Tom Vannah photo
After a busy morning in his office at the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, a haircut and a quick lunch with his 19-year-old son, Rev. Talbert Swan II walks down Hampden Street in Springfield, headed for the broadcast studio of WGBY, the local PBS station. There, Swan will tape a segment of Connecting Point, an issues-based program hosted by Aliz Koletas and Jim Madigan. Swan has been asked to join Springfield Police Detective Sean Condon and Armando Olivares, a 20-year-old Springfield resident who was acquitted last year in the fatal shooting of Reality Shabazz Walker, in a discussion of a topic that has occupied a lot of his attention, not just recently, but over the course of more than three decades of social activism and Christian ministry: violence in Springfield.
In fact, on this particular Tuesday afternoon in June, Swan finds himself still embroiled in a controversy he set off the week before, when he delivered a pointed message about the recent spate of street violence in the city—violence that, over the course of a few weeks, came in the form of a number of drive-by shootings, some in broad daylight and near public parks filled with people—that resulted in three deaths and many serious injuries. In his weekly radio broadcast from the campus of Springfield Technical Community College, Swan admonished listeners—specifically those from the “black community/Latino community”—to stop pointing fingers at police and start taking “responsibility for what’s happening with our own children.”
The broadcast has triggered vociferous criticism from within “the community,” Swan says, as he waits outside WGBY for a producer to usher him into the studio. It has also drawn “the sudden interest of the media,” which rarely if ever covers his sermons or radio discussions, he adds.
His critics, Swan says, remain largely anonymous, venting through social media and in comments posted to a story on MassLive that ran under a headline incorporating a quotation from Swan’s broadcast: “Springfield street violence: ‘Don’t blame the police when Pookie gets shot and you knew the kind of life he was living,’ says Rev. Talbert Swan.” Of the 111 comments, many are genuinely supportive of Swan’s appeal to the families and friends of young people who are engaged in criminal behavior.
But many are harshly critical, accusing Swan of betraying his community by easing off in his longstanding call for police accountability. Others mock him, congratulating him for “seeing the light” and “being on the same wavelength as us sane citizens.” Still others reiterate past disagreements—with Swan’s advocacy of independent review of alleged police brutality, for example—while giving him credit for being “right this time.”
Talbert Swan III, who has accompanied his father to the television taping, sits down in the shade of a tree in the landscaped patio outside WGBY’s studio, the busy overpass of Interstate 91 rumbling and clattering just above him. Glancing over at his son, Pastor Swan’s face relaxes and he almost smiles.
“Many of my critics act as if this is first time that I have called on the community to take responsibility,” he says. “But I have said it many times before: police accountability and personal responsibility only resonate together.”
S wan has been doing his WTCC 90.7 FM show, “The Spoken Word,” every Monday for the last 14 years. He began his June 2 program in the usual fashion, with a clip of Bishop George Dallas McKinney of the Church of God in Christ delivering the well-known anonymous sermon “On this Day.” (McKinney, Swan tells the Advocate, is one of his mentors; the sermon, he says, “is profound,” calling on people to “mend a quarrel… replace suspicion with trust… take up arms against malice… speak your love.”) After playing a clip of a recent sermon of his own, he began a 20-minute monologue on the recent escalation of street violence and murder in Springfield.
“We’ve got a generation of young people—particularly in the African-American and Latino community—who are growing up without a concept about faith, about church, in many cases with a warped sense of morality, and we have to address that issue,” Swan said. “I’ve said it on this program on plenty of occasions: it can’t be about pointing the finger at police because… these young folk are living in our houses, they’re in our homes.”
Swan said that he knows that many of the perpetrators of street violence were “raised in Christian homes” where “mothers, fathers, grandparents and godparents go to church every Sunday.”
“So where’s the disconnect?” he asked.
The violence, he continued, is, at least in part, a consequence “of a serious parenting problem.” His cadence hastened as he enumerated the traps into which some parents seem to have fallen: “Parents who want to be their children’s friends… who look the other way when they know their children sell drugs because it brings a little extra money into the house, when they know their children are involved in criminal activity.”
Swan said he knows the phone lines at WTCC “typically get quiet” when he talks about the failures of parents, friends, community: “If I start talking about police brutality, the lines would be on fire.” His listeners “want community leaders to talk truth to power. What I want to know is when we’re going to speak truth to one another.”
A fluent and formidable speaker, known for his soaring eloquence in the pulpit, Swan’s syntax became more idiomatic as he described young men in Springfield playing “the knockout game,” randomly attacking people and running away laughing.
“[These are] your sons, your nephews, your grandchildren, your godson. ‘Pookie ain’t never hurt nobody,’ you know. These are our folk. We need to send a message to them. Sometimes it takes some tough love. Sometimes it takes, ‘You know what? You go back to jail.’”
“It’s not The Man all the time,” Swan continued. “I understand that African-American males are nine times more likely to be profiled and arrested and convicted than their counterparts… But some of these young black men in jail need to be there. And some of these young brothers in our city today that are running around terrorizing the city need to be in jail… They need to be off the streets. That’s real. Real talk. I don’t care if they’re related to you or not. Some of your sons need to go to jail. Some of your cousins and them need to be locked down. Stop spending your rent money bailing them fools out!”
As Swan wrapped up his soliloquy, he delivered the line that would grab headlines, that continues to spread across the Internet, cheered by some, mocked and condemned by others: “Don’t blame the police, you know, when Pookie gets shot and you knew the kind of life Pookie was living, and you knew the path that Pookie was on and you never addressed it with Pookie.”
Pastor Swan says he wasn’t entirely surprised by the public reaction to his radio monologue—which he hoped might have turned into a dialogue if only his frequent listeners had called into WTCC as they do on most other topics.
“I know it’s hard for people to do some introspection, to look at what we have done wrong in raising our children. It’s much easier just to point to guns and drugs,” he says.
The media reaction to the broadcast, on the other hand, did strike him as surprisingly out of touch. As he spoke to news reporters from newspapers and radio and television stations across the state, he says, “Even folks who seem more enlightened than others seemed shocked by my message of personal responsibility, like it’s a message that is foreign to black leadership.”
The simple fact is, Swan has frequently criticized the Springfield Police Department leadership over the years for both general policies and specific cases of brutality and other misconduct that contribute to a “justifiable level of distrust toward police” in the community. He says problems still exists in the SPD, that there remains “a need for some profound cultural changes within the police department.”
Police and their many defenders, he says, will criticize “80 people in the community who witness a crime but won’t say anything about it. But every day in America, cops see other cops abuse their power and say nothing about it. You can’t criticize the community for keeping quiet when cops routinely are allowed to hide behind the blue wall of silence, when good cops aren’t willing to pull the covers off bad cops.”
Swan says he’s had conversations with a succession of police and city leaders about the need for cultural change in the department, “but unfortunately it’s just that—conversations.” If there is any hope that communities of color will ever really trust the cops, he says, “police must stop resisting change.”
But given the profound changes in the scope and nature of street violence over his lifetime, not just in Springfield but across the country, Swan says “the community can’t wait” for police reforms that may never come to pass.
“Today, [violent youths] don’t fist-fight,” Swan says. “They grab a gun and drive by and shoot and kill people. We need to be honest about what’s happening. Violence is embedded in our culture. As adults, as parents, we can’t cheer violence in Iraq, where we kill civilians while we’re looking for weapons that don’t exist, and then condemn it on the street.”
To understand the violence taking place on the streets today, he says, “We must understand the sense of hopelessness that many children feel. Hopelessness, low self-esteem—this leads to a point where you don’t value your own life. And when you don’t value your own life, you don’t value the lives of others.”
Swan says he views his radio show on WTCC, his pulpit in the Church of God in Christ and his position within the NAACP as different platforms from which to deliver a unified and “balanced” message. While his style of rhetoric may vary from platform to platform, he sees his “social mission as an extension of the ministry.” His reading of the Bible, he says, informs his understanding of the social ills we all must confront. He recites Matthew 25:42:
“For I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit Me.”
Swan’s religiosity is bred in the bone. So, too, is his sense of social activism. He grew up in a religious home, one in which both parents, as well as many of his relatives, were engaged deeply in social causes, most notably the Civil Rights Movement. “I grew up surrounded by folk who had a deep social consciousness but who were also very spiritual. I can’t separate the two,” he says. He notes that he is the third Swan to serve as president of the Springfield chapter of the NAACP, following his uncles Benjamin and Talbert Swan I. He also comes from “a long line of preachers.”
The recent broadcast that went viral and caused many listeners to denounce his message, Swan says, wasn’t solely directed toward people who fill the pews of his church on Sunday any more than it was aimed at those who likely never go to church. While he says he finds “the rise of anti-religious organizing in America astounding,” and believes that, as he suggested throughout his June 2 broadcast, many of the problems playing out in Springfield stem from a widening schism between parents of faith and their religiously disengaged children, his call for personal responsibility is equally valid whether you’re religious or not.
However it was received, Swan says, his message was neither complicated nor particularly controversial: “We only get one opportunity to raise our children.”•