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
parentsas well as bystanders who didn’t know the young arresteesdisputed 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
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,
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 schoolsa 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
"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
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
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.
Aspolice officers converged on them, the students say they were
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
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
"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 carthis 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
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 preparedunlike 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
attackedand not realizing that the men were undercover police
officersCallender 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,
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
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
"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 inbut
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 husbandwho happened to be Sergeant
Sullivan, the chief court officer. (Calls to Hart, who did not testify, were not
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
Meekins says that he then turned to Sullivan and said, "I believe I am being
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 wordwas 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
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
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 Rossa district judge
shipped in from Manhattanwas reaching a verdict in the charges (now reduced
from felonies to misdemeanors) against Brian Favors and his three
Insisting that his verdict was not a referendum on the competence of the New
York Police Department, Ross found the four defendantsFavors, Cox, Gonzalez,
and Meekins, the bystander who had been mistaken for Favors because he was a
black man with dreadlocksnot 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
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 collegeafter 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
"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 studentsdismissed as dead-end kids by the school system,
and as dangerous gang members by the citycan 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
**Make the Road New York has been a key supporter of those young people arrested.