44-year-old Cincinnati-based founder of The Brown Girls Project and founder of the Brown Girls With Guns workshop, didn’t think it was possible for racial tensions to get worse than they already are.

“My only thought was how could they think that would create more of a divide than what already exists?” Ware said. “From where I live, my view, my perspective, there’s always been this huge divide between African-American people and others. Now there’s even more of a divide. I don’t see how they thought seeing that image would create a greater divide, because I come from a very strong and proud background and all I’ve ever received was pushback for being that way.”

She first became interested in guns after a team she managed was harassed while canvassing for Hillary Clinton. Her team members told her they’d been called “n—–s” and that their campaign signs had been destroyed. Ware said she’s lived in Cincinnati for most of her life and before last fall had been called “n—-” twice. Since December, she’s been called the N-word four times.

Witnessing her children’s anxiety after President Donald Trump won the election spurred Ware to action to protect herself and her family.

“It just made me think and I was like, gosh, what if somebody did — anybody, not just some crazy racist person — but what if somebody did run up in this house, what would I do?” Ware said. “Like, how do I handle that? I need to figure it out.”

When Ware began organizing gun training for black women at a Cincinnati gun range, she said, she and the women in her group would draw stares and the owners made it clear they were not welcome. “They told us we couldn’t continue to come because there were so many of us that we were knocking out their Sunday regulars,” Ware said. “We knew what it was.” So they found another range.

“From white supremacists who terrorized that young child’s birthday party to the little boy who took the trash out for his mother and his neighbor shot him down on the side of the street, you know these are realities for us,” Bush said. “And I as a lawful citizen of this country, if I am going to come up against someone who may have a weapon on them, I am not going to be in that position where I have to fear for my life, where I’m unable to protect my family.”

‘Whose Streets?’ pushes back on what we think we know about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri New documentary is a potent combination of social and media criticism

Deep into Whose Streets?, the new documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, there’s footage of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown, giving an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” Wilson tells him. At the screening I attended, there was an audible mix of gasps and laughter from the audience.

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis spent much of the film’s run time up to that point establishing just how much racism lurked within the Ferguson Police Department and the city government. A 2015 report from the Justice Department established that Ferguson provided about as clear an illustration of institutionalized racism as could possibly exist: The city not only targeted black residents for tickets and arrests they couldn’t afford, it was also using the revenue from such stops to fund the nearly all-white police force. The court clerk, police captain and police sergeant were all implicated in sending and receiving racist emails, including one that compared President Barack Obama to a monkey.

Protester Brittany Ferrell hoists a bullhorn as her daughter hugs her in a scene from ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

And yet here was Wilson telling a national television audience that racism was anathema to policing.

Whose Streets? arrives in theaters Aug. 11, marking the third anniversary of Brown’s death (Aug. 9, 2014) and the uprisings that followed it. It’s a deeply moving work, and the passion of both the filmmakers and their subjects is palpable. “FYI I was literally homeless throughout the first year of production. Worked as a canvasser and put money back into the film,” Folayan, an activist, theater geek and former advocate for prisoners at Rikers Island, tweeted recently. Davis is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is currently featured in the permanent collection at the Blacksonian (aka, the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

The focus of Whose Streets? is the residents of Ferguson and St. Louis who keep marching and screaming for justice till they’re hoarse, who keep agitating long after the national media has turned its attention elsewhere. It establishes the movement for black lives in Ferguson as one driven by young people such as rapper Tef Poe, who are fed up with being targeted by police, and others like organizer Brittany Ferrell and her partner, Alexis Templeton, as well as Copwatch recruiter David Whitt, who want better for their children.

Whose Streets? is likely to serve as a counterweight to Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the 1967 Detroit riots and the police murder of three unarmed black people at the Algiers Hotel. It’s not necessarily fair to compare narrative films like Detroit to documentaries, but there’s a similarity in the dynamic between the two that existed with Nina and What Happened, Miss Simone? Both Whose Streets? and What Happened, Miss Simone? end up correcting, or at least augmenting, the record of ahistorical narrative films that struggle with details in which race is central.

Nina made the mistake of casting Zoe Saldana as Simone, then putting her in makeup to darken her skin and prosthetics to make her facial features more closely resemble Simone’s. Detroit fails to imbue its characters with any depth or humanity and devolves into a slog of racist white police officers terrorizing a group of people in the Algiers.

Bigelow’s herky-jerky camerawork and editing in Detroit deliberately create a sense of chaos. Whose Streets?, by contrast, presents real footage of Ferguson buildings in flames after Brown’s death, but the overall effect is far more nuanced. It’s much easier to get a sense of what happened in Ferguson as pockets of violence and property damage pockmarked peaceful, if emotional, protests. Whose Streets? refuses to equate property damage with the loss of human life.

Folayan and Davis offer a potent work of media criticism too. Folayan and Davis communicate just how much cable news, by repeatedly and selectively broadcasting the most violent, hectic footage, was responsible for making Ferguson seem like a war zone whose residents were animalistic and out of control. That narrative was furthered by a distant, largely white media corps accepting police reports as gospel. Whose Streets? challenges that by juxtaposing footage of Ferrell and her cohorts protesting to shut down a highway in Missouri with the official police account of what happened, in which the arresting officer accused Ferrell of yelling out “tribal chants.”

For a moment, we also see what it means to send black journalists into a situation like Ferguson, where police in tanks and armored vehicles are shooting rubber bullets, smoke grenades and tear gas (a chemical agent that the Geneva Convention prohibits in warfare) at the city’s black residents. There’s a clip of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ernie Suggs walking through Ferguson at night with his hands above his head as police bark orders at black protesters. The police draw no distinction. He’s black, so he might as well be one of them.

Brittany Ferrell leads a line of protesters as they face off with police in ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film gives voice to a community that’s reeling, mournful and frustrated. It has little faith in a government that’s failed it repeatedly. Spliced with footage of white public officials delivering statements that are often canned and worded to avoid legal liability, Whose Streets? brings the idea of two Americas, and two wholly different realities, to life. “Question normal,” it demands of its audience.

Despite the gravity of its subject matter, Whose Streets? has moments of dark levity. One interview follows a clip of President Obama giving a statement about Brown in his trademark style of measured reason.

“I’m waiting on me to have a black president. I still ain’t had me one,” a Ferguson resident named Tory says. “Wasn’t he a constitutional professor? Ain’t no constitution in Ferguson. Tell that n—- he need to teach a new class or bring his a– to Ferguson … and figure out why we ain’t got no constitution.”

Whose Streets? is understandably close in spirit to The Hate U Give, the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas published earlier this year. The Hate U Give is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who is the sole witness as her unarmed best friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. The book, which is heavily influenced by Ferguson, is slated for a film adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and Lamar Johnson. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that the film version of The Hate U Give and Whose Streets? will serve as cinematic bookends to understanding what black people went through in Ferguson before and after Brown’s death.

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, but no one in Whose Streets? is a Pollyanna, least of all Ferrell. She’s open about the fact that she’s taking prescription medication to treat anxiety and says she’s not sure the justice she and her partner are seeking will come in their lifetimes. They’re counting on another generation of troublemakers and revolutionaries to carry on. They’re raising one in their elementary-school-aged daughter McKenzie, seen in the film with her mothers leading a crowd and screaming as loud as she can, “WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!”

Ex-police chief Dave Brown recalls shootings of Dallas police officers following Black Live Matters event in his new book ‘Called To Rise’ He was credited with bringing peace after the ambush last July 7

DALLAS – The events of July 7, 2016, will forever haunt former Dallas police chief David Brown.

That was the day Micah Xavier Johnson ambushed and killed four policemen with the Dallas Police Department (DPD) and one policeman with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system following a peaceful Black Lives Matter (BLM) event in downtown Dallas. Brown was in his sixth year as Dallas’ police chief at the time, and the tragedy not only unsettled his city, but also a nation.

Several incidents across the nation where white police officers killed unarmed African-American citizens was the impetus for the BLM protest. But no one could predict what was about to occur in Dallas.

“It was very peaceful, people were taking selfies with our officers,” Brown said, referring to the protest. “We had worked very hard in the community to have strong relationships here in Dallas.

“We were all obviously concerned, but the mood of the crowd was so positive. And then towards the end is when the first shots rang out.”

Those shots, from Johnson, sent the crowd running for cover.

“I get a call after leaving work at 9 p.m. — the protest was scheduled to end at 9 p.m. — and people were leaving,” Brown said. “Then they decided to march through the streets, which was unplanned.

“I get the call that one officer is down, then I get multiple calls of multiple people shot and a gunman – maybe multiple gunmen – shooting from different positions. The first reaction was obviously the concern for the officers that they would make it, and their families, and then next was trying to capture this guy, trying to figure out where this person was.”

Johnson managed to run and hide in a small room on the second floor of nearby El Centro College. And following almost four hours of ill-fated negotiations while trying to get Johnson to turn himself in, Brown made the controversial decision to send an armed robot into the building with the sole purpose of killing the gunman.

The strategy worked, although many criticized Brown for using the rare tactic.

“It’s only controversial to people that weren’t getting shot at,” Brown said. “It’s not controversial to the people who lost their husband, lost their son or lost their father. It’s not controversial to those folks.

“But I understand people obviously concerned with weaponizing an armed robot, because it had never been done in American policing history. But this person was negotiated with for over 3 1/2 hours before we came to that conclusion, and during the negotiations he expressed that he wanted to kill more officers and expressed throughout negotiations that he was really excited about having already killed officers.”

Besides the five police officers killed, nine more were wounded, and two civilians were also injured.

Approaching the one-year anniversary of one of Dallas’ darkest hours, Brown believes that most police officers are good, honest men and women who are trying to do their jobs and go home safely to their families at the end of the day.

“I’m obviously African-American, I hate being stereotyped, I hate the fact that a black person can do something in this country and all blacks are stereotyped as being criminals,” Brown said. “But all of my adult life I’ve been a police officer, so I’m blue, and that stereotyping for police officers is just as bad as stereotyping in the African-American community.

“Just the fact that you will take the example of a cop that obviously didn’t do things the right way, used excessive force, used deadly force when it wasn’t called for, and then every cop is bad or out of control or racist is wrong. Just as wrong as someone following me in a department store because I’m black, thinking I’m going to steal something. That’s wrong.

“We ought to be able to have people be looked at on their own merits on an individual basis, is what we all want. People in the black community want that and people in the blue community want that, and it’s only right and fair.”

Brown, who spent 33 years with DPD before retiring last fall, has since written a book about his life named Called To Rise. It includes personal stories, including Father’s Day of 2010 when his son – who suffered from a bipolar disorder – shot and killed a police officer in a suburb of Dallas, and was subsequently shot and killed by a responding police officer.

Born and raised in a tough area of Dallas called South Oak Cliff, Brown believes he was born to handle a crisis like the one that nearly brought Dallas to its knees last year. His candor – plus the way he calmed the fears of those in his community and across the nation – during interviews in the aftermath of the shootings, was well-received nationally.

Brown points to his strong Christian faith, along with the community he grew up in, for helping him get through the biggest challenge of his career in law enforcement.

“It’s a strong-willed mother, a community that nurtured me, the public school system nurtured me, early childhood education – pre-K – had a big part of my life, and I just never forgot where I came from and I felt like I owed people,” Brown said. “But the most important part is my faith, the fact that I’m a Christian and I’m not ashamed to profess it has an integral part in how I make decisions, good or bad.

“I’m nowhere near perfect at all, I know that. But I believe in God’s grace and I apply that as much as I can in all aspects of my life, including professional.”

All of that was put to a stern test last year.

Lifesaving advice from a black woman held at gunpoint by police Comply, survive and complain later because panicky cops don’t know how to de-escalate situations

It’s still hard for me to believe that last month I almost became a hashtag — another black person gunned down by a panicky cop.

I don’t have a criminal record.

I shop at Trader Joe’s.

I’m college-educated.

I’m a woman.

As I stared at the officer nervously pointing his gun at me, I realized immediately what he saw: a black person who had no business being in his neighbor’s driveway.

Wait, let me take you back to the beginning:

On April 28, I bought a 2005 Isuzu Ascender from a woman in Jefferson City, Tennessee. I was on my way home to Charlotte, North Carolina, from Nashville, Tennessee, and I found the SUV on Craigslist. I had been searching for the perfect SUV for more than a month. This had a female owner who followed the maintenance schedule, relatively low miles, leather interior, tow package, roof rack and even a sunroof. The Ascender was the one. I bought it on the spot.

I left with both sets of keys, the title and a bill of sale, which she signed. Over the next couple of days, we talked a couple of times as I confirmed my pickup date of May 3. That’s how I found myself at the end of her son-in-law’s gun. I drove a rental car to Morristown, Tennessee, and took an unmarked taxi to the woman’s house about 3 p.m. I talked to her the day before. The Ascender was parked in the same spot in her driveway as it was the previous week when I purchased it. Her newer Toyota 4Runner was parked beside it.

The cab dropped me off and sped away. We’d gotten lost along the way, and he was irritated. I was tired but excited. The sun was shining, and the area around me was beautiful with lush trees and rolling hills. I soaked in the scenery.

I retrieved my North Carolina license plate and a small screwdriver from my duffel bag. As I screwed in the plate, I heard a voice behind me: “I’m an off-duty Knoxville police officer.” Something told me to stand up slowly with my hands up. I turned, facing the direction of the voice. He’s pointing his gun at me. My heart races. I look around. There is no one else outside. My mind is racing. I chide myself for not giving the address to anyone. No one knows where I am. I lament not answering the phone a minute ago when it rang. I am completely alone. My phone is next to my bag. I don’t think I should move.


It’s so quiet. Philando Castile flashes through my mind. I think about how cops are killing black people and getting away with it. I bought the SUV last Friday, I tell him, being mindful not to raise my voice. He doesn’t lower his gun. He tells me he is the seller’s son-in-law, and he lives across the street. He saw me get out of a car that sped away. It was a taxi, I explain. He’s incredulous. The registration and bill of sale are in my duffel bag. I tell him the keys are in my pocket. He tells me not to move. He orders me to put down the small screwdriver that I’m sweatily holding in the air. I ask if I can lower my hands. He says yes. Even though, to this point, he’s still pointing his gun at me as he talks to the 911 dispatcher.

He tells the dispatcher that I’m trying to steal his mother-in-law’s SUV. He gives her the tag number. The dispatcher tells him that the tag matches the truck. He, apparently, doesn’t hear her because he keeps pointing the gun at me. He finishes the call and holsters his gun. I exhale and lean against the truck. He tells me to sit on the step beside the house. Again, I invite him to check the registration in my bag. I share various details about his mother-in-law. He tells me he knew she was selling the car, but she hadn’t told him she’d sold it.

Seven minutes later, a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy arrives. The cop tells his side of the story. I tell the deputy I have the registration in my bag. He doesn’t check it, nor did he run the plates. I offer him the signed bill of sale and keys. Not good enough. He wants to talk to the woman who sold me the car. She wasn’t home and wasn’t answering her cell.

We’ve been over this already. Again, I tell the deputy that the registration is in my bag, and it matches the VIN on the car. Or that he can simply run the plates. He asks for the title. I don’t have the title — I have the registration. He asks if I have the phone number of the woman who sold me the car. I read to him from my phone. He compares it to the number on the bill of sale. It matches. I’m wondering, to myself, what that exercise just proved — but I remain calm.

He still doesn’t run the plate. Since I was allowed to pick up my phone, I text a friend: “Cops here. They don’t believe I bought the car. Gonna call. Just stay on the line …” Finally, the off-duty cop gets his wife on the phone. She confirms the car was sold to someone in North Carolina. They let me go with a weak apology, and the typical, “There’ve been a lot of burglaries in the area.”

Former Observer writer Tonya Jameson shows how she was screwing her new license plate into her new Isuzu SUV purchased in Jefferson City TN., shown here, before having a gun pulled on her by a Knoxville Police Department officer. “It’s been a week since I almost became a hashtag – another unarmed Black person shot by a cop,” she wrote.

Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer

Initially, I was just glad to be alive — but after blogging about it, I realized that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t just about me — this was an opportunity to prevent the next Philando Castile. I filed a complaint with the Knoxville Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit against Officer Matthew Janish, the off-duty cop who drew his gun on me. I complain to Jefferson County Sheriff G.W. “Bud” McCoig about how his deputy handled the call.

McCoig said his deputy acted appropriately despite not running my tag or looking at the registration. McCoig also said his deputy denied that I told him I had the registration. Since the deputy only stayed for 11 minutes, McCoig didn’t think it was a big deal. I explain to McCoig that after one cop pulls a gun on you, and then the other officer won’t follow common sense and run the plate, but instead interrogates you, 11 minutes is an eternity. I told him his officer created an even more threatening encounter for me. McCoig was unsympathetic and concluded the conversation with, “I’m glad everything worked out, and as far as I’m concerned this is closed.”

Knoxville Police were a little more sympathetic. Chief David Rausch actually came to Charlotte a little more than a month later to tell me the internal affairs investigation concluded that officer Janish’s actions were “lawful and proper.”

The system is designed to exonerate police officers, not provide justice for their victims, especially black ones. He said that he felt it was important to tell me results in person and answer any questions that I might have.

I told him that I wasn’t surprised by their findings, but I was disappointed. The system is designed to exonerate police officers, not provide justice for their victims, especially black ones. My incident, however, gives me new insight into just how much the law values police lives over the citizens they are supposed to protect.

Chief Rausch revealed that Janish thought I was a teenage boy. Considering that I have a low-fade haircut and was wearing khaki-style shorts and a “Free Press” T-shirt, I wasn’t surprised. I tell the chief that although I am not a teenage boy, his officer shouldn’t assume that all teenage boys are criminals.

The chief told me when doing these types of investigations, it is essential to understand an officer’s mindset to determine the facts. Here are the facts that Janish focused on: unmarked, speeding cab; black person; duffel bag; and the license plate. Here are facts he ignored: He knew his mother-in-law was selling the SUV, it was broad daylight, and I knew her first name but not her last. I offered to show him the keys, registration and bill of sale signed by her.

Those are the actual facts. Janish’s mindset was the scenario he created in his head.

He saw a black person, supposedly a teenage boy, and assumed the worst: that I was either a burglar or a car thief. His fears weren’t facts.

The moment I arrived on that street I became a suspect, and under the law, it seemed that Janish became a victim. He could have stayed at his house, called 911 and waited for sheriff’s deputies to arrive. Instead, he grabbed his weapon and came outside to confront me.

Every action I took was suspicious in his mind. Looking to the left and right twice was deemed suspicious. Not knocking on the door was also suspicious, but I suspect knocking would’ve been suspicious, too.

Reading the investigation case file, Janish likely would have been within his legal rights to shoot me. I was amazed at the scenario he created about the taxi — it was a lookout vehicle lurking nearby.

In a statement supporting the investigation’s findings, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero talked about the extensive training officers receive in appropriate use of force and de-escalation.

Is the fact that Janish didn’t shoot me considered de-escalation? Why is pointing a weapon at a law-abiding citizen considered an appropriate use of force? Why doesn’t police training include exercising common sense?

Who steals a car by putting a license plate on it first? Who steals a 12-year-old Isuzu Ascender instead of the newer Toyota 4Runner parked beside it? What car thief offers the amount of proof that I did?

I understand Janish’s vantage point, that the situation looked strange from his house. He was well within his right to investigate; any good neighbor would do that. But this situation warranted some common-sense questions: “Who are you?” “What are you doing?” The inquiry should come first, instead of a gun. That’s de-escalation.

During his Charlotte visit, Rausch talked about lessons learned. I didn’t overreact. I didn’t get angry. I survived.

My behavior is how everyone should act in those situations: comply, survive and complain later. I told him it’s not natural to be accused of doing something wrong and not prove your innocence. I wanted to show the keys, the vehicle registration and the bill of sale. I fought every impulse to do anything that would make him feel more threatened.

I don’t have de-escalation training. I’m the one being held at gunpoint. I’m the one thinking my life could end if he panics. Yet, I’m the one who must remain calm. The legal system is asking untrained civilians to de-escalate panicky cops.

What about our lives? We’re tired of becoming hashtags. We’re the ones the police are supposed to protect. Our lives matter, too.

Tonya Jameson is a former Charlotte Observer reporter and columnist who now manages social media accounts for companies.

Daily Dose: 6/22/17 Milwaukee is the latest city to protest the verdict in a police shooting

I’m back from New York, and it was a whirlwind week. I did my best to create a complete radio show for the podcast, so I hope you like it. The whole thing has been a work in progress, but I think we’re getting closer to what we want.

It feels like every day of summer is going to deliver another terrible verdict. This time it comes from Milwaukee, where an officer killed a man after a chase. The victim in this case appeared to have gotten rid of a firearm during the pursuit, which was a critical point for the verdict in the end. It might be worth noting that the officer was black, but that doesn’t change the fact that another man lost his life at the hands of law enforcement, which is such a troubling trend that it’s hard to keep up. There will be protests in Wisconsin today, for sure.

We now have a new proposed health care bill. Nobody’s seen it, few lawmakers have any idea what it actually is, but Senate Republicans drafted it behind closed doors and refused to reveal any details about it until it was time to vote. As far as legislative shenanigans go, this definitely qualifies as doing the most. Democrats have been going all over the country asking constituents what they think of repealing the Affordable Care Act, but no one knows what’s in it. Now, we have what they’re calling a “discussion draft,” which is rather underwhelming.

The doctor’s office is stressful. There’s just no way around that. Whether it’s the wait time, the paperwork, the cost or the obvious situation of learning about one’s health, in general it causes major anxiety. So if you walk into a medical facility with a strong bent of racism on your mind, things are not going to go well. That’s exactly what happened in Canada recently when a woman decided she was going to start yelling at people in order for her kid to see a white physician. Then, she claimed she was being discriminated against. Can’t make this up.

Yasiel Puig is my favorite L.A. Dodgers player. He has been so ever since he joined the team and brought his Cuban flavor to the diamond, hotdogging and bat flipping his way all over the big leagues. Of course, because MLB is full of curmudgeons who don’t like fun, this was not well-received. This time, he upset the New York Mets because he took too long to get around the bags after a home run. Now, everyone’s saying he doesn’t have respect for the game, which is absurd. This charade from big leaguers only gets more annoying with each passing pitch. Get over it.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Speaking of baseball, some people go to incredible lengths to be able to play. For example, if you have only one hand, it’s not easy to do. But in the mold of Jim Abbott, the legendary one-handed pitcher who once threw a no-hitter, there’s a catcher doing the same thing. Check this kid out, he’s awesome.

Snack Time: George Clooney’s won the life lottery in so many ways. Aside from being exactly the type of guy whom Hollywood casts for everything, he apparently also just falls into money when he isn’t even trying. What a life.

Dessert: DeMario Jackson is back on Bachelor In Paradise. This franchise is totally out of control.

 

Daily Dose: 6/19/17 Another black person killed by police, this time in Seattle

The fight continues in Washington, D.C. And no, this one has nothing to do with President Donald Trump. On Monday, the Washington Redskins secured a small victory with a Supreme Court ruling that deemed the law preventing the team from registering trademarks with the word “Redskins”— or “offensive trademarks” — as unconstitutional. The controversial team name has been a topic of discussion for decades, but it intensified in May 2013 after team owner Dan Snyder staunchly vowed to never change it. Months later, President Barack Obama joined in, adding, “If I were the owner of the team and I knew that there was a name of my team — even if it had a storied history — that was offending a sizable group of people, I’d think about changing it.” A year later, the Trademark and Trial Appeal Board ordered the cancellation of the Washington Redskins’ six federal trademarks. Now, three years and several court appearances later, we’re here. Snyder is “thrilled,” according to reports, and team attorney Lisa Blatt praised the court’s decision. The team may have won the war, but something tells me this battle is far from over.

Oh, wait! There is Trump news. Within a few hours of releasing a statement acknowledging Juneteenth, the oldest and most well-known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States, the internet quickly drew comparisons between President Trump’s issued statement and former president Barack Obama’s — one focused more on freed slaves, while the other praised men who allowed slaves to be freed. As the statement continues to be debated, most social media users have moved on to criticizing the president’s silence after an overnight van attack in London that left one pedestrian dead and 10 others wounded.

Another day, another non-conviction. If you haven’t heard about the infuriating yet unsurprising acquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile last July. The verdict prompted marches and calls to action across the country. Castile, a 32-year-old cafeteria supervisor and registered gun owner, reached into his pocket to get his license. Fearing that Castile was retrieving a weapon, Yanez shot him multiple times and walks away a free man, as we’ve witnessed so many times before. The same song will continue: The national outrage, pain and frustration and personalized hashtags will roar, then quiet until the next unfortunate encounter.

Two days later, another police-involved shooting. A pregnant woman was fatally shot by two officers in front of several children in Seattle after reporting a burglary earlier that morning. According to police, 30-year-old Charleena Lyles displayed a knife before the two officers opened fire. Although the incident is still under investigation, family members told media outlets that Lyles had been suffering with mental health issues for the past year. The children inside the apartment at the time of the shooting were not injured.

Jay Z adds context to the recent 4:44 ads. We’ve all seen the mysterious salmon-colored background with the bold, black 4:44 displayed directly in the center. The ads, which simultaneously popped up in New York and Los Angeles and on several websites two weeks ago, sent social media sleuths into a frenzy. The only clue: the word “Tidal” in the coding that accompanied the ads. Many speculated it might be a new project from the proud papa of newborn twins, and others hoped it would be specifically about the twins.

Jay Z will be dropping a new album on June 30 as a result of a new partnership between Tidal and Sprint. In addition to the new music, the partnership will support the 1Million Project to help 1 million low-income high school students across the United States gain access to the internet. Free mobile devices and free high-speed wireless internet will be provided to participating students during their high school years.

It’s a win for all.

Tulsa officer acquitted in shooting death of unarmed black man Betty Shelby beats charges for killing Terence Crutcher in 2016

Another day, another police officer walks free after killing an unarmed black person.

You might remember the case of Terence Crutcher. Last year in Tulsa, he was killed by Officer Betty Shelby after a situation that unfolded outside of his car that was caught by police dash cameras as well as helicopter footage. It shows Crutcher, walking toward his car with police trailing him, guns pointed. Then, Crutcher’s arms come down and shots ring out, leaving him to lie there and die on the side of the road in Oklahoma. She was acquitted on Wednesday.

Where to begin. We’ll start with the trail, as the video shows you the details of the interaction. From there, let’s fast-forward to Shelby’s testimony, in which she states very plainly what the specific threat of police privilege and white supremacy means. Her fear was more important than her victim’s life. Beyond that admission, which was honest, she made an even more important statement about why, following her fear, she chose to shoot: That’s police policy.

“She articulated all of the reasons why she believed he was armed and why she took the action that she did that was in accordance with her training. In times of heavy stress and fear and uncomfortability, we revert to our training, and that’s what you want an officer to do. And you want them to handle situations the way they’re trained to handle them,” Jerad Lindsey, chairman of the Tulsa FOP, said earlier this week about Shelby’s testimony. “It takes tenths of seconds for someone to already make the mental decision to pull a weapon and shoot you.”

The last sentence is the most important. What it basically says is the very same logic that police use to justify their decision-making in firing rounds is exactly what’s used against you when you haven’t even done anything. You can talk about the inherent danger of police work and what it takes to protect a community, but the problem with the “blue lives matter” logic is two-fold. One, no one is born a police officer. Secondarily, because it is a job, there are certain risks that simply have to be a part of the accountability scale in order for the entire system to work, if you’re even going to consider fairness a part of the equation. If every encounter is going to be considered life or death, then the logic should apply both ways. Meaning, Crutcher might have thought they were going to try to kill him, too. Otherwise, what you’re openly admitting is: This isn’t fair and doesn’t have to be.

By leaving the judgment to human nature and throwing one’s hands up after that, you’re completely eliminating acknowledgment of the most obvious of factors here: race. Inherent bias, never mind outright racist attitudes and methods, are well-studied and documented components of law enforcement, but they are clearly the defining factor in many cases. To be noted, the window was up.

This man’s blackness obviously made her feel like he was more likely to kill her or her colleagues. And if you don’t believe that’s real, just listen to the officers on the audio of the footage of the shooting. “Time for Taser, I think,” one officer says in the lead-up to the gunshots. “That looks like a bad dude, too. Could be on something.” Seconds later, Crutcher is on the ground, his white T-shirt soaked in his blood.

The autopsy revealed that Crutcher did have PCP in his system. That in itself is not a reason for someone to die, of course. Not to mention that the casual observation of a random black man being a “bad dude” is a clear indicator about the kind of snap judgments people make based on appearance that have zero grounding in fact. Crutcher had previously served time for dealing cocaine and, according to his sister, had a drug problem as a user. Again, none of that should equal a death sentence, but even if you think so, how they figured all that out in those few minutes is beyond me.

Not to mention something else, perhaps the most critical element to the backdrop of everything. This is Tulsa. Not just the Tulsa where white residents burned down as many black businesses and neighborhoods as they could in the 1920s during a riot. (They’re making a movie about it.) It’s the same Tulsa where, in 2015, a guy working law enforcement literally for fun, who was a friend of the sheriff’s, shot and killed a guy because he mistook his handgun for his Taser. We’re not talking about ancient history. Never mind the fact that the guy is still bitter, saying that he’s mad he ever decided to give back to the community — not that, you know, he actually took someone’s life.

Mind you, the fallout from that was a reform program for that whole operation, but that’s not going to matter to Crutcher’s family. The point here is that the violence that takes the lives of so many unarmed black people isn’t just accidental or incidental, it’s state-sponsored.