By Gabrielle L. Kurlander, All Stars Project President and CEO
October 7th, 2009, 6 p.m.
A small bus pulls up to the P.A.L. Miccio Center in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and eight kids from East New York PAL file out. Another 12 young people have come from around the city. I have never been here before, but it is immediately obvious to me that this is a tough neighborhood. The kids are greeted outside the PAL by Dr. Lenora Fulani and ushered inside. In the large gym, there is a huddle of a couple dozen police officers. Mainly men - a few women - they are all wearing their blue police uniforms. Even though I expected it, being there with the officers each wearing a belt with a holstered gun, I feel intimidated. I have never been in a room with so many (what I assume are loaded) guns. I can only imagine how the young Black men feel about this. I hug a few All Stars alumni hello: Sita, Jube, Chris. They are young people who have been trained in the All Stars performance approach, and Fulani has asked them to participate in the conversation between the teenagers and the cops, none of whom have ever been exposed to anything like this before.
The youth, also mainly boys, are avoiding the police officers, taking some pizza and soda from a table that's set up. Fulani tells them to sit down in chairs that are set up in a large circle. The youth sit, looking sullen and put upon. Then the police officers join them; they know how to do what they are told. Everyone looks apprehensive, and uneasy.
I am sitting a few feet outside the circle. Fulani introduces me to the borough commander who was addressing the huddled police. He has a dress uniform on, and pulls up a chair and sits next to me. He is Chief Joseph Fox, the commanding officer of Patrol Borough Brooklyn South. Throughout the workshop he looks at his Blackberry, reading police updates on what is happening and typing responses. I remember how many times Commissioner Kelly checked his handheld when he came for a tour of All Stars. I can't imagine they get much good news.
Fulani begins asking the cops and kids to change seats in the circle, so they are sitting cop, kid, cop, kid, cop, kid...she moves around the inside of the circle literally pulling the teenagers out of their seats and moving them to another seat, next to a cop. It is apparent that the kids don't want to sit next to a cop.
You can cut the tension with a knife.
Right in front of me there is a cop with his guns hanging from his belt, sitting inches from a young Black teenager, wearing pants hanging low, Tims (Timberland boots) and a sweatshirt. I feel tense, too. Fulani asks me and the commander to introduce ourselves; I am one of the first non-police observers ever to be at a Cops and Kids workshop. When Dr. Fulani was developing them, only the cops and kids who were participating attended. I feel privileged to be there.
Fulani tells them that she began these workshops after Sean Bell was shot and killed by police. That she has done 40 of them with over 1,200 cops and over 600 kids. She speaks about using performance to help them create a new relationship, since theirs is mistrustful and hostile. Fulani speaks about her conversations with Commissioner Kelly about Black on Black crime.
Then Fulani tells them all to push their chairs further back and to stand. The cops and kids do this in unison. She begins directing them to turn their heads very, very slowly to the right. So slowly "it would take until Saturday to get there." A few cops roll their eyes, the kids shuffle their feet. The tension increases. I find myself wondering if this group of mostly men is going to listen to her. I have a feeling that they might just walk out. But they don't. Heads begin to move slowly to the right, some of them don't move until Fulani is looking at them. It is obvious that everyone HATES doing this. Then Fulani directs them to move their heads to the left. Still excruciatingly slow. Then Fulani has them slowly raise their right arms. The cops and kids do this, moving so they don't hit each other. Ten minutes into the slow movement exercise, I can feel the tension start to dissipate. Even though I am just sitting and watching, after a long day I also begin to feel more relaxed. It seems somewhat miraculous, since I'm not "doing" anything. Then Fulani tells them to walk to the middle of the room, with their arm out taking very small steps, "like the Munsters." They all start to move in a circle towards the middle. Several people start laughing, since it looks pretty funny. Fulani says, "closer, closer." As they resist this, she is walking around what is now a huddle of cops and kids, gently urging and pushing them closer in toward each other. The cops' guns hitting the teenagers' legs as they move in closer. They are uncomfortably close, in this huge gym, like when you are on a crowded subway car and can't wait to get off. It occurs to me that cops and kids are never this physically close unless the kids are being frisked by the cops or arrested.
Fulani thanks them, tells them to go back to their seats, and give each other a round of applause. They do. Now they are sitting next to each other much more comfortably. They look much more physically at ease. Fulani asks them to go around and say in two sentences the one thing they came here to get off their chest. Cops talk about wanting the kids to respect them. Kids say the cops stop them for no reason. Some of the cops who are of color speak about coming from neighborhoods just like the kids live in. A few of the white cops speak with compassion about wanting to reach the kids, to help them. A few of the young Black men express their anger about how they are stereotyped and treated like criminals. After each comment, no matter what is said, Fulani says thank you. She takes command of the room with authority, and is respectful of everyone in it.
Next, Fulani tells them to move their chairs into several rows, like an audience, and she sets up an area to be the stage. I notice as they move their seats that a young Black man sits in the middle of six cops in the back row; he doesn't seem bothered by this now.
Fulani tells them they are the cast and she is their director, so they have to do what she says. She quips, smiling at them, that she is an excellent director. She casts several cops and kids in a skit where they play family members arguing because they each want to get a different family pet. Fulani casts a kid and a cop as the parents, and a group of cops and kids as the children. Immediately, they begin performing together, arguing in comic ways over whether to get a fish, a parrot, a cat, a lobster, etc. Fulani asks everyone to volunteer and perform. There is a grouping of kids who don't go up, and Fulani goes over and selects them. They reluctantly go to the stage, and begin performing with the cops.
After each set of performances, the cops and kids applaud.
When everyone has performed, Fulani tells them to move their chairs back into a circle. I notice how seamlessly and cooperatively the cops and kids coordinate moving their chairs in tandem. It strikes me as an important part of their new shared performance.
Finally, Fulani asks them to have a conversation with each other. Over the next 20 minutes, they talk together in a very engaged way. The tension is no longer overwhelming, and they have become a group that does things together. The conversation eventually focuses on the cops' concern with the young men who wear their pants below their butts. The teenagers talk about being stopped by cops who tell them to pull up their pants. The young men say this is a style. Fulani asks the young men who of them really like this style. A few raise their hands up high; it is obviously a matter of pride. Fulani pushes the cops to express why this is such a big deal for them. One cop speaks about how this is what happens to young men in prison: the police take away their belts, so their pants don't stay up. So why would you emulate that? The cops say to the kids if you want respect, you can't get it this way. The kids say they like to dress like that.
Fulani addresses the group. She says that when she was young, young women wore very short skirts, and that there are differences between the styles that adults and youth like. She suggests to the cops that they could go over to the youth on the street when they see them and say hello, and compliment how they look. She asks them what would happen if they did this, even if their pants were low. Everyone looks a bit stunned at this suggestion. Fulani speaks to the group about how they could work to be less moralistic. People listen.
Finally, Fulani lines all the cops up on one side, and all the kids on the other. First the kids go down the receiving line of cops, shaking hands with the cops and thanking them for coming.
Next, the cops go down the line of kids and shake their hands and thank them for coming. The kids are just beaming; they obviously really like this. Then two cops and two kids thank each other on behalf of the group. And Fulani ends the workshop.
Outside the PAL, I congratulate some of the young people who were in the workshop. I meet two young men who tell me they are dancers. When is the All Stars show, they want to know. Fulani comes out and hugs them, thanks them for coming. I owe you, she tells them. They smile. She tells me how thrilled she was to have me there. And off she goes at 7:45 p.m. to a community meeting in another part of Brooklyn.
Operation Conversation: Cops and Kids accomplished.