The untold story of wrestler Andrew Johnson’s dreadlocks How the high school athlete endured his infamous haircut

When Andrew Johnson walked into The Line Up barbershop last April, all eyes focused on him. Since that awful day in December when a referee had forced the 16-year-old Buena Regional High School wrestler to either cut his dreadlocks or forfeit his match, he felt as if the world was constantly watching him, especially in his small New Jersey town. Watching and whispering about things beyond his control.

Yo, that’s that kid who got his locs chopped by the white ref.

Andrew, who goes by Drew, sat down in Mikey Morales’ chair. Morales has tended Drew’s hair since middle school. After a video of Drew’s shearing attracted a massive social media audience last December, Morales had reshaped Drew’s hair into shorter dreadlocks that radiated from his head.

But now Drew had a new problem. The night before, he had grabbed a pair of scissors from the kitchen and hacked at what remained of his dreads, then asked his little sister to finish the job. Drew loved his hair but was tired of it causing so much trouble. Tired of being treated differently and made into something he was not. Tired of looking in the mirror and seeing the referee, Alan Maloney, looking back.

Since the incident last December, support for Andrew Johnson, seen here during a bout on Jan. 5, has poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of his schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended referee Alan Maloney as simply enforcing the rules.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Maloney already had a racist incident in his past before telling Drew that his hair was “unnatural” and giving him 90 seconds to cut it. What resulted was far more than a humiliating haircut for one high school student. It became a shared and painful experience for many who see how issues of identity, subjugation, power and freedom are intertwined in African American hair.

Support for Drew poured in from celebrities, pro athletes and the governor of New Jersey. But others, including some of Drew’s schoolmates and other residents of his mostly white town, defended Maloney as simply enforcing the rules. Another local contingent believed that even if Maloney was wrong, Drew should have just shaken it off and moved on.

The shy, quiet teen was trapped in a suffocating bubble. Maybe those kitchen scissors were meant to let in some air.

The barber surveyed the damage and looked at Drew’s father, Charles Johnson III, who goes by his middle name of Sheridan. Sheridan and his three sons come to Morales once a week. Their hairstyles vary, but they always stay crisply edged and trimmed. The Johnsons are not a family who walks around looking jacked up.

The barbers and most of their clientele are Puerto Rican here at The Line Up, which is located in one of the strip malls dotting the South Jersey farmlands between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Drew, too, is more Puerto Rican than anything else, despite being widely portrayed as strictly African American when his haircut entered the viral pantheon of American racial injustice.

During several trips to Buena Vista Township, and while attending several of the wrestling team’s home and away matches, I had in-depth conversations with Drew, his parents and siblings, close friends of the Johnson family and their attorney. I talked to Drew’s schoolmates, coaches, other members of the Buena community, and wrestlers and coaches from around South Jersey. The Johnsons declined to be interviewed on the record. Some of the descriptions of Drew’s emotions come from his attorney; others from people in Buena who interacted with him. Maloney declined an interview request, and his attorney didn’t respond to phone messages.

What I saw in Buena was a close-knit, mixed-race family crushed by our country’s tectonic conflict over racial justice and demographic change. This took place in a small town with a rich wrestling tradition where people say sports brings them together, even as they are further apart than most want to believe.

Watching the video of the match, I saw Maloney give Drew 90 seconds to shatter either a pillar of his identity or his bond with his teammates and his home. Sitting in the barber chair beneath Morales’ buzzing clippers 3½ months later, Drew was still trying to reassemble the pieces of who he used to be.


Hair is Africa’s most enduring marker in America, the phenotype most likely to persist through generations of interracial children. Hair is what black folks look at when trying to determine who is one of us. Many mixed-race people are not permitted to fully determine their own identity because of how the world insists on defining them. That’s when hair can represent a manifesto of self.

Sheridan Johnson is the son of a black father and a Puerto Rican mother. He looks black, grew up with his black grandparents and has always identified himself as black. His hair is cut close but dark on top, with a fade melting into his thick, impeccably groomed beard.

Wrestler Andrew Johnson forced to cut hair before match

Sheridan’s wife, Rosa, has a Puerto Rican father and an Irish mother. Rosa has straight, shoulder-length brown hair and fair skin. She values her Puerto Rican heritage and maiden name of Santiago, but much of the world sees her as a white lady with black kids.

The four Johnson children are Drew, who is now 17, 13-year-old Cami, 15-year-old Nate and 19-year-old Matt. Each of their complexions is a different shade of brown. Their hair, too, varies in texture and degree of curl. Drew has the lightest skin, and freckles. He cultivated his dreadlocks in early 2018 by rubbing his hair nightly with a towel. Cami is the darkest, with caramel-colored skin and hair that, when I saw her, fell past her shoulders in cascading coils. Cami is the only sibling who sort of considers herself black. Her brothers never defined themselves that way. If pressed, the Johnson boys will break themselves down mathematically: 50% Puerto Rican, 25% black and 25% white.

Last December, Drew’s calculated identity went up in smoke. That’s when the world decided he was black.


Long, straight roads slice through the farms and woods of Buena Vista Township, 45 minutes southeast of Philly. Tractors creep through fields of tomatoes, peppers and corn. Farmers from Italy arrived in the mid-1850s because the sandy soil was good for grapes. The area remains heavily working-class Italian: Buena is pronounced “BYOO-nuh” because of how it was said by those from the old country. The census says 75% of the township’s 7,299 residents are white, 13% are Hispanic and 7.5% are black.

On Dec. 19, furrowed empty earth ran right up to the parking lot of Buena Regional High School, where the Johnson family gathered to watch Drew wrestle. It was not a special occasion. Where you see one Johnson, you often see them all.

The meet took place in the Charles Johnson Memorial Gymnasium, which is named after Sheridan’s grandfather, who was a beloved custodian at the school. The opponent was rival Oakcrest High. Buena had beaten Oakcrest eight years in a row, but this meet was expected to be close. They were the top two teams in the Cape Atlantic League’s National Division, so the division title was likely on the line. Every match would be crucial.

Wrestling has been part of the fabric of Buena since the early 1970s, when Mickey Caprese, who owned a greeting card store across from Buena’s junior high school, got a bunch of neighborhood kids together and started a youth program. Buena and wrestling are a good match. They’re both tough but not loud, small but proud. There’s no room for pretty boys. Scarred hands or cauliflowered ears are a mark of pride.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Alan Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

“We’re just a small community with values and work ethic,” said Doug Castellari, one of Caprese’s first recruits. He became an All-American at Temple University in 1984, coached the Buena team for almost three decades and is one of five Buena alumni in the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“Wrestling’s not a sport you can just go out there and play,” said Castellari, who is still fit from daily workouts and tanned from running his family’s farm. “You have to put a lot into it just to win one match. You have to get a kid to buy in. You have to dedicate yourself and put in the time.”

Castellari’s son Eric wrestled for his dad and now volunteers with the Buena wrestling team. “Buena is not a participation trophy kind of place,” Eric said. “Other sports, there’s somebody next to you. This is one-on-one. If you mentally break, if you give up, you will be abused. Nobody can save you. There’s no safety over the top.

“Nobody realizes how hard those six minutes are.”


Five minutes and 30 seconds into the December match, blood dripped down Drew’s bottom lip. Cramps wracked both calves. He was losing 2-1 and trapped on his stomach underneath his opponent. The shock of having his dreadlocks cut before the match had given way to the desperation of trying to survive.

Drew is not the most talented wrestler in his family. That would be his younger brother, Nate, who started varsity as a freshman at 113 pounds. Drew didn’t join the varsity until his sophomore year, when his record was 13-12 with six pins. In some of the losses, he hit a mental wall and couldn’t climb over, one of his coaches told me. Drew let himself think he could not win.

Drew had big goals last season, his junior year, in the 120-pound division. It was cool having his brother on the team. Nate wouldn’t have to learn by getting abused on the wrong side of the wall.

Referees are supposed to handle hair and other issues at the pre-meet weigh-ins, but on that day Maloney was late. He conducted the “skin check” about 6:45 p.m., 15 minutes before the 7 p.m. start, according to a statement submitted to the school district by Buena’s head wrestling coach, George Maxwell. Maloney told Drew he needed to shave. After Drew returned from the locker room with no stubble, Maloney said he had “concerns” about Drew’s and Nate’s hair, according to the statement and the Johnson family’s attorney, Dominic A. Speziali.

Drew returned to the locker room to get a cap. Maloney left because the meet was about to begin. In the first match, refereed by Maloney, Nate wrestled without a cap and lost. Drew’s match came second.

When Drew was on the mat about to shake hands with his opponent, Maloney stopped him and said his cap was illegal because it didn’t attach to his headgear. Drew and his team did not have an attachable cap because they didn’t think it was needed. Drew had wrestled earlier that season without one.

New Jersey’s rules prohibit a wrestler’s hair from falling past his earlobes, shirt collar or eyebrows. But that was not Maloney’s issue with Drew. He cited a rule saying hair must be in its natural state.

“It’s unnatural,” Maloney told Drew and his coaches, according to a letter sent by Speziali to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, which is investigating what happened.

Andrew Johnson (left) wrestles for Buena Regional High School against Cherokee High School’s Andrew Aromando (right) during a match in New Jersey on Jan. 11. Aromando won the match 4-2.

ELIZABETH ROBERTSON/PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/NEWSCOM

Rosa and Sheridan sat in the bleachers, unable to hear what was going on.

Maxwell and his assistants argued Drew’s case. After less than two minutes of discussion, Maloney turned his back on them and twirled his finger to start the 90-second injury clock. When it ran out, Drew would forfeit.

It didn’t take Drew long to decide. Wrestlers make immense sacrifices — running in rubber suits to cut weight, starving themselves, vomit-inducing practices. The whole team had suffered to beat Oakcrest. If Drew didn’t wrestle, and win, they could lose the meet and the division title. He did what any Buena wrestler would have done. “I’m going to cry, but cut it,” he told his coach.

As a trainer began to hack off fistfuls of locs with a pair of tape scissors, a wave of anguished noise rolled down from the packed bleachers. Shouts of “Noooo!” can be heard on the video.

Rosa did not run down to the mat. Neither did Sheridan. Later, they would be flamed on social media for not stepping in. But the situation was out of their hands. Would it have been less humiliating for Drew if his parents made him forfeit the match? How much hair would Drew have had left by that point? What could Rosa and Sheridan have done as the clock ticked down to zero?

When about half of Drew’s dreadlocks were gone, Maloney deemed him acceptable. Drew walked onto the mat with tears in his eyes, his face a mask of hurt and anger, breathing so hard his cheeks puffed out from his face.

Oakcrest’s David Flippen bloodied Drew’s lip in the first period. Watching the video, there are moments where Flippen’s hair flops past his eyebrows, which is supposed to be illegal. Drew’s legs convulsed with cramps. With less than a minute to go in the match, Flippen was on top of Drew, leading 2-1. Drew escaped, earning one point to tie the match. He was poised on top of the wall. Sudden-death overtime: The first wrestler to score again would win.

Less than a minute into the overtime, Drew emerged from a tangle of limbs and took Flippen down. Maloney blew his whistle. Drew staggered upright, let Maloney briefly raise his right arm, then yanked it away and stumbled off the mat.

Buena won the meet and at the end of the season won the division with a 6-0 record. Oakcrest finished 5-1.

Forty-five minutes after the match, Drew sat in a hallway, tears streaming down his face. Rosa massaged his trembling legs. He had broken down the wall. But another was rising in its place.


In the days after the video detonated on social media, reporters circled the high school. TV trucks parked outside the Johnsons’ house, right up to Christmas Eve. Sheridan, a cable TV equipment installer, and Rosa, an elementary school teacher in the Buena district, were deluged with comments, ranging from well-intentioned to overbearing to hurtful.

Man, Drew is a trouper. Glad he’s done with all that stuff. … What’s the big deal? … It’s just hair, it’ll grow back. …

Drew sat in his classes in a daze. He walked the halls with his headphones clamped tight. With his new celebrity supporters and fame, he felt yanked from euphoria to anger to depression. One day he left the wrestling room and walked past a basketball game. He felt every eye in the gym on him as he left the building.

Buena’s next match was canceled, with no clear explanation given. The match after that, the referee called the school and said Drew’s hair was still illegal. That match was canceled too. Now the whole team was being penalized. Nobody wants to suffer through making weight for nothing. Drew struggled with whether the canceled matches were his fault, and whether he should quit the team.

He decided against it. He was a varsity starter. The team needed him. Who knows what foolishness Nate would get into in practice without Drew. And if you mess around in practice, the matches will be hell.

Buena’s Andrew Johnson (left) has his 195-pound teammate Sammy Drogo (right) in his ear as they prepare to wrestle against Clayton at the Williamstown Duals in New Jersey on Jan. 5.

ANDREW MILLS/NJ ADVANCE MEDIA/BARCROFT MEDIA

Most of all, Drew just wanted to wrestle.

He got pinned in the two matches after his hair was cut, then recovered to win eight in a row at the end of January. He did well enough at the district meet to qualify for regionals but lost in the first round and ended his season with a 19-10 record and eight pins. Nate finished 21-7 with 15 pins.

The Johnson family has made no public comment since a statement six days after the December match.

“Wrestling has taught Andrew to be resilient in the face of adversity,” Rosa and Sheridan said in the statement. “As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community. We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”


There is a long history of white people trying to legislate and regulate the gravity-defying, shape-shifting glory of black hair. White people may think their rules are neutral, but they come from a mindset that, consciously or not, defines white hair as normal and black hair as deviant. Black hair must be controlled, conform or cut down. Its mere existence is often seen as illegal, from a North Carolina pool banning swimmers with locs to a Texas junior high school coloring in a boy’s part with a Sharpie.

Maloney has a horseshoe of dark hair around the sides of a bald scalp. He is 63 years old, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, with a paunch and an outsize reputation built on four decades of refereeing in South Jersey. He has held several offices in the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association, or NJWOA.

Maloney is an extremely knowledgeable official but also abrasive, frequently late to matches and a showboat, according to three wrestling coaches I spoke with and other coaches interviewed by NJ Advance Media. What the coaches didn’t need to tell me, because it received statewide media coverage, is that Maloney once called a black referee the N-word. Maloney was briefly suspended, but his punishment was overturned by the NJWOA.

All this history set the context for Maloney calling Drew’s hair “unnatural.”

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) follows the wrestling regulations of the National Federation of State High School Associations. The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” In a photo of Drew’s hair just before the match, he did not violate any of those restrictions.

The rulebook says that “the hair, in its natural state, shall not extend below the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back; and on the sides, the hair shall not extend below earlobe level; in the front, the hair shall not extend below the eyebrows.” This is a photo of Drew Johnson’s hair just before the match.

SNJ Today via Johnson attorney’s Jan. 9 letter to the state Division on Civil Rights

Amid the postmatch outrage, the NJSIAA and NJWOA agreed not to assign Maloney to any more matches until an investigation was completed. Three weeks later, Roy Dragon, who holds offices with both organizations, sent an email to NJWOA chapters to clarify the hair rules.

Dragon’s email tried to outlaw the hair that Drew still had left. The email, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media, showed examples of what it called illegal hair that required a cap, including this photo.

But the hair in the photograph was actually legal, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Asked by local media about that contradiction, NJSIAA executive director Larry White sent out another email, which included this guidance from the national rules federation:

“There is a wide spectrum of modern hair styles that might give the appearance that they are in violation of the hair rule, but in actuality they are just creative expressions of today’s youth,” the guidance said. It defined hair in its natural state as “how your hair appears when you wake up in the morning.”

But that still leaves room for judgment about what is “natural.” Can you wrestle with hair dyed orange? With gelled hair?

Can the people who run South Jersey wrestling recognize their assumption that everything white is normal and anything else needs to conform or get cut down?


It’s false to say that mixed-race people are caught between two worlds, but it’s a fact that the reaction to Drew’s haircut placed the Johnsons in a bind.

The support Drew received, locally and beyond, helped him and his family get through the experience. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted, “I don’t just wear locs. They are a part of me … So to watch this young man’s ordeal, wrecked me. The criminalization of what grows from him. The theft of what was his.” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said he was “deeply disturbed.”

But many supporters focused their outrage on Drew’s coaches, teammates, trainer, school and neighbors. “Why didn’t people as a group walk out of that room? It speaks to the culture that this is acceptable,” Rachel Green, a member of the civil rights group Action Together New Jersey, said at a public meeting called by the school district. Action Together called for racial bias training for the entire Buena district.

In a passionate Twitter video, four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist Jordan Burroughs, who grew up 15 minutes from Buena and attended the same high school as Maloney, told Drew: “The fact that the parents and the coaches in that gymnasium allowed for you to be put in that position and didn’t protect you is absolutely shameful.

“The bottom line is this young man, especially a young black man in a traditionally and predominantly Caucasian sport, out there defenseless, you guys gotta help this young man. You gotta protect him,” Burroughs said. He criticized Maloney — “You gotta pay the consequences of your actions” — and later FaceTimed with Drew to offer more support.

Drew’s coaches did argue on his behalf. The trainer reluctantly did what Drew asked her to do. Drew wasn’t thinking about systemic racism when Maloney started that 90-second clock. He was thinking about a division title.

And yet …

Buena can be uncomfortable for people of color. It’s one of 53 New Jersey towns that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after choosing Barack Obama in 2012. There is prejudice against Mexicans who come for agricultural work. Since Trump was elected president, a few Confederate flags have been spotted flying from pickup trucks at Buena high school football games.

“Buena is no different than most of the communities around here,” said the Rev. David Mallory, the black pastor of First Baptist Church in adjacent Richland. “There are still racial tensions in a lot of areas, but I also see more interracial activity that is favorable.”

Since Drew’s hair was cut, much of Buena has assumed a defensive crouch. Many residents don’t want to acknowledge the role of race in what happened to Drew.

“Ambivalence toward racism is a form of racism in itself,” Speziali told me.

Rosa and Sheridan grew up in Buena and enjoy living there, have meaningful friendships among people of all races and never told me anything negative about their home. But it was clear to me that Buena could become an inhospitable place if they spoke publicly about the toll Drew’s humiliation took on their family.

The uproar over Drew’s hair “upset me because it became a racial issue. Buena is a melting pot,” said one resident who is close to the Johnson family. The woman, who is white, did not want to be named in order to avoid upsetting the Johnsons. “My boys were brought up not to judge people based on color. We have all types of kids staying over at our house. We’re just a little town, as far from racist as possible.”

Well, maybe not that far.

“There’s a few racists, like anywhere else,” she continued. “But we’re family.”


A three-minute drive from The Line Up, inside the Sports Cuts barbershop, owner Frank Baldissero rings up haircuts on a 1950s-era R.C. Allen cash register. A 1932 photograph of Rockefeller Center skyscraper workers eating lunch in midair hangs on the wall. A grease board has customer appointments written into 15-minute time slots. “That’s my computer,” said Baldissero, who has been here 31 years.

The Johnson family, pictured from left to right: Matt, Rosa, Drew, Nate, Cami and Sheridan.

Johnson Family

At Sports Cuts, Maloney is the hero and the Johnsons are villains. “The kid got away with it for some number of matches and finally got a ref who followed the rules,” said Baldissero, whose head matches his name. “They didn’t enforce the rules until that point in time, and that’s it.”

“The media left out that no adults or coaches made him follow the rules,” chimed in Katrina D’Allessandro. Her son Will was getting his hair cut for the prom, a fade with bangs hanging down over the front.

“It was upsetting to a lot of people at school,” Will said. “Buena isn’t a racist school. We’re all diverse, we have different views. We’re all human. It’s just a matter of rules, I guess. The rules are that hair has to be a certain length. You can’t really have dreads.”

“The parents and the kid, they should step up and say this isn’t about race, it’s about rules. The kid didn’t follow the rules,” said Baldissero.

“The media is way out of whack,” the barber continued. “They turned it into a racial thing. It got to be a racial thing based on what the ref did years ago. People change. I’m sure he’s not the same person he was back then.”

What Maloney did “years ago” happened in 2016, during an informal gathering of referees after they worked a Jersey Shore tournament. During a disagreement about homemade wine, Maloney poked a black referee named Preston Hamilton in the chest and called him the N-word. Hamilton, a former wrestler, responded by body-slamming Maloney.

The NJWOA was asked to discipline Maloney, who was NJWOA membership chairman and training supervisor at the time. He apologized to Hamilton and volunteered to take alcohol awareness and sensitivity courses. The NJWOA ethics committee decided that Maloney should be suspended from refereeing for one year. The committee also suspended Hamilton for “assault.”

Both men appealed. Ethics appeals are handled by NJWOA officers, several of whom had been friends with Maloney for decades. They voted to rescind both suspensions, outraging a swath of the South Jersey wrestling community. Numerous schools told the NJWOA not to assign Maloney to their meets.

Maloney wasn’t interested in public contrition. “I really don’t think this should go any further than it’s gone anyhow. … It was two men, a group of guys, having fun and it was just a slip-up. If you can’t see past that, then I don’t know what to say. I made a mistake and I apologized for it,” he told the Courier-Post newspaper.

It was not his first mistake. In 2012, Maloney told a 6-year-old wrestler that he couldn’t compete with dreadlocks because “hair doesn’t naturally look like that,” according to a statement by a parent who came forward to state civil rights investigators after Drew’s haircut. Finally, “a younger referee, who was a person of color, told him that my son’s hair was natural and he was able to wrestle with it,” according to the statement, which was obtained by NJ Advance Media. Maloney also was accused of kicking an 11-year-old mixed-race wrestler after he wandered onto the mat during a match.

Maloney owns an auto repair garage in West Berlin, about 30 minutes north of Buena. I stopped by one afternoon in May and walked around the gray building with three car bays. A police car was up on one lift. I asked a mechanic if Maloney was around, and he went to get him.

I waited in the garage’s tiny office. Several NJWOA awards hung on the wall. “Presented in recognition for your outstanding achievements, leadership and contributions to New Jersey Scholastic Wrestling,” read one faded plaque. Nearby was a framed newspaper article from Maloney’s 1989 induction into the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame. The pinnacle of his competitive career was finishing fourth in the state in 1974. He started reffing two years later.

A short white man with a cigar jammed into his mouth entered the office. He was not Maloney. “Who’s calling?” the man asked. I told him.

“You have to leave,” the man said, and pointed at the door.

Maloney has filed a legal notice preserving his right to sue the Buena school district and 11 other possible defendants, not including the Johnson family. He is claiming defamation of character and emotional distress.


Mikey Morales spun Drew around in his barber chair and went to work on what was left of Drew’s dreadlocks. Hair fell to the floor, just like on the mat four months earlier. Only this time, Drew was reclaiming his identity as a mixed-race, bighearted athlete in a small town that doesn’t fully understand what it means to be Drew Johnson.

Drew had played baseball as a sophomore but decided not to go out for the team this past spring. He did go to the prom. He got an after-school job busing tables. Last summer, he worked on a farm during tomato harvest and received an all-expenses-paid scholarship to attend Burroughs’ wrestling camp in Nebraska. Nate went to the camp too. Drew is looking forward to wrestling his senior year with Nate. Their bond is closer than ever.

The civil rights division of the state attorney general’s office is investigating the incident, along with the NJSIAA. Their findings will determine whether Maloney will referee again.

Thanks to the publicity over Drew’s hair, other dreadlocks will thrive. California just banned employers and schools from discriminating against people based on their hair. A similar bill is pending in New Jersey.

Maloney saw Drew as another black boy who should have followed the rules. Now rules are changing because of Drew.

Morales snapped off his clippers. Drew looked at himself in the mirror. The sides of his hair were faded close to his scalp. A low carpet of hair lay on top. From the crown grew one last dreadlock, uncut, in its natural state, with inseparable strands of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States of America.

HBO’s ‘Say Her Name’ has few answers about what happened to Sandra Bland But new documentary gives her a voice, even in death

The mother of Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who committed suicide in a Texas jail after being hauled there for back-talking a police officer during a traffic stop, still doesn’t believe her daughter took her own life. In a new documentary, Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, which premieres Monday on HBO, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner follow the Bland family as they attempt to get answers about what happened.

Bland, 28, was starting a new life and career at her alma mater Prairie View A&M when she was pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on July 12, 2015, for failing to signal a lane change. Camera footage from the stop shows that Bland was compliant, but apparently insufficiently deferential to Encinia. He arrested her and took her to the Waller County jail, where she was charged with assaulting a law enforcement official.

Three days later, Bland was dead. A state autopsy and an independent autopsy concluded she died by asphyxiation, the result of hanging herself in her cell with a noose made from plastic garbage can liners. The independent coroner, in presenting her findings to the Bland family, surmises that law enforcement was indirectly responsible for Bland’s death — “Someone’s spirit can be broken in a short amount of time,” she said.

Bland’s death highlighted the fact that unjustified police violence, followed by character assassination via media release, is not only experienced by black men and boys.

The circumstances surrounding Bland’s death are still characterized by frustrating uncertainty. A jail employee who was supposed to check on Bland every hour while she was in solitary confinement falsified official reports of his work. He simply didn’t bother to walk down the hall to check that Bland was alive, but marked that he had.

Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith insists that Bland’s death had nothing to do with race. The state trooper who reached into Bland’s car to drag her out of her vehicle, as captured by dashcam and bystander phone camera footage, faced infuriatingly few repercussions. A grand jury indicted Encinia on a perjury charge that was later dismissed after he agreed not to work in law enforcement again. He was fired from his job as a state trooper, and that was it.

A makeshift memorial to Sandra Bland.

Courtesy of HBO

While the filmmakers gesture at broader issues of race and policing in Waller County, a couple of threads would have benefited from further exploration. Waller County is home to Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college. A Prairie View resident proclaims that the jurisdiction is overpoliced by five different law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff, state troopers, Prairie View police, and campus police. I wish Davis and Heilbroner had followed up with statistics comparing arrests in Prairie View with the larger, whiter community of Waller County at large.

Similarly, the film mentions that the Hempstead City Council fired Sheriff Smith from his previous job as Hempstead police chief due to complaints of misconduct and racial bias, but doesn’t provide further details. Smith was subsequently elected as county sheriff anyway.

Although Say Her Name leaves gaps in reporting the context of institutionalized racism that ultimately doomed Bland, it successfully communicates that she was a woman who was well aware of racial injustice and had a fierce passion for fighting it. The most compelling, but also heartbreaking, elements of Say Her Name are the Facebook videos Bland recorded on her phone to educate her friends and community about racism. She called them “Sandy Speaks.”

Bland talked about black-on-black crime. She blamed racism on both black and white people, saying both groups needed to make more friends across racial lines. She also cheerfully referred to the black people watching her videos as “kings” and “queens.” She was dedicated to educating herself and others — she recorded one video from the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, radiant with pride and enthusiasm.

“Sandy is gonna speak whenever I see something wrong,” Bland informed her audience. More than anything, the value in Say Her Name lies in its refusal to allow Bland to be silenced, even in death.

Two Starbucks employees say the anti-bias training was needed, but it’s not nearly enough ‘Maybe it can stand as a pillar of equality’

In April, Starbucks was in the news because a Philadelphia store manager called the police on two black men who were waiting for a friend. To address the bias that could lead to such an unfair response, Starbucks closed its doors early on Tuesday to send its employees through an anti-bias training session.

I talked to two employees from different stores who participated in different sessions. After the conversations I was shocked, confused, and slightly encouraged. Here are excerpts from our conversations. Frank is a white male in his late 30s. Mark is a person of color in his mid-20s.

Do you think the session was needed?

Frank: Absolutely.

Mark: Truthfully, as a person of color, I feel as though these are things I intrinsically already understand. But I believe it was necessary for my store specifically.

Mark: After the incident in Philadelphia, a co-worker asked me, ‘You know the whole Kanye West thing’ and I was like ‘umm, yeah, I do.’ And she went off saying that people online are calling him an Uncle Tom and a fake n—–. I went, ‘Excuse me?’ And she REPEATED HERSELF. And then she said, ‘it’s not like I was calling you a house n—– or something, I was just talking about the situation.’

Mark: On a different occasion a co-worker said to me, ‘I’m brown just like you, just on the inside’ while I was washing dishes one day. And another time, a friend told me that she heard transphobic comments as we just hired an individual who is transitioning. I didn’t report any of this, because it will just make a hostile work environment. I am trying to transfer.

What was the goal of the session?

Frank: The goal of the training was to bring into the light real-life racial, sexual, insensitive bias and to talk about how we can minimize those situations to the point that hopefully will have them no longer happen. Starbucks admitted that one four-hour training session isn’t going to fix any problems, so they made sure to stress that we all have to make efforts continue the progress that they made. (Neither man could remember the training facilitators giving recommendations for specific continued efforts.)

Mark: Being Color Brave was one of the main themes. The term colorblind was referenced as a platform long ago used to describe people who don’t see color, which is now known to be just as bad. Color Brave is being brave to be who you are and embracing your racial and ethnic backgrounds.

What happened in the sessions?

Mark: One of the first activities we did was introduce ourselves in small three- to six-person groups. We then were told to break off into pairs within those groups and make a list of eight reasons why we are different.

Frank: For me the most effective exercises were watching videos of people of color still telling stories about how they get followed in stores to ‘prevent theft’ and then hearing one woman say that she wishes she could walk out her door and feel carefree like the white guy she sees on the street. That last part is a direct quote and it bothered me to my core that still this bulls— continues.

Frank: They gave us 39-page workbooks. We were supposed to write our thoughts in them and take them with us.

Mark: They explained the difference between explicit and implicit bias. Then they ran us through the Stroop Color [and] Word test so we would understand that stereotypes are cognitive shortcuts we form.

Was the session beneficial?

Mark: For the company, perhaps. Maybe it can stand as a pillar of equality, great.

Frank: Yes. I think more companies need to do this, but the real change that needs to happen are everyday people coming to the same realization that racial bias needs to stop. That’s when true change will happen. I just wish it was easier. People give up because learning anything new is tough and Americans are lazy.

How would you describe the training with one word?

Mark: Needed.

Frank: Costly.

Closing 8,000 stores for a half-day most certainly cost Starbucks some profits. But the costs of biases are ordinarily paid by the same segment of our society. And they don’t get to pick the day or the price.

On April 12, when Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson were cuffed and arrested, they were forced to pay with a bit of their dignity. Though everyone knows one session won’t eradicate biases held by Starbucks employees, if the result of the session is a lower likelihood of an incident like that recurring, then Tuesday’s cost is a worthwhile investment.

At Morehouse, Starbucks executives seem unable to understand the burden of institutional racism To some students, the dialogue with the Seattle coffee powerhouse felt like a missed opportunity

ATLANTA — The timing couldn’t be better.

Just over three weeks after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for absolutely nothing, Morehouse College hosted a town hall Thursday featuring the company’s executive chairman, Howard Schultz, and chief operating officer Rosalind Brewer. The town hall, which had been two months in the making, gave the opportunity for both students and faculty of the Atlanta University Center to voice their opinions and concerns.

The topic of race, of course, heavily dominated the conversation, with the executives repeatedly decrying the actions of the Philadelphia manager. They also took responsibility for what Brewer called a “failure of leadership” while recognizing the unique opportunity afforded to them in this teachable moment.

“We at Starbucks,” said Schultz, “have a unique opportunity to elevate the national conversation about this in ways that we could not elevate it with ‘Race Together.’ ”

Still, for many students at the Ray Charles Performing Arts Center, the dialogue felt incomplete. The conversation began rather promisingly, with Schultz admitting to not having the answers to “navigate through this age of anger and rage and the intensity of racial divide.” Yet, by the time the question-and-answer portion began, not only had the word ‘racism’ not yet been used — replaced by buzzwords rooted in comfortability, like “racial bias” and “unconscious bias” — but only few concrete solutions had been presented. This caught many by surprise, including Morehouse senior and Student Government Association vice president John Cooper.

“One thing I can’t help but notice is they shy away from the word ‘racism’ throughout conversations on the stage, conversations on news, throughout conversations everywhere, especially from corporations,” said Cooper. “And I’m only saying this because though you have racial bias training — which I don’t really believe you can train somebody to be racially biased, though you can educate them on the racism — because the difference between racism and prejudice is that prejudice is more interpersonal but racism is where we start talking about institutional matters, and that’s where we see the institutional ills of capitalism tend to affect black people more specifically.”

Kamren Rollins, just like Cooper, took issue with the verbiage used as well as the conversation’s lack of reconciliation. Rollins, who served as Morehouse’s 86th SGA president, couldn’t believe Brewer described the manager as having exercised “poor judgment.”

“When you look at discriminatory decisions that are most often made against black people and that involve the police officers, it’s not just poor judgment,” said Rollins. “In many cases, it can be a death sentence. To say that it was poor judgment, that’s putting this situation in a very small box without giving much contextual or historical background on this subject, and I think that’s problematic.”

Statements like these, however, according to Morehouse associate provost David Rice, were at the crux of making this event effective. Rice, who moderated, wanted to give students the opportunity “to be seen and heard” as well as push the executives into a state of discomfort.

“I think the event was successful because of the opportunity for a good, healthy number of students to ask reasoned, thoughtful questions,” said Rice, “and my hope is that those reasoned and thoughtful questions will inform next steps. I’m not just talking the next finite step of their closing shop for half a day on May 29th but next steps in terms of execution, in terms of sustaining and in terms of innovation around racism in the workplace and beyond.”

This day of training, according to Brewer, will be only the first step in what she called a “total overhaul” in policy and guidelines. Still, with no concrete solutions being presented, one could only speculate on what will exactly take place on May 29 and beyond.

At the end of the day, it all came down to Brewer and Schultz’s inability to properly utilize the sacred space they inhabited. Rollins, who acknowledged the recent nature of the incident, offered his critique on what they should’ve done:

“Maybe start some type of committee to extend an olive branch so that if you have some ideas, if you have some tangible ways of fixing this and some suggestions, or partnering with professors,” said Rollins. “Here are professors at the institution that I’m sure can figure out ways or have, at least, some ideas so that we don’t just have a dialogue, because dialogue is not enough.”

Why a Jack Johnson pardon would be easier for Trump than Obama The first black heavyweight champ went to prison for sex with white women

Don’t be surprised that Donald Trump is expressing enthusiasm about pardoning Jack Johnson, while Barack Obama ignored it.

The first black heavyweight champion was wrongfully imprisoned a century ago by racist authorities, who were outraged by his destruction of white boxers and his relationships with white women. In 2004, a group of people began seeking a pardon for Johnson, but they were rebuffed by then-presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

Now, President Trump is tweeting that he’s considering the idea. Here’s why a pardon is easier for Trump than Obama:

Exonerating Johnson would have opened Obama up to racial repercussions unique to the first black president. The boxer enjoyed rubbing white America’s face in his profligate habits with sex, money, cars, clothes and jewelry. At a time when black men were lynched for even looking at white women, Johnson not only flaunted his Caucasian companions, he viciously beat at least one of them.

Johnson’s lifestyle was like “the hip-hop culture of its day, widely associated with black criminality and black masculine pathology,” wrote American University history professor Theresa Runstedtler in her book on Johnson. Obama pardoning Johnson would have appeared to some people like pardoning Tupac Shakur or Bobby Shmurda. Black Americans, meanwhile, are more uncomfortable than whites with interracial unions.

Even though Johnson deserves to have his record posthumously cleansed, Obama was focused on clemency for living victims of mass incarceration polices, which disproportionately affect the black community.

Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, circa 1909.

The Ring Magazine/Getty Images

Trump, meanwhile, was elected despite multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Pardoning a womanizer like Johnson doesn’t dent Trump’s image as much as it would have tarnished Obama’s (evidence that black folks still need to be twice as good to succeed).

Pardoning Johnson would send a valuable message to white America, which is Trump’s main constituency. “It helps us white people more than black people,” the filmmaker Ken Burns, who directed an illuminating Jack Johnson documentary, told me in 2016. “Black people don’t need this information [about racial injustice]. Black people know this already. It’s us white people who don’t know it.”

Finally, a pardon would provide Trump with an opportunity to do something, albeit symbolic, about racial injustice. Trump’s Justice Department is reviving the “tough on crime” policies that created the racially biased disaster of mass incarceration – the exact catastrophe that Obama tried to mitigate with both policy and his huge number of commuted sentences.

Overall, it’s a fitting irony that Trump is weighing a pardon Obama never chose to pursue.

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.





“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.




“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at natgeo.com/theraceissue.

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

Lt. Yulanda Williams The truth teller 27 years in uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more than a toehold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black and Blue: San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

A horrifying exchange

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

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

“Well said!” Furminger texted back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blurred lines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But its primary function is to defend cops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worried about her safety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new lieutenant at last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change, get fired or quit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

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

Life after football

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

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

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

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

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

Then verses 3 and 4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

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

Is there a downside?

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

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

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

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

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

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

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

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

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

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

A scandal in the department

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engaging the threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Davenport tried one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lesson of Jonah

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

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

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

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

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

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

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

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

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

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.

Artist Carrie Mae Weems talks ‘Grace Notes,’ patriarchy and punching Nazis Spoiler alert: She’s cool with it

It’s possible to carry an enormous amount of grace and still endorse punching Nazis. So says artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, who is performing her newest production, Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, tonight at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Weems began working on Grace Notes after a white supremacist opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, killing nine people. The “grace” refers to President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the attack.

I spoke with Weems on Thursday before she headed to the Kennedy Center for a rehearsal of the performance, which uses music, text, spoken word and video to explore the implications of race and violence in America. When I arrived at her narrow rented row house, Weems was on the phone with her assistant trying to solve a last-minute production dilemma. She offered up orange juice, and then we sat at a small bar-height table. Perhaps fittingly, a single blue pendant lamp hung over it, just in case the 2013 MacArthur Award winner was in the mood to revisit her acclaimed Kitchen Table series. Weems offered her thoughts on the 44th and 45th presidents, as well as the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you want to build a show inspired by President Obama singing “Amazing Grace” and the idea of holding on to grace in the face of racist violence?

I’ve been thinking a lot about him, thinking a great deal about his presidency, the meaning of his presidency, the way that he’s been treated as the first black president. Of the ways in which I thought he was a lot of ways maligned and misrepresented and attacked and targeted in the most vicious way.

The terror that accompanied his presidency was really enormous. … I thought that it would be really wonderful to thank him for his service to the nation, to thank him for his extraordinary accomplishment and his courage and his conviction. And his humility in the face of it all. And then, of course, he sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ which was like a shot heard around the world. For a week, two weeks, no matter where you went, no matter what radio station you turned on, whether it was in Berlin or Russia or South America, the United States, everybody had focused on this idea that he had sang this song, and beautifully, and what it called up in them was not unlike what it called up in me.

So in a dream — because I think most of my ideas come when I’m very, very relaxed or in that sort of in-between moment between being awake and asleep, in sort of a twilight zone. … So I was explaining in my dream to a group of students how they might approach making a work about our times and about Obama. It was just sort of laid out in my dream, and I woke up and I rolled over to my computer and I wrote about 30 artists, and I asked them if they would be willing to contribute to a gift box that I wanted to make for the president. They would be musical compositions by great composers and pieces of art and photographs and poetry and essays, and all of it. And I would package it all in a sort of beautiful way and offer it to the presidential library as a gift, as a reflection of what artists were doing during his time and our thanks to him as the first African-American president of the United States.

A number of black artists have blossomed since 2008 because the Obama family’s presence in White House was so inspiring. How has our current climate informed the way you think about things?

It’s sort of like the ‘changing same,’ as Amiri Baraka would say. We’ve always been pressed. The Obamas had to deal with it while they were in the White House running the country. They had to deal with the backlash of white America, conservative America, against their presence. And we’ve had to deal and negotiate that backlash and those feelings of anxiety since. Many of the texts, all of the texts that I wrote remain just as relevant as they were before Trump walked into the White House. It’s really the same sort of historical circumstances. It’s simply more revealed in the most heinous way, and that we would have the president of the United States as the focal point at that animus and anger, I think, is a thing that is really significant about the moment.

Who are you hoping Grace Notes strikes a nerve with?

I don’t imagine any number of conservatives rushing to see this show. I think I always make work for myself, first and foremost, because I’m trying to understand something. Negotiate something. Clarify something. Or just ask myself certain kinds of questions that I need to simply have hanging in the air around me. I may not have the answer. I don’t have the answer to many things. The older I get, the less knowledgeable I become.

As a MacArthur Foundation fellow, you’re a certified genius, though. It’s official.

But I do think that the thing that I care about most is asking the right kinds of questions for our time, and that is what I’m hoping to share with our audience. Just asking the right kinds of questions. So, for instance, what is grace?

So I started working on this piece, I don’t know, maybe two years ago, three years ago. I can’t remember anymore. Spoleto commissioned it after the Charleston shootings. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to call this piece Grace Notes: Reflections for Now.’ So what is grace? And I didn’t have an answer. I was still up at 7 this morning struggling with this answer. Struggling with the question. And trying to answer it for myself so that I might be able to provide something for the audience. But then I realized that I really needed to ask the audience the question.

That’s been the process. And so I’m hoping that it engages people that are interested in asking themselves reflective questions about where we are, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it. … What kinds of questions do we need to ask about the sort of ongoing systemic violence against black people? How are we culpable? Is there any moment in which we are culpable?

So my coming to terms, then, with this sort of idea about grace is, maybe it’s the way, even though we’re maligned and mistreated, that we offer the best of ourselves and the best of our humanity to others, even to those who wish we were dead. I am still offering my gift of humanity to you because I know how important it is. I know you need it. I know I can share it. I know that I can reveal it, help you see it so that charity and compassion become critical in the acts of living through grace.

I ask myself at a certain point, well, is it a quality? Is it a state of being? Is it an adjective, a noun, a pronoun, an adverb? And then I call my mother. And in the show there’s a recording of my mother talking about grace.

I’m hoping that, yes, that we ask questions of ourselves and of our audience, and that they walk away curious. If they walk away with just some other questions they consider, then I’ve done my job.

There’s so much frustration and so much anger. I mean, we’re having conversations about whether or not it’s ethical to punch Nazis.

It is. (laughs) Let’s just cut to the chase. Yes.

How do you find grace when you’re fed up? I was wondering, geez, what would you have done if instead of me at the door it was Richard Spencer? I don’t know that I have much grace to extend to him.

It’s bigger than you or I. I think it’s the condition that we have endured, and that in the process of that endurance that we’re still whole. Bent but not broken. Holding on to the core of ourselves. And still being willing to offer the breath of humanity to others, because we’re not actually walking around the streets and marching up and down and shooting white m—–f——.

I know that there is something sick about the way in which you have come to understand yourself in relationship to me. That’s a gift, that I say I don’t hate you. I don’t have the energy or the time to do that. I have to hold on to my humanity. I have to hold on to my dignity. Allowing this detritus to rob you of your essence, to rob you of your beauty, that would be the crime.

So I think that grace is much bigger than — it’s not turning the other cheek. It’s really understanding that someone has lost their humanity and you’re trying to offer it back.

After the Harvey Weinstein revelations came out, wave after wave of women — not just celebrities, but all sorts of women — have come forward to say, “I’ve been sexually assaulted or have been sexually harassed.”

I don’t think I know any women that haven’t been. Somebody has touched your a–, tried to f— you or did f— you. Almost every woman that I know. And we took it.

How do we overthrow hundreds of years of patriarchy?

Start with your husband. (laughs) Start with him. I think that this is really kind of a, what do you call it? A salient moment.

But we really have to talk about the sort of sense of silence that women have endured, have placed on themselves, the way in which we’ve muzzled ourselves because we wanted our job, we wanted a man, we wanted the position, we wanted to be with the boys. Whatever it is, we have to talk about that, too, as we talk about the larger issues of the ways in which women have been historically treated.

What’s your source of hope?

You. Us. Even in my dismay, even as I watch the moral fiber of the country collapse under the weight of this very dangerous man that’s in the White House, he’ll only be around for a minute. The arc of history is long, and we have much to do. As people in New Orleans said and other places, honey, we lived through Jim Crow and came through. Right? Couldn’t get on a bus. Couldn’t move around. Couldn’t drink from a water fountain.

In the broad scheme of things, it doesn’t mean a thing. It just represents the worst of what America has to offer. But we’ve always known that that was there anyway, so he’s in one way no surprise. We thought that we had gotten a little further down the road. But I do think of that silly saying, ‘Hope does spring eternal.’ And that I can’t allow this moment to rob me of my humanity. It’s a time to really invest and anchor and be clear about my intentions and what I believe is best for me and the people that I care about and think about and honor. And to figure out ways to do that in the best possible way that allows as many people as possible to participate in that and to look at that and to see that. And I think that, in some way, Grace Notes is that.