Allou High School in Southeast Washington, D.C., is about five miles from the U.S. Capitol—a 10-minute drive. The neighborhood is mostly poor, guns are common and it’s hardly news when another youngster from the area is killed. In the past decade, assailants have murdered dozens of Ballou students or recent graduates. Yet the teenagers at the school, 98 percent of whom are black, largely view the police as the enemy.
At a time of national debate about police brutality, race, urban violence and wide disparities in opportunities for young people of different backgrounds, Politico Magazine organized a wide-ranging and revelatory conversation with eight Ballou students to hear their views on the challenges they face growing up. They spoke about why they distrust—even despise—the police, and about a code of silence that forbids them from “snitching” on criminals. They also discussed the juvenile justice and prison systems.
In the days before the discussion took place, violence struck the Ballou community once again. It apparently began with an argument at a basketball game on January 14 against rival Anacostia High School. After police and school administrators escorted arguing fans out of the game, gunfire erupted near the campus. One or more gunmen killedPhillip Jones, 17, and wounded at least one other juvenile. In a separate incident five days later—on Martin Luther King Jr. Day—assailants shot and killed former Ballou studentKevin Owens, 22, on a Southeast street at 2 in the afternoon.
One week after that, the participants in the Politico Magazine roundtable gathered in a conference room at the high school, a gorgeous, new $142 million facility that replaced the dilapidated school building next door. Gabriel Benn, a former Ballou administrator and Peabody Award-winning hip-hop artist who also goes by the name Asheru, led the discussion. The following excerpts have been condensed and lightly edited for purposes of clarity and space. — Jeffrey Bartholet
Gabriel Benn: Can anyone recall his or her first impressions of police as a child living in this community?
Malik: When I was young, they kicked doors in and took my uncles, so ever since then, I ain’t never liked them.
Harold: I didn’t really pay attention to the police because my daddy always used to be locked up. So I used to want to be different from that.
Benn: If you encounter a police officer right now, if you see one on the street or if you’re riding in the car and one pulls up behind you, what are your initial feelings?
De’Azia: What did I do?
Doné: This is going in a real bad way. Real bad.
DeAngelo: I feel like I’m dirty.
Benn: What if you’re not, though?
Doné: Half of the time, they pull you over, or if you walking and they stop you, [it’s because] oh, you fit a description. A million people got black hoodies, black jeans and black shoes. Why it got to be me?
Benn: Do you ever see a police officer and feel relieved?
[ A chorus of “no’s”]
Martina: Never. The only cool officer in the world to me is Officer Buck, and the other ones in the school. [Edwin Buckner of the Metropolitan Police Department has been stationed at Ballou High School since a homicide occurred there in 2003.]
Benn: What about you all? How do you feel about Officer Buck?
Malik: That’s the only police I ever sit and talk to.
Doné: I ain’t never had no personal sitdown, like man-to-man with him, or nothing like that. But the part where I feel he is most cool with me is the sports part. He might see me and say, “I see you scored this week,” or something like that. Other than that, I just draw that line: At the end of the day, you’re still a police officer, and I’m still who I am.
Benn: Do you get the feeling that Buck genuinely cares about y’all?
De’Azia: Yeah, he do.
Benn: Why do you think he’s that way and the other officers are not?