On May 21, 2007, a coordinated scrum of police officers on foot, in patrol cars, and even hovering overhead in a helicopter converged on a group of 32 young people ranging in age from 13 to 21.
The group of mostly teens had been walking through a part of Bushwick to a train station, heading for a funeral taking place that day for their friend, an 18-year-old who had been shot in what police believed was a gang murder.
The mass arrest was immediately controversial. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office claimed that the group of 32 were gang members themselves, dressed in gang colors, flashing gang signs, and stomping on parked cars as they made their way through the neighborhood. But parents—as well as bystanders who didn’t know the young arrestees—disputed that account, saying the procession was a peaceful one, led by students from nearby Bushwick Community High School. Even after being handcuffed, the students didn’t protest their arrest or lose their cool, witnesses claimed. The police, parents alleged, had invented stories about the students’ being unruly and damaging cars to justify the arrest.
For weeks, there was substantial press coverage as accusations about the incident flew back and forth.
The New York Post called the police officers “outright heroes,” and condemned “whining” from critics. In the months that followed, however, nearly every criminal charge against the students was dismissed.
There was far less press coverage this past April, when the city agreed to pay 16 members of the “Bushwick 32” a settlement of $257,000 to end a civil lawsuit that alleged police harassment and unlawful arrest. (Twelve additional members of the group filed a similar civil rights lawsuit against the city earlier this month.)
And what has received even less press attention than that is how a bunch of high school students managed to give the city such an expensive drubbing.
The pupils at Bushwick Community are not model students. In fact, many are the truants, gang members, and behavioral cases that other schools can’t handle. Bushwick Community is their last chance, a school with its own problems and a graduation rate so miserable that the state has scheduled it to be closed in two years.
And yet these students, deemed screw-ups by the school system, managed to give the police department one of its worst black eyes in recent years.
It turns out there’s a perfectly good explanation for it. And if the police had only known what some of the students at Bushwick Community had been studying, they might have had second thoughts about swooping down on them, SWAT-style.
Bushwick Community High School sits on a long block it shares with low-slung, clapboard houses and a dentist’s office. The school occupies the second floor of a building that houses two other schools—a few blocks away, another four high schools were recently opened to replace a large, failing school that was shut down by the city.
A typical Bushwick Community student is 18 years old and has completed less than a year of high school. Students as old as 21 attend. About 10 percent of them have children of their own. Some are homeless, living in abandoned buildings, and some a teacher euphemistically calls “street-level pharmacists.”
“I have Bloods. I have Crips. I have Latin Kings. I’m sure I have Nietas and every other gang that’s represented in New York,” principal Tira Randall recently told the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“This is the school for kids that the other schools don’t want,” says Melody Meyer, a Department of Education (DOE) spokeswoman.
Not all of the kids are hard-luck cases: Some actually choose to go to Bushwick Community; others are transferred there for reasons other than being dumped by schools that no longer want them.
Most new Bushwick Community students walk through the door having already failed three years of high school, and only 6.6 percent of them will graduate in four years. Even after seven years, only 38 percent finish, which is well below this year’s city average of 60 percent. The rate is so meager that the school is one of several in the city scheduled for closure by the state. (Parents and teachers managed to derail a similar school death sentence in 2004.)
Every student is at least 17 years old, which means that, by law, they can walk away at any time, and most do. But the ones who stick around tend to show up regularly. “If they’re there,” says Meyer, “it’s because they really want to be there.” That may explain why, despite the miserable statistics, students and teachers tend to give the school high marks in DOE surveys. Unlike the schools that students have transferred from, Bushwick Community has no metal detectors, and Principal Randall sees no need for them.
Outside the school, however, violence is a constant presence.
Donnell McFarland didn’t go to Bushwick Community, but the students there knew him as a fancy dresser and a ladies’ man, which explained his handle: Freshh. His friends knew that the 18-year-old could often be found at Putnam Park, hanging with a group called the Pretty Boy Family.
Police consider the Pretty Boy Family to be an offshoot of the Bloods gang.
On May 16, 2007, McFarland was killed by a single gunshot to the head. He was found near the intersection of Knickerbocker Avenue and Linden Street in Bushwick. Police arrested a 16-year-old named James Kelly, a former friend of McFarland’s that police believe is a member of the Linden Street Bloods. Kelly is currently awaiting trial for second-degree murder.
The Bushwick Community students say that the news of Freshh’s death came as a shock. Some heard it had been over a fight involving a girl. Others learned that the family was planning a funeral in Coney Island, where McFarland’s father lived, and they made plans to attend.
Police, meanwhile, say that they received tips that the funeral would be marred by gang retaliation, stirred up by McFarland’s killing. Commissioner Kelly later wrote that some of these tips had come from City Council members, who were worried about widespread violence.
The Bushwick Community students, however, didn’t know that the police department was preparing to head off what it believed to be a brewing gang war.
Two of them, Asher Callender and Kenneth Frederick, began using MySpace to organize students for a mass outing to the funeral. They had special T-shirts made (“RIP Freshh,” “Team Freshh”), and some students stopped by the school the morning of the funeral to pick up permission slips from Principal Randall. A few parents trailed behind as they left from Putnam Park for the Myrtle Avenue L train station to begin their trip to Coney Island.
Police, meanwhile, moved into place.
As police officers converged on them, the students say they were terrified.
They were shoved to the ground and against walls. They were handcuffed and loaded into patrol cars.
“The way they were treating us,” Frederick says, “it was like we were the mafia or something.”
“I come from a neighborhood with a lot of cops and stuff, and I’m used to them,” says another student, Luis Pacheco. “But this time, they way they came out and stuff, they way they attacked us on the way to the train station, I couldn’t believe that.”
Witnesses, however, say the students were remarkably unflappable.
Callender hollered to his fellow students, telling them to remain calm. Frederick, meanwhile, asked the officers arresting him if they wanted to see his permission slip.
Students say it was no accident that they didn’t freak out, or struggle, or fight the officers, which would have made a bad situation worse. And that’s because, at Bushwick Community, they’d been taught better.
Since 2002, a popular special education and social studies teacher named Brian Favors had taught Bushwick Community students how to handle themselves with the police, preparing them for exactly the kind of situation they faced that day.
“We learned that the police stopping and frisking you all the time isn’t a normal thing,” says Callender. “Most of us feel like we’re used to that. It’s just part of our daily lives. Even if you get arrested for something you didn’t really do, you know, you go to bookings for the night, you find out that resources are there to combat these things. I mean, if you really know and understand what these police are doing, and you know you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s people you can talk to.”
Favors, 34, a dreadlocked man with two master’s degrees in education, speaks in the measured, modulated tones of a schoolteacher. His wife, Lurie, is a civil rights lawyer. The two own a small restaurant on Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Food for Thought Café.
For five years before the arrest, Favors had been teaching students about the law and how to handle themselves in encounters with police.
“A lot of our kids had been so used to being violated that they didn’t know it was their right not to be,” he says. “Like walking home from school, being searched, and being asked to stand up against a police car—this is something kids in different neighborhoods never experience.”
Favors invited lawyers and other rights advocates to his classes, and students received handbooks titled “Know Your Rights,” which instructs them on how to handle themselves during a stop-and-frisk, a common occurrence in Bushwick. (Callender says he’s memorized the handbook.)
The lawyers that Favors brought in told his students: Stay calm. Know what a legal search is, and what isn’t. Take down badge numbers. Don’t say anything that might be perceived as a threat, even as a joke.
“It shed a lot of light for people like us, who go through things like, you know, you’re walking past, a police might put his hands on you or grab you. And then you’re in court for harming an officer. But now you know your rights,” says Callender. “So when you know that, you won’t act so irrationally the next time you’re stopped.”
Another former student of Favors’s (who was not involved in the arrest), Quincy Gardner, is now 22 and attends Long Island University: “Throughout the school year, we learned about injustice and just about how strong we are as a people. So, when things like that happen, you always learn that there’s a system in place. And we learn when we go about the system, we have to go about it strategically,” he says.
Callender says the training paid off on the day of the arrest. This time, he was prepared—unlike in his previous arrests.
There was the time, for example, when he’d seen a couple of men try to break up a fight between two of his female friends. Thinking that his friend was being attacked—and not realizing that the men were undercover police officers—Callender punched one of the men.
“I looked hideous after they finished with me,” he says.
In other situations, Callender also reacted angrily toward police officers, screaming at them and threatening them and making the situation worse.
But this time, after his Bushwick Community training, Callender took the lead, telling the other students to stay calm and follow orders.
“Without the training, we would have acted really harshly. But from the time we seen the police, we pretty much knew we weren’t doing anything wrong. We knew we weren’t breaking any law. We were just walking around the block in the normal fashion. We knew it wasn’t unlawful assembly. It just so happened that they still locked us up and arrested us anyway. But, you see, us having the composure and understanding not to act out, so the police couldn’t give us any extra charges, that was really the basis for what we did,” he says.
Within a week of the incident, Favors invited Noel Leader, a recently retired police lieutenant who founded a group called 100 Black Officers in Law Enforcement Who Care, to come and talk to the students about what happened.
In a meeting held in a classroom at the school (by this time, the students were out on summer break), Leader encouraged the students to fight the charges. He told them not to accept a plea bargain of community service, which the District Attorney’s Office was encouraging them to do. “Our advice was that they should fight all the charges. We gave the reasons why. We thought some of the accusations were false, and, normally, when you lie about defendants, it means your whole story is in jeopardy,” Leader tells the Voice.
He says that he and other officers had looked at the charges and were suspicious. Although Kelly and the D.A.’s office had alleged that the students stomped on cars, Leader knew of no reports of criminal mischief or destruction of private property being filed in the matter. He also looked into the gang allegations: If the clothing confiscated by police had been identified as gang regalia, it would have been identified as such in internal documents. It wasn’t, Leader says.
As the summer wore on and charges for the defendants began to be dismissed, students started becoming more outspoken. Callender says they wanted an official apology.
With City Councilman Charles Barron, Favors and some of the students arranged a meeting with members of the D.A.’s office. Instead of getting an apology, however, they were stunned when they were asked for the names of their witnesses.
“Hold up. You guys already convicted us in the press, and now you want our witnesses?” Favors remembers thinking.
“I really think it was just a battle of egos, you know? Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes and Ray Kelly not wanting to admit a mistake,” Callender says. “But they messed with the wrong people.” (The Brooklyn D.A.’s office declined to comment on a dismissed case.)
A court hearing for most of the students who had been arrested was set for November 30, 2007. Students got permission to be out of school, and Favors and other teachers took the day off work.
An official at the courthouse, Sergeant Eugene Sullivan, ordered more than the usual number of court officers to provide security.
And that’s when things turned farcical.
The following is taken from recent court testimony and interviews with those who witnessed the courtroom incident.
On the day of the November 2007 court hearing, Brian Favors got into a heated discussion with the public defender of one of his students.
The attorney, Alison Hart, had asked the student she represented to come into the hallway for a conference. Favors approached them, trying to listen in—but Hart didn’t know who he was, and she asked him to step away from the attorney-client discussion. Favors, who wasn’t wearing a suit, explained that he was the student’s teacher, but Hart asked him to move away, and the discussion became tense. Hart decided to call her husband—who happened to be Sergeant Sullivan, the chief court officer. (Calls to Hart, who did not testify, were not returned.)
Witnesses say Sullivan then entered the courtroom moments later, grabbed a bystander who happened to be a black man with dreadlocks, and shouted, “You! Out of the courtroom!”
The man, John Meekins, was hustled into the hallway. Favors followed.
In the hallway, Sullivan demanded that Meekins explain what had happened in the confrontation with Hart.
“You’ve got the wrong black man with dreadlocks,” Favors says he told the court officer.
Meekins says that he then turned to Sullivan and said, “I believe I am being racially profiled.”
Meekins asked for Sullivan’s badge number. Meanwhile, two other men, recent Bushwick Community graduate Jesus Gonzalez and a current student, Mario Cox, had also followed Favors into the hallway.
Sullivan, meanwhile, soon had the support of additional officers. One of them testified that Sullivan said Favors had threatened his life. (And there was some confusion over that last word—was it “life” or “wife”? Sullivan testified to the latter, but, apparently, his cohorts heard the more alarming word “life.”)
Believing that an officer was under threat, the others responded with great force. Ten or more officers converged on the four men, who were thrown to the ground in a mass scuffle. All four were charged with felonies for assaulting officers.
As a result, Favors was automatically reassigned to one of the school district’s infamous “rubber rooms,” where teachers are sent to rot when they are accused of wrongdoing.
Students say they were stunned. The man who had taught them how to handle themselves with police was now facing prison time for a shockingly stupid courtroom confrontation.
Last month, on June 25, two events were happening simultaneously.
At Bushwick Community High School, about 60 students were graduating.
Meanwhile, in a courtroom in downtown Brooklyn, Neil Ross—a district judge shipped in from Manhattan—was reaching a verdict in the charges (now reduced from felonies to misdemeanors) against Brian Favors and his three co-defendants.
Insisting that his verdict was not a referendum on the competence of the New York Police Department, Ross found the four defendants—Favors, Cox, Gonzalez, and Meekins, the bystander who had been mistaken for Favors because he was a black man with dreadlocks—not guilty on all charges.
The testimonies by police in the case had been very suspect: One officer, James Kelly, admitted on the witness stand that he hadn’t even read an affidavit that bore his signature.
Favors walked out of court and into a crowd of supporters that included a handful of his former students. To thank them, he asked them to look at the court building and consider the people inside who might not be guilty of their charges, but who don’t have such a strong group backing them up. He then invited everyone to a party the following night at his café.
Favors has been released from the school district’s rubber room, but he hasn’t decided if he’ll go back to teaching full-time at Bushwick Community.
“One good thing about the rubber room is that it gave me time to develop some of my other plans in education,” Favors says. Those plans include working on his consulting business, Breaking the Cycle, which has him going to classes to give lectures like the ones he gives to his Bushwick Community students about their rights. “I didn’t care whether we won in a court of law. I knew we had a victory in the community. We won either way.”
Over the course of the previous year and a half, all but one of the criminal cases against the Bushwick 32 have been dropped or dismissed. (One student with prior charges accepted a plea bargain.) The last of the cases was dropped in February.
Kenneth Frederick says that he and other students have been planning to use their portion of the settlement money to start a group they’ll call “Parties for Poverty.” Others say they’ll use the money for college—after their attorney, Michael Scolnick, is paid his bill.
Callender, the student who managed to quell his anger at the police and keep his fellow marchers calm, says that he’s prepared to be stopped and frisked yet again.
“Of course the anger is still in me. It still lives in me, every time I see a police car drive by,” he says. “But you have to step down with it.”
Frederick, meanwhile, who just wanted to show the police his permission slip, says he and his fellow students—dismissed as dead-end kids by the school system, and as dangerous gang members by the city—can look back on what the students of Bushwick Community High School did in the wake of the arrests, pulling together to fight the city, as something he never thought possible.
“Believe it or not,” he says, “we see this as a blessing. And it’s not every day that you see 32 people who get locked up for no reason saying it was a blessing.”