At the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta, Michael Gandy, now 28, draws from personal experience as a young black teen. He talks to his mentor and “big brother” Austin Scee, 44, about police, mentorship and the community’s responsibility in the nationwide conversation concerning youth and law enforcement.
Scee: So, Mike, I thought given everything that’s been going on in our country, now might be a good time to revisit something that happened to you and to me in 2008 when you drove up to our house. [My wife] and I met you at the end of the driveway. You were driving your mother’s car, which was a beat-up old car with, I think, fairly heavily tinted windows. You had a police car trailing you as you drove up our street. You made an illegal U-turn in a four-way stop to park in front of our house —
Gandy: Not the best idea —
Scee: Not the best idea with a police car trailing you. I immediately noticed that the police car turned around aggressively, and [the officer turned his sirens on]. [The officer] got out of the car and starting walking toward your door. He looked serious, not like it was a routine traffic stop to me, so I said to him: “That's my brother. Officer, that's my brother.”
I could tell that he really couldn’t hear the words that I said ... It was clear to me the officer was nervous, and he had his hand in place on his gun as he approached your window. And all I could do was stand there with [my wife] and keep her calm and hope that you would be calm and manage your way through the situation.
From our perspective, we sat there watching: I could empathize with the police officer and all of the things that might be going through his head. I could empathize with you in terms of what might be going through your head. Although I’ve come to learn from you later that some of the things I imagined might be going through your head weren’t. You were just worried about getting a ticket.
That was a pretty meaningful experience for me ... Now with eight years having passed and the context we’re currently in, how do you reflect on it?
Gandy: Looking back I think context is really important. This was 2008, four years before this really was a fire across the country. Trayvon Martin was [killed in] 2012, and there have been several [other shootings] in the past couple of weeks and years.
For me, I was an athlete; I played football and basketball. I was mostly in the car with my mom or traveling with you somewhere. Honestly, I didn’t interact with police at all growing up ... I was intimidated. I would always double-check and make sure I had my seatbelt on. I’d always be doing the right thing, but I’d become nervous. They were, to me, seen as an authority. They were police. They were the law: people I should respect and follow.
So when I was pulled over, it wasn’t a sense of terror — I was anxious more than anything. I wasn’t sure quite what to do; I guess I knew why I was being pulled over. I remember trying to get out of the car and being yelled to not open the door. I really didn't understand that. I was parked in front of your house. I had the right to be there.
I remember just partly being confused of what happened and just unprepared for that. We never talked about race; it was not a big issue for us … I was never in a situation prior to that where race was a factor, so I was really torn on if I did something wrong, if I really deserved that kind of treatment or if it really was fair for him to react in the manner that he did …
For more examples of Racial-Ethnic Fairness, go to JJIE Resource Hub | Racial-Ethnic Fairness » Resources
I think if [the shootings] of the past couple of years had happened before this incident, I would have reacted much differently. I think I would have been more aware, prepared and probably would have been more angry … just bothered by the scenario, which could have escalated ...
Scee: Yeah, I was just going to say if you had reacted in that [agitated] way, how might the situation have played out differently? You behaved the way I think I would have behaved when I was your age: I can’t afford a ticket; I don’t want points on my license. It was sort of a feeling of panic that you’ve broken a rule [as opposed to thinking]: ‘I might be in danger.’ If you had that type of reaction how might that have changed the situation for the worse?
Gandy: That’s a question I think about almost nightly or weekly whenever I’m lying in my bed: If I get pulled over today, am I going to react calmly? Am I going justify who I am, my education, my background? ... I have the right to look the way I look and act the way I act. I think it’s certainly not fair to be profiled like that, but it’s really tough knowing that this isn’t a fair place we live in, and people do have biases that they carry with them …
Scee: I can imagine how [my wife] would react if she were in the same exact position ... She would put herself in a lot of danger because she’s a 100-pound woman, she’s white ... She doesn’t put herself in any danger, but if she is challenged in these ways, she’s allowed to react. If I'm challenged in those ways, for the most part, I think I'm allowed to react [with frustration]. I find myself sometimes in random situations where somebody does challenge me in that way. I have to hold back the urge and the temptation to lash out and say, ‘That’s not fair.’ The repercussions for me to react that way if I weren't able to keep my cool are actually very minimal. For you they might be a lot [more serious].
The thing that occurs to me as I think about this broader challenge is for you it’s fine. You’re a mature adult. You’ve got an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree. You’ve got a good job. You understand the world in a fairly sophisticated way and you’re able to make those calculations in the moment: ‘I may want to react this way but I’m not going to.’ For a 15-year-old kid who doesn’t have access to mentors like [the Big Brothers Big Sisters program] provides or other programs and doesn’t have any other role models to look up to — other than possibly gang-related role models — the same expectation is put on them to react with calm and composure in that type of situation, and when they don’t the repercussions can be rather dramatic. I empathize both with law enforcement because those situations can legitimately be dangerous, and I empathize and sympathize with the kids [who] are put into those situations who haven’t had the benefit of a lot of the [mentorship] that you’ve had over the years.
Gandy: … Growing up I was taught you’re not supposed to be open and warm. You’re supposed to be able to fend for yourself, protect yourself … You [wear] not a frown but a look, you walk with a certain swagger, you carry yourself confidently with strength. Actually, I was with my little brother last weekend and we took a picture. In the first picture we took together, I’m holding a racket [because] we were playing tennis; and I’m smiling, huge smile, teeth are showing, and my little brother is standing there [with] a straight face. We had a great time, and I know we had a lot of fun. That’s how he carries himself … I think the environment that these kids are being brought up in really magnifies the situation —
Scee: So you’re saying the defense mechanisms that you learn as a young child — 5, 6, 7, 8 years old — on how to behave, how to walk, how to talk, and how to face challenges … what many children learn growing up is not how you react to things today —
Gandy: Right ...
Scee: — It’s a difficult thing to affect that type of change because those kinds of skills may be very important for that type of survival or whatever type of situation they find themselves in as children.
Gandy: It reinforces itself, it becomes habit … and you do it without noticing it. That really creates an adversarial role between the person and the officer, which really adds fuel to the fire.
Scee: … I’m a father now of a 7-year-old boy, and being a father is a really big responsibility. I never felt like I took on that responsibility with [you]. I never considered myself to be a father figure, more of a brother [figure]. But you said something to me at one point that surprised me a little bit, you considered our relationship more like a father-son relationship than a brother relationship. I’d be interested to know what you meant by that.
Gandy: You were the person that knew it all. Whenever I was in some kind of situation where I needed to figure out what to do, you were the person I trusted to provide advice … I think it goes to the age difference … I’ve always [put you] on this pedestal. You’re that guy on top of the mountain that I could look up to.
Scee: I can assure you that is not what being a father is like. [laughing]
Gandy: [laughing] That’s fair … You were just the guy that was always there [who] always coached me. Not having had a father figure in my life from the day I was born … until I met you I didn’t think about [having a father] at all. I didn’t think I needed [a father], I didn’t want [a father]. I assumed I’d figure out on my own, but as I became older, I had more questions on how to get through life … Having you as a resource, I assumed that’s what having a father was for; [it was] the relationship I had formed in my head.
Scee: I think I felt that way about my father once I was about 25. Before that, I kind of listened to what he said but mostly I fought [him] …
Gandy: I think it’s the level of [comfort] as well … [You] weren’t there every day —
Scee: — You never got to see my flaws —
Gandy: … I was comfortable [enough] with you to open up and be vulnerable but not comfortable enough to fight back. I think it’s a different [type] of relationship … I think what we have is really special what we have; I don’t know how to describe it.
Scee: Well, whatever this is, it’s special to me. I’m curious to know: What would your message be to kids 15 to 20 years old — that seems to be the sweet spot for when things can really go wrong. What would be your message be to that group? ...
Gandy: I don’t think you can tell a 15-year-old a message and really have it impact them. I think to really change a 15-year-old, you have to do what we did: You have to expose them to new experiences, you have to take them out of their environment, take them to new restaurants or to Disney World … just expose them to all the things that the world [can offer], and as they gain these kind of experiences, I think they become more knowledgeable …
When I was 15, if you had just told me to do something, I don’t think it would have had much of an impact … If you had called me over the phone and said, ‘Mike, you need to do better in school.’ I think that would have been another conversation that I would never remember.
Scee: What would be your message for police? Police have to deal with very dangerous situations. Their number one job at the end of the day is to get home safe in one piece [and] to be with their family for the most part. What would be your message be to them?
Gandy: I think they have a really tough job, and a lot of times they are in life or death situations, and I couldn’t imagine that feeling of having to go through that day in and day out. At the same time, I think they should put more of an effort into [understanding] the people they pull over, the people that they question … [Police should] get to know [the neighborhoods they serve], to understand their culture, the way they speak, their music and understand what a day in the life is like for them.
… If they continue to see [the issue] as an ‘us versus them’ [situation], they [will] see younger black males as objects that they’re afraid of and intimidated by [and] not afraid to shoot … If they can build empathy toward them by getting to know them and understanding who they are and their culture, I think [building those relationships] would have a large impact and help de-escalate a lot of very intense situations. I would ask they spend this Saturday afternoon getting to know someone different from them …
Scee: … What would be your message to young black men who could potentially start to see those [at-risk individuals] as role models?
Gandy: … I think it has to be more of a community thing where people have to figure out ways to bring everyone up [and] to speak to these guys who are causing trouble ... Maybe the community should do a better job working with police officers. I think you have more of an impact by helping the community identify people who are causing problems so that the police can do their job better [as opposed to] having everyone identified by police as troublemakers. I think that could be really helpful.
Scee: And to do that, it gets back to integration of [positive police presence] into the neighborhoods … If the police and the communities can work together, maybe [there will be] a good result.
Gandy: I think that would be amazing … as [people] know each other [more], they [will] care about each other more. I see it being more beneficial to both sides …
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — For a few seconds on July 10, the ear-splitting police noisemaker — referred to as an LRAD — and the chants demanding justice for Alton Sterling awkwardly paused at exactly the same moment. I closed my eyes in relief. As if on cue, a lone cicada cried out from the tree above, the insect’s call piercing the air, but not the tension.
With my eyes closed and the cicada's solo still echoing through the sweltering heat of a Sunday afternoon in Baton Rouge, I saw neat bungalows, crape myrtles and longleaf pine trees. I imagined a crawfish boil, kids on bikes, grandmothers with church hats.
But when I opened my eyes, we were still surrounded on three sides by an army of militarized police.
Officers still gripped automatic weapons, still wore gas masks and bulletproof vests, still held tear gas cylinders ready to be fired. Gunmen peered out from quickly approaching armored vehicles, fingers still hovered only millimeters above triggers.
The protesters were still there, too, many of them young, teenagers or college students. They still had "Black Lives Matter" and "Stop the Killing" emblazoned on their shirts, fists of power and unity still rising into the air. Handmade signs still demanded justice for Alton Sterling, who was still dead.
It still looked like a war zone.
The early morning July 5th shooting death of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers is a tragedy that was caught on video by an activist and shared on social media for the world to see. What happened the following Sunday made me wonder what happens in Baton Rouge when the world isn’t watching.
In only a few hours I would go from covering a protest to being handcuffed, transported to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and thrown into the general population. I was arrested while trying to cover the story of young people’s reaction to the stark footage of one of their neighbors getting killed by police on video.
I’ve worked for JJIE for nearly a year, covering juvenile justice and issues of police brutality, examining a system seen by many in it to be out of control and unpredictable. As a reporter, I have always been an outsider looking in. But getting arrested and thrown in the inside was edifying. Even if the arrest was illegal and the imprisonment disorienting, being on the inside gave me a profound insight into how it feels to be suddenly thrown into the system I had been covering.
Marco Poggio and I were on assignment for JJIE, covering youth reactions to the killing of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police officers Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II.
Since the killing, which was recorded and released on social media on July 5, some residents of Baton Rouge and the nation have called for the arrest of the two officers, who are now on paid administrative leave, and a rigorous investigation into the broader practices of the Baton Rouge police department.
The night before an officer had aimed a department-issue assault-style gun at protesters and journalists — including me. While Marco edited video, I spent the morning and early afternoon emailing back and forth with a police communications person.
Now, I found myself in a sea of chanting protesters at the corner of France Street and East Boulevard in the Beauregard Town neighborhood. I glanced down France Street and saw a military vehicle and dozens of heavily armed officers marching slowly up the street, batons banging against their shields.
Another sign caught my eye: “No Justice, No Peace — We Shouldn’t Fear the Police.”
As protesters of all races chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “Take Off Your Riot Gear,” I climbed up on a hilly yard overlooking the street to get a better view. I was excited, but not fearful. Not yet.
Instead of stopping, the military vehicle rolled into a young woman holding a sign with an image of the Statue of Liberty. At the same time, an officer in a gas mask dragged a woman in a gray tank top past me and down the street — she looked remarkably calm. Hundreds silently screamed, the sound of their shouts drowned out by the blaring LRAD.
Then, just a few feet in front of me, at least eight white officers suddenly tackled a black man in a blue shirt, pushing him to the ground and handcuffing him as he tried in vain to protect his camera.
Somewhere between the close call with the tank-like vehicle and the vicious takedown of the man with the camera, my excitement at covering a breaking news story started to turn into fear.
I’d been to protests in New York, Boston and elsewhere and have encountered heavily armed police. I’d seen armored vehicles and heard LRADs before. But never before had I witnessed officers risking the safety of so many, including themselves — not on the Mass Turnpike in Boston, not in Times Square and not more recently on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where I had covered anti-police brutality protests before being sent down to Louisiana.
In Baton Rouge, it seemed as if the police came ready for war.
Amid the mix of cops, protesters, guns and cameras I recognized a female officer with a ponytail and a purple T-shirt. It was the officer who’d pointed the long gun at me the night before.
A weird part of me hoped she would recognize me. I wanted to ask where was her long gun now. Did her commanding officer take it away like I used to do my kids if they didn’t play nice with their toys?
If she recognized me, she didn’t let on, but an officer in a gas mask and a green T-shirt looked straight at me, almost as if posing for the camera. I got off a few good pictures before he barked at me to get down or I would be arrested, a threat I believed. Police had arrested at least two journalists the night before.
So I jumped down and ran behind a different group of officers. I filmed as they chased an older black man wearing dress pants and a vest. I tried to keep the camera steady while officers tried to block me from filming their colleagues twisting back the elder’s arms and smashing him to the ground.
I looked up to get my bearings. I was on France Street, just west of East Boulevard.
The next 40 or so minutes was an uneasy calm, like finding yourself in the eye of a hurricane. Police lined up on three sides facing the protesters, who were cornered. While Marco took video, I charged my phone with a portable charger and shared a few uneasy laughs with the people around me.
A legal observer in a neon green hat used a Sharpie to write an emergency number for the National Lawyers’ Guild on the arms of protesters.
The sun sunk low in the sky. I shot a video of the two bungalows across the street drenched in evening sunlight, as protesters shouted, “Black Lives Matter” and the police stood nearby. I’d just published the video on Twitter when a voice crackled over a loudspeaker.
— Karen Savage (@mathsavage) July 11, 2016
“Leave now or you will be arrested,” said the voice.
Protesters moved back. The voice said, “That’s not good enough.”
A minute later, an invitation from a nearby resident began to ripple Occupy-style through the crowd. The woman welcomed protesters to seek safety in her yard. Thinking they would be safe on private property, they poured onto her green grass at the southwest corner of the intersection.
I thought about following them into the yard, but decided to stick with the sidewalk. The yard was crowded and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to move around to get pictures. I was still wondering whether or not I’d made the right choice when the mostly white officers in full combat gear stormed the yard. From where I stood it was an unprovoked attack on peaceful protesters.
Everywhere I looked, officers chased down petrified young people, brutally dragging many into the street and arresting them. Protesters yelled, screamed, ran through yards and jumped over fences, trying not to trip over each other as they fled. Terror filled their faces as they dropped their signs and ran for their lives.
In the face of the assault, I witnessed only nonviolent reactions from the protesters. Most were easily overpowered during the violent attack by police. To my right, three white officers held a black man in a red shirt face down on the concrete. A black officer kept watch while others tried to block the scene from onlookers’ cameras.
With one of the officer’s knees pressed into the back of his neck, the man’s mouth formed as if to call out, but his scream was drowned out by sirens and yelling and sounds of other people screaming.
After that it seemed like officers picked us off one at a time. As I ran with the crowd I worried about Marco, who I’d lost sight of in the chaos.
A woman in a dark T-shirt ran alongside me until she was tackled by two officers as a larger officer with a rifle stood watch. I felt helpless — there were three officers on her and they had guns, armor, tasers, gas and batons.
“Run!” she yelled.
Looking down from the tree, the now silent cicada must have been horrified.
Officers zip-tied and dragged people — sometimes on their feet, sometimes on their knees or back — down the street. I wondered for a minute where they went after they left the immediate area.
I peered behind the gas masks and face shields into the officers’ eyes. Many seemed vacant and prepped for battle. From their almost mechanical behavior, it felt as though they'd prepared to battle Iraqi insurgents or Taliban fighters.
A few looked scared. One looked sick to his stomach, perhaps wondering if his neighbor or barber or daughter was among the crowd.
The three large groups of police then joined together to form one larger force. An army of police stretched out across France Street, spilling over the sidewalk, up onto neatly cut grass and all the way to the sides of the houses on one side and into parking lots on the other.
— Karen Savage (@mathsavage) July 11, 2016
They told us to get out of the street, but there was no way to get out. The protesters were surrounded. So was I.
Since taking a picture of an earlier arrest, I felt like one of the officers was following me. I thought I might just be paranoid, but it seemed as if he was coming toward me when the commanders called officers back into formation at the intersection.
Those who seemed to be the police department’s main targets — a few young black men leading a now much smaller group — continued to walk peacefully down the street with their fists in the air.
I tried to get good pictures and saw three armored vehicles following the line of officers down the street. From the kitchen windows of nearby houses, it must have given the impression of some sort of demented military parade.
Then, again with no provocation, the police charged. The last protester I saw was a young white woman, fear etched on her face, running from seven or eight red-faced officers.
As I ran through a fast food restaurant’s parking lot, I heard heavy boots behind me hitting the pavement. The sound of the boots became more muffled as they followed me off the asphalt onto a landscaped area. I headed for the restaurant’s door, reminding myself that I had press credentials in my right pocket.
I never made it to the door.
He grabbed my arm from behind and pulled me backwards, then shoved me forward again. I fell into the rocks and shrubs and dirt. Bizarrely, I worried more about breaking the camera’s lens, which I’d borrowed from my school’s equipment room, than about myself.
As he yanked me back again, I fell, then tried to get up.
“Are you resisting?” he asked.
“I'm a journalist, my credentials are in my right pocket, you can take them out,” I said, using the calmest voice I could muster.
“Fuck you, journalist,” he shouted from behind my ear. “You don’t listen.”
I felt hot breath on my neck.
He pulled my arms back, forced my hands together and pulled the plastic cord of the cuffs. Instantly it felt as if lightning bolts shot through my left wrist and hand. I tried not to wince as he dragged me out of the shrubbery, across the parking lot and into the street.
See story and slideshow in Bokeh: Violence by Police, Against Police Risks Tearing Country Further Apart
“Could you loosen it a little? Please,” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“Which one hurts?” he replied.
I nodded silently toward my left hand, now puffy and bluish red.
He grabbed the plastic cuff on my right hand, grunted and pulled it tighter.
“Motherfucker,” I thought to myself.
The pain made me dizzy and I tried not to fall.
I wished it didn’t hurt. Partially because it was painful as hell, but mostly because I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d hurt me.
“Take it off,” I demanded, still trying to act tough.
A grinning cop in the passenger seat of a white police van held up a military knife with serrated edges and a sharpened tip.
“Want me to use this?” he asked with a smirk.
“Fuck you,” I said.
I heard someone yell my name and I turned to see a friend up the block. I tried to shout my editor's email address to her, but it was hard to remember. The pain in my wrists was shooting up my arms.
“Shut up, or we'll arrest her, too," said the officer with the knife.
Then the officer who caught me dragged me back toward the yard on East Street.
About halfway there, he slowed down, leaned close to my face, pulled my arms down and yelled again, “Fuck you, journalist.”
Maybe his buddies were watching, maybe he thought it made him look tough. Or maybe he’s just an asshole, I thought.
After what seemed like an eternity, he handed me over to a slightly less pissed-off cop.
By then I couldn’t stand straight, the pain in my left wrist was unbearable. The less pissed-off cop looked at my hand.
"What the hell did they do to you?" he said.
He asked another officer for clippers to cut the ties and someone said to take me to female transport, which was a few blocks further.
At the female transport area, a different male officer struggled to wedge what looked like pruning shears between the ties and my left wrist. We were both dripping with sweat, and the clippers slid sideways on my skin, but wouldn’t go under the plastic band.
The officer told me I had to hold still and then rammed the tool under the plastic tie. The edges of my vision grew dim and I could hear myself scream. Finally, the left cuff popped off, then the right. I could breath again.
The officer quickly pulled back my hands and put on more ties. They were still painful, but not excruciating like the last pair.
He sat me down on the curb with about 20 other women. A female police officer said my earrings could be used as weapons and she put them in a clear bag. Then she took off my gold chain, the one with the “#1 Mom” charm that my children had given me years ago.
I was still thinking about the necklace when I realized my phone was in my back pocket. They took my earrings and necklace, but they didn’t take my phone. I decided to keep doing my job as long as I could, taking pictures of the women next to me and of officers loading other women into the vans.
I expected that they’d take it at any moment. So I maneuvered the phone out of my pocket and called Daryl, my editor, to tell him what happened. I added Marco to the call and we talked for a few minutes, but then I lost them both.
I forwarded Daryl the pictures and videos I’d taken throughout the afternoon and returned a text to my daughter, Aiesha, to let her know I was ok. She had already learned through Facebook that I’d been arrested. For a minute it felt like the world really was watching.
I told Aiesha to make sure everyone knew what had happened, to let people know this was an attack on peaceful protesters. She told me she loved me. After a few minutes, an officer noticed and snatched my phone.
The woman to the left of me introduced herself as Tammy. She tried to comfort her daughter, who was crying. Tammy said they had been to the protest with her 5-year-old son, A.J., and their puppie, Kelso. Tammy and her daughter, Alexus, were taking turns staying with A.J. in the car when suddenly police swooped in, eventually arresting them both. She said officers pulled Alexus, 17, out of the car as her little brother watched.
Tammy said police told her she would be charged with abandonment of her son, who would be turned over to Louisiana’s Department of Social Services. I turned my head to hide the tears I felt rolling down my face.
The woman to my right said she was standing with her husband when they were both tackled by a gang of officers. As we talked, I noticed the curb felt oddly smooth and cold in the sweltering heat. Then realized I wasn’t feeling the curb at all. My hand was numb.
After about an hour, an officer walked me to the transport van. Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” played on the radio and the air conditioning was running full blast. Both were a welcome relief and I felt relatively safe for the first time in a few hours. I sunk into the soft bench-style seat.
Officers eventually squeezed 14 of us into the back of the van. There were only 13 seatbelts, but it didn’t much matter, since we were still zip-tied. We couldn’t put them on and officers didn’t bother. I thought of Freddie Gray in the back of an unpadded police wagon and of rough rides as the women around me talked and laughed nervously.
The woman next to me, whose name was Sophie, still had her phone. I leaned forward to block the screen’s glow from lighting up the dark van while she twisted her still-cuffed hands and typed out messages for our families. She posted audio on Facebook as I interviewed Tammy and Alexus.
About 20 minutes later, the van’s female driver turned into a driveway at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, pulled through a set of security gates and up to a door.
A female officer took us out of the van and lined up against a barbed wire-topped fence. When a male officer came out of the heavy door, we were told to enter. Another male officer told us to sit down on the benches that lined the hallway.
One by one, sheriff’s officers asked for our date of birth and the correct spelling of our names. They cut off our zip-ties and took any remaining jewelry from us, including a small bracelet I still wore.
After a few minutes, the officer led us through more doors and a metal detector, then past two cells filled with at least 15 men. Officers lined us up on a dirty cinder block wall around the corner from the men. I smiled with relief when a friend called out to me from behind the pink bars of a women’s cell, which was on the end of a longer row of six or seven 8- by 12-foot cells.
All were empty except the pink cell, which was on the end, and the one next to it, which already held about 15 women each.
A male officer opened the pink cell door with a metal two-pronged key and told seven or eight women on the wall near me to go in. When there was no more room, he slammed the pink sliding metal door shut.
The officer told the rest of us to go into the cell next to the pink cell. He slammed the dirty tan barred door and smirked.
“Stay quiet,” he said.
Four of us sat uncomfortably on each of the two wooden benches that lined opposite sides of the cell while Ki, who had been in the van with us, figured out how to use the phone and called the number written on protesters' arms. In the back, a short partition provided little privacy for anyone who needed to use the dirty metal toilet. Ki patiently relayed our names and birthdays to the National Lawyers’ Guild volunteers on the other end of the line.
Formerly incarcerated people I’ve written about have almost all told me one of the worst parts about the experience is not knowing what will happen next. I have a fairly decent idea of how the legal system is supposed to work, but it was little help. I didn’t know what I’d been charged with or if it was a charge with a preset bail.
Once Ki hung up, the phone worked only sporadically. When I last spoke with my editor, I didn’t know where I would be taken. Now I had no way to tell him where I was.
It made no sense to me that we were in a prison, not a jail. I later learned from staff that it was because the system was utterly overwhelmed by the number of protesters arrested by police.
For the next five hours we stayed in the cell except when the guards pulled us out a few at a time for fingerprinting and mug shots. Both male and female guards seemed to enjoy slamming the door each time anyone came or went. Maybe they felt powerful because they could make a big noise.
Even with some of us sitting near the now-plugged-up toilet, there wasn’t even enough room on the floor for all of us to sit down. A woman standing near me said her name was Jordan. As we talked, she told me she had two young boys.
Jordan said she already worries about what the police might do to them when they’re teens. She brought them with her to the protest on Friday night because she wanted them to know adults cared about them. She said she was arrested on Saturday on Airline Highway while draped in a flag.
Only a few of the young women with me had been in a cell before and at one point they started to sing to keep their minds off the deplorable conditions. Their song drew the attention of a fat white officer named McGraw. He sauntered over, pointed to a canister near his pocket and issued an ultimatum: Shut up or get maced.
Like the cicada, they stopped singing.
A while later, a pepper spray-like smell drifted into our cell. As we sneezed and coughed, someone said the men's cell had been gassed. They cheered the release of male protesters who were arrested the day before.
A few hours later, as I sat on the floor near the toilet, I looked at my knees. I noticed for the first time they were scraped and bleeding and realized they hurt. My pants were ripped and so was one of my shoes. Now that I was paying attention, I felt a pain in my right ankle. My left hand was still numb and my right hand tingled. I was exhausted.
And I was worried about Marco. I didn’t know where he was or if he’d been arrested after we talked.
Throughout the night we rotated, taking turns sitting and standing in the tiny cage and I tried to remember to count whenever anyone was put in or taken out. The most I counted was 24 and the pink cell next door was just as crowded. Tammy and Alexus curled up next to each other between a bench and the toilet. A few of us tried to sleep, but the light, the noise, the cold and not knowing what would happen next kept us awake.
At about 3:30 a.m. I was sitting on a corner of the bench leaning on the tan metal bars when a female officer opened the door. She called five or six of us to line up on the wall outside the cell and led us down the hall, past two or three empty cells.
At the end of the hallway, we stood against another wall and she threw us each a clear bag filled with dark green prison garb. Three at a time she directed us into a small closet-like room and told us to take off everything but our panties and put on the clothes in the bag.
My shirt was enormous — the arm holes extended down to my waist — but at least my pants stayed up. When I put on the tan slip-on house shoes, I noticed my sock was stained with blood.
As soon as we all changed, the officer lined us up on the wall again and led us through a door to a covered walkway. Sharp razor wire glistened menacingly above, but the warm, humid South Louisiana air wrapped itself around my tired body and I relaxed a little. The guard told us to stop and we waited for a dark metal door to open.
A female guard opened the door from the inside and icy cold air poured out. She told us to walk through the door and line up against a wall. I could feel condensation on the cold cinder block wall.
Another female guard told six of us to go through another door. The tiny room had stacks of VHS tapes and a few books. A small handmade sign on a rickety bookcase said, “Law Library,” but looked more like a junk closet, with chairs, boxes and bags thrown haphazardly around the room.
The guard pushed a few boxes out of the way so we’d all fit in the room. She closed the door.
She told the six of us — including 17-year-old Alexus — to take off all our clothes, squat and cough. There was absolutely no privacy, everything had to come off. I looked down at the floor and felt cold air hit my skin.
When everyone was done, the officer told us to put our clothes back on. She led us out of the room and again lined us up on the wall.
I was surprised when another guard appeared from around a corner and passed out blankets that were still warm from the dryer. I wrapped myself in the thin blanket and closed my eyes, relieved to be fully covered.
The guard who did the strip search told us to walk to the next door, where another female guard assigned us to our cell lines. I was assigned to line S-01. I wondered what the “S” stands for.
The dormitory-style cell’s 20 bunk beds were mostly filled and cots lined an outer common area. Guards directed a few of the women with me to fill the rest of the bunk beds and sent the rest of us to the cots.
I laid down and pulled the thin blanket over my head. I was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. I worried about my friend back in the pink cell. I wanted to know where Marco was. I thought about my four children, who can now boast that both of their parents have done time in prison.
I thought about how absurd it was that prisoners in Louisiana’s Angola prison had to sue the state because temperatures in their cells often soared into the triple digits while the same state was freezing my ass off with this air conditioning.
About an hour later bright lights came on and a guard told us to line up for breakfast. It was 4:15 a.m. Breakfast was pancakes and something that looked like sausage. To drink we could choose two: water, orange-colored water or coffee-colored water. After breakfast, we came back to the line and did absolutely nothing.
The majority of the women had been there since before the protests and the increase in arrests began. A woman said the guards placed the cell on lockdown because they’re short-staffed and can’t handle the influx of protesters. She said she didn’t like lockdown, but respected the protesters.
I’d spent most of the spring working on a story on parole and wishing I had access to incarcerated women. Here I was, suddenly inside, surrounded by incarcerated women, most of whom were there for crimes other than protesting, all with a story to tell.
Somehow the regulars knew when the morning inspection started. An older lady told me to hurry and make my bed. I spread the thin blanket over the moldy, stained mattress and tucked it in.
Later in the afternoon, we were lined up and taken to “see” the judge, which was really a Skype-like call to Judge Bonnie Jackson. For the first time, we were read our rights and she informed us of the charges against us. Like all the women arrested with me, I was charged with obstructing a highway and resisting arrest.
A few minutes after we left “court,” I was told my bail had been posted. I was processed out and released about an hour later.
Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson justified the enormous response by saying protesters were “throwing some pretty large chunks of concrete, much larger than both of my hands they were throwing at police and hit several of them on the head.”
The officers were wearing helmets, he said, so they weren’t injured.
As a journalist, I wish I'd witnessed the concrete Superintendent Edmonson said was thrown by protesters. I would have tried to get a picture or, with a little luck, caught it on video.
When asked if any of the at least three police photographers on duty captured the incident, a spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department said via email he is not aware of any such images.
An FBI alert warned of possible general threats to law enforcement, but if authorities knew of a specific threat during this protest, they did not share it with the public or the media.
In an attempt to be fair, I watched dozens — maybe hundreds — of videos while writing this article, hoping to link to the “concrete” throwing Edmonson spoke of. I found only two videos showing thrown objects. One was a water bottle. In the other, an object soared high into the air and did not appear to be a chunk of heavy concrete.
After Sunday’s chaos, Edmonson said, “I was certainly pleased with what I saw here.”
I was not. I saw absolutely nothing to warrant the militarized, violent and utterly terrifying police response I experienced on this Sunday afternoon. What I saw made me wonder how many more Baton Rouge residents have been subjected to police brutality. I wonder how many have gone unreported and uninvestigated.
I saw nothing to alleviate Jordan’s fear for her children’s safety, in fact just the opposite.
When I told one of the regulars in my cell I was a journalist, she went back to her bunk and returned with a piece of paper and a pencil.
“Write,” she said. “Please write about us.”
This story has been updated.
Karen Savage is a correspondent for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and is completing her master’s degree at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. She reports on juvenile justice and social justice issues in New York and on the Gulf Coast.
A circuit court judge acquitted Lt. Brian Rice of all charges related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray today, the Baltimore Sun reported. The next trial of an officer in the case is scheduled for July 27.
NEW YORK — Nicholas Heyward Sr., 58, remembers the night. It was a warm Tuesday in 1994 and the sun had yet to set. Neighborhood children trickled into the Gowanus Houses, the Brooklyn housing project where he lived, answering their parents’ calls, while others stayed outside to enjoy the remainder of a beautiful fall day.
Heyward’s 13-year-old son, Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr., was one of those few. His friends had called him from outside to play a quick game of cops and robbers. After finishing his homework and begging permission to go out, the honors student at Nathan Hale Middle School was ready.
The game was easy to divide into teams: five cops and four robbers. One of the boys had gotten the toy guns from the Atlantic Antic, an annual parade on an adjacent street. Throughout the evening, the boys laughed and joked as they ran through the 423 Baltic Street projects, including up on the building’s scenic rooftop — this was their playground.
On the ground below, a 23-year-old housing officer named Brian George reported for a routine patrol.
By 3 a.m., Heyward Jr. would be dead.
Over the last 22 years, New York City has seen 63 fake-weapon deaths. Last year, New York state tried to do something about the problem, passing a law requiring that retailers selling toy guns make them look more like toys.
And in December, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman described a settlement requiring fines of up to $30,000 for online retailers who sell illegal toys. The settlement followed an investigation revealing that 5,000 toy guns were sold within the state last year — most of which resembled or were replicas of deadly serious firearms, guns, pistols and rifles.
The settlement currently prevents 30 major retailers, including chains such as Walmart, Amazon, Kmart and Sears, from selling guns that are not fluorescent, “brightly colored or have colored striping down the barrel.”
The measure could save lives — but it brings little comfort to Heyward, who believes that the appearance of his son’s toy — a small Western-style popgun with a long orange tip — didn’t make any difference.
At about 7:30 p.m., Officer George committed what would later be deemed a “tragic accident” by Charles Hynes, then the Brooklyn district attorney. The young officer climbed the stairs of the housing project, allegedly in response to shots fired in one of the two housing towers.
With his finger on the trigger of the .38-caliber service revolver he carried, George cautiously climbed the stairwell. Simultaneously, Heyward Jr. and the three “robbers” energetically hopped their way down the steps with their old, 18-inch, brown and black Western carbine-styled toy guns in tow. They were ready to get the “cops” and win the game.
Heyward Jr. led the way. When he turned the corner he saw Officer George. The two faced each other, and in that split-second, each made a life-altering decision. Heyward Jr. dropped his toy gun, according to court testimony, as George shot his real gun.
The last thing his friends heard Heyward Jr. say was, “We’re only playing. We’re only playing,” but by the second sentence, George had already shot him in the stomach.
Following Nicholas’ death, Hynes described the boy’s toy as “virtually indistinguishable from a real gun,” and did not present the case to a grand jury, shocking Heyward’s friends and family. Heyward Sr. was furious.
“He lied and placed the blame on the toy gun. He had an entire table full of realistic-looking toy guns to show people what Nicholas and the other boys were playing with — guns resembling those,” he said. “But that’s not what Nicholas was holding when he was shot. That gun was obviously fake.”
Heyward Sr. wants to persuade Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson to re-examine his son’s fatal shooting. The statute of limitations has expired for most criminal charges, but not for murder. Last week he and about 23 other activists picketed Thompson’s office, urging action.
Hayward Sr. says George's statements about the incident have been inconsistent, especially as to whether he spoke to Heyward Jr. before firing the fatal shot. Hayward Sr. also wants Thompson to investigate the conduct of his predecessor Hynes, who ruled that the incident was an accident even though the toy gun Hayward Jr. had had an orange tip and was much smaller than a real lever-action rifle.
A spokesperson for Thompson said earlier this year he will re-examine the case but did not provide a timeline for when that would happen.
While the police collected and stored the original toy as evidence, Heyward Sr. said he bought a year later an identical gun at the same Atlantic Antic festival where the original had come from.
These days, he brings the toy with him to every gun violence protest he attends to show people how his son was killed. “Plastic toy guns are not dangerous weapons, it’s the officers,” he said. “You’re telling me trained police don’t know the difference between a toy and a real gun?”
At the time of his son’s shooting, Heyward Sr. was picking up his niece from her school in the Bronx. He didn’t know it yet, but Heyward Jr. was lying unconscious in a 14th-floor stairwell. “My pager was ringing like crazy,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Moments after he fired his gun, George paced the hallway just outside the stairwell door, leaving a dying Heyward Jr. alone with his three friends. Uncertain of what to do, the officer called in the incident and left in search of a local resident. According to court testimony, he then brought an elderly Hispanic woman to the scene and began to question her.
“Do you know this kid?” he asked. “Can you go get his parents?”
Heyward’s then-wife, Angela, rushed to the scene minutes after eight — but she was too late. By the time she arrived, as many as eight officers were already blocking off the stairwell door, refusing her access.
“She was right there and she couldn’t even touch him,” said Heyward Sr. “She was there on the 14th floor and right behind the door was her son, bleeding out and dying.”
Angela Heyward would be deprived of the chance to see her son twice more before his death — once on the ambulance ride to the hospital and again during his surgery at St. Vincent’s Medical Hospital.
Shortly after their son’s death, the Heywards separated, leaving Heyward Sr. in search of relief through community activism.
“I help parents who’ve lost their children,” he said, “like I’ve lost mine.”
He is a full-time community leader and activist for two nonprofit organizations — Parents Against Police Brutality and the Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Memorial Foundation. He balances his days between organizing and speaking out about gun violence around the country. When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, was killed by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014, the eerily similar case struck a chord for him, 20 years after his son’s death.
“I cried in front of the television when I heard that,” he said. “The fact that the officer wasn’t held accountable, and that he was only a boy with a toy … it all just reminded me of Nicholas.”
This year marks the father’s 23rd annual day of remembrance for his son. Each November, he gathers alongside hundreds of community members for a day of basketball games, arts and crafts activities, and local musical performances in the Boerum Hill park across the street from his housing project. In 2001 the park was renamed Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Park due to his father’s push to honor his memory.
In the days leading up to his death, Heyward Jr. was practicing every day to make the basketball team at his school. He would die before hearing of his acceptance.
Every other day, Nicholas Heyward Sr. takes a stroll through the park. It is a reminder, he says, of what could have been.
As a child growing up in New York City, I often got conflicting messages about the police. On the one hand, I was told by my teachers that they were here to keep me safe, on the other, hip-hop groups that I looked up to such as Public Enemy and NWA told me “911 is a joke” and “F@$k The Police.”
My experiences also contributed to this paradoxical understanding of the police. I witnessed them working to keep our family safe when my aunt was a victim of an attempted robbery. But I was also scared by the police detaining me as an 8-year-old for allegedly stealing candy that I hadn’t.
Today, I’m a social worker. I work with young men of color traumatized by violence. Many of them have contentious relationships with the police. I normally speak with them about best practices in communicating with law enforcement. I’ve done this with the belief that if you do the right thing, the police will be a force for good.
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A recent incident is making me question that view.
In mid-February, my brother Kevin and I were spending a typical Saturday night together when he decided to go visit a friend in the South Bronx. He put on his black Cornell University hoodie (Kevin is an MBA student and will be graduating in May) and his black do-rag. My brother ordered an Uber cab, we said goodbye, and he headed uptown.
Suddenly, an unmarked car turned its siren lights on and pulled the car over. While he sat in the backseat, three white police officers stepped out of their car and approached the cab. One officer told my brother they pulled the car over for a traffic violation. Kevin continued to sit in the back to let the police do their job, because that was one of the lessons we were given as children. Let the police do their job, because they are here to help us.
One of the officers asked my brother where the cab was taking him. My brother cooperated with the officers. At this time they had still not identified themselves, keeping their shields concealed. The cops then told Kevin to step out of the car. As he did so, he was viciously grabbed by his collar and slammed onto the side of the car.
“Do you have any guns or knives on you?” the officer said to my brother. The officers, threatening to lock him up still did not identify themselves. Despite Kevin’s immense fear, he managed to memorize the license plate of the police car. When they figured out what he was doing, one officer slapped him hard, to divert his attention. The thought that these officers would hurt my brother this way hurts my heart in ways many wouldn’t understand.
At some point during their questioning, the officers’ tone shifted. Suddenly, as Kevin lay with his head against the hood of the car, the officers began to discuss what a “good guy” he was. Their level of respect hadn’t increased; but the officers realized Kevin was an Educated Black Man armed not with a gun, but with an Ivy League education, which changed their narrative of him.
Are all unarmed black men “good guys” when their faces are pushed up against the hood of a car? Do they become suddenly “good” when they present with a formal education?
Here, I would add that Kevin asked again for their badge numbers and the cops agreed and sped off. Thankfully, my brother came away physically unscathed from this encounter, but the emotional scars and the trauma will remain with him.
Kevin and I grew up poor with intimate contact with many bureaucratic systems in New York designed to deal with low-income families. That I, a social worker, and Kevin, who has spent over 10 years working in finance, have led successful lives despite the odds is irrelevant. When my brother stepped out of his apartment and into that Uber, he was just a thug.
Saddened and angered by the treatment my brother received at the hands of law enforcement, my first thoughts were about the many black men who were not as lucky as my brother. Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford and Tamir Rice. They, too, were unarmed men of color treated by default as threats to society. Each situation is slightly different, but the common theme was excessive force tied to prejudice, an implicit statement that black lives matter less.
And I began to think more about what I tell the young men I work with. My brother managed to maintain his composure throughout this incident. Kevin has never been arrested and does not have a contentious relationship with law enforcement, unlike the young men I work with. He has access to resources that my clients lack.
How do I prepare my young men to navigate a world where they can be harassed and abused by the same people who are supposed to protect them? I could put together a “know your rights “ training, but knowing your rights and having your rights respected are two separate issues. I have to figure out a way to give my clients tools that will increase the likelihood they will be safe, since unfortunately there is no guarantee what can happen in these police interactions.
How can I trust a system that I have to work with to improve relations between law enforcement and the community?
Thankfully, my brother has not been added to the list of dead unarmed black men shot dead by police. We can continue to have our Saturday nights together. But these days I’m less conflicted than I used to be — those old Public Enemy lyrics speak loud and clear.
Kenton Kirby has a Master’s in Social Work from New York University. He provides individual and group therapy to young men of color who have been directly and indirectly impacted by community violence.
The headlines and sound bites described behavior gone wrong — a teenager in a South Carolina classroom refusing to put away her cellphone and a police officer using physical force to respond to a nonthreatening situation. He arrested her for disturbing the classroom after upending her desk and dragging her across the classroom.
The viral video of the event creates disturbing questions about cops in schools. Less media attention was paid to the student demonstration that followed — 100 students walked out of the high school in protest of the firing of the sheriff’s deputy. The principal addressed the student demonstrators and acknowledged their feelings and viewpoints and then asked them to return to class with the reminder that “Spring Valley High is all about the business of teaching and learning.”
Unfortunately, this intersection between the frustration with teenage behavior and forcible police conduct is repeated throughout the United States. In September 2014, three Houston officers forcibly detained a teenage girl who refused to give up her cellphone in class. The video shows them taking her to the floor, with one officer kneeling on her head and another kneeling on her legs, while the third cuffs her. Even more shocking are the allegations in an ACLU suit against the Kenton County (Kentucky) Sheriff’s Office in another September 2014 incident. The suit alleges that an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl were handcuffed because of a school disturbance. The question is why?
School Resource Officers (SROs) were placed in schools during the 1990s as one of the responses to the perceived increase in school violence and as part of the evergreen war on drugs. Government grants were and still often are used to fund the salaries of SROs. When these funds run out, schools and municipal police departments negotiate the costs, often without considering the talents of the officers or the effects of their services.
Through this funding, schools found a way to outsource discipline and create more time for teaching and learning, but effective use of the resource requires much more than handing over the keys to the school. Community policing strategies support the informed use of police relationships in schools. When done right, officers perform good service to children and educational institutions alike.
How do we explain the kind of police behavior described above? I have no definitive answers, but I think there are areas to explore.
First is staff selection. Some officers are assigned to schools because they don’t fit into traditional police roles. The public has little ability to judge this police management responsibility because much of their information comes from TV and movie dramas instead of real world knowledge or experience.
Second, all law enforcement officers operate outside the view and presence of their supervisors. For SROs, it may take active participation by parents or advocates to call attention to problem officers. In fact, I heard a very senior commander in a very large city ask “What is an SRO?” when asked about school policing during a recent public seminar. If management doesn’t know the role of a police officer in a school, it is difficult to know how that officer is performing.
Finally, we need to understand the training for new and continuing SROs. All cops need and receive training for personal safety, firearms, restraints and crowd control. Cops in schools need more than that: adolescent brain development, mental health conditions in children, the effects of trauma on behavior and much more. Fundamentally, SROs need to learn de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention and how to use their most effective tool — talking.
What can be done to improve or lessen the use of police in schools? State advisory groups can and should collaborate with law enforcement trainings and conferences to utilize the tremendous wealth of science, knowledge and experience around youth in the justice system. Law enforcement must be invited to educational forums and community conversations. Advocates for reform must carry current knowledge to schools and stationhouses. State advisory groups on juvenile justice can advocate against outsourcing school discipline and for data-driven approaches like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports.
I know conscientious, well-trained school officers who are key players in ending the school-to-prison pipeline, who practice restorative justice approaches to school conflict and who are leaders in decriminalizing adolescent behavior. SROs can be part of keeping all kids safer. We have to make sure they are doing that job with the right selection, temperament, training and supervision wherever there are cops in schools.
Judge George W. Timberlake, Ret., is chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, and an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. He was a trial court judge for 23 years before retiring as chief judge of Illinois' 2nd Circuit. He is a member of the Illinois Models for Change Coordinating Council, the Illinois Juvenile Justice Leadership Council, the Redeploy Illinois Oversight Board and the board of the state Juvenile Justice Initiative.
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Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation in New York City gives an excellent overview of how youth courts work in this video interview with Leonard Witt of the JJIE.org. They are completely teen driven with teens as judges, attorneys and juries who hear actual cases either referred by the police or the courts. Each teen judge, attorney or juror gets 30-hours of training and has to pass a "bar exam" to be able to serve.
In the youth courts Berman's center helps oversee, the kids running the courts come from a variety of backgrounds, so the offenders are being judged by their real peers. In fact, kids who once came before the court often come back later to serve as judges, attorneys and jurors, so Berman says it can be “a life changing experience.”
Kids sent to the court have already admitted guilt and are at the mercy of their peers to design the sanctions that will be administered.
The kids ask great questions, Berman says, and have “great BS detectors.” They listen to the individual cases and then the jury delivers a sanction that, according to Berman, tends to emphasize restoration.
The outcome might be a letter of apology, public service work or links to anger management. It turns peer pressure on its head, he says, making it a positive rather than a negative and that is the nub of the youth court idea.
Watch the video below for more details. You can download the manual on Recommended Practices for Youth Courts published by the Center for Court Innovation.