At a meeting packed with Forest Hill High School band parents and supporters frustrated with how people have treated their teenagers since an Oct. 6 performance in Brookhaven, the Jackson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to support the students and ask for the band director to be reinstated.
The band performed an anti-violence skit based on the film "John Q" during halftime of the Friday-night football game with young people pointing fake guns at others reportedly depicting police officers. A photo of the skit went viral by the next morning, drawing immediate outrage and condemnation, including from Gov. Phil Bryant. Two Brookhaven police officers were killed in the line of duty in the preceding week.
On the same day as the council's vote of support, the Mississippi High School Activities Association held a closed meeting in which it rejected an appeal from the Jackson Public Schools District to lift the band sanctions, which the City of Brookhaven, its mayor and police chief also now oppose. A City of Brookhaven statement said the sanctions against the band members is "undue punishment on students who do not share any culpability, as they were acting at the direction of their band director."
At Jackson City Hall on Tuesday, parents and JPS supporters filled the room during public comments at the outset of the meeting with many wearing Forest Hill insignia.
Ineva May-Pittman, a longtime educator in Jackson who taught in the early 1970s as schools were integrated, said the punishment of the Forest Hill band reminded her of sanctions levied against black children, particularly boys, to "push them out" once black and white students had to attend public school together. She worried that some of the teenagers would never get over what has happened to them publicly.
"If Jackson is going to be the city that it needs to be, we need to do away with all this racial stuff. We need to get rid of all this racist stuff," May-Pittman said.
Much of the response to the skit has divided among racial lines, with some white people even calling the students vile names, including Dana Wallace-Ladner, apparently a library clerk at Copiah-Lincoln Community College, whose job status is unknown.
'Facts Do Not Warrant Students Being Punished in This Manner'
Alvin Jackson, Band Booster president and the father of a senior in the Forest Hill band, described himself as a hurting parent.
"My child has all As. My child is going to be alright. But what about the children in the band that are dependent on that band for a scholarship?" Jackson said. "We need Mr. Demetri Jones back doing what he does. We need the band fully restored, doing what they do."
The new Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Errick Green fired Jones, the band director.
Jackson thanked Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes and Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks for placing the issue on the council agenda.
Stokes said he believes "most of the hoopla that has taken place comes from the governor." Immediately after the halftime skit, Bryant said that the performance is "unacceptable in a civilized society."
Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman hails from Brookhaven and spent most of his life as an educator in Jackson.
"We need to send a message that we are serious about our students," he said.
JPS Board President Jeanne Middleton Hairston and Vice President Ed Sivak sat in on the council's deliberation of the Forest Hill items.
"It's always an honor to hear from our community," Hairston said. "Of course, we cannot comment on any personnel decisions, but it's clear that this is a concern that reaches across all parts of our community."
Jackson-area lawmakers also issued a statement on Oct. 23.
"Clearly, the performance was a mistake that greatly offended many. The use of toy guns during field performance, especially following the hideous murders of two Brookhaven police officers, was in poor taste. It should not have happened," state Rep. Jarvis Dortch and Sens. Sollie Norwood and David Blount said in a statement. "However, there is nothing that suggests that the band director or students acted with malice," the legislators continued. "The students and band leaders were performing a skit that was planned several months ago. The performance had absolutely nothing to do with the recent tragedy in Brookhaven. Facts should matter. When the situation affects 16 and 17-year-old children, facts should matter even more. It does not appear that the MHSAA was interested in following the facts. The facts do not warrant students being punished in this manner."
Council Struggles for Unanimity, But Gets It
The council's symbolic solidarity vote did not come without some nudging. Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote said he supported activities at Jackson Public Schools like the band, and would even support the item in support of lifting sanctions against the band. However, Foote was not initially comfortable with the item supporting reinstatement of band director Demetri Jones. The councilman did not want to "undermine" Green's position of authority so soon into his tenure.
"(The board) selected this gentleman, he came down here, and he has great credentials and all that, and right off the bat, in his first week, he was given this very difficult position with a very difficult issue that had gotten nationwide notoriety through social media and everything else," Foote said. "I have a problem with making a decision to question his decision right off the bat without hearing anything from him on it."
Banks, a Forest Hill alumnus who was in the band and recruited to perform with the band at Jackson State University, asked for unanimous council support. But it seemed to be Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps, also a Forest Hill grad, who won Foote over.
First, Stamps pointed out that the aldermen in Brookhaven, a mixed-race group, were able to unanimously agree to a resolution in support of lifting the band's suspension. The police chief and mayor also signed it. Stamps said if Brookhaven could do it, then the capital city ought to be able to reach such a consensus.
"I sit up here and vote against my personal views for the greater good of the city all the time," Stamps said. "The greater good of the city is on the table right now, and everyone needs to put aside their personal issues."
One such example happened in the first minutes of Tuesday's council meeting, when Stamps voted in support of two public-access gates in two communities in Foote's ward.
"I don't agree with gates. ... But it's your ward. And I respect your position on your ward. This is my ward," Stamps said. Foote nodded and uttered, "That's fair."
Banks told the Jackson Free Press he was disappointed that the council had to deliberate for almost an hour to ensure all voted in support of the band director.
Parents Disappointed in Lumumba, Media
During public comments, parent Alvin Jackson urged the mayor not to let people outside Jackson dictate what happens in the capital city. The mayor responded, saying his initial statement supported the students, without commenting on the band director. Jackson wanted more.
"Mayor, who from the City of Jackson spoke out for our children when they were getting death threats?" Jackson asked. "Who from the City of Jackson spoke against the obscenities toward our children with the names of 'monkey child' and the n-word? We've got some children right now that have to have the FBI trailing them everywhere that they go. That's not right. We didn't hear anybody speak out for our children in that arena."
The mayor said when the fallout from the game happened, he was in Detroit, so he could not get in front of cameras, and has since adhered to media requests and always supports JPS kids.
Later, the mayor said he learned at the council meeting that MHSAA has to approve performances before bands take them to the field. (The band director told Othor Cain in an interview that the band submitted the skit to the organization in August for approval.)
The mayor entertained the idea of JPS finding another body to report to.
"I'm of a self-determined mind. So I see Jackson Public Schools providing quite a bit to the (Mississippi High School Activities Association)," the mayor said. "... If we're not going to receive the dignity and respect that we deserve, then we may need to consider what independent measures we have to pursue."
Ms. Scott, a guardian of a senior in the band, spoke to the Jackson Free Press in the City Hall lobby, but did not want to give her first name. She played in the Forest Hill band in the 1990s, and she was disappointed that the mayor has not held a press conference in support of the band, like he does for other issues. Lumumba did say he visited the Forest Hill band privately at the school.
Scott and other parents gathered in the lobby to talk to each other and then Banks, once he emerged, about their issues with how media have been careless in covering the fallout. They took issue with local station WLBT in particular, which has characterized the performance as "featuring students aiming fake weapons at police officers."
The students performed a scene from "John Q" that involves a hostage situation, and the message the students and band director wanted to convey was for communities to put the guns down.
The parents were upset that the last 30 seconds of the performance were taken out of context and portrayed inaccurately in subsequent media reports.
Scott's cousin, whom she is raising, has his heart set on playing trumpet at Alcorn State University. She said the band director saw potential in her cousin and continues to keep her informed when his grades drop or if he shows any signs of not working hard.
"This band was his saving grace," she said.
So far, students at Forest Hill cannot march at the remaining football games this season or participate in the state marching band competition, although they can play in the stands. It is unclear if the seniors will be able to participate in senior night on Nov. 2.
Clarification: The above story is edited to reflect that the students were reportedly "depicting" police officers. It is not obvious from the photos of the skill precisely what those students were wearing. Editor Donna Ladd added that the students were wearing police uniforms in the original article rather than indicating that the students were depicting officers in the skit based on the film "John Q."
Email city reporter Ko Bragg at [email protected]. Read more on the Forest Hill band controversy at jfp.ms/foresthillband. Donna Ladd contributed to this story.