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.

 

 

 

Higher Learning

We live in a world fueled by instantaneous information and misinformation. The overtaking of the Internet as our ‘news source’, social media, online anonymity, and the dangers of segregation through groupthink mentality have created a strange, and quick moving divisiveness that’s drawing hard lines through and around our community.

I live in Fort Collins, home of Colorado State University (not a CSU alumni myself), and the newest controversy involving a group of white students involved in a racially charged incident. Four of CSU’s students donned charcoal face masks and referenced Black Panther in a photo now widely dispersed on the internet.

What’s the big deal, right? Kids are young and dumb. They do stupid shit all the time.

Yeah…that may be true, we all do stupid shit. ESPECIALLY in college. But this isn’t throwing a chicken into a bar or lighting fireworks out of a car window.

This is racism. And no racism is done ‘in good fun’.

Living in today’s world with access to limitless information means that we have a responsibility to understand where we’ve gone wrong as a country and why we are always responsible for our actions, specifically how we treat our fellow human beings.

Being young is no longer a viable excuse for this kind of behavior. Theirs is the generation that has seen the thick disease of racism, white nationalism, and ethnocentrism bubble up to the surface. They should understand it better than any of us…maybe they do, and perhaps that’s what’s most disturbing about this incident.

The only person to come forward said it all happened so fast, that she didn’t even have time to question if making the gesture from Black Panther was right or wrong.

I call bullshit.

If you’re ‘clever’ enough to think of the reference while your white face is covered in black clay you’re clever enough to understand what it means to American culture and the disturbing history we share.

And if those students haven’t ever learned this history then here’s a quick recap for any of you out there who aren’t sure what the big deal is.

In the 1850’s black face (a white person painting their face in shoe polish, coal dust, etc) began as a way to portray African American people on stage for the entertainment of Antebellum era Southerners still miffed that much of their free labor had been emancipated. Actors played black characters in ways that perpetuated inaccurate stereotypes of them as being lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, criminal and cowardly.

It wasn’t right then. It certainly isn’t now.

Now listen…I am human. You are too. We screw up.

Once, I was driving a friend home from a race and belted out the lyrics to a DMX song (because I love post-race DMX) and she stared at me in horror before I realized the word I’d sang along with. I still feel bad about it to this day…so I’m not sitting here on any sort of high horse.

But what I can say is this, when we make a mistake we admit it, we understand it and we OWN it. Meaning that we don’t try to turn the situation around to how our wrong behavior has “victimized us”.

I read through the young woman’s apology (side note and something we should all be aware of when looking at the whole picture: the female from the photo, Leana Kaplan had her apology printed in The Coloradoan even though they don’t accept outside articles or personal letters. Turns out, her father, Les Kaplan, owns the building that the newspaper resides in. Can you say “conflict of interest”, kiddies?) Her apology turned from seemingly genuine regret to her own hardships resulting from the incident. She even went on counter attack saying it was all a political ploy by a prominent educator, Tay Anderson, who is running for the Denver School Board.

I have to call bullshit again. You are responsible for how you behaved, you can’t be mad that people are raising awareness of the racial inequality which brought about such behavior. It’s not all about you, princess.

Public shaming is completely acceptable when you’ve been a total douche about something.

CSU is facing its own backlash and I say it’s about time. The predominantly white upper-class college isn’t a stranger to this kind of behavior from it’s students. In the past two years there have been a string of racist and anti-semitic crimes, including a noose hung in a resident hall targeting a Black resident assistant, graffiti proclaiming “Fu%& Jews”, and even CSU security calling the police on two Native American students who were on a tour of the college. Despite all of these hate crimes, CSU and its board of directors have done little to combat the behaviors that make its minority students feel threatened, anxious and segregated.

Speaking of threats, and to return to a more balanced overview, Miss Kaplan has had death threats (over 50 she claims) due to this incident, and has lost her job, causing ‘financial hardship’.

While there’s a lot to be said for the shady nature of white privilege in this story here is where I want to end this discussion with:

Firstly, if your dad owns buildings that house newspapers, I’m inclined to think that you don’t have nearly the ‘financial hardships’ that other disadvantaged students are facing.

Secondly, no matter how stupid or blindly privileged you are, you are still a human being and no one should be threatening your life.

This is a strange and hard time to live. Especially for those of us with hearts in the right places and genuine care and concern for all the people we share this world with. I feel like a momma to the expanse of the world sometimes, holding my hands out to each child, trying to keep them from hurting one another.

Stop.

Stop thinking its funny and no big deal to make fun of a history that destroys lives, ruined families and entire cultures, and ripped our country in half. Be a better person, goddamnit, and understand that your actions have the power to either perpetuate hate and divisiveness or love and compassion.

Stop.

Stop threatening to take someone’s life for making a mistake. I understand that you worry that by offering forgiveness and a second chance you think they won’t learn…that they will just keep on doing hurtful things. But taking someone’s life makes you no better a person. Causing them fear and anxiety, while seemingly just punishment, is the low road to take.

This post’s exhausted me. I hope you all can take one thing away from it: That you are responsible for your behavior and the consequences that it brings. You are responsible for the world you create through your actions and words…so Be Better.

 

“Living is Easy With Eyes Closed”

John Lennon’s quote is the basis for my Tuesday soapbox.

Listen, I do write about writing. I do want to inspire your creativity and help you along with your craft. It’s integral to my purpose in life.

But part of inspiring creativity means reminding you of the massive computer sitting atop your shoulders and why we should never forget to use it.

This week I’ve been researching statistics, studies, and references for an article (probably a book one day) on the staggering racial disparity present in our privatized prison systems, in particular, how it affects young black men in our communities and the short and long-term damage it causes to their families as well as to our society as a whole.

So you know… a real fluff piece.

The problem with scrubbing off a bit of dirt from the surface of something like this is that you expose a teeming cesspool of disease and horror beneath. And once you look into that darkness, falling ever-deeper into that rabbit hole of associated cultural setbacks, systemic traps, and loopholes for those in power, you CAN NEVER NOT KNOW.

You’ve opened your eyes.

You swallowed the red pill.

You know the truth and life becomes difficult.

(Well, if you’re a human being with a heart and a decent-sized sense of empathy, and compassion, life becomes difficult.)

Suddenly, with your eyes open, you see it everywhere.

You see it in the unarmed black woman body-slammed by an officer twice her size, when she wasn’t even fighting back. You see it in the teenagers of color who are convicted of crimes while their white counterparts go free. You see it in the wary HOA’s that lodge baseless complaints against a family because the color of their skin makes the neighbors ‘nervous’, and cause entire families to lose their homes.

I’m not talking about 1955 Alabama here… I’m talking today, here. In our city. In our community.

And I’m ashamed of us, and I’m shaky, and I’m pissed off.

I feel like if I were the mother of dragons…I might pull a Season 8 Episode 5 and burn it all down to rebuild from the ashes.

sack-of-astapor-s3e4
What bells? I didn’t hear any bells…

 

The problem is too big.

That’s what we’re told right?

You can’t fight the system! It’s so much bigger than us. We don’t have the power. The government controls it. The rich control it. The churches, the states, the universities, the public schools, the whole of American culture…

But if you will remember…

The computer on top of your shoulders. The big 10 pounder. The one that processes thoughts and emotions, chemicals and body regulation, the one that creates poetry, writes novels, formulates complex plot and character design.

That’s not nothing.

That’s a powerful weapon in the hands of an informed public. And the way I see it, once we open our eyes, it’s our duty to shake as many egg pods as possible, peel back some eyelids and make the world pay attention.

Two open eyes becomes four. Becomes eight. Becomes sixteen. Becomes hundreds…

The Beautiful Stuff has everything to do with facilitating the best version of humanity we can muster. The most compassionate, fair, and just human we can be. And when we are faced with a hard and ugly cesspool, teeming beneath a society built on the death and destruction of so many lives, we can no longer live easy.

So neither should the powers that be.

 

pawns and king
Never underestimate the power of a well-informed populace with like-minded goals.

My eyes are open and I will do my damndest to keep those that benefit from the broken and ugly system from covering them up.

We may not have the money. We may not have the loopholes and congressmen in our pockets. We may not have law degrees, or time, or the power of influence on large groups of people.

But we have our words. We have our minds. We have our actions and, I hope, enough anger to bypass our fear. Pay attention and acknowledge that this is a problem. Shine a fucking light on it so the rest of the world can’t ignore it anymore.

Find that spark in your chest. That pinprick of light that knows every human deserves to be safe, to be heard, to be healthy and fed, and treated with respect. Find a way to make it grow. Let it lead you to do what you can to change the inequality of the world around you.

You can always do something. Little. Big. It doesn’t matter the size of the action but the heart you put into it.

One water droplet may not have much impact, but a rainstorm can change the landscape.

Go out there. Be bold. Be heard. Stand up for each other.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com