Why This Man Left His Hip Hop Group to Become a Cop
On Jan. 1, 2009, a white transit officer, Johannes Mehserle, shot a 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, CA. Mehserle claims he mistook his gun for his Taser when he killed Grant, who was handcuffed and lying on the ground at the time. Grant’s story rose to national prominence in 2013, with the release of East Bay filmmaker Ryan Coogler’s critically acclaimed movie, Fruitvale Station, starring Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer.
In the aftermath of Grant’s death, hundreds of people gathered to protest. Among them were Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira, a member of the hip-hop trio Flipsyde, who toured with Snoop Dogg and the Black-Eyed Peas, and his wife Dawn Williams Ferreira, a teacher. At the protest, Ferreira started thinking about how the system could be changed, and he came to a startling conclusion: he decided that the best way to change the police department was to join it: to become a cop.
He thought about his decision for a long time, discussing the possibilities with people he respected, and in 2010 enrolled in the police academy, where he did well, delivering the commencement address at his graduation. Today Ferreira is a sheriff’s deputy in Alameda County. Two years into his new role, Ferreira began to feel assaulted by his experiences on the job, particularly the dysfunctional relationship between the police and the black community. As a member of the police department and a native of West Oakland, he heard multiple perspectives on that difficult relationship, but he knew no one else was listening to any perspective other than their own. Compelled to explore the divide in some medium other than a three-minute song, Ferreira took four days and wrote a solo show, Cops and Robbers, about an officer-involved shooting.
Along with what he saw in his own job, Ferreira’s writing was influenced by his wife’s work as a teacher and her dissertation on post-traumatic stress in urban classrooms. He is currently performing his show, in which he portrays 17 characters (including a TV reporter, a racist talk show commentator, a pimp, the suspect and the cop who shoots him), at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley. He and Williams Ferreira have always wanted the show to have impact beyond the theater audience, so they’ve created an audio play as well as a book that contains the script of the play, backstories of the characters and a teaching curriculum, so teachers can thoughtfully discuss the issues raised in the play with their students.
Jinho Ferreira and Dawn Williams Ferreira recently sat down with AlterNet to talk about the need for mental health resources in schools, police power and the urgency of making change. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Emily Wilson: Why did you choose to write your dissertation on PTSD in the classroom?
Dawn Williams Ferreira: I’ve had a lot of different teaching experiences. My first teaching job was out in Fresno. I was the first black teacher the school had. I went to Argentina and taught English, then came back to the Bay Area. I tried to get into Oakland schools, but I ended up teaching at Piedmont [a wealthy enclave near Oakland]. I was teaching French to very privileged youth.
Then I went to West Africa for a year, and I taught English...When I was there, I was thinking what I’d really like to do is to bring kids to Africa, to Guinea. Then I taught in East Oakland where I had students coming to school drunk or high— and bam, I lost a student to gun violence. It was a first for me, but it wasn’t a first for my students. I had this vision that I wanted to get students to West Africa, but there was so much work to do before we could get on the airplane.
I had a pause, had a baby, and then I taught at Berkeley Technology Academy. A student shot another student, and we had a mental health therapist who came and worked with us. She did a survey and found 99 percent of our kids had PTSD. She took the most traumatized and taught a class. She was getting headaches and was experiencing vicarious trauma from working with them, and she said, I don’t even know how these teachers do it—you guys have them all day. I was trying to figure it out too, and where are the resources [to deal with] this? I felt we needed a healing process.
These kids are disadvantaged on so many levels: they’re experiencing gun violence and an educational system that sometimes doesn’t understand the whole child. It was a high school, and we had kids struggling with reading. So my dissertation came out of that, and looked at this marriage of mental health and education that is so important. We didn’t have a counselor, and they didn’t even have P.E. So Jinho was coming in with his friends on Saturdays when he wasn’t on tour and having them run and do pushups, and provided that physical activity.
EW: How did her dissertation influence your writing about your play?
Jinho Ferreira: We talk about everything. So everything she would experience teaching, she would come home and bring that to me and we would talk it out. And everything I experienced in law enforcement, I would bring that to her and we would talk it out. So we’re having these conversations that none of our friends were having. None of my cop friends have a teacher in the inner city as a wife, and I’m pretty sure none of her teacher friends have a cop for a husband, so that shows up in the play.
We’ve studied our history, and we know where we come from. We believe in excellence, and we want our youth to embody that, but we see all this garbage in the way. We’re trying to strip away all this negativity and we’re working at this furious pace trying to create what we want right now. That desperation shows up in the play. That desperation shows up in her dissertation.
EW: Why did you all decide to create a curriculum alongside the play?
DWF: [The first time I saw the play] I was floored. I saw it as a stepping stone for conversation and action. One thing about the play, is you sit down, and you don’t talk, and you hear all these different perspectives. You may not agree with everything, but you can’t talk back. If someone at a table next to you is saying some outlandish racist stuff, you might be like, “Excuse you?” But this is a play, so you sit there. I felt like we needed to have this curriculum to talk about some things in the play.
JF: She’s a teacher. That’s how she thinks.
DWF: When I was envisioning the curriculum being used, I was thinking a lot about my students, and I’ve had a lot of different students. I was thinking about the experience of attending a play. There are so many things you’re experiencing—you’re experiencing this man doing 17 different characters! And I thought about this article from the '90s when a teacher had taken her students from an Oakland school to see Schindler’s List. There wasn’t a curriculum beforehand; it was kind of like a field trip. The students laughed at a particular horrifying moment in the film, and there was an uproar from the audience, and it [generated a lot of media attention]. Steven Spielberg [eventually] came and spoke to the students. But I thought, those could be my kids.
I wanted them to think about the different perspectives: what did the Jewish elders in the audience think when they heard the laughter? What did the students think when maybe they have peers who have experienced gun violence and that was the only way they know how to deal with trauma that was triggered in the movie? What did the theater owner think about the situation? So there are all these different perspectives. I felt like the curriculum could be an entryway into understanding different perspectives, into understanding why there are rules to theater, and in school and outside of school.
JF: I think the brilliance of the curriculum is she’s able to grab parts of her students’ lives that they’ve turned a blind eye to, or they’ve decided to accept. She turns that into a teaching moment, so they can reexamine, for instance, the culture of pimping, that a lot of students in the inner city and the suburbs alike have fallen in love with. That’s another beautiful thing about the curriculum: she addresses all the students, from Piedmont and Fresno, and forces them to confront that worship of it, and then she addresses the kids in the inner city who have accepted this, and she forces them to look deeply into themselves.
DWF: What I want to come out of this also is I want them to listen to the news; I want them to look at different perspectives, and take away the music and videos. So there’s a sense of trying to get students to think about current events. I feel like there’s so many different emotions I went through with the play—it grabs you, shakes you and makes you want to do something.
EW: What difference do you think education can make for kids dealing with such devastating issues?
DWF: I think this mental health piece is so important. We really need to see mental health more in schools. I think we need to have more professional development for teachers. I think it would help teachers in terms of burnout and vicarious traumatization. I think a lot of the burnout is vicarious traumatization. There are so many issues—poverty and racism. But this mental health piece, I feel like it’s so important to name it.
JF: I was a counselor at juvenile hall for two years. When I went into law enforcement, a lot of kids I had in juvenile hall were [by then] in Santa Rita Jail. And it was depressing, because they all remembered me and every word I’d said to them. I stepped back, and I was thinking, it didn’t work. But at the show last week, one of the kids I’d had in juvenile hall showed up, and he’s dating one of [Williams Ferreira’s] former students. Dawn mentioned the workout program she forced me to put on in her school. One of [those] kids got in contact with me. He went into the Marines. He showed up on time every weekend. He and his friends recently put a grant together to go down to Brazil to the favelas to teach children how to take pictures. He got in touch with me to let me know. [But] a lot of the success stories, we don’t hear about because we’re so in the fight.
EW: What are you proudest of since you’ve become a cop?
JF: Performing for the inmates at Santa Rita. Then there was a little girl who told me that a guy had a knife. She was a little black girl and the guy who had a knife was a white man. An 11-year-old black girl came to the authorities, the police, to say she was afraid of this white man with a knife, and something was done to make her feel safe. Later on she asked me, “Am I safe to go home?” and I said, “Yeah, he’s in jail.” I could tell she was taken aback, like, “I raised my voice and something happened.”
I realize how important the job of a police officer is. There’s so much power placed in the hands of police officers. I think if the general public really understood how much power police officers had, then people who were serious about creating change in their communities and ending police brutality would be beating down the doors to turn in their applications. It’s almost like an elected office. And teachers come into the lives of these 30 kids and they’re creating the future of the country. These jobs are huge.
EW: What part of the curriculum do you hope has the greatest impact?
DWF: The PTSD piece. When you look onstage in Jinho’s play, there’s just a lot of pain up there. There’s just a lot of pain in the classroom, as well. I really think that’s what I want to get out there the most — the importance of dealing with mental health.