Weapons Used Against Me: Racial Inequality in Fort Collins Today

This story was originally supposed to be printed in a newspaper who’s name I won’t mention. They were interested. They wanted it. They gave me their advice on how to ‘soften it’ so as to not offend readers.

I asked what was offensive.

They backpedaled and shuffled their virtual feet and said it didn’t have interview accounts from the police officers involved. I reassured them that I had all of the police reports as well as the actual court documents in my posession.

(Worthy to note, they had no intention of paying me for an already well-researched article but required a lot of unnecessary leg work for the same answers I had right in front of me).

They rejected it, saying it was too emotional, that it would make people uncomfortable.

Ultimately, I feel, they feared that the potential backlash would hurt their advertisers.

I don’t have advertisers.

Hell, I barely have a following. But here we are.

I could have abandoned it, given in to the fear of upsetting the city council, or the jail system, or the law enforcement or DA offices.

But then this quote from the Talmud comes to mind:

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

So here’s the article that was too uncomfortable for the newspaper to print. Here’s what’s happening in your community today. Do what you will with the information, but do justly, love mercy, walk humbly, and do not abandon the work.

 

Weapons Used Against Me: Racial Inequality in Fort Collins Today

 

Staring out the rain-speckled window at a coffee shop in downtown Fort Collins, Queen (formally Dedria Johnson) bows her head into her hands. The heavy blanket of gray outside mirrors the burden in her heart.

That’s the way it feels, she says; when your son has been stolen by a system so large and corrupt that you’ll never own enough power to get him back.

Like the world will always be gray and heavy.

Queen moved with her sons to Fort Collins in 2007 after escaping an abusive relationship. She hoped to secure a brighter future for them. She thought Colorado’s Front Range could offer that.

But the same oppression, disadvantage, and racial segregation lay beneath a false sense of community.

On an early summer night in 2018, with the boiling point mixture of teenage hormones and escalating tension between two young men, a fight broke out in a deserted lot between Loveland and Fort Collins. The teens surrounding the action pulsed with on-edge excitement. The bright glow of cell phones lit the darkness and videos skyrocketed out into social media. Witnesses would later say they could see the victim’s teeth flying through the air when the other boy hit him. By the time the police came, the fight was done and online.

Dontre’ Jahkal Woods, Queen’s son, was at the fight and recorded it from the sidelines along with other teens in the crowd.

Only Dontre’ had already had been suspected of throwing a rock through a car window (an incident where several witnesses attested to his innocence). He was also issued a ticket, under the wrong name (Dontre’ Johnson) for a supposed assault on a peer which was never taken to court.

Dontre’’s name was considered an alias even though he never gave officers anything other than his real name, which set an unfounded precedent for suspicion in the eyes of the law.

So when officers took names around the circle of teens, his record marked him as a ‘trouble maker’.  Weeks later, the Loveland police came to Queen’s house, in the presence of his younger siblings and older brothers and took Dontre’ away to be charged with complacency.

Complacent, because a nearly sixteen-year-old boy who knew he could get in trouble for even touching another kid, didn’t step in and stop a fight that lasted less than two minutes.

A public defender was assigned to his case since Queen, raising a family on her own in the high-priced housing market of Fort Collins, couldn’t afford the $5000 retainer for a private lawyer.

In the coffee shop, Queen tells me about her experience with the public defender and the gentleman at the table beside us clears his throat and moves away. When she goes into the details of the lawyer laughing and bragging with the prosecutor, about how many similar cases he’d managed to get through in record time that week, a lady behind us shifts uncomfortably in her seat and leans away as if Queen’s pain is too uncomfortable to share space with.

But Queen continues her story amid the tell-tale signs of white guilt and discomfort that flow along the banks of our culture’s dirty hidden underbelly.

Her son’s life was not worth fighting for, the public defender told her. It would cost them time and money. Dontre’ would be sentenced to 7 years in prison if they went to trial and lost. And with his questionable juvenile offenses, the lawyer continued drolly, they’d lose.

Seven years for a sixteen-year old boy, is a lifetime. It meant the loss of his education and the opportunities his mother fought so hard to win. If they took a plea deal, he advised them, from a well-read script, Dontre’ would serve at least 18 months plus a mandatory 3-month probation period.

The hearings, meetings with the public defender, and the arduous task of getting all of her son’s records from Larimer County, made it nearly impossible for Queen to keep steady work and raise her other children. The family was thrown into disarray. Seats sat empty in schools while his family attended Dontre’’s hearings or went to visit him in the detention center. She missed appointments and work, her own mental health suffered with the trauma she knew Dontre’ was experiencing and the impact it was having on the rest of the family.

The system held out Dontre’’s life like a carrot for them to chase. Queen’s mental health suffered. His younger siblings and older brothers felt the strain on a family already struggling to prove they were worthwhile to a town that only seemed to want them on their school’s athletic teams or to tout them as their “diverse” population.

Now Dontre’ sits in juvenile corrections in Denver (a sometimes three-hour car ride for his mother to make), trying to stay out of the trouble that boils around him, but it’s a hard culture to rise above. Provided he can ‘behave’, his sentence will remain the same.

When I ask Queen what ‘behave’ means exactly, she rolls her eyes. A kid like Dontre’ doesn’t have to misbehave to get thrown into a place like Rites of Passage, or even sent to prison.

He just has to be black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dontre’ lives in a constant and heightened state of self-preservation and fear. Scared that when he’s released he’ll be too behind in school to catch up. Scared that his mother will break, fighting a losing battle that’s existed since the dawn of our country. Scared of a future where the mark on his record, for offenses still not proven, will mar his chances of landing a decent job. Scared that from all of this, the cycle of poverty will begin again, and again, over and over like a river that started flowing long before he was born.

Theirs is just one story of a broken system; a small piece of a larger cultural problem that perpetuates a history America should be ashamed of. One that’s destroying hard-working families like Queen’s right here in our own community.

Despite the hardships, the openly racist comments, and thinly veiled prejudices Queen and her family have endured. She still stands tall with a spiritual height that surpasses what life has handed her and serves as a beacon to all of us.

Queen founded Nu Eyes Village, a faith-based, grass-roots organization assisting under resourced families and establishing modes of self-sufficiency. She created the gatherings after completing a 20-week leadership and civic engagement course through the Family Leadership and Training Institute.

Her hope is to bring families out of poverty and offer support in areas of mental health, childcare, financial literacy, and mentoring programs in order to empower underserved communities. She’s a board member of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. She’s a current member of the Family Voice Council and the CDHS, and she is the President of the Healthy Larimer Committee which her son Donovan co-chairs.

She stands in the knowledge that change can only come at the level where laws are made or repealed. Still she remains openhearted, ready to engage in useful conversations that heal the chasm between communities and work towards a more inclusive and egalitarian city.

Put on your thinking hats, Colorado, with your innovative and brilliant minds, and strip away the illusion that clouds this difficult and uncomfortable issue.

If you have white skin you have privileges not guaranteed to those who do not. You’ve inherited the benefits of laws and systems that have worked to keep people of color and other minorities from reaching the same goals and potential as you. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t ask for this privilege and it doesn’t do any good to just feel ‘bad’ about it.

What matters is using the gifts you’ve been given as a result of that privilege to invoke real change.

Start by admitting that a group of people cannot ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ when they’re kept barefoot in the dirt all of their lives.

Start by speaking out against injustice in policing policies and the expansion of for-profit prison systems.

Start by honoring the higher law that shouts we are all human beings, mothers and sons, daughters and fathers, designed by the same divine intervention, and worthy of dignity and respect. That every child born deserves the opportunity to shine and the benefit of doubt while they test the boundaries of youth.

Start by volunteering, donating, or simply just connecting with other people. Expand your knowledge and understanding of the challenges minorities face in our communities by holding real, compassionate, and non-ego driven conversations with each other.

Check out Nu Eyes Village at the Heart of The Rockies Church and support the opening of Nu Eyes Community Connection Center.

 

At the very least, take a moment and put yourself in Queen’s place.

Imagine the police taking your child away. Watch them bully and coerce him. Watch his sense of self deteriorate every day. Really feel it, in the pit of your stomach.

Then look in a mirror and know that nothing more than a lack of melanin and an ignorant historical bias ensures you’ll probably never know that pain.

That your child will never know Dontre’’s pain.

If you can really feel that, and still not be emboldened to act, then maybe it is all just heavy and gray.

 

 

 

VerseDay 8-29-19

I’m not sure where this came from. Maybe it was my old high-school track coach telling me that if I quit, I’d never finish anything in life. (Hey, Mr. S and Mr. R…turns out I CAN actually finish something, including two marathons, half a dozen halfs and six relays, give or take).

Maybe it was the instructor who berated me for “letting” my daughter quit, saying that I was teaching her to give up when things got tough.

To those instructors, I offer this:

A child who knows how to pursue their own happiness, that knows their own heart and can let go of situations that are abusive or dangerous and move on to something better is a child who will surpass us all, because they’ve learned that other’s expectations are not as important as their own mental health and physical safety.

Let’s do one better and become this kind of person in our own lives, starting today.

Let’s be the parents that recognize happiness isn’t measured in instagram likes and crappy plastic trophies.

Enjoy…or get uncomfortable. Either way.

 

Perfect

Born into arms which penetrate hearts

Inject the belief

we were meant for greater things, pal.

Capable of great feats,

(greater than that loser Tommy two doors down)

Set expectation high and don’t ever

Ever

Ever

Settle for less.

 

Aim for the stars kid, and you’ll at least hit the moon.

 

So we aim, eyes glancing back to expectant faces

Waiting for the brag worthy photo to be posted later

Thinking

They’ll surely love me then.

By the measure of counted likes and tiny hearts floating

to the top of screens they rarely look up from.

 

We will excel. We will be better.

We will hurtle faster into adulthood,

And pound on depression’s door with a signed note,

Tug along our anxieties to the bus stops and soccer practices.

Bite nails, inhale, drink it down,

and give the captain of the football team

whatever he asks for.

 

We’ll aim for the stars

hurtle our broken bones and burst ligaments once more

like they’ve pulled a catapult’s lever to expunge us again and again

If it only would mean

They would love us.

 

Maybe when we get on the Varsity team,

Maybe after our third ACL replacement before graduation.

Maybe after the fourth ivy-league school accepts.

Maybe when we’ve lost enough fat to crown the top of the pyramid

In tiny skirts designed to make it all our fault.

 

Watch our faces fall every day

As we are shoveled into cars and

Paraded down sidelines,

Dressed in tutu’s and reminded not to eat too much

Sent to the psychologist because

‘she just can’t focus’ in a force-fed day

Gorged on Latin and dance, soccer and flute,

Math club, robotics, and the triple threat; tap.

 

Future problem solver

Can’t even solve her own problems

Pop a pill, darling, it will help you get our dreams.

 

Never really understanding that the only real problem,

Is the one that tucks us into bed,

Sighing, resigned, that maybe tomorrow will be better.

The ones that feed us breakfast and

Don’t search the backpack for the needles,

Because “he’s born with natural talent”

 

Twisted Sister could have taught you something

Darling perfects

about their trite and jaded ideas

screaming you are not enough

Just as you are,

Just ask you like.

 

You will excel,

Like they never did.

You will severe their noose of tough love

Drop it in your sweaty gym bag,

burn it with your test score report and tap shoes.

 

Do not let them force you

to relive their spent dreams.

Be all. Be nothing.

Land lightly in the space between…

The space that is you.

Giving Thanks

I’d created some pretty flashy, quiet-inspired, philosophical posts last weekend on retreat. They’re beautiful but I’m leaving them in the bank because today I want to repost something that I’d blogged about years ago that is timely and still rings true.

Have a safe and happy holiday. Be with the ones you love. And if you can’t; love the ones you’re with.

 

 

Making Do and Giving Thanks

 

One of my earliest memories was of waiting in a dark and crowded hall while my mother picked out ‘groceries’ from piles of white and black generic boxes. I didn’t understand at the time that the blocks of Velveeta-like cheese, powdered milk, and bags of rice were part of assistance programs that kept us from going hungry when the insecurity of the uranium mine had left us teetering on the edge of destitution.

 

My father is, and always has been, a hard worker. He took whatever job he could to support us, but in the unstable energy economy of 1980’s Wyoming there was always a fear behind my parent’s eyes. My mom was a teacher on and off and she stayed home with her three wild and creative kids. Anyone who’s a mother knows that each child is a full time job just in themselves, with no hazard pay given and no time off.  She was a genius at making ends meet, and squeezing out the most of everything we had, including our time together.

 

Their amazing resilience still brings tears to my eyes, especially as a parent myself. Because, back then, I never knew we lacked for anything.

 

We were always fed. We were always clothed. We had a roof over our heads and wild game in the freezer. We made do. When lay offs hit, they squeezed the most out of what we had and made do. When dad went back to college for a second degree in teaching, we lived in a small house in Laramie and made do. When Christmas came around and three kids rushed to the living room, there was always something there to be thankful for.

 

I didn’t have cable as a kid; I had books. I didn’t have a TV in my room; I had the library less than two blocks away. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t afford vacations to far off places because I could go there in my mind. Pages were like my wings, rocketing me towards new and fantastic horizons. My parents couldn’t give me designer clothes or name brand shoes. They gave me Jean M. Auel, Jack London, L.M. Montgomery, Louis L’Amour, Piers Anthony, and Jane Austen. They gave me hours and days of uninterrupted reading time. I still remember mom peeking in on me, sprawled out in bed, pouring over a book, completely lost to the world around me, asking if I needed anything.

 

Looking back now, and knowing what I do about how much it costs to raise a child (nonetheless three), I really couldn’t have asked for more.

 

We made more than just meals from small staples. We made worlds out of our love and support of one another. My parents gave us the belief in where our minds could take us. And we made do.

 

The best part of Thanksgiving, is the giving. If you find that you have an abundance, I urge you to consider donating to some of the fine folks listed below.

Remember; Money is like manure, it doesn’t do a lick of good until you spread it around and encourage things to grow.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Red Cross

Larimer County Food Bank

CASA Fort Collins

Larimer County Humane Society

Meals on Wheels

Wounded Warrior Project