Think of Calvin
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In Kelly Amis’ new documentary “Think of Calvin,” viewers get a first-hand look at how racial profiling affects a family.
Parents are natural protectors. When tested, their territorial instincts usually kick in. On May 17, 2013, Calvin Davis and Carlet Harris were put to the test when police followed their then-15-year-old son Montae riding his grandmother's adult tricycle around her neighborhood in Washington, D.C. One officer openly complained that the confrontation happened because of a lack of respect from the community. From the family’s perspective though, the situation that unfolded was undoubtedly a case of racial profiling. But without Carlet’s sister capturing the turmoil on her smartphone—footage that became the basis for the film “Think of Calvin”—this situation would have been an unresolved case of he said/she said.
Saybrook Presidential Fellow Kelly Amis—who founded Loudspeaker Films and is a family friend of Calvin and Carlet—refused to let this story go untold. Utilizing her background as a documentarian and social justice advocate, she spent nearly three years researching the case and editing the film to ensure it would tell the story clearly and factually, while also providing a close, personal look at how racial profiling affected an entire family.
What will it take to improve relations between certain communities and law enforcement? Does this type of incident permanently scar the innocence of children? And, as citizens and bystanders, what roles can we play in changing the tide?
We sat for down for a dialogue with Calvin, Carlet, and Kelly to discuss the impact of the film on the family, the community, and society at large.
Saybrook: Thank you all so much for speaking with us today. Calvin, watching this film, the way you interacted with the police officers was so telling to us. We can imagine that you’ve probably had conversations with your sons about how to conduct themselves around police in order to stay safe. Can you explain what was going through your mind in that moment wanting to protect your son but also knowing that you had to stay within certain boundaries?
I lost count of how many times I’ve been stopped; that’s the norm.
Calvin: Growing up in D.C., there’s certain neighborhoods where the police just hang around for nothing, in my opinion. I lost count of how many times I’ve been stopped; that’s the norm. The police harass you. They pull you over. You just be quiet. If they’re nice enough or if you’re nice enough, hopefully they’ll let you go. If not …
Carlet: It’s either a ticket or being arrested.
Calvin: Yes, when you’re growing up as a minority, the interactions with the police are never positive, even though eight times out of 10 you haven’t done anything wrong. And the law always backs the police. So I just wanted to give the officer his space. I was trying to give him my side of the story and tell him what happened. But the officer wasn’t listening. It’s hard just thinking back on it now.
Kelly Amis: When the officer called for backup, you see all those cars show up and a paddy wagon.
Calvin: Yeah, there had to be about maybe 20 or 30 police officers. My mother-in-law’s backyard and the whole alley were full of police and police cars. I told one of the officers that I didn’t think we were getting off to a great start. The tone of our conversation was escalating. I asked if I could speak with the commanding officer. When the commanding officer got there, he never once said anything to me. His first words were to the officer that I was having words with. The first thing he said was: “Who do you want to lock up?” The officer that I was having the discussion with pointed to me: “Him, right there in the scrubs.”
Saybrook: So there was no benefit of the doubt?
Kelly: It’s just so unbelievable because I know Calvin. This experience and how it unfolds afterward too was really soul-crushing for him, as you can imagine. Also, a ton of people were outside. It’s a Friday night. And whenever I look at that video, I just see all those little kids, a lot of them on bikes, too. They’re just watching Calvin—the guy who works at Children’s Hospital and is still in his scrubs—being arrested in front of them. And he did nothing but talk.
Saybrook: The video footage taken that night was obviously such an important part of this story. As someone who wasn’t there, Kelly, what was your reaction when you saw the footage?
Kelly: My first reaction was that Calvin is the last person I would imagine being arrested, especially in the way that it happened. He is such a calm person, so it’s unbelievable. It’s important to know that I was actually already working with Calvin and his family on a different project when this incident took place, so when they told me what had happened, I immediately felt like his story needed to be told. And my second reaction was that we had to show this footage to Calvin’s public defender as evidence in the absurd case against him. [Spoiler alert: Calvin is charged with assault on a police officer.] I had to force my way into his lawyer’s office and say I wasn’t leaving until he watched this footage.
Calvin: She sure did!
Kelly: His lawyer wanted him to take the plea deal and do community service. Even with that video, the way the law is written regarding assault on a police officer, it could still be used. As Calvin explains in the film, the lawyer told him, “It’s going to be your word against a police officer’s word.”
Kelly: And they knew who the judge was, so they advised him to take the deal.
Calvin: Yep, and that was his exact words.
Saybrook: And as a filmmaker, Kelly, what responsibility did you feel in being able to share this incident in “Think of Calvin”?
Kelly: An incident like this is not going to make it into the news. The incidents we see are when somebody is actually killed. A black man is killed on video, and there’s no accountability for that. But for each one of those headline stories, there are thousands of stories like Calvin’s where someone wasn’t killed, but an entire family’s life was put in jeopardy. Calvin could have lost his job! So I felt a responsibility to share his story because there are encounters like this happening in communities throughout our country every day that don’t get any attention.
Saybrook: It’s systemic.
Kelly: It really is. And that is something that has to change. Donald Trump would like to increase the use of stop-and-frisk in America. He said it should be a “national policy” when he was campaigning. I hope we can get people to see this film to understand stop-and-frisk, which was about to happen to Montae, has a terrible impact on communities, on families, on individuals.
Saybrook: Calvin and Carlet, how has your family changed since this incident occurred?
Calvin: Like I said, growing up here, it’s never really a positive interaction with the police. As a black father, with a teenager and a soon-to-be teenager, C.J., you just raise them to do certain things when they get pulled over or stopped. This incident actually showed the boys what we were teaching them. Here it is in your face now, and you see exactly what we’re talking about.
Carlet: This incident has definitely impacted our lives. When C.J., our 10-year-old, sees a police car behind us or even if he just sees one nearby, he’s uneasy. He’ll announce that the police are behind us. As a mom, I’m thinking, “So what? We’re OK. We’re not doing anything illegal.” But kids pick up on everything. They’re sponges. He definitely remembers that night. With Montae, honestly, we’re struggling right now.
Calvin: He’s 19 now.
Carlet: And he’s so rebellious against a lot of stuff now. When we talk to him about certain things like this incident, his response is: “Well, it’s already going to happen because I’m black.” It definitely has affected him.
Saybrook: Almost like he’s lost hope. Or is numb.
The police will protect their own. That’s the same thing Calvin and I were doing. We were protecting our own.
Carlet: Yes. That’s honestly what it is. And we are fighting so hard to get him back on track. My boys are not going to grow up and be what society says they are. Honestly, I thought I was going to get arrested that night and not Calvin. The police will protect their own. That’s the same thing Calvin and I were doing. We were protecting our own. But when Calvin got arrested for protecting his kids, is that not out of control? But you just can’t give up. You just have to believe in yourself. It might be wishful thinking, but I feel like there is hope.
Saybrook: One of the film’s reviews says it has “hit a nerve.” What do you think is hitting a nerve?
Kelly: “Think of Calvin” did not get accepted into a lot of film festivals. But we won awards at the festivals that we got into. “Think of Calvin” won Best Short Documentary at the Napa Valley Film Festival this year. And we won second place for the Uptown Festival in Harlem earlier. Even though it’s a very low-budget film, the story is so compelling. And Calvin and Carlet really let us understand the whole situation and were courageous to share their story.
Saybrook: And did you feel like it didn’t get accepted to some because that community wasn’t interested in having that conversation?
Kelly: I think that this incident is so clearly about race. The officers involved are white. The way they talk to everyone in the family is so disrespectful that you can’t really find a gray area around it. Or, I can’t. So I think for other white people, perhaps, or people with more resources who live in areas where this would never happen to them, they can’t fathom being treated this way. And that’s where it hits a nerve because as long as the media focuses on these cases where someone is killed, had a weapon, or is doing something illegal, they can find some gray area. But when it becomes so clearly a race issue like this, it hits a nerve that makes people realize the depth of injustice in America.
Saybrook: That’s a great point. There are going to be a lot of people who watch “Think of Calvin” and say, “This can’t be day-to-day.” We know it is. But it shouldn’t be.
Calvin: That’s true.
Saybrook: So what do you hope people gain from the film?
Calvin: Like Kelly said, when they show these videos on the news, there’s always someone getting killed, which only alludes to one side of the story. If more stories like this got out where we can have both sides of the story where the other person doesn’t end up dead, then hopefully everyone would have a different mindset of the day-to-day scene.
Carlet: I most certainly hope that what comes out of this is we get a bigger platform here. It needs to be shown more and to people higher up, such as Congress members.
Calvin: To Trump, who wants to extend the stop-and-frisk law. He needed to see this video.
Carlet: The elected city officials who are supposed to be here for you. These people need to show up at a screening. I also hope that it sheds light and reevaluates some stereotypes. I work in an emergency room. Calvin works at a Children’s Hospital. He’s someone who saves children’s lives, but you may not know that just by seeing him walking down the street.
Saybrook: Calvin, after you completed your community service, was your record wiped clean or were there any repercussions after being a part of the film?
Calvin: After the community service was done, no, it actually doesn’t come off of your record. It was dropped to a misdemeanor. You can try to get it expunged, but because of the type of charge it was, specifically assault on a police officer, that cannot be expunged.
Carlet: It also affects background checks. We went on to become foster parents to two little boys, and Calvin’s misdemeanor came up during the process by the lady who took our fingerprints. We were upfront and honest with her.
Saybrook: For those who want to get involved, how would you suggest they do so?
Kelly: Every message we send, especially to black males, is that they don’t deserve justice. They are dangerous. There’s something inherently bad about them. And that’s also why the film is titled “Think of Calvin.” It means, if you question racial profiling and the reality of it here, I want you to think of Calvin Davis. I also want you to think of his son Calvin Jr., C.J., because this child wants to believe the police are here to protect him. He’s this good, happy kid in this great family, and then the messages sent that night were terrifying. Watching and sharing “Think of Calvin” online is powerful. But what’s even better is when people organize a screening and bring together diverse members of your community to discuss it. Have a real conversation. If you can bring representatives of the police and elected officials into that conversation, you could go a long way in improving community relations and hopefully bridging the divide we have right now.
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