It’s safe to say this wasn’t what most would consider your standard encounter between a white cop and a young black male.
Sergeant Ed Brannock, a stocky, white Detroit police with more than 20 years on the force officer who heads the gang unit, is recounting a story of how one day not all that long ago he pulls up into the parking lot of a McDonald’s in a police van he describes as “stacked with officers.” They just happen to pull up alongside a car full of young black men who were obviously smoking a little weed. Not only that, they were parked in a handicapped spot. All Brannock could do was shake his head as he looked down at the young men who were looking back up at him with what he described as that “oh s— look.”
It’s situations like these where decisions oftentimes have to be made in a split second, and the decisions made aren’t always the best for everyone involved – as more than a few incidents receiving nationwide attention over the past few years have demonstrated all too graphically. The body count of young black males who have lost their lives to police brutality has an entire nation on edge. And as Brannock said to the group seated around the meeting room tables, he knew one or more of the youngsters could have had a gun under the seat, and he obviously knew he and his fellow officers were carrying weapons as well. Despite the fact that Detroit has (thankfully) not yet erupted into a Ferguson or a Baltimore or a Charlotte, Brannock said he knows Detroit could be just one shooting away from a similar fate.
Brannock decided, “Let’s talk to these guys.” So that’s what he and his fellow officers did; they made the call to de-escalate the situation by engaging the young men rather than immediately labeling them as enemy combatants. Then, next thing he knew, a young man comes strolling out the door of the McDonald’s and sees Brannock. Rather than panic, he smiles widely and calls out Brannock’s name, asking if Brannock remembers him. The officer does, after which the two shake hands and exchange a brief friendly greeting and hug. Brannock instructs his fellow officers that ‘these guys are straight’.
But the weed? The car parked in the handicapped spot?
“Whatever. They knew they were wrong.”
And that was the end of it. Because Brannock and the young man, who was seated at the gathering just several seats away from Brannock, already knew each other through Flip the Script, and Brannock knew the young man as someone who was honestly working to get on the right track and place some distance between who he used to be and who he wanted to be now wanted to be. Just as importantly, the young man’s friends saw firsthand a police officer who was willing to work with them rather than work them over.
Every Thursday, from 4-5:30 p.m. on Superstation 910 AM, radio talk show host Karen Dumas hosts “Voices of Violence,” a show she conceived of to help promote community healing through better understanding of those Detroiters who have at one time or another lived destructive lives – not simply self-destructive but oftentimes destructive of others as well. Voices of Violence is a recurring weekly feature of Dumas’ show on 910AM, The Pulse.
But as far as Dumas is concerned, too many people are quick to judge before understanding the full story, which is why she partnered with longtime friend Keith Bennett of Flip the Script. The two wanted to create a unique show designed to introduce listeners up close and personal to the real lives and experiences of ‘those kind of kids’ that they may have only known from a distance. The relatively new program has existed for close to three months and focuses on various aspects of youth violence, from the vantage point of the youth themselves to the police officers to the medical community that so often has to stitch these young people back together – or watch them take their last breath.
“To get rid of the misconceptions and perceptions,” is the purpose, said Bennett. “Because everybody looks at the guys that were part of the gangs and who pulled the trigger as an animal, don’t have no feelings, don’t have any family and that’s not always the truth. And so it’s giving them the opportunity to engage these guys.”
Added Dumas, “The big advantage of this is it shines a light on what has to be done to help those who are in those circumstances, and how to start really making a difference. You know, we say we want to solve these problems, but a lot of times you have discussions between decision makers and [other] decision makers. And they have very little on-hand knowledge or real time knowledge about who these people are and what their lives are like.
“Once I got back on the air on 910 I saw this as an excellent opportunity to shine some light on some of those voices and some of those challenges. You know, people always assume that they know what people go through, and how they got into what we interpret as compromised circumstances. But we don’t. And so I thought this would be an opportunity to really shed some light on the reality of those people and their circumstances.”
Ray Winans is a former gang banger who now works with Flip the Script to help young men who may have made some of the same mistakes he did growing up find their way out. As committed as he was to the streets as a youngster, he is now equally committed to preventing those same streets from claiming young lives. And as someone intimately familiar with the appeal of those streets, Winans has the sort of credibility with young men in trouble that others can’t match.
“Violence is something I most definitely loved as a young guy,” he admits, adding that he spent a large part of his life locked up as a result of his infatuation with the wrong side of life. “I’ve been home 6 years. This is the longest I’ve ever been free since I was 12 years old, and I’m 37. I’ll be 38 in October.”
But despite all that, Winans has always known there was more to who he was than what somebody might try to interpret by reading his rap sheet.
“Too often I think it’s easy to throw everybody in the same category. You can throw police in the same category. You can throw guys who are out here committing crimes in the same category. Like we’re all criminals. But just because I sell drugs don’t mean I’m gonna rape a woman and kids. And just because I’m a law enforcement officer don’t mean I would kill an unarmed black person.
“I can speak for everybody that’s been in the streets; at some point or another, we’ve harmed somebody’s kid. We done made a mother cry. At some point, right? And for me, I made my Mom cry by taking somebody’s life.”
It’s hard not to speculate that perhaps if someone had been there for a young Winans the same way that he and others from Flip the Script and Voices of Violence have been there for so many other young black men that perhaps things could have turned out different. Because it all comes down to listening to the voices of those who are actually on the front lines, not simply those who are in the business of making policy decisions.
But it’s also about acceptance, and a willingness to extend second chances.
“I think people ought to be receptive. People can’t be afraid of other people that are different from them. If in fact people look at the kids with sagging pants or people that may have been arrested for something,” said Dumas. “We want to pull away from those folks and be afraid of them and judge them rather than trying to figure out what their needs are and how we can help re-incorporate them into our communities in a positive and productive manner. I would really like for people to just give other people a fair chance and a fair shake and a fair listen.”