African-American Men Stood Strong in Savannah on World AIDS Day 2011

I’ve been attending World AIDS Day events for years now to promote my book “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan.” My reception today was exceptional. As hundreds of Savannah residents stopped by Forsyth Park in historic Savannah to get tested, I overheard a telephone conversation that demonstrated to me that HIV/AIDS activists are making headway in this town.
“Hey Baby, I just wanted you to know that I’m in the park waiting to get tested for HIV,” the middle-aged man said over his telephone. “I wanted you to know that I’m safe.”
I was floored by what I’d heard. This guy loved his woman, I thought. I stopped to tell him how beautiful I thought he was that he loved himself and his woman enough to get tested.
He shared with me that he did it for selfish reasons. He had dated another woman who had full-blown AIDS and his test results were negative. He was so grateful that he committed to staying HIV negative.
“Wow,” was the only thing I could say. He had tears in his eyes.
Other men and women today demonstrated phenomenal strength as they entered the orange neon tents to obtain their test results.
Hours later, scores gathered as members of the Chatham County Health Department and the Georgia AIDS Coalition partners burned candles in remembrance of those we have lost. I picked up my bags and headed to a social downtown sponsored by the Savannah Chapter of the 100 Black Men and its collegiate chapters at Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State University. These groups represent a new generation of folks who also want to end the surge of HIV infections in Savannah, which ranks No. two in the state of Georgia. They stood strong on the promise that together these men and women can and will curb the rate of new infections. Thanks for supporting Crooked Road Straight and for standing strong.

Today is World AIDS Day 2010

By Tina A. Brown

Today is World AIDS Day 2010.

Many of us aligned ourselves with the HIV prevention movement because we’ve loss a loved one.

Annually, we attend candle light vigils and try to spread the word that if you’ve witnessed this disease first hand you don’t want anyone else to suffer.

I realized last year, one of the few times over the past 30 years that I’ve been at home during the holiday season, that I’ve been too busy to celebrate the lives of HIV positive men and women who had stood on the front lines.

I’m not HIV positive. I stood in the gap by writing and publishing “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan,” a book about a champion of the movement. I’ve spoken to thousands about her efforts to save lives and created the Patches of Healing art project to encourage grieving families to celebrate their loved ones years later.

I asked myself what else could I do to celebrate World AIDS Day 2010?

I hope you’ve also asked yourselves the same question.

I resolved to do something for me to remember others by decorating my holiday tree with red ribbons for Christmas.

It’s become my small way to say as a member of the world community that we must always remember those on the front lines by encouraging others to celebrate life.

AIDS won’t go away until we cherish our memories.

I encourage you and yours to be safe and to get tested on World AIDS Day.

Mostly, I urge you to remember your loved ones.

Join the Red Ribbon Campaign.

Tina A. Brown is an independent journalist, lecturer and media consultant based in Savannah, Ga.

Defense witnesses cite fear in the Troy Anthony Davis evidence hearing. Veteran Savannah police say they never threatened witnesses.

By Tina A. Brown
SAVANNAH _After years of public silence witnesses, who recanted court testimony and statements to police that they’d witnessed Troy Anthony Davis fatally shoot Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail in 1989, testified Wednesday that they’d fingered Davis because they feared local police.

The defense witnesses some of whom had admitted criminal histories and spoke so softly that U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. ordered them to speak up; told a courtroom full of MacPhail and Davis supporters that they had not told the truth during Davis’ murder trial and in sworn affidavits. Their collective testimonies helped Chatham County prosecute Davis, who was sentenced by a jury to death in 1991. Davis’ sentence of execution has been stayed three times.

Conversely, the prosecution witnesses, mostly Savannah-Chatham Metro Police detectives, also testified Wednesday. They said repeatedly that they had not threatened the Davis witnesses or forced them to say they had witnessed Davis shoot MacPhail; or heard him brag about it later.

Their recantations led to a historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last year to return the case to the local jurisdiction for Wednesday’s evidentiary hearing. The unprecedented case has prominent onlookers, such as Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International, predicting that the outcome of the hearing might change the way U.S. courts weigh eyewitness testimony. No weapons were confiscated by police
in the Davis case. DNA evidence has not been introduced to the court linking Davis to the incident.

The hearing resumes today at 9:30 a.m. at the Tomochichi federal courthouse on Wright Square in
Savannah. Attorney Stephen Marsh leads the defense team. Assistant Georgia Attorney General Beth Burton is in charge of the prosecution.

Defense witness Antoine Williams was a limo driver at the time of the murder. He testified that he doesn’t know who shot MacPhail. He recalled in open court that he was sitting in his vehicle, which had triple-tinted windows, when he heard the shooting in a downtown Savannah parking lot.
“I was ducking peeking,” he said, adding that he could not identify the person who killed MacPhail.

Immediately after the fatal shooting in August 1989, Williams said he moved to New York. He said when
asked by Savannah police what he had witnessed, he testified that he told authorities, “I wasn’t sure who
the gentleman was who shot.”

Questioned why he had signed statements that Davis was the shooter, Williams said, “I can’t read or spell.”

At Davis trial, he said he identified Davis as the shooter; because authorities “had told me when I come in
(the courtroom), they wanted me to point out Davis. ..I remembered the officer getting shot, I had nightmares
about it.”

Kevin McQueen, another witness, said he initially testified against Davis to settle a score after the two men had
a confrontation in the Chatham County jail. “He got the best of me. I was mad at him.’’

McQueen said he lied to police when he told them that Davis had confessed to him. “There’s no truth to
those statements,’’ he said. In exchange for his testimony, McQueen said he received a lighter sentence
after being convicted of robbery.

Asked why he changed his story. “What did you expect to gain?”

“Peace of mind, I guess,’’ McQueen replied.

Jeffrey Sapp, an admitted narcotics dealer and friend of Davis, testified that he learned of the MacPhail
shooting when throngs of police officers came into his neighborhood to investigate the fatal shooting.

“I was scared. I told them I didn’t know nothing. It was 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning.’’ He said the officers
told him he had to come down to the police station for questioning. He said four or five
police officers surrounded him during the interview. “They were so emotional, upset
and angry,’’ and he told them to say Davis had confessed to him. ..

“I was so scared. I’d tell them anything they wanted to hear. .. They told me what happened. ..I wasn’t anywhere near the scene. They was in my face. They had bad breath. I just wanted to sign (the statement) and go.’’

Darrell Collins was 16-years-old at the time of the murder. He said he was with Davis and Sylvester “Red”
Coles, another man who other witnesses say initiated the confrontation with a man over an alcoholic
beverage outside a city pool hall when the trio had been playing pool.. Collins testified that he and Davis
were being “nosy” when they followed Coles and Larry Young who got into a “heated,’’ “loud,’’
argument. Collins testified that he heard Coles tell the man, “give me a beer, (expletive). You don’t know me
I’ll (expletive) smoke you. The man was scared and tried to get away.”

Prior to the confrontation, Collins testified that Coles had a gun, which Collins testified that he removed
from a car and hid behind a building.
Collins said he saw the police officer MacPhail come around the building and “I ran off.” He said he did
not see the shooting.
Collins testified that he lied against Davis because the police said they charge him with being an accessory
to murder. The investigating officers, he said, “got real mad.”

“I told them it was Red not Troy,’’ Collins testified, adding he changed his story during his interview with
police. “I was scared. That’s what they wanted me to say.’’

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, the Davis defense team concluded its witness testimony. The prosecution
called several police department detectives to rebut the previous testimony. The officers to the witness told
vastly different stories about how they obtained the eyewitnesses statements
and trial testimony.

Lt. Carl Ramey testified that Sapp volunteered a statement against Davis during the Davis investigation.
Ramey testified that Sapp flagged down his vehicle and said, “Y’all here because of Troy.’’

Ramey said he had didn’t know Sapp. He said Sapp told him that Craig Young talked to Davis who told him about the murder. He said he
never yelled at Sapp during the police interview and he didn’t tell him what to say. Ramey said Sapp volunteered other witnesses and his
statement was documented by a stenographer.

Sgt. John Wichcomb testified that he interviewed Antoine Williams during the homicide investigation.
He said he never coerced his testimony or threatened him.

Tina A. Brown is a freelance veteran journalist based in Savannah.

U.S. Supreme Court sends Troy Anthony Davis Case back to Savannah: Reporting both sides

By Tina A. Brown

SAVANNAH _ Passions ran high Tuesday as supporters of slain Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail Sr. and Troy Anthony Davis, who sits on death row for MacPhail’s murder, called for justice on the eve of a historic evidentiary hearing in federal court.

U.S. District Judge William T. Moore Jr. will hear evidence starting today at 10 a.m. whether there is enough new evidence for Davis, convicted 19 years ago, to get a new trial. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to Savannah last year after it reviewed evidence that seven of nine witnesses against Davis recanted testimony. Davis’ execution has been stayed three times.

The case will be heard at the Tomochichi federal courthouse on Wright Square in Savannah.

Activists and family members rallied separately around the question of justice.

About 50 supporters of the MacPhail family and Georgians for Justice, a non-profit group, stood with the slain officer’s sister and children outside of the city’s police memorial. Willie Lovett, the first African-American police chief of the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department, was the first speaker at the MacPhail rally to call for a resolution to the case. MacPhail son, Mark Allen MacPhail Jr. urged the community not to allow the case to be overturned.

“Let them come! Let them beat their chest. Let them scream their lies,’’ the son of the slain officer said.

“People in the community and courts need to stand up and do the right thing,” added Aulmon Giles, president of the local fraternal Order of Police.

MacPhail’s sister, Kathy MacPhail McQuary said that representatives of Amnesty International and the National Association of the Advancement of Color People who are seeking a retrial, improperly introduced race into the issue.

“Yes, The NAACP is about color but this is not as a racial thing… It was (an officer in) blue who sacrificed his live. What is the victim’s name? It’s definitely not Troy Anthony Davis. The heroes color is definitely blue. He died during right,” said McQuary of Columbus, Ga.

MacPhail was working as an off-duty security guard at the Burger King in Savannah when he intervened during a robbery in 1989 and was killed. Davis was sentenced to death in 1991.

Laura Moye of Amnesty International said the organizers of the Davis supporters’ galvanized people from around the world because Davis hasn’t received a fair hearing. MacPhail was white and Davis is black.

“We can’t deny race is a factor… This isn’t MacPhail vs. Davis… If Troy Davis is not the person who committed this murder then the person is still out there. There is a racial dynamic. To say it’s only about a police officer not receiving justice is not the whole story. They both haven’t received justice,” Moye said.

Davis’ sister Martina Correira, who spearheaded his worldwide public awareness campaign, was joined by Davis mother, Virginia, and about 200 supporters at another rally at New Life Apostolic Church in Savannah. They called for prayers for both families. Some of the most prominent attendees included, Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty International, Edward O. Dubose of the Georgia state chapter of the NAACP and Richard Shinhoster of the Savannah chapter.

“We’re optimistic we believe,’’ Correira said. “A lot of things you see and hear are not factual but inflammatory. There are thousands of people in this situation because of their class and situation. We have to stop killing people until we have justice for all. … People would not stand for someone if they thought he was a cop killer.’’

Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta grew up in a Savannah housing project. He said the Davis case has become “a colossal battle to the soul of a nation…’’ He said the case has brought together international leaders who don’t normally agree, including, former FBI Director and judge William Sessions, U.S. Congressman John Lewis, Pope Benedict XVI, and Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.

Cox of Amnesty International offered these fiery remarks.

“Since I’m in this holy place… I’ve confess. I do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. We know we have come a long away. … It’s never going to be over until Troy Davis is speaking from this pulpit… The media likes to divide us into camps. ..How can you be for justice for one and not the others? We also want justice…Locking up the wrong man is not justice,” Cox said.

Tina A. Brown is a freelance journalist based in Savannah

I’m not HIV Positive but I finally get it. I know now why silence is burying our communities.

It’s been two years since I published “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan.”
I’d be lying if I said my life got easier during this journey. I’ve always empathized with families struggling with this issue. I didn’t realize how difficult it was for survivors until last weekend.
I encountered some college educated men who literally turned their backs on me for hours at a health fair. They treated me as if this cause was infectious.
I’m not HIV positive. But I finally got it. This is why the silence is burying our communities. People shut down when they are treated this way.
Thank God for the hundreds of others who stopped by my table to say hello and to shared their stories.
But the folks who shunned me left a bruise.
That mark made me grateful that I was working on a makeover of http://www.crookedroadstraight.com with a extremely talented web designer. Those guys fueled a new determination and fight inside of me.
I won’t stop spreading the word about why America needs to embrace our issues that put us at risk for HIV infection.
Today is a good day to spread the word about “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan.” If you’ve read it, share it. Order it at your local libraries and bookstores for those you love.
Let’s take Crooked Road Straight viral. It’s a story about life not death. Check out the previews at http://www.crookedroadstraight.com.

I wrote this book years ago. But Today’s Headlines about spikes in HIV infections prove that “Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan” remains relevant today.

Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan
By Tina A. Brown

The Prologue
AIDS didn’t become important to me until somebody I knew died.

I imagine that is also the case for most people in the U.S. Even now it has been easy for most of us to put our thoughts about HIV/AIDS behind us because of the way the disease was introduced into our society. We were told in the mid-1980s that it was an infectious disease killing gay White men, Haitians and intravenous drug users. I didn’t know anyone who fit those categories. I had read in school about epidemics throughout history and I never expected to experience this sort of pandemic in my lifetime in such a personal way.

I was a rookie reporter when I heard about AIDS for the first time. The TV broadcaster described it as a mysterious disease that was rapidly taking the lives of mostly White gay men in New York and San Francisco. The news report sparked my curiosity. But I didn’t think much else about how AIDS would affect me personally until 1986, when one of my colleagues at the Macon Telegraph in Georgia died suddenly.

I was just getting to know this quiet, smart and young Black man who worked as a copy editor. Now, he was dead. Though I had volunteered, I hated writing his obituary. I knew so little about this guy’s personal life. The word AIDS never appeared in his news obituary. As far as the public was concerned, my colleague died of a sudden illness, a popular buzz phrase coined when young people, mostly men, died of complications related to AIDS or the human immunodeficiency virus that causes the disease. The funeral home directors whispered AIDS as the cause of death to very few people.

His death was unsettling. It became apparent to me that this disease would not just strike White gay men in their prime. I realized then that AIDS might become a silent killer in Black America. Despite the statistics made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, there was very little visual evidence that Black Americans were contracting HIV. I pushed my concern into the back of mind.
By 1988, I was trying to advance my career. I was one of seven journalists selected to go to California to develop my skills at the Summer Program of Minority Journalists — now The Maynard Institute — at the University of California at Berkeley. On assignment, I was asked to write about the return of the AIDS Memorial quilt to the Castro District in San Francisco, at the time the epicenter of the AIDS movement in the U.S. The event was one of the most emotional stories I had written. The quilt had traveled across the U.S. and was displayed at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., before arriving in San Francisco. The mayor of San Francisco and other public officials cried as the thousands of AIDS memorial quilt panels were unfolded for miles down a city street.

This disease was real, I thought. I had never seen so many people so emotionally affected by one event. Yet as I looked closer at the quilts being paraded down the street, I noticed that there were very few photographs of Black faces, particularly of women, on display.
I was touched and felt sympathetic about those affected by the AIDS virus, but I felt safe as a heterosexual Black woman. My feelings about my personal safety changed five years later when the CDC announced that heterosexual Black women would be the next wave of people infected by the virus in the Northeast U.S. I fit that demographic. I wondered quietly whether I could become one of those statistics.

That feeling stayed with me when I left my reporting job at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey for a new reporting position in Hartford, Conn. I promised myself once I got settled that I would write a story about how the Black community was responding to HIV/AIDS in Connecticut, especially since so many people in Hartford were infected. I asked my editors: What were the traditional Black institutions, especially the churches doing to help people cope with the disease?
I set out to do that story in 1994. Though still in my early 30s, I was naive. My knowledge about the streets and issues associated with poverty were limited. I didn’t grow up in the slums. I had never interviewed sex workers or intravenous drug users, people health officials said were also spreading the virus. I admit now that those people scared me because I had seen too many movies.

As the daughter of African Methodist Episcopal ministers, I took the safe approach to the story and called church leaders first in cities that dotted Connecticut. To my dismay, they did not return my calls. Since I was working on the special assignment, I didn’t have time to wait by the telephone. I ventured out into community-based organizations, such as the Urban League and health departments in Hartford, New Britain, New Haven and Bridgeport to talk to the professionals who were serving the “at risk” populations.

Within a month, I was walking the streets or getting connected with outreach workers like Buster Jenkins and Mark Little in Hartford. Two church mothers Gladys Pennington and Elsie Cofield helped to direct my path through New Britain and New Haven. They connected me with Black and Latino women who told me their life stories, but were unwilling to allow me to use their full names or to have their faces photographed for a newspaper story. Having the virus was a secret to many of their families; they didn’t want to reveal their HIV status in The Hartford Courant. But so many of them and the outreach workers who distributed condoms, clean needles and bleach kits saw my frustration and asked me if I had met Linda Jordan, who was quickly becoming an icon in AIDS prevention communities across Connecticut.

I called her and she invited me over to her house in West Hartford, a suburb of Hartford. My first interview lasted about five hours. She told me that she was a recovering heroin addict who was volunteering with seven different AIDS organizations in Connecticut. That work earned her the Mary Fisher Foundation’s National Outstanding Caregiver Award in 1993.

Linda showed me the posters that she and her daughters and grandson had taken for a public awareness campaign for the Connecticut Department of Revenue and the Concerned Citizens for Humanity. Her family is believed to be one of the first African-American families in the U.S. to put a human face on the disease. The posters are still circulating the globe.

Linda was so open about her story that it struck me as odd that this woman who had experienced a lifetime of repeated tragedies wasn’t keeping it a secret. She didn’t believe in having skeletons. She shared her HIV status and the status of her oldest daughter Tanya and her husband, Alvin, who was in prison at the time. I wasn’t prepared to hear all of what she had to share in 1994.
My limited street smarts were obvious. It showed in my facial expressions, Linda laughed when we talked about it years later. Yet she trusted that I could learn enough to write her story. At the time, I was too far removed from the life she had led to understand her resilience. She had been molested, abused and raped before she was 10 years old. She had used heroin by the time she was 18, had married and divorced her childhood sweetheart twice. She stayed with him and bore his children, even though he spent most of their relationship in prison. She allowed me to hang around, attend her family functions and her speaking engagements so that I could learn more.
My story for the Courant, “Fighting AIDS with Resilience: Sense of Unity Blacks Confront Epidemic,” captured only small fragments of Linda Jordan’s life story. I felt unfilled after it was published in October 1994 and I went back to my regular beat covering a predominantly White upper middle-class community outside of Hartford.

About six months after the story was published, I was in Puerto Rico for vacation. The ocean has always been a place for clarity for me. I remember sitting on a rock on a beach one day. I felt like I had made the wrong decision by moving to Connecticut. I asked God why he had sent me here. What was I supposed to do in Hartford? I left there thinking that once I returned to Hartford, I had to continue my work reporting about Linda Jordan. I owed her much more as a journalist.

I want to write your book, I told her over the telephone.
When do we start? she responded.

For the next five years, I went to Linda’s house on Maplewood Avenue in West Hartford regularly before I went to work at the Courant. I’m not a morning person, so she made sure that I had coffee and she drank tea. I also brought her my copy of the daily newspaper, and was always struck that she was always most interested in the obituary page. She read it and recounted the people that she knew had died of AIDS, had overdosed on heroin or died of other premature deaths because of their lifestyles.

It became clear to me that my premonition back in the early 1980s that Black American women would have to wake up and respond to this disease became clear and present. Like in the early days, very few if any of the obituaries cited the true causes of death when someone died of AIDS. So many people were dying in secret and ashamed. But here I was sitting at Linda Jordan’s kitchen table amazed that she didn’t look sick. She was very much alive. She was not afraid to reveal her HIV status and the diagnosis of her husband and her oldest daughter. She strongly believed if the HIV/AIDS community stopped hiding their status, more people would accept that the disease was claiming so many others and leaving their families to cope in secret. She told her story to anyone who would listen, hoping and praying that it would be the catalyst for other women who had gone down her crooked path to change their lifestyles.

Over time, my assignment at the Courant changed. In 1998, I started writing about crime, courts and social trends in Hartford, one of the poorest cities in the nation. My time in Hartford was not wasted as I became able to write Linda’s story with authority. I was here to see the housing projects where Linda grew up before the federal government tore them down. I witnessed the rise of the AIDS epidemic among intravenous drug community in this city and others. I saw how welfare reform changed the life of a third-generation welfare recipient who moved into the world of work not just as an AIDS outreach worker, but as a factory worker once the monthly stipends that she received for most of her life dried up.

Linda’s story is about living with AIDS. Her spiritual development and belief in God once she forced her way into drug treatment taught her that she could live without the medications that so many people depend upon today. Her unfilled wish was that all religious leaders, especially those in the Black church, would stand and help those who had the virus who were lost and forgotten. She believed that God saved her from killing herself and AIDS was just something she had to live with. She used her life story to show others that change is possible.

This story affirmed my reasons for becoming a journalist 23 years ago. I chose this profession to tell stories about the people in our society who are largely ignored by the general public. Fortunately, my mission has placed me in unfamiliar situations and enabled me to grow up and reach inside myself to find a common ground with most of the people I’ve interviewed.

“Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan” was written so that people of all races, ages, class and generations could inspect their lives, their past sins and troubles and come to grips with things that hurt them. Linda had to forgive a lot of people because she knew that God had forgiven her. Hers is a story about choosing life despite the odds.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in Linda’s story. She accepted the roots of her pain that led to her addictions. Once she accepted her faults, she learned to live.
This book is a dream come true for both of us.

Is HIV/AIDS prevention worth fighting for?

I’ve never like to argue. But I had a disturbing conversation recently with a student that got under my skin.

This college senior was adamant in his belief that African-Americans are not disproportionately infected with the HIV virus.

He suggested the white community often wealthier is able to hide its rate of infection. They have health insurance, he said. They are conspiring with their private physicians to keep their rate of HIV infection out of the public eye so African-Americans will look bad.
Was he serious?
I was dumbfounded by this uninformed conspiracy theory. He said the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African-American community was overblown. A myth, he said.

The numbers don’t lie, I argued. One new HIV infection is too many. We should fight together to stop the virus worldwide until it is eradicated.
People are dying, I argued. Have you seen anyone dying of AIDS? The disease takes you out, organ by organ. If you’d witnessed this as I have you’ll be on the front lines too.

As we mark another anniversary to make our women and girls aware of the risks they face: we can no longer wallow in this kind of ignorance. If you doubt the facts, visit an AIDS ward, get involved and check the statistics.

The virus won’t stop spreading until we do something together. Let’s base our opinions about HIV/AIDS upon facts.
Tina A. Brown is the author of Crooked Road Straight: The Awakening of AIDS Activist Linda Jordan. Buy your copy in stores today.