The shooting of Pace University football player DJ Henry has set off a great deal of controversy in the town of Pleasantville, New York, where Henry was shot outside a nightclub. According to police, Henry drove his car toward one of the officers, who claims that he had to fire on the athlete in order to save his own life. Accounts of what happened that night are varying, and DJ's family has filed a $120 million lawsuit against the Pleasantville Police Department over the incident. Attorney Charles Oglegree from Harvard University is representing the family of Brandon Cox, a friend of Henry's who was also shot that night.
The incident began on the night of October 17, when police were called to investigate a disturbance outside a bar in the suburb of Thornwood, which is located right near the Pace University campus.
Officer Aaron Hess and some of the witnesses on the scene say that Hess shot at Henry's windshield because he was struck by the car as Henry drove away from the scene. But other witnesses are saying that Hess' use of force was unjustified and the family is seeking a murder indictment against him. Hess' lawyer claims that his client was thrown on the hood of the car by the impact and had no choice but to shoot. It has also been reported that the 20-year old Henry had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit for driving.
There are others on the scene who argue that Hess did not have to shoot Henry. Also, Attorney Charles Ogletree and others are seeking an independent investigation into the matter. They claim that Henry was following police instructions when he pulled away from the scene and that Hess did not tell him to stop the car.
The shooting of DJ Henry saddened me when I first heard about it. It reminds me of the shooting of Daniel Covington, another football player shot in Louisville, Kentucky under questionable circumstances. There are countless other instances where athletes have been killed, and many of these situations have one common denominator: Alcohol and bars.
I am in complete agreement that there should be an independent investigation into the shooting of DJ Henry. As the son of a police officer, I know that officers will, in many cases, work hard to protect their own. This is especially true when serious charges are on the line. Additionally, one has to openly question why a black male is shot and killed in an alcohol-related incident, while we almost never hear of police shooting white students on campuses who consume just as much liquor.
There is also a simultaneous and very serious reality in this case that we all must confront: Why a young man who is not even the legal age for alcohol consumption was behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. While I fully support the search for truth and justice in the case of DJ Henry, I remain perpetually frustrated with the culture of alcohol abuse and running back and forth to the club that consumes the existence of so many young black athletes. I've witnessed this culture while teaching at the college level for the past 17 years anad to be honest, it really makes me sick.
When I formed ALARM, the Athlete Liberation Academic Reform Movement, one of the things I let the young men in the organization know is that a) there is nothing illegal about young black male athletes pursuing academic excellence (in fact, it should be a personal mandate, but many athletes throw their educations away along with the help of a corrupt organization called the NCAA), and b) there is no rule stating that you have to spend your weekends engaging in binge drinking and running back and forth to one night club after another. Most of us can't count on both hands and feet how many stories we've read over the past year about one athlete after another being involved in a shooting, stabbing, arrest, rape, DUI or some other unfortunate incident at a night club after consuming far too much alcohol.
One cannot solely blame Henry's use of alcohol on what happened in this unfortunate incident. A broader and more thorough investigation will hopefully bring out the truth. Also, white kids get drunk on the weekends without being shot, so drinking should not lead to a death sentence. But if black athletes and young black males are to learn anything from the death of DJ Henry, they should learn these two undeniable truths: Try to avoid alcohol if you can (or at least excessive consumption) and stay away from the police. Almost nothing good comes out of the destructive culture of alcohol abuse on college campuses, and we should teach our kids to avoid volatile situations that might put their life or their freedom in jeopardy.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the Athlete Liberation and Academic Reform Movement (ALARM). To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.