“Out in the Night”
The New Jersey Four
The media branded Renata Hill, Patreese Johnson, Terrain Dandridge, and Venice Brown as a “Gang of Killer Lesbians”. They are four gay black women who were sentenced to egregiously long prison sentences after being engaged in a violent altercation with a man who had verbally and physically harassed them in New York’s Greenwich Village. Thos documentary looks at that and it examines the case from a social and humanistic perspective.
It happened one summer evening in 2006. Seven lesbian friends from Newark went to New York City, in order to get away from the sexist taunts and remarks they often had to deal with on the streets of their hometown. As they walked in front of the IFC Center movie theater, they were verbally accosted by 29-year Dwayne Buckle and they answered his sexist remarks by telling him that they were gay but this did not stop him and, in fact, he threatened to “fuck them straight”. Things got hot and tense and a brawl ensued. One of the women stabbed Buckle in the stomach and as the event got wild, two male passersby also became involved but left the scene before police arrived.
The seven women were arrested and charged with a wide variety of crimes that included gang assault and attempted murder. Three of them pled guilty and received reduced sentences. The others went to trial and claimed self-defense and they received prison sentences ranging from 3½ to 11 years.
The media became involved in the case and labeled the women as a gang, “a lesbian sex pack” and “killer lesbians”. The case became important to the LGBT community and argued that the women had been unfairly treated because of their race and sexuality. Former black radical Angela Davis publicly wondering if the women would have been treated differently if had been white.
It is only fair to say that this is not a balanced film. The judge and the prosecutor declined to be interviewed. Buckle also refused to participate, although portions of his trial testimony are recited by an actor. One of the police officers involved tells us that the “gang” label was not from the women actually having any gang affiliation, but from the legal definition involving three or more persons participating in a violent assault. We do see some grainy security camera footage of the brief event (it lasted approximately four minutes) and it seems to bear out the women’s version. Director Bair-Dorosh-Walther places a strong emphasis on Patreece Johnson, the woman who stabbed Buckle and who received the longest sentence but there is one point on which I found the film to be a bit weak and that deals with the way the legal process took place. There is the emphasis on gender here and the film tries hard to link the crime to that but it seems to me that it tried too hard. We are all aware that the media tend toward bias and that is very clearly pointed out here.
What is, indeed, so interesting here is that the four young black lesbians were defending themselves from assault by a homophobic black man who was considered to be the victim in the eyes of the press while the women were vilified by the media.
The film uses video from the crime scene, court transcripts and interviews with lawyers, police, journalists friends and family of the women and the women themselves. It is so clear that justice was miscarried here.
Greenwich Village has always been regarded as a safe place for the LGBT community as well as for people of color. If we revisit what happened again that night when the women were verbally assaulted by Dwayne Martin, a 29 year-old Black male who was selling DVDs on the street, we get a better understanding of the entire situation. Buckle started the entire situation by orally taunting the girls. A nearby video camera in a store shows the girls walking away and Buckle following them constantly yelling insults and obscene remarks as he grabbed at his penis. The women then turned around and confronted him at which point Buckle spit in the face of one of the girls. He also threw a lit cigarette at the girls and this caused the attack to change from verbal to physical and on the video, Buckle can be seen pulling out large patches of hair from one of the females. When Buckle managed to get on top of one of the women and began choking her, Johnson pulled a small steak knife out of her purse and aimed for his arm to stop him from killing her friend. On the video are seen two men running over the help the woman and they began beating Buckle. The video captures two men finally running over to help the women and beating Buckle who, at some point, was stabbed in the abdomen. The women were already walking away across the street by the time the police arrived.
We learn that Buckle was hospitalized for five days after surgery for a lacerated liver and stomach. When asked at the hospital, he responded that at least twice that men had attacked him. There was no evidence that Johnson’s kitchen knife was the weapon that penetrated his abdomen, nor was there any blood visible on it. As a matter of fact, no forensics testing was ever done on her knife. On the night they were arrested, the police told the women that there would be a search by the New York Police Department for the two men yet, as of today, has not happened. After almost a year of trial, the four women were convicted. Johnson received a sentence of 11 years. Admittedly, everything sounds very strange.
Even with Buckle’s admission and the video footage proving that he instigated this anti-gay attack, the women were relentlessly slandered and demonized in the press and trumped-up felony charges were levied against them. They were subsequently given long sentences in order to send a clear resounding message—that self-defense is a crime and no one should dare to fight back. This is the work of the police whose duty is protect us but it really seems that we need to be protected from them. If we ask ourselves how something like this could happen in 21st century America, the only answers we can find deal with overt prejudice, homophobia, distrust of women and racism. It all makes my stomach turn. I can only hope that this movie serves as a call to action.