Audience members held back tears as Patreese Johnson told her story. She didn’t get to watch her godson grow up. She lost almost a decade of her life, and will never escape the label of a felon.
On Friday, Feb. 26, Lane hosted Johnson, Venice Brown and Renata Hill — three of the New Jersey Four — for an informal Q-and-A on the effects of racism and homophobia in our society.
A crowd of students and faculty members packed the forum space in Building 17. Before the talk began, Lane’s Gospel Choir set the tone by singing “The World’s Gonna Have to Take a Turn Around.” After a brief introduction by Shawn Goddard, the multicultural program coordinator for ASLCC, Johnson, Brown and Hill began to explain how they got to where they are today.
On the night of Aug. 18, 2006, New Jersey natives Johnson, Brown, Hill and Terrain Dandridge, who was not at the talk, were walking in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village when they were verbally harassed by a male passerby. After a verbal altercation, things got physical, and the man, Dwayne Buckle, was left with a stab wound allegedly made by Johnson.
Though many believe this was in self-defense, Johnson, Brown and Hill were charged with assault and attempted murder, and spent years in prison. Throughout the trial, the media portrayed Johnson and her friends as a gang of killer lesbians out to harm straight men. The O’Reilly Factor ran a segment on the case entitled “Violent Lesbian Gangs a Growing Problem.”
“I have a lot of feelings about this event […] I lived in New York just a couple blocks away from where this event happened when it happened,” Christina Walsh, Associated Students of LCC leadership director, said. “I’ve never forgotten what happened to these women, I remember the media coverage at the time — which is actually a huge part of the story — the extraordinary bias and the extreme headlines, you know, ‘raging gang of black lesbian killers on the loose.’”
Johnson, Brown and Hill, now known as the New Jersey Four, are the focus of the 2014 documentary “Out in the Night,” which portrays them as victims of racism and homophobia. They came to Lane and the University of Oregon to speak on the racism and homophobia they faced during their arrests and subsequent trials, to spark conversations on violence and social justice — a conversation that left them, as well as some audience members, in tears.
“Things like what these amazing and strong women went through happen — still happen — and I feel like there is this kind of shroud of thinking that the worst is behind us, but that’s not true,” Hilary Wilson, secretary of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, said.
“I’ve experienced the violence as well,” Walsh said. “The story is a personal one, and I think it’s important to take the ideas of social justice and racism and homophobia and make them real for people.”
Though the talk was a lot for some of the audience to handle, and brought up many injustices within American society, many attendees left feeling a strong sense of connection with their fellow classmates and co-workers.
“I think the most amazing thing about the folks who were in that room is that it was a lot of staff and faculty,” Walsh said. “There were definitely a large number of students present, but I think this shows that staff and faculty here at [Lane] care deeply about these kinds of issues.”
The event was organized by members of both the GSA and the Black Student Union. These student-run organizations are dedicated to not only providing a safe place for all students, but to educating the campus students and faculty on cultural diversity and different cultures. Both organizations hope to hold more events like this one, where attendees feel safe to express their emotions and beliefs.
“I think it was really very nice to have a casual environment where individuals could talk about what is important to them today,” Goddard said. “I’m hoping to bring more incentive-based types of opportunities for engagement as it relates to cultural competency, and a lot of times that will take really emotional testimony from people.”