Jonathan Alexander turns 17 on Tuesday. He’s the starting safety for Trimble Tech High School’s football team and his 3.2 grade-point average has a variety of colleges interested in him for athletics and academics.
But Alexander is black. And in today’s America that means another group of people has taken a particular interest in him. The cops.
Last Fourth of July, Alexander said he and his brother were passengers in a friend’s car when they were followed and then stopped by Fort Worth police for no apparent reason, as they pulled into their friend’s driveway. After politely answering questions about where they were headed, what they plan to do and what was inside their duffel bags, the two white police officers, Alexander said, went on their way.
“At that point I realized some cops might be racial,” said Alexander, who returned an interception for a touchdown in Thursday night’s loss to South Hills High School. “But I’m not going to disrespect anybody older than me, ever. That’s not how I was raised.”
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When Alexander’s Trimble Tech Bulldogs take the football field, he says he is not inclined to kneel during the national anthem and join San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a growing number of professional athletes in protest of police brutality and racial injustice.
Most other football players in Fort Worth have chosen not to kneel as well.
The Fort Worth school district’s coaches have mostly shared the belief that their players should refrain from participating in the protest. While aware it’s the players right to kneel, they’re fearful it would spark more negative reaction toward the players and schools than further the cause.
Three Arlington Heights football players apparently became the first in Fort Worth to kneel before Thursday’s game against Southwest. Yellow Jackets coach Philip Young wasn’t aware of the protest until told after the game.
Young, whose Heights team is about two-thirds black and Hispanic, and one-third white, said he gathered his players and coaching staff Friday to discuss the surprise protest. He called it “a great discussion about rights, respect and unintended consequences to your actions.” He said he supported the three players who made “a decision that’s right, but maybe not the right platform.”
Young declined to reveal whether his players will kneel in coming weeks.
‘What’s wrong with them?’
Some high school players arcoss the country who have kneeled have had vile and racist rants directed at their social media accounts. There has even been suggestions of violence against those who protest. An Alabama high school public-address announcer said to applause from the crowd that players who do not stand for the national anthem should be shot.
In DeSoto, south of Dallas, the high school girls volleyball team knelt before match last Tuesday and on Wednesday, the DeSoto schools superintendent posted a letter on the district’s website, saying, “As our nation struggles with very real issues, we in DeSoto ISD are teaching our children they have avenues to express themselves and that includes the First Amendment.” The school’s cheerleaders took a knee before Friday’s football game against rival Cedar Hill.
Even if not kneeling, Fort Worth student-athletes acknowledge that Kaepernick’s protest has spurred debate and discussion about police and race inside their locker rooms.
“I feel like if we did [kneel], like we’re going to be all the talk,” O.D. Wyatt senior football player Dewayne Jennings said. “ ‘Like O.D. Wyatt took a knee, what’s wrong with them?’ All the lights are going to be on us.”
Jennings’ teammate, senior Courtney Cravin, said he feels compelled to kneel, but he isn’t certain it is the best tactic at the high school level. For him, he said, the issue is personal. A member of his family is currently in jail, he said.
“What [Kaepernick] is saying is that how they [the police] oppress black people, it needs to be stopped, it needs to come to an end,” Cravin said. “He feels like he has the power to start a movement. We don’t. We can go out and protest, but they aren’t going to look at us like they look at him.”
Connecting police with students
About 70 percent of the Fort Worth school district’s students are minorities and the racial makeup of many of the city’s football teams is predominantly black. While, as Trimble Tech coach Dwayne Henry said, many teenagers are concerned more with fashion and sports and the opposite sex than the heavier issues that await them as adults, it isn’t hard to find students who have a relative behind bars or who have personally experienced a demoralizing run-in with police.
“How about the police takes off their guns and badges and be regular?” said Wyatt senior Dewayne Jennings. “Since we wear jackets and caps that scare them, how about we all just wear black T-shirts and come together, in the middle of a football field since it’s big, white right there, black right there, and we all just come together, shake hands and greet each other?”
Veteran Fort Worth police officer Chad Scroggins gets it. He was one of them; a black teenager making his way in southeast Houston: “It was called the ‘Hood,’ ” Scroggins said.
Scroggins didn’t grow up dreaming about being a cop. His father, a corrections officer, wanted his son to join the force, and so he did. Scroggins is stationed at Trimble Tech during the week. He arrives at school early and stays late. After school he can be found on the football field in his FWPD uniform and a cowboy hat sweating through a Bulldogs practice. During basketball season, he puts on shorts and runs 5-on-5 drills with the team. Scroggins, Alexander said, is the reason he refuses to turn on cops when few would blame him if he did.
“They need to see officers that are willing to communicate with them, interact with them on a positive level and not always be negative,” Scroggins said. “That way, it’ll make them think about it, ‘I’d like to do that’ or ‘not all officers are bad.’ If you can get one kid, then word travels.”
Before the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Trimble Tech invited police officers and other first responders to their game against Castleberry High School for a ceremony in their honor. More impactful, however, were the “selfies” taken as players and officers put arms around shoulders and smiled at one another on a football field, images not seen often enough on television news and social media.
“I had never been in a huddle with a bunch of suited-up football players,” Fort Worth police officer Tamara Valle said. “I felt just like one of the team. It was great to know that they were comfortable enough with officers to jump in the picture and not be standoffish one bit. I suppose this is because of the work that officer Scroggins is doing in the school.”
The department, led by its first-ever black chief in Joel Fitzgerald, is now planning more events that put officers face-to-face with young black males on their turf. Valle, the department’s African American community liaison, said she is orchestrating more game-night meetings with football teams, and others sports teams, at schools throughout Fort Worth: “A sporting event is one place where everyone can unite, shake hands and just enjoy a game while getting to know one another on a different level,” Valle said. “It’s very important.”
Arlington police have made similar connections, with officers working as mentors on the city’s high school football teams.
Even with the outreach efforts, Scroggins is under no illusion that gatherings with the next generation coming of age in the Black Lives Matter era will alone bridge a seemingly widening ravine between cops and the black community.
“That’s a hard bargain,” Scroggins said.
‘Then you pray’
It isn’t getting easier. The killings of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Keith Scott in Charlotte, N.C., are the latest in a cycle of police killing black men.
“That’s when I get ... I don’t get mad; I start thinking, I see videos all the time of white people getting tasered,” Alexander said. “Black people, they get shot.”
Further intensifying racial tension is a presidential campaign that has dredged up a deep-seeded bigotry on the heels of the nation’s first black president.
Conversations on social media have only added to the debate.
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the state of race relations in America.
“I don’t think it’s gotten worse,” Glenn McIntire, a junior football player at Young Men’s Leadership Academy in East Fort Worth. McIntire views both sides of race relations. With Caucasian features unlike his younger brother, he is being raised by his black mother and has never met his white father.
“The availability to everything that happens has gotten greater through cameras and social media,” McIntire said. “Whenever something happens it’s seen and now people are realizing how bad it still is, and they’re speaking out and protesting.”
Teammate Tyjuan Battles shook his head in disagreement.
“It has gotten worse,” said Battles, a junior. “And it makes me feel disappointed because it’s like, is this the kind of government I’m expected to live in for the rest of my life, and have children and have them grow up in this government and system where they fear for their lives? So I feel kind of disappointed, and I feel ashamed.”
Wyatt coach Zachary Criss might be right when he says unless you are black or Hispanic, it’s impossible to understand. Certainly few white kids can empathize with Trimble Tech’s Alexander when instructed by his mother to avoid walking in their neighborhood past 6 p.m. She wants him to avoid the cops.
At school and at home, black teenagers are taught what to do if encountered by police.
“Both hands on the steering wheel and you talk to the officer with respect when they ask for your license,” said Trevor Collins-Hall, a junior football player at YMLA. “No sudden movements because they don’t know if you have a gun. You say, ‘Here you go, sir,’ and you put your hands back on the steering wheel.
“Then you pray.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan