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?
Donyell: He interacts with us.
Malik: He understands the situation we’re going through, and he probably been there before. He just took the route he took.
Benn: Do you think race plays a factor in this? Do you think white police officers treat you differently than black police officers?
Malik: In some situations.
Martina: [Black or white], in some cases, they just look at it as, “They’re from Southeast, they up to no good.” If you got dreads, they just know you up to no good. If your pants sag, they know you up to no good. If you’re not doing nothing, they just know you up to no good. They always assume.
Benn: Does that make you alter your appearance?
Malik: One day, I want to dress like I always dress and, one day, I want to go outside in a suit and a tie, and see what the difference is—how they treat me.
Benn: Do you think they will treat you differently?
Malik: Yeah, I think if the jump-outs come [when police jump out of an unmarked car to frisk people] and I’m standing with the same people I’ve been standing with, wearing what I wear, I’ll have to go through the searches and all of that. But if I wear a suit or something, they might really let me go.
Doné: The best thing to wear when you see the police are around is something so they can see your waistline [to be sure you don’t have a gun]. Because other than that, they’re on alert—high alert—and that’s just the bottom line. I don’t think it really matters what you wear. They are on high alert, regardless.
DeAngelo: I think they underestimate white people. They look at Caucasians on the block, they really wouldn’t say nothing to them. But if a black person stands there, they say something.
Benn: Do you see white people on the block?
Doné: Maybe not in your neighborhood, but somewhere else there’s some white man beside a black man.
Malik: They’re Caucasians, so they already got one win. Then they’re dressing like Caucasians, so they’re winning again. We like more attention. Caucasians don’t really care for attention.
Martina: The police will catch kids more when some [nice] shoes come out, but [they will ignore kids] because there is no dangle [flashy jewelry].
Shaquon: It’s not where you come from, but where you raised from—like who you are raised by. [When I come to school and pass security] they see how I carry myself, what I wear. Like, sometimes I come in with a suit jacket on or something like that, and they just feel that I take myself to a higher level, so they might want to respect me on a higher level.
STANDING WHILE BLACK
Benn: Someone said something earlier I want to go back to: Let’s talk about jump-outs.
DeAngelo: They’re the dirtiest cops out there.
Martina: That’s on this Earth.
Doné: Those are gangsters, for real.
Benn: So, what days do we know them to come out?
DeAngelo: Wednesdays and Fridays.
Benn: Tell me a typical scenario of you being outside, hanging out, when the jump-outs come.
Doné: They pull up, and the first thing they say is, “Don’t move.”
Benn: What kind of car are they in?
Martina: They have a car just like you might pull up in.
Doné: There’s at least five of them in the car, and four are getting out.
DeAngelo: They got bulletproof vests on.
Benn: Are they normally black or white?
Doné: They got their guns out already, they have …
DeAngelo: I ain’t going to lie, the two people coming out of the car first are the white people. Those are the fast people. The black people are in the middle. They’re in the middle because they are the slowest people, and they want the fastest people to be out there so they can go chase you.
Benn: So they get out of the car, and you don’t run. What do they say?
Doné: Can I search you? Any guns?
Benn: Why are they searching you?
DeAngelo: Because we black.
Malik: Because you’re standing around.
Benn: Because you’re standing around and you’re black. Standing while black? Has anyone ever said, “No, you can’t search me”?
DeAngelo: That just makes them more mad.
Benn: So what do you think their purpose is beyond what regular cops do?
Doné: They’re trying to get lucky. They go towards a group of people, and they know that out of this group, somebody got to have something.
Donyell: When it comes to jump-outs, they don’t care about your appearance. One day, I was wearing dress shoes to school [and] I had like a tie on, and out of a group of people just standing and talking, they jumped out on me and pressed me out [into a spread eagle position for frisking].
Benn: How did it end after they searched you and patted you down?
Donyell: They left me alone and went to the next person, and then they rolled on.
Shaquon: Sometimes you just have to look around yourself and see who you are with. Some people know that the people they are with are up to no good, and they know they got background history with the law, so why be with them if you don’t want that stereotype you’re complaining about?
Doné: Sometimes you could be by yourself, and they could [still] pull up on you.
Benn: Have you ever been pulled over and detained by a police officer, and then let go?
DeAngelo: Yes, because they beat me up already. It was like a good Saturday night. I was shooting some dice. So they come up with tints [tinted windows]. … We weren’t paying attention. They come out blitzing. They run up the hill and come [toward us], so we start running. We hopped the gate. Where I live at, [there’s] this roof you can run up, but if you run too fast, you will jump off and mess yourself up. So we ran too fast and … oh, man, they caught us. So they dragged us in the alley, and after that, five minutes later, you’re holding your ribs. You’re hurting.
Doné: If you run, you got to make it worth it.
DeAngelo: They get mad.
Doné: If you get caught, it’s over. You might not be able to run after.
THE PRICE OF SNITCHING
Benn: What is a police officer’s job supposed to be?
Doné: They’re supposed to make the community feel safer.
Benn: And do you feel you’re being protected and served by the police?
Doné: No way. I feel more threatened by them than by anybody else.
Benn: Would you all ever help a police officer to apprehend a criminal?
Martina: Hell no.
Benn: Why not? People call it snitching?
Benn: If somebody next door to you was known to you as a child molester or sold crack, would you call the police?
Harold: It depends on if you or your family is in danger or not, because if your family is in danger, of course you’re going to try to protect them and call the police to help because you probably can’t do nothing.
Martina: I’m sorry. If I live next door to Big Tim who’s pumping that stuff [selling drugs], it ain’t none of my business [ group laughter]. I mean, he live in 503 and I live in 502…
Benn: So would you go knock on the door and say, “Tim, keep your shit on your side”?
Martina: I wouldn’t say shit because he would know [that I know]. If I say, oh yeah, he over there pumping kilos to Pablo, he gonna fuck me up [ group laughter]. I have seen too much TV, and I know the world.
Benn: So is there a fear? When you say people won’t cooperate with the police, is there a fear of the police or a fear of the person that they want you to tell on?
Doné: It don’t matter.
DeAngelo: My name is not about to be on the street as a hot boy [snitch].
Malik: If I tell on somebody, that mean I put my family in jeopardy. Even if they say, “I will put you into protective custody,” that ain’t the code. The code is: Don’t run your mouth. No matter what the situation is.
Benn: Who does not follow the code?
Doné: I’m a strong believer in the code. I think codes are made and not broken.
Benn: How does the community treat people who cooperate with the police?
Malik: You might not make it sometimes.
Martina: You can’t even look at them.
Doné: [You might as well] walk yourself up to the casket, open it up and put yourself in.
Martina: And close it.
Benn: Washington, D.C., has strict gun-control laws. They have a ban on assault weapons, they require that your firearms be registered, and they have laws against carrying a firearm. How easy or difficult is it to get a gun in D.C.?
[ Awkward fidgeting]
DeAngelo: It’s way easy to get a gun, but I think everybody should carry a gun. If you’re over 18, you should be able to carry your gun—like Texas, Kentucky and all that, free to bear your arm. That will eliminate more crimes.
Benn: If everybody had a gun?
Malik: I’m not about to do nothing to none of y’all if we all got guns.
Martina: But some people have gotten killed with guns on them.
Benn: The reason why I ask [about guns] is that everybody at this table has a friend that they’ve lost to violent crime, right?
[ Murmurs of agreement]
Malik: It’s easy [to get a gun], as long as you have the money.
Benn: And do you think you would feel safer having a gun?
DeAngelo: No, I think the gun makes you paranoid.
Malik: Yeah, because you have to think about two situations: Wherever you got the gun, you got to worry about that, and you got to worry about the police. If they know you got a gun or they see you with a gun in your hand, you might be another case that gets shot.
Benn: What are your impressions of the court system?
Martina: You could go in a store and look wrong, and the police come and say you’ve done theft. … But for you to get off—oh, man, [that’s hard].
Doné: It’s so easy to get into the system, and it’s way harder to get out of it.
Benn: Do you think the police officers, judges, lawyers, parole officers are working together?
Malik: When you get into the system, everybody works together. So you tell your PO [parole officer] your name, and they already got your aka [street alias]. So now, when they see you on the streets, they just pull up to be funny with you, and they’re like, “What’s up, such-and-such? Don’t you remember me no more?” They just make you look bad.
Benn: Do you see any difference when you go to [largely white areas of D.C.] versus this side of town?
Shaquon: It’s basically money … how much money is coming in up there. The amount of money that comes into your household.
DeAngelo: We get a different education. We’re probably learning stuff [in our senior year] that Virginia schools learned in eighth grade.
Benn: Do you think police treat people in other D.C. wards [differently]? Do they have jump-outs even?
Malik: That’s what I want to know. Do they have jump-outs?
Benn: How many of you have friends or relatives who are incarcerated?
[ A chorus of “me’s”]
THE LESSONS OF EX-CONS
Benn: How many of you have spent time in jail?
Martina: I plead the Fifth.
Benn: All I’m asking is, what is it like in jail for a juvenile?
Martina: Boring. [But] it depends where you go at.
Malik: Fun … TV, games, snacks.
Malik: Playground, for real.
Martina: You could stay there, just don’t go home. You could stay and do everything there.
Doné: But they giving you the wrong impression.
Malik: They’re setting it up that way so when you get older, you think it’ll be just like this.
Doné: Then, once you get older, you go to the Big Boys [adult prison], and that’s a whole different story.
DeAngelo: Their jail is a “jail” jail. It’s not like D.C. [juvenile] jail. You get locked up with grown adults. They’re messing with you.
Martina: Some people have been in and out of jail so much, that’s all they know: jail.
Doné: And then you turn 18, you think you’re back there [at the juvenile jail, or “juvie”], then they take you up in the paddy wagon [to the adult prison].
De’Azia: I wouldn’t even want to think about sitting in the back of a police car.
DeAngelo: It traumatizes you [to go to jail].
Doné: I think it mess you up psychologically.
Benn: The people who come home—how different are they before they go in and when they come out?
Martina: I know these adults, they were twins. They been locked up the majority of their life and they came home some years ago. When we’d say certain things, they’d say, “What’s that word mean? What’s this? How do you do this, how do you do that?” I was like, “Where the hell you been, under a rock your whole life?” But they been locked up and all they knew was jail.
Doné: They come home mentally disturbed. One day, one of my family members came home after a long time. I’m eating and my plate fall on the floor, everything turn over upside down. He said, “Man, I was in [prison]. That’s good food right there.”
Benn: On the floor?
Doné: Yeah, on the floor. [I said] “Hol-hol [“hold up”] there, pimp. Come on now—you hear me? You ain’t in your cell.” … He got his hand up [on the table in front of his plate as he’s eating]. He looking over his back. [I said,] “You not in no more. You’re at home now. You’re around family. Nobody going to shank you while you’re eating.”
DeAngelo: I got a friend, all he knows is lockup. He just did five, so he not used to this [life on the outside]. He like, “Man, I don’t know how you do it out here. I like it in jail better.” He’s really, like, gay now. He like, “I be doing it to them. They do it to me, all that.” So I’m like, “Oh, nah.”
Doné: They wake up 5 in the morning. I’m like, “Man, you ain’t in no more, cuz. You go back to sleep. Don’t nobody in this house wake up at no 5 in the morning talking about some chow time.”
Martina: You turn into an animal, for real.
Benn: Does it make you say, “I’m not getting locked up”?
DeAngelo: It depends how you are.
Doné: Like, I ain’t scared to go, I ain’t afraid, but I’m not going. I’m not going.
Benn: If you ever go to court, do you feel like you’ll get a fair trial?
DeAngelo: You’ve got to be a good persuasive person. That’s an awful lot of it.
De’Azia: I ain’t planning to go to court or jail.
Martina: I think you’ve already got the odds against you.
Benn: Do you think race plays a factor?
Martina: I don’t think it’s race, like black and white. I think it’s stereotype.
Malik: If they see you ain’t no dummy, they ain’t going to sit and keep playing around with you. But if they saying stuff to you and they know them big words …
Martina: … And you looking like, “What he saying?” … Then you going down. [That person can be] manipulated.
Doné: Another thing is your appearance when you go up in there [before the court]. However you dress in the ’hood is not how you dress.
Benn: So how do you dress?
Doné: Suit and tie.
Benn: When you go to the courthouse, do you see mostly black people, white people, a mix?
Martina: Only white person standing beside you is someone’s lawyer.
DeAngelo: If there’s a white person up there, they’re going for child support [group laughter]. I’m telling you, that’s what’s going on.
Benn: I only laugh because you might be 60 percent right.
Martina: Sixty? I give him 80.
Benn: So, typically, the white people you see up there are the lawyers…
Malik: … And DUI.
DeAngelo: Yeah, usually drinking and driving while on their phones.
THE AGE OF OBAMA
Benn: Do you think, having a black president now, things have changed?
Malik: When we had a white president in office, it wasn’t all of this. It was crimes going on, don’t get me wrong. [But] it’s too real now. Like, you fear going to school some mornings. You be like, “Man, I ain’t even feeling it.” I wake up some mornings and be like, “Man, I’m going to stay home with my daughter today. I ain’t even about going to school, because I feel as though I ain’t even about to make it home if I go to school today.” You see way more guns now.
Benn: There’s been a lot of killings lately. A lot of black boys getting shot in the street [around the country]. You think it’s related to having a black president?
Doné: When [George W.] Bush was in office, even though [killing] was happening, it wasn’t being publicized. But now Obama in office, they putting it out there.
Benn: And you think they’re trying to make an example of who?
Doné: Out of him.
Malik: They telling you, don’t be that black person in that chair. They going to make you look bad.
Benn: Do you think he can fix [the situation]?
Doné: I don’t really think he can.
Malik: Because you got to do too much to fix it.
Doné: I’m going to give him his props, though. He did make it better to a certain extent, but at the position he was put into office, this was already going to happen whether it was him or whoever else. For the most part, the economy was already messed up. Man, a lot of people’s mothers don’t have jobs. That’s the root of a lot of stuff happening.
Benn: With him being a black man in the president’s chair, do you think he feels any personal responsibility to do something about these kids getting killed: the crime and the police brutality?
Martina: You had to see, he did one interview with his nice black hair; [when] he did one the next week, he had straight white hair.
Benn: There are people who argue in favor of police officers, saying that these black boys should not have been doing what they were doing when they got shot. And then other people who say, “No, the police are killing black boys, and we’re not doing anything about it.” How do you see the situation?
Doné: I think they scared, too.
Benn: The police officers?
Doné: Yeah, like, at the end of the day, they’re still people.
Benn: It seems like there’s an overall fear of black males, black girls. Why do you think there’s a fear? Are they justified?
Martina: I mean, they do got to go home to their family, too. The way they thinking, they pull somebody over, they don’t know what’s in that car. So that’s probably another reason they call for backup. They still got to be cautious of how they do stuff, too, because they might not make it home, too.
Harold: I think some officers do be scared when they come home [off duty]. They be like, “Oh, yeah, I live in this ’hood where I just arrested somebody, and I don’t have my badge on, so they can do whatever they want to me.”
Doné: I don’t want to say that they’re justified. Yeah, they got some fears, but those fears shouldn’t lead them to do the stuff that they do.
Shaquon: But fear makes you do stuff you don’t normally do.
Benn: How do you handle your fear of the police?
Malik: When we fear them, we run.
Benn: But nobody does anything physical to hurt a police officer out of fear.
Doné: You think anybody trying to do 100 years [in prison]?
Benn: What kinds of things can be done to help change the situation?
DeAngelo: I don’t think you can change it.
Benn: I stay in touch with the staff here [at Ballou]. They all texted me, blew my phone up with [texts about] what happened last week when all those gunshots went off. Without talking about who was involved, all I’m asking is, how does it make you feel when things like that go on, and the lives of your friends and family are potentially in jeopardy? Some of you lost a friend recently in this whole situation. How does it make you feel? Is it like an everyday thing or …
De’Azia: Scared. I’m not used to walking around, just shooting and stuff [happening]. I’m an in-the-house type of person. I don’t expect to come to a [basketball] game and then, oh, I got to stay indoors because somebody is shooting outside. I only felt bad for whoever it happened to. They said that could have been anybody.
DeAngelo: [The game] is Ballou versus Anacostia. That’s like Redskins and Cowboys. It’s big. That’s the biggest thing in Southeast. There’s probably going to be a thousand fans [in attendance]. So the police should have did better.
Shaquon: They shouldn’t have kicked those kids out.
DeAngelo: Yeah, they was pushing them out. So you pushing a group, and another group, they right there [close] together and they’re still arguing. After that, you should have known what was going to happen.
Shaquon: You really can’t do nothing [now].
Martina: My feelings is just hurt real bad.
DeAngelo: It just change your perspective on coming to this school a lot.
Doné: It make you feel empty.
Shaquon: It make you ready to get out and go see the world.
Benn: I remember [former Ballou principal] Mr. [Rahman] Branch said we lost 56 students in the last nine years, mostly to violence. Students here that you see every day, and then they’re gone. It makes you think about your own mortality. But when these things happen, what can we do about it?
Doné: I don’t think … there’s not really nothing you can do about it.
Benn: How does it shape your plan for yourself, though?
Doné: It make you want to do better.