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Columbia fraternity bonds over Freddie Gray unrest

Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood is about 17 miles north on Interstate 95 from the clubhouse at Monarch Mills, a mixed-income apartment building in Columbia.

But when the Rev. Isaiah Harvin asked a dozen middle and high school boys gathered there whether they had heard about Freddie Gray, who lived in Sandtown and died after he was seriously injured in police custody last month, every single hand shot up.

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The group was gathered for a meeting of the Kappa League, a leadership program for local teen and pre-teen boys created by the Columbia chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, an African American fraternity. Since the program started in December, the Kappa Leaguers have met on a monthly basis to talk about a wide variety of topics, including self-identity, career choices, politics, religion and etiquette.

Saturday's meeting was supposed to address health topics, from physical fitness to sex education, but once events began to unfold in Baltimore, Harvin and his Kappa League co-chair Eddie Winkley sensed the discussion should switch gears.

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"They're afraid because of what the media has put out there, because they see voices being silenced," said Harvin, who's the pastor at Brookings Faith Temple AME Church in Lanham. "Everyone has a voice, and they need to be heard."

Winkley's son, Christian Winkley, 18, was one of the first to speak.

The younger Winkley made his way to the front of the room to recite a rap inspired by riots in the city:

We're burning and stabbing and snatching and grabbing

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The black kids are bashing the glasses and looting

We leave it in ruins

They're shooting us down

So what are we doing?

We're ruthless and reckless

We're shot with no weapon

Drive-by on the streets they're supposed to be protecting

How could we possibly win?

Quick to get shot by these cops and these pigs

So I stop and I begin to wonder

Am I just another number?

If I get my life taken by an officer

Who's going to comfort my mother, and sister, and squad and significant other

What if the last thing I said wasn't I love her?

And what if they come to my county and tear it up

Speak of the devil, speaking of America

What if my kids are too scared of America?

Relationships with police

Kappa Leaguers told Harvin that fear of the police is common among their peers.

Several boys said they had already experienced frightening run-ins with police officers, from being stopped and questioned about a nearby robbery to being patted down.

Jordan Edmond, who lives in the village of Harper's Choice, said he's never had any interaction with police. The officers in his neighborhood, he said, "are actually really nice."

But Jordan, 12, who attends Columbia Academy, understood why other young people feel intimidated by officers.

"The kids, they know it could be them next," he said. "After they saw Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown ... I think they were just afraid."

Roysworth Grant, 15, said he saw that fear turn to rioting last week, though he didn't agree with the tactics.

"People say rioting is the voice of the unheard," said Roysworth, who goes to boarding school in Alexandria. "They're rioting because their voice is not heard, and they're not valued in society."

Traffic stop play-by-play

One of the Kappa Alpha brothers, Nolan Williams, had another perspective to offer the young men. Before becoming a contract program security officer at Northrop Grumman, he spent 16 years as a patrol officer and detective on the Montgomery County police force.

"As a black man who was a police officer, who is now in that situation of a riot in Baltimore, do you see the conflict of the black officers?" Williams asked. "You have to do your job, and your job is to serve and to protect the community. You see the community being burnt to the ground. There's injustice, there's injustice that we experience every day, but how do you handle the injustice?"

Williams and Winkley gave the boys a tutorial on what to do if they get pulled over, one of the most common ways they might come in contact with an officer.

Winkley pulled a chair to the front of the room and put his hands up as if on an invisible steering wheel.

The first step, as always, was to stop on the side of the road. Then, the advice got a lot more detailed.

"As soon as you get there, the first thing I want you to do is turn on your dome light so the officer can see what's going on in the car," Winkley said, reaching up toward the ceiling to mime switching on a light. "Roll your window down. Hands on the steering wheel."

Other tips followed: If there are passengers in the car, roll down all the windows, "even if it's 20 degrees or raining outside," Williams said. Choose passengers wisely; tell officers exactly where you need to reach and why.

Some boys balked at the long list of advice.

"Why is it always on the civilians to be the most respectful and say 'yes, officer,' 'no, officer,' and put their hands up and everything?'" asked Cedric Brown, a 15-year-old Glenelg Country School student. "I think it's also on the cops to learn how to deal with teenagers in a way that will keep everyone safe."

Johnny Matthews, one of the Kappa brothers, agreed – but said navigating police encounters was the battle, not the war.

"The fact is that the war will be won if you become adults and contributing citizens in this country," Matthews said. "The fact is that all you can control is yourself."

Intergenerational dialogue

Several Kappas who had grown up in the 1950s and 1960s came to the meeting to share their stories, too.

Donal Hogan, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, told the Kappa Leaguers about being pulled over by an officer in Georgia as he drove to visit his parents in Florida. He hadn't been speeding and hadn't broken any traffic laws, as best he could tell. After checking Hogan's license and registration, the officer let him go.

"What you're going through now, it's been going on for generations, probably generations before my time," he said.

Years later, raising his three sons in Columbia, he told them that "Columbia's not the real world. It's kind of a panacea compared to other areas, like inner-city Baltimore."

Another Kappa, Lamont English, told the teens about the time he was pulled over in his own neighborhood on the way back from a drive in his convertible. When he told the police officer that his house was within sight, the officer idled in the driveway until English unlocked the door.

"You're supposed to have arrived here, and this man is treating you like that. That was the ultimate insult," English said.

Robert Booth, who grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and was active in the Civil Rights movement there, said he's seen a good deal of progress in his own lifetime.

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"I talk to young people and they just can't believe the pain that happened. The sit-ins, the marches, the fire hoses, the dogs," Booth said. "It's a continual process, and that's why we are here now."

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Roysworth said racism today is subtler. At his predominantly white boarding school, he said, many of his classmates believe the country has already reached a post-racial era.

"Most of the white kids that I talk to about these things said I'm making it up and that I'm wrong, and that race isn't important. It really is," he said. "The worst white stereotype is white trash. For black men, it's thugs, gangsters, rapists — things like that.

"It's my responsibility as a black man to show them that I'm worth something, I'm not like what society makes me out to be," he said. "I will not be put into a box."

Lifelong brotherhood

After two hours of talks, the Kappa Leaguers and the Kappa brothers converged at the front of the room for a group circle. It was the last meeting for this Kappa League class.

"You're not in this thing by yourself," Harvin told the boys.

Though their six months of sessions had come to an end, part of the mission of the group is to create lifelong friends and mentorships across generations.

Then Harvin asked them to look into each others' eyes. Some shied away, looking down instead.

The pastor encouraged them to look up.

"The reason it makes us uncomfortable looking at each other eye to eye is because society has taught us to always look down," he said.

A new Kappa League class will begin in August and is open to Howard County boys from sixth through 12th grades. For more information, go to kappaleaguecolumbia.com or contact Eddie Winkley at 443-812-5302.

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