Neighborhood Blue: Transcript

ACTOR: You come into this neighborhood  and police it  when you feel like it. And because you’re at the top and we’re at the bottom you think you got us all figured out; we’re all just thugs. But you don’t know me, you don’t Miguel, you don’t know what the hell is going on!

[Theme music]

YVONNE: This is Mouthful and I am Yvonne Latty. Every week I will be having a complicated conversation with a young person about the things that matter to them, things they have written about and shared on stages across the city. And then we will go out into the community and talk to teens, adults, experts anyone who can broaden the conversation.

It’s hard to find a minority of any age who does not have a story about being stopped by police. And as we’ve seen in the news all too often in the last few years, sometimes these encounters are brutal, deadly. No matter how they go, all of them leave scars on the victim, their families, and friends.

Here’s one of my stories: I was on my first reporting job, sitting in my car eating a turkey sandwich. I had an interview on this all-white street. But I was hungry and decided to eat lunch first.

Someone called the cops on me.

They surrounded my car. I was a “suspicious” black woman in their neighborhood. It was so scary.

Afterwards when I told the man I was scheduled to interview what happened he said, “That’s awful. I am sure they were just worried that you may have been watching the neighborhood for your boyfriend. We’ve had a few robberies.”

Huh? Was that supposed to make me feel better?

But no one was talking about it back then. It was the expected, a part of black and brown life, you know.

Fast forward to today and not only do you hear the stories, you see them unfold on social media, you see the shootings, the beatings, the horror, the aftermath.

You want to believe that mistakes happen, that policing is difficult, that ultimately police are trying to keep communities safe. But as soon as you’re the one confronted by an officer for just… being. It makes it difficult.

And in communities of color, especially, the result is vigilance.

AUTUMN: I think when I was a kid the way I was taught to think about police officers was respect them keep your distance don’t really interact because things can go wrong really quickly. So that’s how my mentality has been for a really long time.

YVONNE: That’s Autumn Angelettie. She’s a senior at Cheltenham High School, where she recently wrote a monologue entitled “Neighborhood Blue.”

AUTUMN: My creative writing teacher said that we should write about something that we’ve been thinking a lot about lately. And so a lot of people wrote about current events or things that have been happening in their personal lives. So I chose to write about police in the community because that’s what had been going on in the world a lot, specifically at that point.

YVONNE: And so we arrive at the topic of today’s episode: community policing.

Let’s Listen to "Neighborhood Blue," performed live at The Philly Young Playwrights Monologue Festival by Ariana Sepulveda.

ACTOR: Dammit, Miguel.

(She walks toward the doorway of another room.)

Ricky, ven aquí.

(She crouches on the floor to meet his level.)

Ricky, vamos a jugar un partido. Se llama Silencio. No hables, no televisión, no música, solo silencio. Vale?

(The knocks pound again. She stands up, braces herself, and opens the doorway of her home.)

Why good evening, Officer...

I’d love to help you,  but I’ve got food on the stove and I don’t know what to tell you.

Miguel? He didn’t say anything to me. For the last few days he’s been leaving for work before I wake up and coming home after everyone’s gone to bed. Abuela’s meds got pricey. He said he’d take on extra shifts. So, no, I wasn’t surprised he was coming home with more money than usual. Was I supposed to assume his dumbass was gonna get shot?

Dealing? I don’t know anything about that. And neither does he. Even if he was dealing, cops don’t regulate narcotics in this neighborhood. Look, I understand needing to meet a quota or whatever system y’all use, but you’ve got better places to be than here. We aren’t a violent neighborhood; we got block parties and neighborhood watch like everybody else. We had one just the other day, bouncy house and everything. The little ones loved it. But I guess you wouldn’t know about that, since you not from here.

Y’all here hunting a teenager down over what? Weed? So what now? Are y’all actually gonna lock Miguel up over some made up charges or just kill him like you did Mr. Sanchez? Sanchez was more of a mayor than the clown y’all put in office. Sanchez held this town together. He was everybody’s Tio. Maybe he did handle everyone’s dope, I don’t know, but he spent the money buying kids arepas in the mornings and notebooks for school. That’s the type of person he was. Kind. Generous. Y’all wasted five years chasing a damn philanthropist.

Aren’t y’all the ones tracking us in your little War on Drugs? What good is a statement from me? For all I know y’all got a whole folder on my brother. Might as well take a statement from my three-year old son too! In fact, how about you tell me this: how the hell did little Miguelito--out of all the alleged dealers in this neighborhood--end up being the one to take a bullet to his leg? You could probably find ‘bout six more on this block alone and his stupid ass gotta be the one to get shot? Who was after him? Who was picking a fight with a sixteen year old kid? And where were y’all all that time he was lying on the street in a pool of his own blood? Why did I have to hear about it from the family next door? Where was my phone call?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. I’m tired of y’all. You come into this neighborhood and police it when you feel like it. And because you’re at the top, and we’re at the bottom, you think you got us all figured out; we’re all just thugs. But you don’t know me, you don’t know Miguel, you don’t know what the hell is going on!

Miguel’s a good kid. He’s not gonna be next, Officer. You got nothing on him, holding me up at my own damn door, trying to bust all in my house without no damn warrant. Come back with a signature or don’t come back at all. I can’t answer any more questions for you right now, sir. I got no answers. Can I go now?

(Gloria closes the door and breathes a sigh of relief.)

Ricky, game’s over. You can come out now.

Yvonne: What are you trying to say in the story? What’s the message?

Autumn: The message I think is that from an outsider’s perspective people tend to dehumanize marginalized groups and those specific communities and they tend to look at them in cases of poverty or um illiteracy like lack of education but there’s such a strong community and a strong sense of humanity in every person that often gets ignored. So my monologue is basically trying to showcase that humanity in the context of the altercation between a community member and a police officer.

YVONNE: My producer Mitchell Bloom and I met with Autumn at the Creekside Co-Op in Cheltenham.

Yvonne: What do you think of police officers, I mean are you a fan of police officers, are you scared of police officers, I mean there’s just been so much in the news about police officers.

Autumn: I know a lot of people that have had like in this community that have had really horrific experience with police officers, that have been held at gunpoint for trespassing on someone’s property um have been locked up because they’ve gotten into a fight and so I still feel like the system is corrupt to the point where I’m still uncomfortable when I’m around officers, however I’m more comfortable around  officers that look like me than officers who don’t. So if I do need to be in a situation when I’m around police I tend to migrate towards female officers, or black officers, or Latino officers because I just feel like they look at me and they see me and not like a bad kid running around doing something that they’re not supposed to do or something that they’re not doing anything wrong and they just don’t look at me for who I am.

Yvonne: What do you hope people take away when they hear your monologue?

Autumn: I hope people understand that particularly in marginalized communities that there is a person behind every case. There is a background behind every story like you don’t ever see the full story and there’s a community behind every person. Because you know it takes a village to raise. So I want people when they read the news or when they um like drive through Kensington for whatever reason that they are seeing people or attempting to see people in their full depth and not just the archetype or the stereotype that they see in the news.

Yvonne: What are your thoughts about all of the violence directed mostly at young black men.

Autumn: Um, I feel like over time over different administrations there’s been an increase in profiling and an increase in systemic racism for the purpose of creating profit. So it’s hard for me to see the integrity in stop and frisk. And it’s hard for me to see the integrity in a lot of policing policies that we have in place today. And a lot of what Neighborhood Blue is about is seeing the integrity in the work that you’re doing, and whether or not it really is meaningful to arrest a 16 year old kid over a dime bag of weed if that’s meaningful work. And so a lot of the violence today does not feel like meaningful work, and I hope that maybe through my work and the work of other young activists that we work to change these policies and to change the structure of the system because it’s ineffective and it’s not for the purpose of creating better communities it’s for the purpose of profit.

YVONNE: Cops, like all people, are not all the same, and dealing with the bad apples is the responsibility of the brass. So we went to see legendary Upper Darby Police Chief Mike Chitwood. He’s been in law enforcement for 53 years and was nicknamed “Dirty Harry” well, because he is tough guy. But in his headquarters there’s a large mural of the diverse children of Upper Darby and police officers, together. Community policing is a big source of pride for Chief Chitwood. When I asked him what he thought of the monologue I held my breath and was surprised by his response.

Chitwood: I thought it was great. I thought it was a new wave of uh interactions with the community and the community taking a life of its own through the recordings.

Yvonne: Were you surprised about what the young woman wrote about?

Chitwood: Uh, you know nothing surprises me anymore. I always take what somebody would say, what somebody would write, somebody would video tape, and then I try and use my own life experiences as a guide. So it really doesn’t surprise me or shock me what anybody would say or do. Or record.

Yvonne: How do you train police to deal with residents whose lifestyles are different, whose cultures are different?

Chitwood: Well Upper Darby is a very very unique place. And I’ll kind of go back in years. When I first became a police officer there were three ethnic groups. There was the African American black community, there was the white community, and there was the Puerto Rican community. That’s it. That’s all there was. Growing up when I first became a police officer because I can always remember “geez, I’d love to speak Puerto Rican.” Not Spanish, Puerto Rican. Cause that’s what you dealt with. And over the years when you look at a place like Upper Darby, some 50-some years later, there’s allegedly 52-53 languages spoken representing 65 countries. So it’s a different dynamic. But people are people are people are people. All over the world.

YVONNE: The chief said so much diversity makes policing complicated but there are ways to bridge the gaps.

Chitwood: The difficulty we have is and I try to teach my officers through community policing and I’ll talk a little bit about that is that most of the new arrivals in America are coming from countries that are war countries. That the military and the police are the enemy. The military and the police have suppressed have brutalized have murdered have robbed have raped have pillaged the community member now all of a sudden they arrive in the United States and they’re talking about you’ve got to trust the police, the police are good. You know, it’s a kind of a difficult thing when you’re coming from that process. So we do a lot of interacting and we start with the kids first off. We have what I consider kind of unique. We have a mentoring program, so right now I have 40 officers in every fifth grade in the community. So in all the public schools in all the parochial schools. And basically the officers go in once a month, once every three weeks, and they just rap with the kids. Talk about what the issues are, talk about what it is to be a police officer, your likes your dislikes of a police officer. And it kinds of gives a ground breaking thing. We have a citizens police academy, we have a youth police academy. We do coffee with a cop. We do the school lockdown drills, we have bike patrol. We do bike radios. My thing is that we gotta interact and take part with the community members.

You know, I’m a firm believer in quality of life. You know, everybody deserves the quality of life no matter where they come from, no matter what their socioeconomic background is. Everybody deserves the opportunity to educate their children to sit down on their step to walk their dog and to enjoy life. And that’s what our goal is. And I think sometimes we do it. But it’s a constant, continual being out there, being present, being a part of the community.

Yvonne: One of the things that struck me about the monologue was the main character, Gloria, at one point in the monologue she starts to praise a drug dealer who the police are looking for, they’ve arrested him, because he gave food to children, so he’s sort of a hero to the community. How do you combat something like that?

Chitwood: It’s difficult because the individual that community members may be praising are there every day, but they’re the same individuals that are purveyors of death. And from a police perspective and from keeping the community safe I have no problem regardless of what a community says about an individual, in my opinion who is a purveyor of death, we’re gonna lock up. We’re gonna take them down, we’re gonna put them in jail, bottom line. There is no ifs ands or buts about it.

YVONNE: As for bad cops, Superintendent Chitwood expressed frustration but also resolve.

Chitwood: I think you gotta start with the premise that we hire from the human race. I’m no different than you are. I happen to be the police chief. I’m really not different than you. I cry, I bleed, I cut, I have the same issues. I think it’s up to police leaders that they have to pick the right men and women that are going to go into the profession. And by that I mean what is their emotional intelligence level. If I had a magic wand, emotional intelligence would be a part of every police organization. And what I mean by emotional intelligence what makes me tick and what makes you tick. How am I gonna treat you, how am I gonna respect you. I have a philosophy every time I hire somebody. I leave them with the following: “Always treat everybody the way you want yourself and your family treated.” I’ve learned that if you do that 95-96% of the time, you’re going to win. There’s gonna be a 4-5% that you not gonna win and that’s what you’re trained to do, to handle the situation.

YVONNE: In the age of social media, when everything is on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat...when everyone is ready to point their cameras, there are few places for bad cops to hide.

Chitwood: You know policing in America today is like being in a fishbowl everybody’s looking everybody’s got a video, I’ve never seen anything like it. And you gotta be professional and you gotta be able to deal with people. And sometimes that’s hard to do. I think leaders in the police community need to look at this emotional intelligence. Treating people with dignity. Treating people with respect. It’s not a big deal.

Are there mistakes made? Absolutely. Do we hire the wrong people? Absolutely. Like I  told you earlier, we’re human beings, and we hire from the human race, we don’t hire from some supernatural neighborhood that says “Okay, you’re a police officer you’re not gonna do any wrong.” You know you are gonna do wrong you are gonna make mistakes that’s why it’s up to leaders to make sure that the officers are trained, that you’re hiring the appropriate people, and it’s continual. It’s not a one time thing. It’s continuous.

YVONNE: When we were mapping out the elements of this episode, we knew we’d talk to Autumn. And we knew we wanted to talk to someone in law enforcement.

What we couldn’t have planned was a conversation with Vashti Dubois and and her son, Dubois Stewert.

Dubois had recently been stopped and frisked by police for the first time. The experience had shaken both of them. Deeply. So Mitchell and I traveled out to Germantown to talk to them about what had happened.

Dubois: I was coming home from community service at Squash Marts, um it was like the first time in a few months that I’d ridden my bike, and I saw this car like, tailing me halfway down a block, and I didn’t think much of it, um I didn’t notice it until like a siren came on and then they told me to stop. Um, I was pretty scared. I’d never been stopped and frisked before. Um, they got out of the car they told me well the first officer tried to start a conversation with me to make it easier, but it, it was scary nonetheless. He asked me to take out my identification, so I reached into my bag but the other cop behind him reached for his gun, and the other one was like actually just let me take it off for you um and it was at this point that they finally decided to tell me why the stopped me and this was because they had seen a suspect who looked just like me or rather they said looked similar to me and wanted to know if I knew anything about him or if I’d seen him anywhere. And of course I didn’t, um and of course the only thing in common was our dread locks. Everything else was different. This was a grown man. I don’t even have any facial hair, and they questioned me for like 15 more minutes while his friend ran my ID through the records, and when they realized I didn’t know anything they let me go.

Yvonne: How did that make you feel?

Dubois: I was terrified. I’d never been stopped and frisked before. I seriously thought I wouldn’t go away unharmed. Um. Because of all the cases I’d recently heard of police brutality between black young males and police officers in general.

Yvonne: And how do you feel about this?

Vashti: Um I was in New York City when this happened. Um I was at a friend’s wedding from school. I got home at 1 in the morning and I was really excited to tell Dubois “yeah like this is why college is so cool because you keep these friends for life.” And it was 1 o'clock when I knocked on his door cause I could tell he was up and he said “how was it” and I told him and I said well how was your weekend and he said well I got stopped and frisked for the first time and I… like… I I I I was speechless I was I wanted to I was fighting to not cry and he said “Don’t cry” and I I said well why didn’t you call me and of course I know why he didn’t call me.

YVONNE: That’s Dubois mom, Vashti. She’s the founder and Executive Director of The Colored Girls Museum, but as she sat next to her son, she was just a mom. Her body language spoke of a woman who would never, ever get over the fear of what could have happened  and still could happen to her son.

Vashti: And it’s ironic because the week before we were on the baseball field, we were celebrating his acceptance to the University of Penn, we got that news on a Thursday and here it is it’s like Saturday morning it’s not even a week later and it’s like his official acceptance letter into like this next phase of his life is being stopped and frisked by the police. Because he’s black. Because he has locks. Um. Because he’s a young man.

YVONNE: Vashti had the “talk” with Dubois, the one all black parents MUST have with their children. The painful conversation on what to do if the police stop you.

Vashti: Um after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson that summer, Dubois was going into 11th grade and I said to him listen I, we, you know, it’s not a question of if this is going to happen it’s a question of when this is gonna happen and I want you to be prepared so we need to practice like what you would do in this situation. And he, he he was really angry at me, I remember that, it was one of the first times I felt like a failure as a parent. Um.

And he pretty much said to me in that conversation you know and I’m paraphrasing, but like is this how adults like is this the solution adults have for this injustice is to prepare us to like be violated? Is that like, is that kind of like the best you can do? And he pretty much said, you know if this is the way I have to live I’d rather not live this way. And I was just like, all I could say is just I need you to come home. Like when this happens, I need to know I’ve given you every opportunity to come home to me. So we have to do it.

YVONNE: Vashti loves her son, that was so clear. And when you love your child with all your heart and do everything you can to give him or her every opportunity, you don’t want to ever think that all they are to some, are just a black or brown face that equals trouble.

Vashti: It is. It is. It’s just, people, you know the way that the news treats these things, it’s always the young man’s fault or the young woman’s fault. They always somebody always did something they looked a way they had a record they moved too quickly you know they looked threatening. My son you know is 18, I mean you see him, like you know he’s still coming into his 18 year old body. He still could easily pass for like 16, 15. Somewhere in the back of your mind you tell yourself oh if they dress a certain way if they speak a certain way if they you know go to high school everyday if they get into college if they’re this if they’re smart all these things and the truth of the matter is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, and that’s… you know, ...then as a mom it’s just like your worst fear. And so now it’s happened and so now you live with the realization that it can happen again and it could happen again and then you live you live with that and you just live with that um.

YVONNE: The flip side to all of this is many of us, including Dubois, have had very positive interactions with the police but it only takes one bad experience to embed a fear that will never end. He doesn’t have much hope that the problems police and communities of color face, will go away anytime soon.

Dubois: Um, I don’t know. I guess um I don’t think it gets better immediately. Progress isn’t a straight line. And before we reform the police department, we would have to reform our opinion of the police itself. Because in the eyes of the black community the latino community the colored community in general um. Police are to be feared. And that can’t be that can’t be changed unless they see a story that differs from what they’ve already seen in the news and everywhere else. And the police themselves they have to I guess I’d like to see a system in which they don’t allow certain officers certain rights because some of them really just use their powers to their advantage and I don’t think those people deserve to be on the streets policing us if they can’t police themselves.

[Theme music]

And that’s our show.

It’s college admission season and so big congratulations to our playwright Autumn Angelettie, who will be attending Howard University in the fall.. Thanks so much Autumn for sharing your monologue and the conversation.

Dubois Stewart is heading to University of Pennsylvania. That is awesome. Thanks so much for sharing a difficult story.

Thanks to Upper Darby Police Chief Michael Chitwood and Dubois’ proud mom Vashti Dubois.

"Neighborhood" Blue was performed by Ariana Sepulveda under the direction of Christina May.

See ya next time.