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Black Marks

The Denver Police Department acts like it has something to hide about its clash with students at Thomas Jefferson High School. It does.

Brotha 2 Brotha was started six years ago at Montbello High School by Dwight Gentry, a tall, scratchy-voiced businessman with a shaved head and a genteel demeanor. The idea for the group--a positive-image program for black students--grew out of his work with younger kids in Denver's middle and elementary schools and as a liaison to Denver Public Schools' "Guaranteed Graduation Program" that matches students with mentors in the business community.

"I was sick and tired of the negative influence of the people on the street corners," says Gentry. "I felt we needed to enhance the image of young black males. Dare to be different. Dare to be outstanding."

Starting with a handful of students and a copy of Robert's Rules of Order, the group began holding "brotherhood breakfasts" and, later, seminars and workshops about African culture. The focus for members, Gentry says, is on responsibility, school and community and on serving as positive role models for their peers.

Brotha 2 Brotha now has a student membership of approximately 100 throughout four area high schools--Montbello, TJ, George Washington and Manual. "We have student body presidents and captains of sports teams as well as students with so-so grades or even poor grades," Gentry says. "We have guys who will never be in the student government. We've even had some gangbangers."

And, he says, "85 percent of them who've been in the program for over three years are now in college."

What little attention his program has received, says Gentry, has come from staffers in the mayor's office. "I've always been a good resource when they're looking to give jobs [to youths] or they need black male representation," he says.

Brotha 2 Brotha's annual spring dance is a big affair, attracting teens from throughout the city, and especially from the four high schools where the group is active. Gentry knew the group would need off-duty cops for traffic control and to ward off would-be rowdies. He wanted to hire black officers to oversee the revelers, most of whom are black themselves. Gentry says he'd had problems with such a request once before, when the District 3 police officer who took note of his preference described it as racist.

Gentry says he was treated much the same way when he called the district station looking to hire officers for the May 4 dance. He says he was told--and not politely--that the majority of the station's black officers would be unavailable that night due to a special social event. Eventually, Gentry found two officers who fit the bill: Bryan Gordon and Cynthia Hill, four-year black officers, agreed to sign on.

It seemed to Gentry that two officers would meet his needs. That number of officers had worked before, and besides, he had lined up more than thirty adult chaperons, not including TJ staffers and a DPS security guard. In addition, plans called for all partygoers to be admitted to the dance only after passing through a metal detector.

But while Gentry was making detailed plans, the police apparently remained in the dark. Only later, says Gentry, was he told that despite his conversation about the dance with the officer at the District 3 station, no one had mentioned to the shift commander that hundreds of kids were going to be congregating at the high school that Saturday.

By 9:45 on the night of the dance, Bryan Gordon felt that since so many teens had arrived at the dance, the doors should be closed to latecomers. In a report of the incident, Gordon later placed the crowd at between 700 and 800 people. (By most estimates, however, the crowd reached no more than 450 people.)

Shortly before 11 p.m., when the dance was scheduled to end, Cynthia Hill asked dispatch to send a few squad cars by the school to help direct traffic and discourage any potential trouble.

At 11 p.m., Gentry and other parents began ushering students out the front doors and onto the patio, then shepherding them to the parking lot beyond. "I'm telling the kids, 'Good job, good going,' when I see a fight break out in the far north parking lot, a hundred yards away," Gentry recalls. Actually, Gentry couldn't see the fight. What he saw was a lot of people running in that direction. His experience told him it was a fight, and he was right.

Bruce Mingo, a kid from George Washington, and eighteen-year-old Jessie L. Hopkins, a senior at TJ, had gotten into it. "By the time I got there," Gentry says, "the combatants had been pulled apart. As I turned to go back to the school, I saw police cars arriving."

The fight was already over when Herman Houston walked out of the school. "That's when I saw fifty or sixty police cars coming up," he says. "I thought, 'What's going on?' I looked around, and I couldn't see anything happening...I said, 'What's all this about?' But as soon as they got out of their cars, they right away started shoving kids and pushing them out of the way."

The massive police response apparently came after Hill made a second call, asking for backup because the fight had broken out before the "drive-by" officers she'd requested had arrived. "She was calling, 'We've got a big fight. Get us some cover in here,'" Michaud said in a meeting two weeks after the incident. "And from there I think is where our questions arise."

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