Thousands of people, Black and white, marched through the streets of Fort Worth in March 1993 to the courthouse. The outraged residents had one demand: Justice.
An all-white jury had issued its sentence for Christopher Brosky, a teenage skinhead who was part of a drive-by shooting that killed Donald Thomas, a Black man. Brosky had received only probation for his role in the murder of Thomas, who sat on his truck’s flatbed surrounded by friends in Arlington when he was shot.
The marches changed history. New charges were filed against Brosky, and the trial was moved to Galveston, where a jury gave him 40 years in prison.
More than 27 years later, a new trial is set to test the city again. Aaron Dean, a former Fort Worth police officer, will be in court for shooting and killing Atatiana Jefferson in her home during a late-night welfare check.
Leaders and residents are hopeful that Fort Worth can lead the nation in how to talk about race — and would like the trial and its aftermath to reflect that. However, many told the Fort Worth Report the city’s needed conversation on race is happening, but only in silos and does not involve as many residents as it needs to unify this city. This uneven approach likely leaves Fort Worth underprepared as it attempts to navigate the waters of a trial that will likely thrust the city into the national spotlight.
With the Dean trial scheduled to start in early January, Fort Worth stands at a crossroads: Will it embrace its ongoing yet limited racial reckoning dialogue and find a new way forward or will the streets look like they once did almost three decades ago with people wanting a fair trial and justice?
“It’s very possible it could happen again,” said Glenn Lewis, a Fort Worth lawyer who has served as the local NAACP chapter’s general counsel.
The Fort Worth way is a double-edged description of how business is conducted. It can mean how welcoming Fort Worth can be, or it can mean being excluded from important discussions among those who have power.
Estrus Tucker, co-founder of DEI Consultants, expects the Dean trial to throw hurdles that the Fort Worth way has never cleared.
Lewis, a lifelong NAACP member, has seen conversations about race happen before. There’s always something to get people “up in arms,” he said, and then the conversations happen, and then — nothing. The conversation just dies out.
Maybe that lack of change is simply because people don’t know what to do, he said. People know there are underserved populations mostly made up of people of color in the city, but don’t know how to give them opportunities.
Estella Williams, president of the NAACP Fort Worth Tarrant County Branch, believes the city is not having the necessary conversations about race. In fact, she hasn’t been invited to the table, she said. The NAACP, a nonpartisan civil rights organization, has a long history of talking about race, how it affects people and pushing for social justice.
These conversations on race cannot be an order from the top — they must come from individuals, Williams said. People have to embrace talking about race and all of the uncomfortableness that may arise. It’s a process that has no defined steps and must come from people wanting to change themselves to create a more equitable city, Williams said.
Fort Worth’s leaders also must lead by example. They must be open to talking candidly about race and be willing to consider working differently, Williams said. That could mean letting the NAACP facilitate conversations around criminal justice or other issues to get residents talking about how to make this a city for all rather than just the few and powerful. It also means being open to having coffee and just talking.
“A life has been taken. Several lives have been destroyed. Take a look at the big picture and handle it in the manner that can be conducive to them as well as a community,” Williams said. “That is when the healing will begin.”
‘Address the root cause’
Like Williams, United Fort Worth’s Pamela Young hasn’t seen the city make real, tangible progress on race in the two years since Jefferson’s death.
“They haven’t even begun to do what they need to do to address these issues,” she said. “They’ve done symbolic gestures. They’ve tried to give solutions to problems that weren’t there. Where are the solutions?”
One example of a symbolic gesture Young pointed to was Fort Worth’s race and culture task force. She hasn’t seen any policies introduced that would prevent another death like Jefferson’s from happening. In a situation like the one Jefferson was in, Fort Worth needed to send mental health professionals instead of police, Young said. The only way the city can do that is for more information to be collected before sending someone to an emergency call, she said.
“When tragedies like this happen, we need to address the root cause, go directly to that — don’t beat around the bush,” Young said.
Fort Worth has worked to put in place additional policies to change how it deals with race. City leaders say they have infused this conversation around race and racial equity directly into their decision-making process.
One is the hiring of Kim Neal as police monitor. Neal, whose office is separate from the police department, recommends improvements and works to prevent officer violence. Another was starting a Diversity and Inclusion Department and tapping Christina Brooks to lead it to make systemic changes inside the municipal government.
Both positions work with the city’s race and culture task force and its recommendations.
The city also has emphasized equity in its $500 million bond proposal that is expected to be on the May ballot. Officials drilled down into neighborhoods, examining he racial makeup and what their city facilities look like and what their current and future needs are.
Using mayoral platform
Mayor Mattie Parker is one of dozens of residents in a group discussing how to build a coalition for racial healing and justice. Tucker is part of it.
While pastors, business leaders and others talk about how Fort Worth should deal with race, Parker sits and intently listens.
Sometimes participants are on the same page. Other times they disagree, but that’s OK — that’s the purpose of these talks.
Tucker wants the group to craft the right narrative about healing and justice so everyone can go back to their communities and tell the right story. Young pushes for drastic, systemic change to end discrimination in Fort Worth. No matter what, though, the group wants to honor Jefferson’s legacy and see an opportunity for some good to come out of her death.
Parker views her role — especially as a white woman — as taking everything that is said and trying to shape city policy around it. On top of that, she wants to use her platform to bring additional awareness to this issue.
“Sometimes mayors need to sit down and shut up. Sometimes they need to be there,” Parker said. “You never want a mayor to make something worse or to ruin something that was organized and grassroots.”
‘More damaging more than anything else’
However, one topic that Parker and other City Council members have been vocal about is wanting to keep the Dean trial in Fort Worth. They agree Fort Worth is the best place for Dean to go to court.
The defense attorneys for Dean are working to convince Judge David Hagerman of the 297th District Court to move the case because they believe a fair trial is not possible in Fort Worth.
Councilman Cary Moon said the city has to be cognizant of the potential for that argument, and should not create an environment where the defense can make the case to move the trial.
Lewis, a lawyer for Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, believes moving the trial west to Parker County, for example, would get Dean a much more “friendly” opinion.
“It needs to remain in Fort Worth,” Parker, who also is a lawyer, said. “The change of venue could be honestly more damaging than anything else.”
Many want to see a murder conviction for Dean, but Lewis said he’s just not sure that will be easy to get.
In Texas, a murder conviction requires an element of intent, and Lewis thinks the prosecution might have a hard time proving Dean went to the house with the intent to kill Jefferson. Because of this, Lewis expects there may be a lesser conviction of manslaughter.
‘Doing what is right’
A fair trial will be the only way Fort Worth can weather the Dean proceedings, civic leaders told the Report.
“Fort Worth is considered a racist city, one where the value of persons of color is not highly thought of by some individuals,” Williams, the NAACP president, said. “Being fair — doing what is right — is my concern.”
For Young, the United Fort Worth organizer, a fair trial means a jury holding Dean accountable for his actions. However, prosecuting the former police officer and sentencing him to prison won’t cut it for her. She wants to see systemic change in how the Fort Worth Police Department operates so no one goes through what happened to Jefferson.
“If we don’t do that, then there’s no justice,” Young said.
Moon, the Fort Worth councilman seeking a Texas House seat, wants the city to respect the rule of law as the Dean trial makes its way through the courts. If the outcome or even the process do not meet the community’s needs, Moon suggested changing the law to improve the justice system.
That suggestion is what happened back in 1993 when Brosky, the skinhead part of a drive-by shooting, was sentenced. The outcry from his initial sentencing led to the state’s first hate crime law.
In the nearly 30 years since that happened, Fort Worth and politics have undergone tremendous change. Lewis, a former state legislator, wants his home to avoid a repeat of the Brosky trial.
“The system of justice is supposed to work irrespective of the politics involved,” he said. “Everybody is supposed to get the same brand of justice.”
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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