Aahtrell Johnson remembered the police car rolling up, just before he was about to take his shot at the basket under the pine trees. It was 2016, and his neighbor had called 911, complaining that he was getting loud in the street. A white officer named Bobby White had been sent to respond.
As White, a Florida native with a trimmed goatee, approached Johnson, who is Black, the officer could see the 17-year-old was only playing basketball with his friend. Rather than issue a ticket, Johnson recalled, the officer asked if he could join the game. He shot some hoops with the teenagers, and others came out of their homes.
No one noticed that White’s dashboard camera was running the whole time.
The video — posted online by the Police Department afterward and seen by millions of viewers — was a moment of hope in an age where recordings of police brutality were the ones going viral. White became a celebrity, the “Basketball Cop” of Gainesville, Florida. Sports stars came to play pickup games with the Gainesville teens. White founded a nonprofit to ease relations between the police and Black youths and was invited on NBC’s “Nightly News” and ESPN to promote it.
“He didn’t look at us like we were criminals,” Johnson, now 22, said.
Gainesville, a largely white and liberal college town, likes to think of itself as different from its neighbors in the Deep South, both in its politics and its policing.
Chanae Jackson, a real estate agent who was born in Gainesville, has a different understanding of policing in the city. Her son had a troubling encounter with law enforcement in 2018, and she became a vocal critic of the department. This May, someone sent her a different video of White: A cellphone recording of him slamming a Black teenager into the hood of his patrol car.
After the killing of George Floyd, Jackson decided she would release the video.
“Peel back the layers, and Gainesville is not progressive at all,” she said.
In Gainesville, White remains in the department. He declined interview requests for this article and provided a copy of a 2015 internal investigation which cleared him of wrongdoing.
Johnson, the teenager White approached in the basketball video, fondly recalled the games he played with the officer and the group of teens White called “the crew.” Johnson remembered going with White to see the Orlando Magic for the first time and how White stayed in touch and helped him move out of his family home when he got older.
But Johnson hadn’t seen the other video, the one of the arrest, and asked to watch it on his phone.
When a New York Times reporter called him back later that day, his voice had changed. He said his perceptions were different now.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a video of every policeman in the world like that,” Johnson said. “It’s what they’re taught.” Jackson had just received the call she said she had feared since moving back to Gainesville, where she grew up. Her 18-year-old son, Keyon Young, was on the other line, and officers from the sheriff’s department had pulled his car over for allegedly speeding and told him to get out.
Dashcam footage released by the sheriff’s department showed what happened next. Two white officers rush toward Young’s Volvo. One pulls open the door and shouts, “Exit the vehicle or you’re going to jail.” Both officers then lunge into the car. There’s a brief struggle and one officer steps back to point his weapon at Young’s head.
Jackson jumped into her car and sped down the streets near her home, searching for the traffic stop. She found her son in handcuffs when she arrived.
She pulled out her phone and began to broadcast her son’s arrest on Facebook to hundreds of friends and family.
A judge later cleared Young of the speeding charge. But the experience caught the attention of the small but growing activist community in the city. Just as the video of the policeman playing basketball made White the spokesman of the law enforcement reform effort, the video of the angered mother made Jackson a star critic of the police in Gainesville.
In mid-May, a group of officers in the Police Department who shared her concerns about racism on the force got in touch with her. They sent her a 2014 video in which White could be seen violently throwing a young Black man onto the hood of his vehicle after he rode a bicycle through a stop sign.
On May 25, Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. The wave of protests against police brutality reached Gainesville days later.
Jackson thought of the video of White sitting on her hard drive.
White had become vocal on social media about the killing of Floyd. In his view, it left a black eye on officers everywhere, and was pushing the country back toward the police brutality narrative that he’d spent years countering.
“I’m a cop. Emotions….” he wrote on Facebook on May 26 under a video still of the arrest. “I am DISGUSTED by the actions of this officer. I am ANGRY at the officers on the scene who didn’t stop him.”
White’s Facebook page for his Basketball Cop Foundation had given the officer a platform well beyond Gainesville. About 140,000 people nationwide followed his posts on the good deeds of the police.
But Floyd’s death marked a turning point. White’s followers began to push him on the unrest and looting in Minneapolis, which some said was justified. White argued that businesses shouldn’t be harmed.
As the criticism mounted, White dug in. He posted an article from the far-right website Breitbart News decrying “those smearing every police officer,” and another item about recent crime in Chicago, saying there was too little focus on “Black-on-Black” crime.
“What about the thousands of black babies aborted each year?” asked one commenter in the thread. “Why is it different when a white person is killed similarly by the police?”
White clicked “like.”
As the disputes between White and his followers reached a peak, Jackson returned to the video that was sent to her.
She had been trying to gather more information before releasing it. Shot on a cellphone, the video showed an encounter from 2014. Semajiah Ferguson, then 16 years old, stands next to White, looking at the ground as the lights flash on the patrol car at nighttime.
“He bothering us Black folks for no reason,” says Ferguson’s cousin, who was recording the video. “Can you tell us what we did, sir?”
White later told his superiors the teenager had committed two minor traffic violations — running a stop sign and having improper lighting for the bike — but on the video, the officer mentions neither. Instead, he tells the teenager to sit on the ground. Ferguson says he doesn’t want to.
White suddenly grabs the young man, and pins his knees against the hood. The boy goes limp. The officer then throws Ferguson’s upper body against the hood of the vehicle twice, and a loud thud can be heard.
“Down! Down! Lay down on the car!” White shouts.
Watching it again, Jackson decided on June 14 that other people should see this video of White, too.
As the video circulated on Facebook, she began to see in the comments that this kind of behavior from the police in Gainesville was a surprise to some residents. “Before, some people said we didn’t even need protests in Gainesville because there was no police brutality,” she said.
The department released a lengthy statement saying that it had looked into the arrest years before and it didn’t violate any departmental policy. It also said prosecutors hadn’t found any evidence of wrongdoing by the officer even though authorities had found no crime with which to charge the teenager he had thrown.
Jackson continues her efforts to hold the police accountable in her online videos. Driving for errands in the nearby city of Ocala in early July, she pulled over when she saw more than a dozen police cars surrounding a group of teenagers of color, and started filming.
When the traffic stop finished, she yelled out to the young men to pull over a second time — she wanted to instruct them on how to file a complaint if they felt the stop was unwarranted.
“I’m gonna record for y’all to see every time this happens, every time,” she says to her online audience in the video.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Source: The New York Times Company