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“Model America”: Family of Phillip Pannell, Killed by White NJ Cop in ’90, Still Struggles for Justice

StorySeptember 23, 2022
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A new series examines how protests that erupted over a police killing three decades ago offer important lessons for the Black Lives Matter movement today. We speak to the family of Phillip Pannell, a 16-year-old Black boy who was fatally shot in the back in 1990 by a white police officer later acquitted for the killing. Pannell is the subject of “Model America,” a new four-part series by MSNBC that looks at the racial divide in the U.S. through the lens of the small town of Teaneck, New Jersey, where the shooting took place. “Here we are 32 years later, and it’s still happening,” says his sister, Natacha Pannell. His mother Thelma Pannell-Dantzler says the police officer, Gary Spath, lied on the stand about the shooting and “should be prosecuted” for perjury. We also speak with the series’s co-director, Dani Goffstein, who was raised in Teaneck and says he became interested in the story after noticing parallels with the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org.

We spend the rest of the hour examining how riots that erupted over a police killing three decades ago offer important lessons for the Black Lives Matter movement today. It was April 10th, 1990, when a Black 16-year-old boy named Phillip Pannell was fatally shot in the back by a white Teaneck, New Jersey, police officer. Racial tensions flared in the suburb, that had been seen until then as an idyllic and diverse racial utopia by some. The case made international headlines, with civil rights leaders, including the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, joining in demonstrations calling for justice. In a minute, we’ll speak with Phillip Pannell’s mother and sister. But first, this is the opening to a new four-part docuseries on MSNBC called Model America that features their story.

NATACHA PANNELL: I am Natacha Pannell. My 16-year-old brother was slain 30 years ago in Teaneck, New Jersey. And I’m going to address the United States of America.

GARY SPATH: There’s no doubt that night. It was a textbook procedure. I had no choice. I was forced to take a life. I was a white cop who shot a Black 16-year-old.

PROTESTERS: Black lives matter! Black lives matter!

NATACHA PANNELL: I would like to address all law enforcement across the country and around the world. Honor the oath.

GARY SPATH: Brother officers kept repeating, “You did the right thing. You had no choice. It was a good shoot.”

REPORTER: There was confusion and a groundswell of rage in Teaneck, New Jersey, where police shot a 15-year-old suspect to death.

PROTESTER: Power to the Black people!

REV. AL SHARPTON: This was middle-class, model city America.

TEANECK RESIDENT 1: We live in Teaneck. This doesn’t happen in Teaneck.

TEANECK RESIDENT 2: It wasn’t the utopia I thought it was for many people.

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: We endured this pain for 30 years. And we’re back here again.

NATACHA PANNELL: On my honor, I will never betray my integrity or the public trust.

REV. AL SHARPTON: The fact of the matter is, Phillip Pannell was executed.

UNIDENTIFIED: I don’t care how many grand juries he impanels. The truth is the truth is the truth.

POLICE OFFICER: It’s time we speak. It’s time we let those in power know that we’re not going to take it anymore.

NATACHA PANNELL: I will always maintain the highest ethical standards and uphold the values of my community.

GARY SPATH: My shooting will never go away. It’s with me every day of my life.

POLICE SUPPORTERS: He had a gun! He had a gun! He had a gun! He had a gun! He had a gun! He had a gun! He had a gun! He had a gun!

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the opening to Model America, the four-part docuseries on MSNBC. Part one aired this past Sunday, part two this Sunday.

For more, we’re joined by two of the people it featured, Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, the mother of Phillip Pannell, president of the Phillip Pannell Foundation, and Natacha Pannell, the sister of Phillip. Also with us from Los Angeles, co-director Dani Goffstein, who’s a former Teaneck resident.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Natacha, talk about that tragic, traumatic day — and I actually hate to bring it up 32 years later — when your brother was killed, and what unfolded after that for your family, for the community, as you sought justice, and what it means for this documentary series to come out 32 years later as the Black lives movement continues the fight against police brutality and killings and racism.

NATACHA PANNELL: Well, first off, I would like to thank Democracy Now! for having both my mom and I on.

That night was — before I learned that my brother was shot and killed by Teaneck police officer Gary Spath, I was really, really excited and happy. You know, I was expecting my brother to come home. I had the House Party tape, which is a movie that he wanted to see. And so I was just, you know, really happy. And when I heard a bunch of footsteps running up the stairway, I just ran to the door excited, and I thought that I was going to swing the door open and see my brother Clint.

And, in fact, I saw of bunch of, like, puzzled faces, and people in the hallway were crying. And one of the kids kicked the stairwell. And I was like, you know, “Where’s my brother?” I didn’t see him. So I called for my mother. And then they all came in, and they said, you know, “Miss Pannell, Miss Pannell, Phil’s been shot.” So, my mother was straightening her hair. She dropped the straightening comb. She ran in. She said, “Where? Where?” And then, one yelled out in the crowd, “He was shot in the leg.” And then my mother was like, “In the leg? Why?” And then, somebody else, a faint voice, said, “He’s been shot in the back.” And then, that’s when my mother kind of was like, “Oh, in the back.”

And so we rushed to the hospital. And we saw like a bunch of police officers out there, bunch of relatives and my brother’s friends, and everybody looked distraught and was crying. And then, when they brought us inside the ER, the doctors came to both my mom and I, and then my mother was like, “I just want to see my son. Where is he?” And the doctor said, “Miss Pannell, we tried everything, but he didn’t make it.” So, after that, we saw his body and things like that. And, you know, it was just like — to me, it just was a bad dream, you know, the way everything played out.

And then, a day later, we had a candlelight vigil in honor of my brother. And then there was a riot that ensued, because it was actually provoked by the police department. The Teaneck Police Department wouldn’t allow us to move. And after they barricaded us in, that’s when the crowd became angry, and then the riot kind of broke out.

And then, days later, that Saturday, we actually started marching. And from 1990, four days after my brother was killed, up until '92, we marched throughout the trial. And here we are, 32 years later, and it's still happening, and I’m still marching in honor of my brother and countless others who lost their lives by the hands of police violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, you’re Phillip’s mom. You called him Clint. It is now 32 years later, and I still offer you both our condolences on the death of your son. When you learned what happened and then you saw the level of response, the protest at the ground level in Teaneck — if you could talk about why you lived in Teaneck? And while others were saying these are outsiders coming in, you were saying, “Quiet doesn’t work.”

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Yes. I moved to Teaneck because it was a quiet town. And I loved Teaneck. And my son loved Teaneck, and my daughter. So that’s why we bought a house in Teaneck, New Jersey. And when this happened to us, I never thought that it was racism in Teaneck until this happened to my son. And I know there was a lot of people there, you know, talking, saying that we was destitute. They was calling us all kinds of names. Name it, they called us those names.

But I do want to say this, to Spath. He said, “Never a doubt.” He kept saying, “Never a doubt,” that it was a good shooting. He lied and said my son was reaching for a gun. It’s going to be proven — proven — to the world how he got on the witness stand and perjured himself, and so did Blanco, that his hands was clearly, clearly in the air when he shot him, with a six-foot fence around him. So, once this evidence come out, it should be something — I don’t care how many years it takes — that for a police officer or anyone to lie under oath on the witness stand, they should be prosecuted. They should be punished for what they did, for putting us through all of this pain for 32 years of my life.

I knew he didn’t try to shoot back, but to prove it — but to prove it, to see with my own eyes, that’s believable to me. And I hope the world see it, just see what this man did to my life and my daughter’s life and my family’s life. He destroyed me from that. But with God and with prayer, I’m here to see this day have came, and I thank God for that. And a lot of my kin people have gone on home and never seen that, that the truth came out about — their niece, their cousins, family, they never seen this. But I see it, and I’m the mother. And I thank God that I’m here to see that.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from the second episode of MSNBC’s docuseries, Model America, about your family’s ordeal and the fight for justice.

REPORTER: Teaneck residents came to Town Council meetings to demand that more Blacks be added to the police force. But no aspect of the racial issue gripped the community’s emotions more than the charge that white Teaneck cops were abusing the town’s Black youth.

O.J. WILLIAMS: What had happened to me in an event August 24th back in 1989, I was harassed by two officers who held me at gunpoint, pushed their gun into my eye. Immediately after that incident, I went to the police station to fill out a report, but I was denied by the lieutenant in charge to fill out the report. He told me to get the hell out of the police station.

TEANECK RESIDENT: That was the first time I really heard an African American couple say to me, “We had to get our kids the talk.” They were worried about their children, primarily males, how to deal with the police. These were things I had never heard before.

GERVONN ROMNEY RICE: As a mother of three young Black men, raising them as boys, you know, taking them to the mall — they were going to the mall with their friends, their Black and white friends. But I always had to make sure I told my friends, “Leave your backpack in the car. Don’t keep your hands in your pocket. Make sure you have your wallet. If you’re talking, make sure you greet people. Look them in the eye, you know, so they don’t look like shifty or anything like that.” Now, I’m sure that it wasn’t reversed. If a white mom was doing the drop-off, she didn’t have to have that conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice you heard was Gervonn Romney Rice, current Teaneck Town Council member. I want to bring Dani Goffstein into this conversation. You are the co-director of this film, this docuseries, Model America, and you also lived in Teaneck. Talk about how this series, extremely powerful series, came into being.

DANI GOFFSTEIN: Sure. Thanks for having me, Amy.

So, I grew up in Teaneck. I was born two years after Phillip Pannell was killed. And my parents were divorced. They lived on opposite sides of the town. My mom lived in the northwest quadrant, which is predominantly Jewish. My dad lived in the northeast quadrant, which is predominantly Black. And I remember walking home with my dad one day, and he pointed to the yellow house on corner of Intervale and Teaneck Road and told me the story of what happened there right before I was born. And I had always been — a story that I was intrigued by. It was something I realized not a lot of people talked about in Teaneck. And I always wondered why and wanted to understand this incident. So it had been something in the making since I was a kid.

I didn’t really develop it — start developing it into a documentary until after Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson in 2015. And I noticed a lot of the parallels between those cases, and I started researching and went back to Teaneck, interviewed anybody I could with like a 5D. And yeah, I met with the Pannells in 2018 and spoke with Natacha and Thelma. And I think they were initially skeptical. I know they felt mistreated or exploited by the press in the past, and they weren’t sure about my intentions or motivations behind it, but — initially. But after developing that relationship with them, getting to know them, I think they felt more comfortable with me.

And in 2020, Natacha called me up, after George Floyd was killed, and told me that there was going to be a march in Teaneck, it was co-sponsored by the Phillip Pannell Foundation, and invited me to come film if I wanted it. So, it was sort of just strange how it all came full circle and George Floyd sort of brought it into the present day. And I filmed that march and continued following them throughout 2020. And it was — yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Natacha, if you can talk about your decision? And also I want to ask Mrs. Pannell-Dantzler the same thing. Here is this white guy, also a Teaneck resident, who had approached you and approached you. You didn’t say yes originally.

NATACHA PANNELL: No, I didn’t say yes, because, as Dani stated, I was, you know, kind of blindsided by other press that actually was offering the same, wanting to report on the story and things like that, just to shed light on police brutality cases. And so, when he came to me the first — my first initial thought was, like, “Well, here it is, a young kid” — because I, too, have a 20-something-year-old. My son is 23. And so Dani is not that much older than my son. So I was like, “Well, you’re coming here to do, quote-unquote, a 'documentary' about my brother, but you weren’t even born. You know? You weren’t even born in 1990, so what could you possibly report about it?”

And so, we met a few times out in the community. He was just — he just took time, and that kind of made me feel like, “OK, well, maybe he has good intentions. Maybe he has something in him that he really is compelled to the story and wants to get the truth out.” So, when I started meeting with him more, I said, “OK, well, this is, like, maybe the spawn of like a new beginning, if you will, to exposing the truth, finally, after all this time.”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask Mrs. Pannell-Dantzler — you have Gary Spath, who was acquitted of manslaughter. You, in a civil suit, got $200,000. Gary Spath got $40,000 every year for the rest of his life, which comes out, what, to over a million dollars. I was wondering your response to this, and if you want this case reopened, the feds coming in, perhaps, and investigating your son’s civil rights being violated, not to mention his death.

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Yes, because when this happened, I was shocked that they got him off with nothing at all. So I was distraught. And so, I feel that if anyone gets punished — I don’t care, like I said, how many years it takes for the truth to come through — they should take them and what they did wrong, and they should be punished just like anyone else. Because I work in New Jersey. We pays his tax. So I’m paying his tax for killing my son? That’s terrible. We’re paying his tax for killing my son, shot him in the back? Back in the days, I thought that was murder when you shoot a person in the back with their hands up. He surrendered. He surrendered. But he said he was reaching for a gun? And I carried this for 32 years. How could he say that he carried this all this time, that it was a good shoot? How was it a good shoot? How could he say things like that? And he got children and raised them, and they got — he got grandchildren. He got his wife and got his whole thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler and Natacha Pannell, we’re going to continue this conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. And, Dani Goffstein, thanks so much for being with us. The series is called Model America on MSNBC. I’m Amy Goodman.

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