Are Black Women Allowed to Claim Self-Defense?

In 2006, seven Black lesbian teens fended off a white male assailant—and four got charged with attempted murder. New doc ‘Out in the Night’ recounts a story of injustice we know too well.

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There’s a scene in the documentary Out in the Night, in which 33-year-old Renata Hill, one of the film’s subjects, says to the camera, “You know, you go to New York, it’s normal, like, nobody’s gonna look at you any different.” Before she has time to elaborate, her friend Terrain Dandridge, 27, sitting beside her on a park bench, shakes her head in disbelief. “That’s not true,” she says unable to conceal a smirk. “That’s what happened to us.” Hill pauses for a moment before revising her statement, “Well, we thought that we wouldn’t have a problem if we went to New York and just be ourselves.”

Directed by Blair Dorosh-Walther and premiering on PBS tonight (and available online from June 23 to July 23), Out in the Night recounts an all-too-familiar story about young people of color who’ve been wrongly convicted of a crime. In this instance, a group of

African-American lesbians from Newark, who just wanted to spend a summer evening in the historically gay-friendly West Village. Since this fateful night on August 18, 2006, they’ve forever become known as the New Jersey 4, because the women—there were originally seven—were strolling down Sixth Avenue, when a man selling DVDs named Dwayne Buckle began harassing them, barraging them with lewd comments. The friends, not wanting to engage with him, walked away, but he followed them, becoming increasingly more aggressive and violent as he hurled insults, spat at them, and finally, threw a lit cigarette at them.

The violence quickly escalated as the women, afraid for their lives, rose up and defended themselves against Buckle, who tried to choke one of the women, and yank hair from another woman’s head. Two bystanders jumped in to help the women. Buckle walked away from the fight with a minor stab wound; though one of the women, Patreese Johnson, pulled out a small knife during the fight, it was never determined who caused the wound.

Less than an hour later, all seven women were arrested. Not Buckle, though. He was free to go. Three days later, they were charged with assault, gang assault, and attempted murder. Among them, four—Hill, Dandridge, Johnson, and Venice Brown—pled not guilty, maintaining their innocence, even though doing so meant facing up to 25 years in prison. Had they pled guilty, they’d have served six months in prison, as the other three women did. When the women were sentenced, they received between three and eleven years.

This story is outrageous, made even more outrageous by the fact that we’ve seen it play out before and since, most famously in 1989: the Central Park 5, whereby five Black and Latino teenagers were falsely convicted of the rape and brutal beating of the woman who came to be known as the “Central Park Jogger.” As journalist LynNell Hancock says in the documentary, The Central Park Five: “The police controlled the story. They created the story.” Yet the public agreed to it without hesitation, even though there was no DNA evidence linking the boys to the crime, nor was there anyone able to positively ID any of the boys. It was simply a narrative they were willing to believe. Journalist Jim Dwyer says in the same film, “I look back at the jogger case and wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist. This was a proxy war being fought, and these young men were the proxies for all other kinds of agendas, and the truth and the reality and justice were not part of it.”

Which is exactly what the media, especially the tabs, does, decide on a narrative, and control it. And if a group of young people of color are in the news, they are likely going to be written off as a gang, portrayed as animals, as violent, and even if they’re the victims of a crime, they are going to be cast as perps. And so the Central Park Five and New Jersey Four cases were sensationalized by the media so much so that it made getting to the truth virtually impossible. The 1989 media coverage of the Central Park case set the precedent for what would await the Newark women: In the Daily News, about the CP5 read: “Wolf Pack’s Prey: Female jogger near death after savage attack by roving gang.” Another paper’s screamed: “Teen Gang Rapes Jogger.”

In 2006, the New York Post titled an article about the NJ4, “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” and the Daily News referred to them as a “lesbian wolf pack” and a “Jersey girl gang.” Even the story in the New York Times that came out the next day following the altercation had the headline, “Man Is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger,” and sympathized with Buckle rather than the girls. (Dorosh-Walther said the Times’ coverage of the case improved after that.)

Brown, who’s now 26, still speaks about that night in the West Village, or the beginning of it anyway, rather fondly; but she also wants to be clear they she and her friends didn’t go out looking for trouble that night, that, actually, they weren’t troublemakers at all. “Yeah, we totally went out there just to have fun. As you can see [in the film], we all had on nice clothes, everybody’s hair was done … we didn’t have any type of malicious intent at all.” None of the girls had ever had any previous run-ins with the law; they certainly weren’t in a gang.

Dorosh-Walther told me that the image most often used when speaking about this case was one of Dandridge, where she could pass as a young man. “Of the seven, she’s now the only one without a felony record, yet they constantly used that image. And I think that was also playing into the stereotypes of what a gang member is supposed to look like—they’re supposed to look like a young Black man.” She adds, “I think that, even maybe more so than their sexuality, gender identity, and gender perception played a role in their charges and how the media spoke about them and depicted them, so I think that also really links what’s happening in the news right now with police brutality. It’s criminalizing the victim in the case, and I think that’s a part of what the media was doing when they used Terrain’s image, was criminalizing her, because, look, she looks like what we think a gang member looks like.”

Late last year, following the film’s New York premiere, Brown said, “Last night was the opportunity for people to see how close-knit we are, how genuine we are with other people—we completely change their minds.” Johnson, 27, added, “Maybe some journalists will sit down and watch this movie and see, ‘We did mess up these girls’ lives.’ I don’t think they realize the trauma behind their words, and how it affected us so much in our case that they found us guilty before we even had a chance to go to trial.”

With the Black Lives Matter movement consistently growing, and the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death approaching next month, the film’s release feels aptly timed. Though, dorosh-walther points out, “These issues are being brought to light [now], but nothing new has happened. One thing Patreese has been discussing a lot at Q&As is that her brother was murdered by a police officer in Newark in 1999, and there was no support, there was no outcry.”

It was that first Times article that initially caught Dorosh-Walther’s attention. “The two journalists were women, and it really struck me that they looked at these women and just didn’t believe them. And I think that’s because they’re Black, I think that’s because some of them are gender nonconforming; it’s like they didn’t relate to them at all.” Dorosh-Walther believes that their multiple identities were the perfect storm, and had the women been white, the arresting officer wouldn’t have charged them with assault. “I don’t, in any way, believe he would have,” she says.

In fact, with about nine minutes left in the film, we become privy to a heartbreaking police radio recording that wasn’t used in court trial. The dispatcher asks “if it’s gang activity,” to which the NYPD officer replies, “Uh, not at this time.” We then hear the NYPD officer describe that night’s incident as “all nonsense.”

So then, why did these women do hard time for something that was considered nonsense? “I do think that gentrification played a big role,” said Dorosh-Walther says, “and one thing that one of the officers I interviewed said is anything that happens in the West Village—[the media are] there immediately. So, before he even got to the precinct, the media was all over it; that the news outlets just care more what happens in certain neighborhoods.”

Before this experience, Hill didn’t know much about cases like hers. “But being in the limelight that we’re in right now,” she said, “we need to be aware of it, because the fight we’re fighting is not just our fight. We share this fight with so many different people; I guess I was kind of naïve to that for a long time, and I’m seeing it for what it is now.” When she received an invitation for the Trayvon Martin march in New York City the day after Zimmerman’s acquittal—it would be her first protest—the answer was obvious. “When that verdict came, I was outraged. I was really, really angry. And I needed to release that anger. So, we went to the march and, Oh my God, it was just amazing. I felt so powerful, like I was really doing something.”


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