On a Tuesday afternoon in September, Shafiq Abdussabur stands transfixed by one image on the wall of his office. It’s a hazy photograph of six boys playing tug-of-war, their smiles wide, their eyes focused on victory.
“We lost him,” Abdussabur says, pointing to the boy leading the pack. “He was killed two years after this photo was taken. And him, too,” he adds, pointing to another boy. Abdussabur’s own son, now 18, is also in the photo, standing near the others. “I wish I could have saved every kid. I saved the ones that I could.”
Abdussabur proceeds to dig into boxes on the floor and pull out old issues of the New Haven Register. They date from 2007 to 2009, and all of them tell stories of shootings. One of the articles is about Abdussabur’s cousin. She was shot and killed just two blocks from his office on Ashmun Street. In Abdussabur’s city, violence is personal.
The tug-of-war photo was taken on a camping trip with CTRibat, a violence prevention program for youths aged 8 to 14 that Abdussabur founded in 2006. “Ribat” means “retreat” in Arabic; the program’s name stands for “Children and Teen Retreat.” The program is dedicated to building boys’ confidence and self-respect, to help them deal with the challenges of life in an urban setting without becoming involved in guns, gangs, or drugs.
CTRibat is just one of the many social programs Abdussabur has implemented during his career. He is a Dixwell beat cop, spending his days walking around the neighborhood and getting to know its residents. In his off hours, he works on solutions to the problems he sees every day in the streets.
Abdussabur now lives in Beaver Hills, a New Haven neighborhood west of Dixwell, with his wife, Mubarakah Ibrahim, who is a personal trainer, and their four children. He was born in 1967, when his mother was 15 years old. Abdussabur grew up “like an outdoors kid,” growing up on his grandparents’ farm in West Haven, he says. At the time, long before his conversion from Baptist Christianity to Islam, he went by the name Thomas Fulcher Johnson. He spent a lot of time with his grandparents while his mother worked as a teacher’s aide. Wiggling his shoulders and sitting up in his chair with pristine posture, he says his grandmother always carried herself like “an aristocrat,” even though she didn’t finish eighth grade. Abdussabur spent childhood mornings with her, drinking coffee from fine china mugs and reciting his prayers.
When Abdussabur was just 5 years old, his mother brought him to a Black Panther rally on the New Haven Green. The police were there, “Ferguson-style,” he recalls. Abdussabur considers his mother’s participation in activism as his “blueprint for social justice work.”
At his elementary school, Helene Grant School, fights broke out frequently. He wanted to be able to focus on learning without worrying about his safety, so he left after fourth grade and enrolled in Saint Aedan’s, a Catholic school. He was one of only two black students, and he recalls an incident in sixth grade when a student reading aloud from the textbook read the word “Negro.” Abdussabur raised his hand to correct him.
“Now, it’s colored, not Negro,” Abdussabur said.
The teacher shushed him, but Abdussabur continued to shout out “colored” each time he heard “Negro.” Eventually, his teacher kicked him out of the classroom.
Abdussabur scowls as he impersonates her, “You’re a disgrace to your race! Martin Luther King Jr. would be rolling in his grave!”
The memory stings, and he pauses for a moment. Then his liveliness returns, and he chuckles, “I think I might have spent all of sixth grade in the hall!”
Abdussabur thrived at Notre Dame, a private, Catholic, high school in West Haven where he ran track, studied painting, and conducted the school orchestra. Most of his peers were white, but “at Notre Dame, you were a Notre Dame Knight first and foremost,” he says. “They made no distinction between black and white. They only cared about the green and yellow.”
Abdussabur maintained friendships with both black and white students all through high school. He recalls how he once went fishing with a white friend from Notre Dame. On the boat, they ate ravioli out of a can and drank blackberry brandy. Meanwhile, few of his black friends were making it beyond the city limits. These different experiences, he said, made him “culturally limitless.” He was learning how to connect with people, regardless of their class or race, which would serve him well on the streets of Dixwell.
After winning a Congressional art award for one of his acrylic paintings, Abdussabur was offered a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design. He chose instead to accept a track scholarship at the University of West Georgia. His stepfather had developed a drinking problem, and he was ready to get away from home.
At the University of West Georgia, Abdussabur led a successful campaign to convince the university to divest from South Africa to protest apartheid. He also served as head of the Black Student Alliance. But Abdussabur recalls a staggeringly high dropout rate among black students after freshman year.
The university’s dean quickly became acquainted with Abdussabur, who was known for stirring up trouble with his activism. In his junior year, his scholarship funds disappeared due to issues with the paperwork, he said, forcing him to leave.
After leaving West Georgia, he used his last $300 to start Boldminds, an art and literature publishing company still in existence today. They also produced wooden medallions bearing nationalist African images such as Nefertiti heads and portraits of Nelson Mandela. Within three years, he had sold over 10,000 medallions. He saw the objects as something that “people could hold onto and talk about and discuss,” prompting new conversations.
Abdussabur returned to New Haven early in 1991, only to find it devastated by the crack epidemic. He was shocked by how much the city had changed. “It was like a nuclear narcotic zone,” he says. He observed disturbing police brutality at the time, which motivated him to form the Civilian Review Board to monitor the policy department.
The then-police chief Nicholas Pastore was looking to restructure the department and recruit more community policemen. He asked Abdussabur if he was interested in becoming a cop. Abdussabur said yes, and with that, he joined the ranks of the very institution that so frustrated him. “I put on armor to help our community recover,” he says.
In his first year as a police officer, he participated in the Yale Child Study Officer Fellowship program. He and the other participants would meet with Yale clinicians to address traumatic exposure to violence in children and families. After Abdussabur had spoken in a meeting, a white Yale clinician commented, “Wow! You’re amazingly articulate!” Though she intended it as a compliment, Abdussabur was insulted and shocked. “Being black and successful in America should not be a surprise to anybody,” he says. He calls that kind of “cultural disconnect” an “invisible barrier” between communities, one of many that he encounters. But he doesn’t let these things stand in his way. “Because I refused to recognize those invisible barriers, I didn’t create my own barriers.”
Of the fifty-five male students in CTRibat’s 2006 summer pilot program, approximately ninety-five percent resided in Dixwell. Seventy-one percent lived in a single parent family, and nearly three-fourths lived in households where the total yearly income was under $25,000.
Abdussabur explains that about ninety percent of the African-American males who die by gun violence are shot within three blocks of where they grew up or where they live. These teenagers live in small worlds. Gang boundaries, police violence, probation measures, security concerns, and social status confine their movement. Just venturing beyond the block can be dangerous. So he takes them on trips outside of the city. Abdussabur raises his arms up over his head in a sweeping gesture and booms, “Camping takes you out!”
But then he gets serious and puts his hands in his lap. “There are so many nice places in New Haven for young people to experience,” he adds. “It’s a tragedy that so many African-American young men in the city only get to experience the dark side of New Haven.” Abdussabur ensures that his own children participate in these programs, too. He tells them, “You’re not better than these kids, you’re just better off.”
In addition to camping, CTRibat participants do artwork, go to the movies, and talk about anything and everything, from racial profiling to how they’re doing in school. By exposing them to different types of activities, Abdussabur says, the program provides alternatives to violence. In 2005, Abdussabur also founded New Haven Guardians, a fraternal organization of Elm City African-American officers who host activities with CTRibat.
One goal guides Abdussabur’s work. “I aim to reduce the sea of agitation between law enforcement and the urban community and use anxiety reduction to empower that community,” Abdussabur says, his voice rising. “Right now, young black males feel oppressed, not empowered. No one is walking you through what to do when the police stop you. That’s not empowerment. That’s a set-up. That’s dangerous.”
In the first half of 2014, seven homicides and thirty non-fatal shootings were reported in New Haven. In just two and a half weeks between Aug. 1 and Aug. 18, 2014, there were four reported homicides and five non-fatal shootings. Almost all of the victims were people of color.
As both a resident of the city and a policeman entrusted to keep the city safe, Abdussabur seeks to address these racial conflicts by bridging the gap between the community and the police department. Doug Bethea, a community activists, and founder of the Nation Drill and Drum Squad Corps, a youth mentoring program that teaches kids discipline through percussion music, first met Abdussabur fifteen years ago. Abdussabur, Bethea says, was always looking for ways to engage the community.
“Shafiq is the perfect model for [community policing], plain and simple.” Bethea said. He thinks that other officers in the force have learned from Abdussabur to overcome the tension and mistrust that exists between officers and residents. Even simple things—like buying a kid a pair of shoes, hosting a Christmas party, or helping someone with a job search—can have a big impact. Bethea, who dealt with the death of his own son by gun violence, says, “I know his kids, he knows my kids… he was working for me, speaking up for me.”
As his career progressed, Abdussabur turned to writing to share his insights and knowledge with a larger audience. His 2009 book, A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America, recounts multiple instances of police shootings and arrests involving unarmed black males. It also offers practical advice about avoiding run-ins with the criminal justice system.
Many incidents of police violence, he writes, occur because of “an officer’s inability to identify, understand, and effectively communicate with a specific population (commonly Black) within the urban sectors of the United States.”
This communication difficulty stems in part from stereotypes that police officers have of black men and that black men reinforce.
“Not only are you driving the car smoking weed, but you’re blasting music, you have a funky attitude, and then when the police do pull you over, you wanna go into a whole debate,” Abdussabur said. “That behavior feeds into the stereotype that sets you up for the profile of a criminal. Now I’m not saying that I agree with that profile. But it is the profile that is currently being fed to law enforcement.”
He said that police officers get most of their training on the job. So when young black men behave poorly with police, they are training police to believe that they are causing trouble.
“Don’t give the police ammunition,” he laughs. “They’ve got enough!”
The book also offers guidance for those already charged with an offense. “Wear a lot of deodorant [in court] because you will probably be nervous… Do not wear gold fronts (gold teeth inserts)… the more conservative your hair style, the better,” he writes. “They don’t deal with you based on what you know; they deal with you based on what they know.” It’s the black male’s job, he says, to avoid projecting an image that aligns with the jury’s racialized conceptions—a misunderstanding that often ends with a guilty verdict.
His philosophy can be controversial. “Some black politicians in general have not agreed with my approach to addressing racial profiling by placing some of the ownership on the black community,” he concedes. Abdussabur admits that his solutions are most often embraced by white suburbanites, African-American women, and African-American men 35 years or older. But for his target audience—young black males—this issue is subject to debate.
Some of Abdussabur’s colleagues also disagree with his no-excuses approach. Barbara Fair, a good friend of Abdussabur and a grassroots advocate for criminal justice and prison reform, mentions an incident between her daughter and a New Haven policeman. As her daughter was driving to class at Gateway Community College, the policeman approached her without reason. Worried about being late to class, she threw her hands up in frustration. The policeman asked her if she had a problem, to which she replied, “No, do you have a problem?” He grabbed the handle of her car door, which, she said, was, thankfully, locked.
“Shafiq might have told her ‘don’t say nothing,’” Fair laughs. “But I don’t have that mentality. I don’t feel obligated to respect the man in blue if he doesn’t respect me back.”
Preventing these incidents from happening in the first place, Abdussabur emphasizes, is ideal. “Before the disaster happens, what can we do?” he asks.
But now, eighteen months away from retirement, Abdussabur said that family and school are at the center of his life. Abdussabur is currently finishing his degree at Charter Oak State College in New Britain. He also plans to do more writing and consulting that will address racial profiling.
Despite the success of Abdussabur’s programs, New Haven and the rest of the country have a long way to go. Ferguson, he says, was a wake-up call.
He shuffles some paper on the desk and looks me straight in the eye. “We’re procrastinating, and we’ve got work to do.”
Alexandra Golden is a sophomore in Trumbull College.