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When Police Kill Our Children Part Seven

Sharpton, Farrakhan at the wake

By Caroline Herzfeld and Thomas Moran

The black community came together Sunday night and cried angry tears over Phillip C. Pannell, a black youth killed by a police bullet many said should not have been fired.

Pannell’s father emerged from the Community Baptist Church in Englewood as night began to fall. Before him stood about 1,000 people in their Sunday best, old and young, Muslim and Christian, friends of Phillip’s and strangers who wanted to show concern, all waiting to get inside the small church.

“My son, my son, I don’t have my son!” cried the dead boy’s father, Phillip. “They shot him in the back! Where is my son?”

The crowd was quiet. Teenagers who knew the River Edge youth hugged and cried without words. The Rev. Herbert Daughtry of Teaneck held the bereaved father and whispered to him quietly, “Peace. Peace.”

Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, the black Muslim sect, arrived at the church at about 8 p.m. He was accompanied by the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyer C. Vernon Mason, civil-rights activists who advised Tawana Brawley when she claimed to have been raped by a gang of white men; and the father of Yusuf Hawkins, a black youth killed by a gang of whites in Brooklyn.

The crowd cheered as they walked up the stairs into the church. On the street outside, two dozen of Farrakhan’s followers stood at attention, all men wearing bow ties and jackets and not speaking a word.

It was unclear whether the activists spoke at the wake. They departed after about 20 minutes.

“I’m delighted they came,” said George Powell, president of the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP. “Their statement was the love and care and concern that they showed. Farrakhan represents a lot to African-Americans. The Muslims are an integral part of America today.”

Lester Truesdale, a church trustee, said he had tried to slow the group down but it entered the church quickly and then slowed when its members realized that prayer was going on. “Everyone was trying to stop them from going in so fast,” Truesdale said. “When they came in, you could feel the tension rising.”

Emotions ran high even for those who barely knew Pannell. At the bottom of the steep concrete stairs leading into the church, where the dead boy lay in an open casket, Donald Jones was considering whether he should try to go inside again. He is 20 years old and black and says the police have stopped him for routine questioning so many times he has lost count.

“I just got up as far as the door, and I just couldn’t go any further,” Jones said quietly. “It could have been me; just because I’m a black man.”

Daughtry said he would attend not just Pannell’s funeral today but that of Carlos Fernandez, a black youth in New York City shot by a Transit Police officer. He also plans a visit to the home of Hawkins, the youth killed in Brooklyn by a gang of whites. The accused triggerman and alleged ringleader in the Aug. 23 shooting of Hawkins were to go on trial in Brooklyn today.

“Unless something happens, I’m afraid for this country,” he said. “I’m feeling sadness, sorrow, anger, and rage. We’re talking about a 16-year-old boy, a mother who can’t carry the burden, and a father who can’t take it any longer.”

Almost everyone at the church Sunday night was black. Among a handful of whites in attendance was Danielle Sarmiento, a sophomore at Teaneck High School who was one of Pannell’s friends. “I just don’t understand it,” she said. “He didn’t do any harm to anyone. He was a good kid.”

Pannell was shot Tuesday evening in the backyard of a home on Intervale Road in Teaneck. He was running from police, who had arrived at a nearby field after a neighbor reported that youths were playing with guns. Police say they had searched him and that he had a gun. Several witnesses say he was not searched and did not have a gun.

But the shooting was unjustified in either case, as many leaders of the black community believe. Even if the police account is accurate, they say, Pannell did not draw a gun. And he was shot in the back.

“I wish people would stop talking about a gun,” said Franklin Wilks, an attorney for the Panel family. “Whether he had a gun on him is irrelevant. The issue is the conduct of that officer.”

But politics wasn’t on the mind of many people at Sunday’s wake. It was more personal for them. A woman came out of the church screaming in grief, her knees collapsing as her family gathered around and helped her walk away. One young man went into shock at the wake and was taken to Holy Name Hospital, Teaneck, in an ambulance. A girl fell against a car, weeping and swinging her arms wildly.

Before the wake, a group of 20 students met at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood to organize non-violent and legal protests of the Pannell shooting.

“The police single us out,” said Theodore Bolden, a junior at Teaneck High School and an organizer of the group, all of whose members wore white carnations with red ribbons. “You say black, they say trouble.”

Cynthia Sanders leaned into a friend's embrace after she came out of the church to take a last look at her friend Phillip in his open casket. She lives in Teaneck and has never felt it was a racist town. But after the shooting, she is not so sure. “ This cuts deep,” she said. “It hurts. They just shouldn’t have shot him. Period.”


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