“Cops and Robbers” addresses issues of race, police brutality
on February 6, 2015
A young African American man enters the grocery store, hides behind a shelf, holding in his left hand what appears to be a gun. His hand is shaking. He is breathing heavily, bleeding from an injury, fighting his pain.
The young man starts talking to himself. “I was born in jail, I grew up in jail,” he shouts. “I was born with an umbilical cord wrapped around my wrist, fluid in my lungs so I couldn’t say ***t. They should have just let me die.” He coughs. “What kind of a sick ***r saves a live just to kill it a thousand times?” He coughs again.
There is the sound of a police siren. Red and blue light flashes inside the store. A police officer enters the store pointing his gun. He also appears to be injured in the leg. The officer stands his ground carefully, asking the gunman, whose name is DeMariry McDaniels, to come out, saying he will not be harmed. The officer tells the hiding gunman to show himself and get some help, otherwise he will bleed to death.
The young man shows himself, slowly placing the gun on the ground, sliding it away as he was told by the officer. “That’s right,” says the officer. “You’re doing the right thing, you’re doing the right thing,”
Pooof, pooof, pooof.
McDaniels is down. The police officer takes the gun, shoots himself in the arm, places the gun in the hands of the dead young man, and calls for back-up.
This was a scene from the play “Cops and Robbers” during a public event organized last weekend by the Pacific School of Religion at Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in West Oakland. The play was written by an Oakland hip-hop artist who grew up, as many Oaklanders do, among the violent tensions between the local police and the community.
“Cops and Robbers” was written in 2012 by performer Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira, and directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson. The play discusses the contradictions, interactions and miscommunications between law enforcement, community members and the media in Oakland. Ferreira’s experience as an Alameda Sheriff’s officer and a community member in Oakland inspired his first one-man show, which is based on the story of an officer involved in a shooting. “If you understand what motivates people, and why they move the way they do, then you will be able to write a play like this,” said Ferreira.
At the start of the play, the lights dim, and in complete silence, Ferreira, dressed in black pants, black t-shirt and black boots, enters the stage, approaching the audience at the front of the set. He makes eye contact with them as he starts his narration, accompanied with the sound of a drum.
Ferreira plays 17 different characters in the play. He plays Officer Washington, and McDaniels, both injured after shooting at each other before they entered the grocery store. Ferreira takes quick turns in between characters, from the police officer to a radio presenter, the police spokesperson, the protesters, two gangsters and a judge, all by turning around or changing his position.
McDaniels dies at the beginning of the show, leaving Officer Washington to struggle with internal and external judgment over the young man’s death, and to start drinking as a result of his bad feelings. At the end of the show, the officer stands before a judge in court — but the play ends before we know his sentence.
Throughout the play, more than three hundred Oaklanders of different ethnicities nodded their heads when they agreed with what a character said, or shook it when they didn’t, and laughed every time the TV reporter—who is looking for a career-setting story—spends time fixing her hair, wondering if she looks good. In the second half after the intermission, the crowd seemed more engaged and intense, with laughter, nods, and hums as Officer Washington drinks and argues with himself. “You know what?” says Officer Washington, wasted. “The police are not white. The police are not black. The police are blue.”
After he wrote “Cops and Robbers,” Ferreira performed the play for his professor Ami Zins and her husband Lew Levinson, in their house, “I was very blown away and said, ‘I would love to work with you,” said Zins. Since then, it has been performed at UC Berkeley, at The Marsh Theater in San Francisco and at Stanford University. There are future plans for a tour in other states.
Despite the fact that it was written in 2012, “Cops and Robbers” discuss current issues that are taking over many conversations in African American communities today. After last weekend’s show, Ferreira thanked the audience, explaining that most people think he wrote the play after the killing of Mike Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, but in fact it dates to more than two years ago.
After participating in the protests followed the killing of Oscar Grant by a BART police officer, Ferreira couldn’t answer the question he asked to himself: If we found a way to fire all the bad cops, who will replace them? “Nothing really changes after an officer-involved shooting, as far as how people will react, what the conservative media will say, what the liberal media will say,” said Ferreira.
Daron Austin, 20, from San Francisco, said the play speaks to him. “We all have different understanding and views of what is going on,” he said “and this can happen anywhere.”
At the end of the play, a group of about ten young men of color stood up to applaud Ferreira. John Marshall, an emergency medical technician from Oakland, spoke on behalf of the group, thanking the performer, and encouraging him to keep doing what he is doing, “because as men of color we’re trying to make that change,” he said.
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