DJ Henry's death at age 20, his parents say, doesn't neatly fit the national narrative about race and the police. 'This is real life' »
DJ Henry was a black man killed by police. Should he be a cause?
Danroy Henry Sr. holds his wife, Angella, during a memorial service for their son DJ in 2010. At left are DJ’s brother Kyle and sister Amber. (Photo: Stephan Savoia/AP)
Dan and Angella Henry sit in the windowed kitchen of their stately home in Easton, Mass. — the trampoline and swimming pool out back, the trees and hummingbird feeders all around, the artfully arranged platter of sandwiches on the granite counter.
They are talking about race again.
Or, more specifically, they are talking about why they no longer want to talk about race.
It’s not that they don’t understand why others view their loss through the lens of Ferguson and Baltimore, Madison and Cleveland, Brooklyn and Miami Gardens — other places where unarmed men were killed at the hands of ones in uniform. And they certainly accept why others place their son on the list that includes Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner — other black men (and, in the case of Rice, children) left to die in public streets by white police officers.
Yes, they see why so many people think they are part of this grim club; why they are sought out after each new horror, invited to march, to weigh in, to protest, to condemn; why their boy is embraced as a symbol, a call to action, a piece of a national arc. But in the more than four years since their 20-year-old was shot twice through his front windshield by a white police officer after being ordered to move his car in a quiet New York suburb, his parents have kept their distance from those who would make this life and death part of a cause.
It’s not that they aren’t outraged. “Of course we are,” Dan says.“But we just aren’t comfortable being part of a broad racial narrative, because we think in some ways it dehumanizes the victim, it just makes everybody, all these victims, all these perpetrators, into just one thing.”
Yes, all these stories might look alike from afar, they say. But up close, from the vantage point of their gleaming kitchen, where the searing subject of race is both right outside the door and a world away, it is much more complicated than that. And while they know it might be controversial — they have been accused of everything from being naive and in denial to betraying their race and the larger civil rights cause — they say the alternative is to simplify and flatten the reality of the roll call of deaths.
“There is a national narrative about white officers shooting black kids, and I understand why some people might make this part of that narrative,” Dan says.
“But there are real people here, this is real life, we lost a real child. We’re not ready to be spokespeople about other people’s children. What we’re going to do is speak where we’re experts. And we’re experts about our son.”
Angella and Dan Henry at their home in Easton, Mass. (Photo: Phillip Martin/WGBH)
The reason DJ Henry died, his parents believe, is that he was doing the right thing.
“Our son isn’t here because he complied with a request to move his car,” his father says. “If he hadn’t been compliant, then maybe he would still be here.”
The weekend of Oct. 16-17, 2010, started out to be a beautiful one. It was homecoming weekend at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., where DJ was a sophomore, and the opponent was Stonehill College, based in the Henrys’ hometown of Easton. DJ was playing cornerback for Pace; his best friend, Brandon Cox, played running back for Stonehill. The boys had grown up together, bonding over sports and also over the fact that they were among the few African-Americans in town.
Both their families drove down to Pleasantville for the day to watch Pace lose 27-0. (Yes, there was some friendly ribbing.) Then everyone went out to dinner at Lucio’s Pizzeria, after which the parents left — the Henrys for Easton, the Coxes for an overnight at a Manhattan hotel — and their sons went back to DJ’s on-campus townhouse to get ready for an evening out.
At about 11 p.m., DJ, Brandon and two other friends arrived at Finnegan’s Grill in Thornwood, N.Y., a town about 2 miles from the Pace campus. The bartender at Finnegan’s, Stephen Van Ostand, would later say that there were about 150 young people dancing there that night, and that he specifically remembered DJ because the young man had been so polite — making sure, for instance, that he had the proper hand stamp to return to the bar after going outside to make a phone call.
At about 1 a.m., a fight broke out at Finnegan’s, one that everyone agrees DJ and his friends were not part of. A few minutes later the management turned the music down and the lights up, and announced the police had been called and everyone had to leave. As customers filled the lot outside the bar, DJ pulled his dark green Nissan Altima from its parking space and into the fire lane, idling there in a cluster of four or five other cars. Brandon Cox got into the passenger seat, and Desmond Hinds, a Pace football teammate, was in the back seat; the three were waiting for the rest of the group they’d come with.
Louis Alagno, the chief of the Mount Pleasant police department, said shortly after the shooting that one of his officers pulled up behind the Nissan and sounded two quick bursts of his siren, signaling the driver to move. When he didn’t, the officer left his patrol car and knocked on the window of the Nissan, expecting the driver to roll down the window.
Instead the car began to pull away, the chief said. Brandon, who was sitting next to DJ in the front seat, says that is because DJ, who had not heard the siren over his stereo system, did hear the knock on the window and understood it as an order to leave.
While the first officer was getting DJ’s attention, a second officer, Aaron Hess, had arrived on the scene. A former Marine, he had grown up in Pleasantville — in fact, he’d been football captain while at high school there — and had served on the police force of his hometown for seven years. That night he’d brought his police dog, Roxx, a German shepherd that was a familiar sight around town and popular with local school kids. Leaving the dog in the car, Hess approached the Altima from the front while the first officer stood tapping on the window from the side.
When he saw the car move forward, Hess has said that he called out for it to stop. Brandon Cox, however, has said that inside the car he never heard Hess say anything, but rather looked up as DJ pulled out and saw an officer step out from between two parked cruisers, gun already drawn.
A screen grab of DJ Henry’s car with bullet holes in the windshield. (ABC News video)
Other witnesses have said that Hess was aiming a flashlight toward the car with one hand, while his other hand was on his Glock .40 caliber handgun.
Hess has said the Altima sped up toward him, leaving him no place to go but onto the front hood. Others testified that the Altima was braking as Hess stepped in front of it, firing as he landed on the roof. Later re-creations and expert testimony would lead the DA’s office to conclude that DJ was driving at what Brandon described at “a parking lot speed” of no more than 14 mph, and that he was in fact braking as he collided with Hess. The officer fired, striking DJ in the heart and the lung, and Brandon in the arm.
Meanwhile, a third officer, Ronald Beckley, watched the scene unfold and fired once — at Officer Hess — because, he would later testify in a deposition, from his vantage point Hess was the “aggressor.” That shot missed Hess and pierced the hood of the Altima.
Hess rolled off the hood onto the ground, not as a result of a gunshot but because the impact had injured his knee. DJ and Brandon were both pulled bleeding from the car and handcuffed. The Henrys’ lawyer, Michael Sussman, says video from the scene shows that medical aid was given first to Hess while DJ lay dying and unattended nearby. Hess’ lawyer, Brian Sokoloff, says that is untrue, and that DJ was cared for first, while the officer “lay on the ground nearby in considerable pain” from a serious leg injury.
DJ Henry was pronounced dead at the hospital.
His mother still calls him Danny. As in “Danny was the most gentle, quiet person.” Or “Danny ran a track race barefoot once because he’d lent his track shoes to someone who didn’t have them and didn’t get them back in time.”
But he had other names. Danroy Henry Jr. was his legal one, and that’s the name in the rap song that two superstars dedicated to him months after he was killed.
“This is to the memory of Danroy Henry,” sang Jay Z.
“Is it genocide?” sang Kanye. “’Cause I can still hear his mama cry…”
As for DJ, that was the nickname his father gave him years ago. Eventually it became a cheer at football games at Oliver Ames High School in Easton: “Go, DJ, go, DJ, go!”
DJ Henry played football for Pace University. (Photo: Courtesy of the family)
His was the kind of childhood filled with sports, the kind where Dad was his soccer coach and Mom cheered at nearly every game, where he wasn’t allowed to play football until he was in high school, but then took to it with a passion that eventually earned him a scholarship to Pace. It was a comfortable life — Dan worked in corporate management, Angella in speech pathology, brother Kyle was two years younger than DJ and sister Amber two years younger than that — and a multicultural one. His maternal grandmother is Irish, and St.
Patrick’s Day was always a landmark holiday on the extended-family calendar.
“He was always around aunts, uncles, cousins of different races and both races,” Angella says.
As it happened, many of that throng worked in law enforcement. Dan’s godfather was a police officer. His mother was an auxiliary police officer for several years. His brother is in the military. Angella’s cousin is with the naval police. “He grew up surrounded by police officers, so this family isn’t anti-police,” Dan says. “We are just anti bad people.”
With the help of this extended clan, and a respect for doing things the responsible way, Dan and Angella set out to give their children a solid foundation. “I wanted to be home to make them breakfast, Dan wanted to make sure that we had family dinners every night, so we did everything that we thought was right,” she says.
One of the things they thought was right was talking about race with their children — talking about it in a way that acknowledged it as a factor in their lives, but deliberately never made it the only one.
So Dan told stories of his own childhood, of growing up in a “rough” neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., and being chosen for a program in Clinton, N.Y., “where I was one of eight people of color, period,” in a high school of 600.
All eight lived in a house together, hosted by the school’s football coach, and to break the ice with the rest of the students the eight started throwing parties. Dan was the DJ, everyone danced together, and “by our second year there we turned the tides,” he says. “We became kind of popular because of our parties, the whole view of us changed in the school and in the town.”
Dan also told them of the time he was driving home from college with his African-American roommate and was pulled over by a New York state police officer who ordered them to unpack everything in the car. As they were unloading boxes and suitcases the officer asked to see identification, and the young men handed him their Cornell IDs. “His demeanor changed in an instant,” Dan says. “Boom, just like that. He told the other guys, ‘Stop searching the car.’ He said, ‘I’m really sorry, we got this call that somebody matching your description was at a rest area in the exact same car snorting cocaine.’ Then he sent us on our way. My buddy had steam coming out of his ears, but I told him, ‘It is what it is.’”
The Henry family in 2000. Left to right, Amber, Angella, Kyle, Dan and DJ. (Photo: Courtesy of the family)
It was that approach — be polite, obey the rules, change people’s opinions without confrontation — that Dan says he tried to teach his children when they brought home stories of their own. Like the day a player on the opposing team “called DJ the N word during a game and my fellow coach went ballistic,” Dan says. Or the day DJ was called into the principal’s office and ordered to change his red shirt.
“He was upset that the principal just assumed he was in a gang,” Angella says, “and that people would judge him that way.”
She and Dan confronted the principal, asking, “Did you even have a conversation with our son? Did you speak to any of his teachers about him? Then you would have known who he is, that he’s not part of a gang. Just a young kid of color who wants to wear red.”
Back home they also talked to DJ and his siblings about how sometimes “people look at you and don’t see past your color. People look at you and assume that you’re not as smart,” Angella remembers.
“One of the things I told him is, you’re going to have to work harder in school, you’re going to have to try to do better,” she says, “because people are going to assume that you’re not able to maintain the same level, the same standard as some other kids in their class.”
The Henrys had barely gotten back home and into bed when two Easton police officers rang their doorbell shortly after 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2010. They told Dan and Angella that their son had been in an accident and instructed them to call the Westchester Medical Center.
At first the doctor would only repeat that there had been an accident and that they should come right away. But when Dan pressed for more information (“Look, we’re about to make a long drive here, I need to know what’s really going on&rdquo, he was told that DJ was dead, shot because he tried to run down a police officer.
DJ Henry in 2010. (Photo: Courtesy of the family)
Dan said he never believed that could be true. “For it to have happened that way, DJ would have had to act in a way that was the absolute opposite of everything he had ever done in his life,” he says. Arriving at the hospital, he talked to Brandon Cox, who was just being released after being treated for the bullet wound in his arm, and became more convinced that the official story was wrong.
A college friend put him in touch with Michael Sussman, a civil rights lawyer perhaps best known for representing the NAACP in the landmark housing-discrimination case against the city of Yonkers, N.Y., in the 1980s. But the Henrys insist they did not hire Sussman because he handled racially charged cases. “We liked that he had a large family,” Angella says of Sussman, who has seven children. “And that we could hear in his voice that he was thinking, ‘What if that were my kid?’”
Sussman agrees that his marching orders have always been not to focus on DJ’s
race. “From our first meeting they told me, ‘We don’t want our son to be another black kid who is shot by the police, because there are so many of them and they are so forgettable in the public mind,’” he says, as he joins them in this kitchen conversation. “The Henrys are absolutely — reluctant is too light a word — they are adamant not to raise that as any kind of element here.”
Instead the family’s view is that if a shooting is unjustified, whatever the race of the victim, then a crime has been committed and that crime should be punished. “It is a civil rights case because all our rights include the right to live,” Sussman says. “Wrongful death, intentionally or negligently causing the death of a person, that is a violation of their civil rights.”
So the Henrys went back home, put a sign on their front door that said, “Please, we just need some time,” and instructed friends and relatives that if contacted by the press they should “just tell them what you know about Danny.”
Then they spoke about him themselves, at the memorial service attended by 3,500 people, where more than one speaker compared their family to the Huxtables (“before Bill Cosby’s problems,” Dan says now). They talked about him to the experts who would conclude in court that DJ’s car was braking, not speeding up, as it hit Hess. They talked about him when the autopsy found DJ’s blood alcohol level to have been 0.13, meaning he would have to have had five or six drinks that night, and they talked about him when they challenged those results, arguing that the chain of custody for his blood sample was sloppy and that every eyewitness — including the bartender and a girl he was dancing with whose offer of a drink he refused — says DJ was not drinking that night because he was driving.
Angella Henry responds to questions from members of the media about her sons death. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)
They talked about him to a Westchester County grand jury — well, Dan did, Angella was not called — and they talked about him at a press conference after that grand jury heard testimony from 85 witnesses, reviewed more than 100 pieces of evidence and found there was “no reasonable cause” to indict Officer Hess. Then they talked about him to federal prosecutors, and again at a press conference after the U.S. attorney declined to investigate, saying that “the office could not conclude that the officers’ actions amounted to a willful criminal civil rights violation.”
And they kept talking about him, and not once about his race, through the years when their story became part of what seemed to others to be a trend: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City in the summer of 2014; Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Akai Gurley in Brooklyn later that year; Jerame Reid in New Jersey in January 2015; Lavall Hall in Florida in February; Anthony Robinson in Madison, Wis., in March; Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., in April; Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin in Olympia, Wash., in May; President Obama’s June declaration in South Charleston that all Americans must confront “the way racial bias can infect us even when we don’t realize it”; Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail cell earlier this month, after a confrontational stop over a failure to signal.
With each of those events and others, they were contacted by “well-known and lesser-known activists, directly and indirectly,” Dan says, and each time they refused to march or speak.
“If the argument is only that white cops are shooting black kids, obviously the evidence is clear that that does happen,” he says. “But we just aren’t comfortable being part of a broad narrative, because we just think in some ways it dehumanizes the victim, it just makes everybody one thing. It lets the perpetrator off the hook, because they all get lumped into the same bucket as well.”
And with each refusal they readied for criticism.
“Once on Facebook I posted something about how we’re not trying to be anti-police, we’re just focusing on this police department, this police officer,” Angella says, and strangers responded, “‘How could you be so selfish?’” she remembers. “They said, ‘It’s happening all across the country, it’s bigger than just your situation.’ They thought that we didn’t care about the other families.”
Their view that race is not the narrative here makes for strange alliances. Hess’ lawyer, for instance, completely agrees with them.
Hess could not have shot DJ Henry because DJ was black, Sokoloff says, because Hess “could not see the occupants of the car. He testified that with the headlights and the parking lot lights, he had no idea who was in the car or what he or she looked like.” (Sussman says defense experts have testified that in fact the occupants would have been visible to someone on the hood of the car with his face up against the windshield in those lighting conditions.)
And just asSokoloff rejects the narrative of race in this case, he also rejects the “received truth that’s taken hold that cops are thugs and this cop is one of those.”
“People are saying, ‘Here we go again,’” he says. “But what we don’t have with Aaron Hess is a brutal cop who gave signals that he should not be out dealing with people. He never fired his weapon before this in the line of duty. He drew his weapon once and didn’t use it.”
Defense attorneys for others who have brought civil suits, on the other hand, disagree with Sokoloff — and, at least on this one question, also disagree with the parents of the victim at the center of their suits.
“Race is undeniably a dimension of this case,” says O. Andrew F. Wilson, who represents Brandon Cox. “The three boys that were inside the vehicle were African-American young men. The officers that were in the road were white, the officer who jumped on the hood of the car and fired was white.”
He says he will leave it to a jury to “wrestle with whether the officer, less than an arm’s length from the driver, could see his race or not.” But even taking Hess’ word that he could not, Wilson says, the racial lens shows itself in other ways.
“The narrative the police immediately created within hours of the shooting,” Wilson says, “that this was a thug trying to run down a cop who had no choice but to shoot — would that narrative had been the same if the demographics had been different?”
If that Altima door had opened, he wonders, and the bleeding driver had been revealed to be a young blond mother with a baby in a car seat, or an elderly white gentleman with thick spectacles,would the department have stood up at a press conference within hours and given the same description of the night’s events?
Like Sussman, Wilson believes it would not have. But both lawyers say they understand why the Henrys, so vehemently, and the Coxes, less directly, do not want to talk about the shooting through the prism of race.
“The Cox family came from a rough area of Boston, and they moved out of there so Brandon would be safe from violence,” Wilson says. “Brandon was brought up in a postracial suburb where race never defined him.”
Agrees Sussman: “The Henrys taught their children that they could do anything,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “That race wasn’t going to be an impediment, it was not going to be an excuse for them, it was not even going to be an issue for them.”
A bench in the Henrys' neighborhood, donated by community members in memory of DJ. (Photo: Courtesy of the family)
So if DJ was killed simply because he was black, then everything the Henrys told him about the world is not true.
Dan and Angella nod. Yes, that’s part of it, they say. That and the related fact that the whole of it — the all-encompassing, overarching, history-laden legacy of race in America — is simply more than they can take on right now. True, some families find comfort in a cause that is larger than themselves, and welcome the chance to give deeper meaning to the death of someone they love, but for this family at this moment the idea is simply overwhelming.
“We only have energy right now for our own case,” Angella says.
Adds Dan: “Sometimes protest is the absolutely the best tool. Civil rights … women’s suffrage … the early labor movement. We have told some of the folks that wanted us to engage that you win wars when you win battles on multiple fronts. Let us fight here, you continue to fight there and let’s hope together that our efforts will lead to real change, lasting change. We’re best equipped for the fight that we’re fighting.”
And they are certainly fighting.
The Henrys have brought two civil suits, one against Officer Hess and the village of Pleasantville for the shooting itself and a second against the town of Mount Pleasant and two officers in that department who allegedly failed to help DJ after the shooting. Those are making their way through a Westchester court, along with the one brought by Brandon Cox and seven other students who say they tried to help DJ or that they were hurt by the police.
The Henrys have also been to Albany to lobby for a change in the state’s grand jury system. It makes no sense, they argue, that potential prosecutions of police officers be brought by the same district attorneys who essentially partner with the police in most other cases.
“If you have prosecutors prosecuting police officers from their own jurisdictions,” Sussman says, “you create a whole series of conflicts. Personal conflicts because these people know each other, but also systemic ones because as a prosecutor I’m going to want the jury in all the other cases to believe that police department is a wonderful police department and they should believe what they’re saying about this set of crimes. It’s too much noise. It’s too much dissonance. You get rid of that with a special prosecutor.”
Much of the rest of their time is spent running the DJ Dream Fund, which they founded in 2011 to remember their son as they want others to remember him — funding the participation of underprivileged children in such activities as football, basketball, soccer, dance and horseback riding. So far they have covered the participation costs of more than 6,000 students in Massachusetts and New York.
Amber, Kyle, Angella and Dan Henry at the first annual DJ Dream Fund gala, in 2011. (Photo: DJ Henry Dream Fund)
“After we came up with the idea, we learned that he was already doing this on his own,” Angella says. “He was always sharing his pads, his clothes, his cleats, his gloves. He was always giving stuff away, trying to help other people do the things he loved.”
But mostly, DJ’s parents say, they are honoring their slain child by doing the best they can for his two younger siblings — telling them, as they told their brother, that they can do whatever they set out to do in the world, if they are willing to work for their goal.