In the last few years, powerful images of police interacting violently with African Americans -- usually men, or teenagers, or even children -- have been on the news, all over the world.
In these images, black men are getting shot or choked or hauled away in handcuffs. There are others too, memorial photographs from happier times: of young boys with plump cheeks or wearing graduation caps. Photographs of Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald – the list goes on.
These images are everywhere – on TV, in social media, magazines and newspapers. Young people can’t help but see them. But how does it affect a young person to see so many people who look just like him, being attacked or killed when they come in contact with the police?
This is Unprisoned. I’m Eve Abrams.
Last March, New Orleans City Coucilmember Latoya Cantrell welcomed a group of dancers to the City Council chambers. “I know we have a treat this morning,” Cantrell said into her council microphone. “So I just want to personally thank you for being here and for all the work that you do.”
“Thank you so much,” answered Laura Stein. “Thank you Councilmember Cantrell and Councilmember Ramsey for bringing us in today. My name is Laura Stein. I’m the Executive Director of Dancing Grounds, and the treat for today is that we brought five boys from our middle school dance group at Arise Academy. So I’m going to ask everyone to clap and smile and give them a lot of energy because this is not a conventional performance space. All right, so can we all give them a lot of love?”
Skip to 22:49 for the Dancing Grounds presentation before the New Orleans City Council:
The room breaks into applause as five 7th graders, all wearing black hoodies and black sneakers, line up across the room. The music begins, and the boys pull their hoods over their heads and crouch close to the ground. Then one by one, the boys spring up and dance freestyle, showing off their moves and footwork. Suddenly the music screeches, like a siren. The dancers all put their hands in the air. Two boys squat on the ground, hands interlaced behind their heads. Then the music changes again, and a voice calls out, “Where y’all at?” The hoods come off, and the boys dance like they did in the beginning – free and confident. They end with their fists in the air.
“We turned around, had our hands up, and dropped to our knees. We was talkin like, hands up don’t’ shoot. We surrender,” recalls Dawonta White. Dawonta was in the 7th grade when he performed the dance he helped choreograph, called “Hoods Up” in front of City Council. Dewonta’s in the 8th grade now.
“We was all like reflecting on like how the officers was killing black males in Ferguson, so we was like we all black males up in here, so we just gonna do this piece.”
“And you were talking about Ferguson, but did Ferguson make you think about New Orleans?” I ask.
“Yes, because we do have lots of black talented males, and it made me think like, it made me reflect on the group, because it’s like what if we was to do something bad, and would we be in that predicament?”
“So you named it,” I say. “You are a black male. Do you feel like the police judge you a certain way, or look at you a certain way?”
“Well, it’s not all policemen, but some,” says Dawonta. “But I think if I was to do something, they would look at me like, in a different way.”
“Things change a little bit when you wear a suit every day, but you can’t always wear a suit every day,” says Jason Williams, president of New Orleans City Council. “It was my mother’s biggest fear when I was growing up: not that I would do anything wrong, not that any of my peers would harm me, but what could happen with one bad police officer at any given moment.
“I mean, if you don’t express what’s going on inside of you it’s going to bubble up. And it can bubble up with bad behavior or acting out or it can bubble up with breaking a sweat in a dancing routine where you’re actually saying what needs to be heard or what you want to hear. And not to belabor history, but there’s always been a draconian sense of controlling the bodies of young black men, right? Whether it was through arrest, whether it’s through profiling, whether it’s through discrimination, it always exists. And so the only way for a young person to deal with it, I mean – these guys can’t even vote yet, is to dance it out, and that’s what they did.”
It was a performance that moved Councilmember Williams.
“Young men, you look brilliant, your art was brilliant. You all are a shining example of what it means to be able to express yourself, express your frustrations that we all deal with. I’ve suffered some of the same things you all will suffer just walking down the street looking the way you look.” It’s not that Councilmember Williams doesn’t appreciate what the NOPD is up against.
“We live in a violent town,” says Williams, “and you know, a lot of the violence that happens in our city is black on black. However --” the way the police patrol in high crime areas, “it’s gotta be smart policing, not just rousing a group of young men because they’re outside and there’s no probable cause for that. Because the more you do that, the more they feel ostracized, the less willing they will be to be witnesses in cases because they’re not going to be trusting of that system. And let me be frank, it’s not all police officers in New Orleans. It’s a few, but it only takes – it only has to happen to you once and then you you’re going to internalize and mentally fixate on that uniform as not being a good thing for you.”
Dawonta White, along with a dozen other boys, leaves his 9th Ward charter school three times a week to walk a block and half to Dancing Grounds. Their classroom there looks exactly how you’d picture a dance studio: parallel bar, wood floors, a wall of mirrors. The boys almost always start class in a circle, where they talk about what’s going on in their lives. Their teacher, Randall Rosenberg, wants his students to have a voice, to make decisions for themselves, together. For example, making the Hoods Up dance and deciding what to wear for it.
“We was wearing black with hoodies because Trayvon Martin when he was wearing his hoodie and he was killed,” says Dawonta. “So we looked upon that and we said we gonna wear hoodies like Trayvon Martin.”
“Who came up with the idea?” I ask.
“The group. All of us. All of us came up with it. We all agreed on it.”
“I was a little nervous, but I had stick through it though,” says Shraivell Brown, another choreographer and dancer in Hoods Up. “I felt like it was a good thing so we can notice what we do and to know who we are because we very talented. Myself, I’m talented. They talented too. And we just need to stay talented.”
Shraivell Brown says the police criticize people who look like him. He feels judged based on things other black people may have done.
“How would you want the police to look at you? What would you want them to think?” I ask.
“I want them to think I’m not no threat.”
“Why would they think you’re threatening? You’re –what did you say, you’re 14?”
“Yes I’m 14, but how do we say, cause he said, a lot of black males are thugs or gangsters and all that, but I don’t want them thinking that about me.”
After their performance, Councilmember Cantrell gave them high praise.
“Thank you for this exceptional legacy that you leave for future generations of our city,” said Cantrell.” “Stand tall, know who you are, and believe in yourself at all times.”
“To be confirmed and to be lifted up by adults, they don’t get that that much,” says the boys’ dance teacher, Randall Rosenberg. “So they felt important, they felt powerful.”
Rosenberg says these five dancers have become leaders in his class. This one experience boosted them in an enduring way. It also reminded leaders, like Jason Williams, of the work that needs to be done.
“Whatever your opinions are, whatever your views are, they are based upon what your reality has been,” says Williams. “So the only way to change that is not to tell young people don’t think of the police that way. It’s for us to change the way that the police department engages with young people.”
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.