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Police Should Not Kill Us: Phillip Pannell’s Family Wants Officer Who Shot Him in Back Held Responsible

Web ExclusiveSeptember 23, 2022
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In Part 2 of our interview with the mother and sister of Phillip Pannell, the 16-year-old Black boy fatally shot in the back in 1990 by a white police officer, we discuss how the officer was acquitted and whether the case could be reopened in the wake of officer convictions for the murder of George Floyd and the growing movement for police accountability. Pannell is the subject of “Model America,” a new four-part series airing on MSNBC. We speak with Pannell’s sister, Natacha Pannell; his mother, Thelma Pannell-Dantzler; and the series’s co-director, Dani Goffstein, who was raised in Teaneck, where Pannell was killed.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our look at how riots, or an uprising, erupted over a police killing over three decades ago, and the important lessons they offer for the Black lives movement — 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, Gary Spath. Racial tensions flared in the suburb, that had been seen until then by many as an idyllic and diverse racial utopia. The case made international headlines.

In a minute, we’ll speak with Phillip Pannell’s mother and sister in Part 2 of our conversation. But first we want to bring you the trailer for the new four-part docuseries on MSNBC called Model America.

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

TEANECK RESIDENT 1: A great place to raise a family, in a very diverse environment.

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

TEANECK RESIDENT 2: We live in Teaneck. This doesn’t happen in Teaneck.

UNIDENTIFIED: There was no reason for that cop to shoot him in his back.

PROTESTERS: Justice now!

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

PROTESTERS: Shot him in the back! Shot him in the back!

GARY SPATH: And he was going to shoot me. That’s the truth.

NATACHA PANNELL: My 16-year-old brother was slain 30 years ago in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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

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

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for Model America, the four-part docuseries on MSNBC that began last Sunday. We continue now with Part 2 of our conversation with Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, the mother of Phillip. She’s president of the Phillip Pannell Foundation. And we’re joined by Phillip’s sister, Natacha Pannell, the sister of Phillip Parnell. Still with us in Los Angeles, co-director Dani Goffstein, who grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey.

I wanted to go back first to Natacha. You were 13 years old. Phillip, Phil, was your big brother at 16. In Part 1 of our conversation, you brought us to that heart-wrenching moment when his friends came to the door, and you and your mom learned about what happened to Phillip. Then there was the uprising in Teaneck. And then there was the trial for Gary Spath. I want to go to that trial, what was presented, and, Natacha, why you felt the protests that had happened before were so important for making the world understand what your family was going through.

NATACHA PANNELL: Well, going back to the trial, I remember — I didn’t really attend too many days there, because my mother wanted me to have a sense of normalcy, and to send me back to school. But I did go some days. So, overall, I know that it kind of felt like it was almost like a circus, like being involved in a circus, because at first, you know, we had a lot of supporters coming in, my family and I, on our side, and then the judge demanded that we only can allow eight people in the courtroom on our side. And then, all of a sudden, they rearranged the seating, and they made us have assigned seats. So, they sat my family near Spath’s family, and they only separated us by like one individual. So, you know, we only had like eight people coming in, and then we were sitting directly near his family.

I remember that it was a police officer that was in a wheelchair brought in. He was paralyzed. And it was like this whole big fiasco. And then the judge got upset and said, you know, this is — “What’s going on? This is a trial.” And he ended up telling the police officer that he couldn’t stay because of — for whatever reason. So, I do remember the trial being like a big fiasco, like the circus trial.

And then, overall, it was important to have, like, the marches and the rallies and Al Sharpton and other people come in, because without them marching and supporting my family and I, I don’t think we ever would have gotten a manslaughter indictment.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response when the verdict came down in the courtroom, when you heard that Gary Spath had been acquitted, Natacha?

NATACHA PANNELL: Well, I heard my mother scream out, you know, and she fell down. And then I saw my aunt, my mother’s sister, you know, kind of like push or shove a sheriff out the way. And I just thought that it was like a big nightmare. Everything felt like so far away, you know, like it wasn’t really happening, because I really thought that he was going to be indicted. I thought that, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: Or convicted.

NATACHA PANNELL: — it was an open-and-shut type of case.

AMY GOODMAN: Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, as you sat there day after day next to the Spath family, your thoughts, and especially when Gary Spath was acquitted?

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Well, when I first got in the courtroom, and I seen that it was a lot of people — how can I say it? — hate, people that hated — when I looked at Gary Spath’s side and then looked at the jurors, I said, “No, we’re not going to get a win like this. We’re not — it’s over with.” I’m just saying in my mind, “It’s over with.”

And as we’re sitting there listening to the trial, and then they put one witness up there, he started talking about a book that his son had, like he’s promoting a book. And then everybody started laughing. And I felt like I was low, like I was like a little ant or something, like I wasn’t human. Why is they doing this? And I just yell out, “This is not — this is my son you’re talking about!” And I jumped up, and Reverend Daughtry, he helped me — he got me out of the courtroom.

And when I came back in, we sat down, and it went on. The trial went on. And after a while, I just sit there. I was spaced out. I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing. I couldn’t believe anything I was hearing. It was just — we were just sitting there like we was just ignored, like we was nothing. I felt like nothing. How could I fight for my child when nobody there is by me? Like the judge, it looked like he was against me. Everyone in there, like they was against us. And we had no fight.

But I’m here to say, I’m here to fight now. And I’m here to fight for all young men, all of them right now. And the mothers, you stick to your goals. If you know your child didn’t do something, come out and take it to the judge. Take it to anywhere you can. Take it to the Supreme Court. Do not give up. We didn’t give up in 32 years. And now the truth is here. Now the truth is coming out to show the world, to show the whole world, with the pain.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it is 32 years later. Can you talk, Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, about your response when George Floyd was killed, and your setting up of the Phillip Pannell Foundation and how you hope his legacy will live on, even if he did not?

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Yeah. When George Floyd got killed, my daughter and I started the Phillip Pannell Foundation, because I had to let the world know, too, that we wasn’t weak anymore. We wasn’t sad women anymore, that we had to get out and stand up for my brother — for her brother and my son and his father, because his father had passed away in 2016. So, I say to myself, “I’m going to take up Phillip’s strength. I’m going to take up his father’s strength. And Tacha is going to carry on with her brother.” So I was very, very strong during that time. But as they talk about my son, it started bringing back all that pain. All that pain. I said, “Thelma, don’t go back and get weak again. Be strong. Be strong. Stand up. Stand up.”

So, after George Floyd came out, those youth in Teaneck, they took over Teaneck Road, and they asked me to come. And then, they didn’t even know about there was a Phillip Pannell that got killed in their town. And when they heard about he was shot in the back, those kids was very angry. Really, the youth took over Teaneck Road.

AMY GOODMAN: When George Floyd was being killed by the white police officer, he shouted out for his mother. Your thoughts, Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler?

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Yeah, I believe when my son got shot, I believe he was thinking of me. I really believe he was thinking of me. And I wasn’t there to save him. So, I always — if I was just there to save him, I would have taken that bullet. He didn’t live any of his life. And Spath took that away from me, took my child away. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: The officers that killed George Floyd were found guilty. In your case, the officer, Gary Spath, was acquitted. What message do you have for him, and those that marched, the police officers that surrounded him, today? And do you think — and this is a question that I asked you at the end of our first conversation — that your son’s case can be reopened?

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Yeah, we’re going to try to open this case back up, since the truth is being shown to the whole world. We want to take it to the federal level, because he violated his civil rights. He violated my son’s civil rights. He deserved to live. He shouldn’t have got killed that day or no other day. He didn’t hurt anyone. No one.

And people have gotten away with shooting up school system, little babies, and the cops never rounded them up or hit them anything; went in the church, like I say again, and killed all these people. They never got knocked down or beat up or anything — with automatic guns, and they got away with their lives. So, the question is — it’s got to be a difference in a Black man — and I’m going to say it — and in a white man, because they always do the Black children like this.

And we’re just tired of it. We’re tired of them taking our children away, and the pain. The pain is so devastating. But look how far I came. Look how far I got to see that the truth came out. I just don’t want the mothers to give up. And I’m a voice for all the mothers. Their child never came to the limelight, to see and hear their stories. Let’s fight. Let’s fight together. Let’s be strong together. Everybody that got young men out here, let’s fight together. And we could beat this. We could beat this system.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Dani Goffstein back into this conversation, the co-director of this remarkable series on MSNBC that’s running on Sundays, four Sundays, called Model America. You grew up in Teaneck. You talked about your divorced parents, your mom living on one side of town, your father living in the other. Talk about the barber shop and how you learned this story and how, though, by some, Teaneck is hailed as a kind of racial utopia, you understood very quickly as you sat in the barber’s chair maybe people had a different feeling about Teaneck.

DANI GOFFSTEIN: Definitely. When I was about — you know, in Teaneck, there are two barber shops — there’s a block on Queen Anne Road with two barber shops on opposite ends of — opposite corners. And one is Chubby’s, where most of the white and Jewish people get their haircuts, and then there’s the Chop Shop. And my mom, I remember, dropped me off in front of Chubby’s for my haircut, and I decided to walk over to the Chop Shop. And I met Martyse Lewis, who was a friend of Phillip Pannell, and he owns the Chop Shop. And I kind of asked him about it early on, you know, because I realized that not many of my white or Jewish friends knew anything about it. But, you know, Martyse said —

AMY GOODMAN: About Phillip, you mean.

DANI GOFFSTEIN: Yes, about Phillip. Yeah, sure. And he lived through it, and I would hear firsthand accounts in the barber shop about what happened. And I did realize that the white and Black residents had very different perspectives on the town. And it was certainly not the utopia that many, many of us white people in Teaneck thought that it was.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, your deciding to make this series and convince the Pannells that you were the person to do it, how did you win their confidence, do you feel? And then, of course, I’ll ask them, because that’s the most important question.

DANI GOFFSTEIN: Yeah, sure. I know that Natacha, initially she said, “No, thank you. I’m not interested in participating.” And then she had seen — I have a company, Psycho Films, that had done a bunch of music video work for some of the — some artists that she liked, like Kendrick Lamar, and I know she was really impressed by some of our work and our aesthetic. And that kind of opened her up to talking to me more.

And I know Mrs. Dantzler was initially — I think she was skeptical, even when we started filming in 2020, and reluctant to participate. I don’t think it was until, really, we went to Washington, D.C., and spent three days with them that I think she felt comfortable.

But I also did — there was a tree of healing ceremony that was set for April 10th, 2020, that was cancelled because of COVID. But I initially wanted to film that. And the Phillip Pannell Foundation board, I guess, had voted against me filming it. So I flew out to Jersey immediately and asked Natacha if I could speak with the board members, and I presented my case. And I think that put a lot of people at ease.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. It was the middle of COVID. You made —

DANI GOFFSTEIN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — this film during COVID, which is very difficult, the series, Dani.

DANI GOFFSTEIN: Yes. Yes, it was. Yeah. But, you know, it was — there was a movement happening, and, you know, a reckoning, that it was — I thought it was a moment in history that, you know, we should document through the eyes of the Pannell family, because they have such a unique perspective, having, you know, their case — when we met with the Mothers of the Movement, they always have the oldest case, 30 years ago. So, it was remarkable to be able to be with them, and a great privilege that I had to be able to document them through that movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Natacha, I was wondering if you can talk about the different avenues to fight for change. You’ve run for the New Jersey state Assembly. So, you — if you can talk about your decision to go the electoral route? You’ve been in the streets, of course, your family, dealing with this absolute horror of the killing of your brother, three years older than you, when you were 13. And now you and your mom have the Phillip Pannell Foundation. Talk about each as an avenue for change.

NATACHA PANNELL: Yeah, well, that 13-year-old girl had decided that, you know, I’m not going to stop. I don’t care how many years or how long it took me to fight for the truth and let the world know that my brother was surrendering when he was shot in the back. So, back then, in 1990, many of the current politicians who were in office, or who were just beginning to, on their political careers, the same things that were happening back then were continuing to happen. So, I said, “Well, I’m tired of begging all of these politicians to pass these bills and pass these laws, like the CCRB bill and the police transparency bill, the ending of —

AMY GOODMAN: CCRB being the Civilian Complaint Review Board bill?

NATACHA PANNELL: Yes. Also the no-knock warrant and ending qualified immunity. So, all of these bills have been pressing bills that’s just been sitting. So I said, “Well, I’m going to run, you know, and I’m not going to run as a Democratic, and I’m not going to run as a Republican. I’m going to run as an independent,” because I believe in the people, you know, and most politicians should put people first, you know, just the basic needs of the people. And so, that was my campaign, “children and seniors first.” And I wanted to highlight our most vulnerable and precious populations, that are neglected.

And as far as the foundation, both my mom and I did start the foundation to offer scholarships to students, as well as to just bring awareness to preventing this from happening again, senseless acts of violence from happening again.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, yes, the mother of Phillip Pannell and the head of the Phillip Pannell Foundation, which aims to, quote, “bring positive awareness to prevent senseless acts of violence in America and increasing across the nation. The Phillip Pannell Foundation strives to bridge the cultural gap between underserved communities and law enforcement where a safe space is provided therefore reaching a degree of civil coexistence.” Do you think that’s possible? And what message do you have for responsible law enforcement and for people in this country and around the world, as you continue, 32 years later, to not only mourn your son but to organize?

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Well, one thing, I think that we need more police that believe in what they are doing. When I call the police, I want them to be able to understand there are people out here with some kind of a illness or something. Talk them down. Don’t just shoot first. And not only that, when we call them, we call them to protect us, not to kill us. We don’t call them to kill us.

And we need — the police need to know their communities. They need to walk around, know who live in their community. If they even see kids come from school, know who their parents are, and tell them, you know, “I’m going to call your parents if you don’t get off the street.” Have a relationship with their communities. And I think everything would be better. It wouldn’t be this way, if they know who the peoples are or, quote-unquote, the “parents” are.

They got to understand we want to live just like anybody else. We deserve to live in the best homes like anybody else. Our children need the best schooling like anybody else. We want to live, and we love our family. And they deserve the best. My son deserved the best he could get, could get in this world. But he took that away from me. He took it away from me. We just got to get to know the community better. And so do the parents. They got to go to PTA meetings. Go to the meetings. Know your towns. Know who your officials are. Know who everyone live in your town. Speak. Be kind. Be kind. Have a heart. Don’t be bitter because the color of our skin. We want to live just like anyone else. That’s all I got to say. We got to — we want to live. I wanted my child to live. I wanted to see if he got married, have any grandkids. I always thought that they would come to Christmas dinners with my grandchildren. I always thought that. But that never happened. He took all of that away from me. He destroyed that. He took it away.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but your thoughts, Mrs. Pannell-Dantzler, on what you want people to remember about your son, Phillip Pannell?

THELMA PANNELL-DANTZLER: Remember that he always was friendly. He just wanted to play around, joke around. He never liked to be bitter or argue. He didn’t like to fight. He didn’t like to see anybody arguing between each other. He always tried to sooth, cool them down. He always tried to say, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that.” He loved. He loved his peers. He loved them. And he was a kindhearted young man. He never disobeyed me. He always did what I say do. And if he didn’t do it, I didn’t know about it. He always gave me respect.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mrs. Thelma Pannell-Dantzler, mother of Phillip Pannell, and Natacha Pannell, the sister of Phillip, and Dani Goffstein, the former Teaneck resident who made a film about Pannell’s life, Phillip Pannell’s life and death. We thank you all for being with us. The MSNBC docuseries is called Model America, airing on Sunday nights.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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

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