What Turned Rodney Around?

Paul Bass PhotoThe police were watching Rodney Wilkerson again. This time they were looking at a video on a wall.

They were watching Wilkerson pretend in the video to play a role he used to play in real life: drug dealer in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood.

The video aired Tuesday morning before some 80 cops and criminal-justice workers and community figures at the weekly “Compstat” meeting on the fourth floor of police headquarters. The weekly meeting usually begins with neighborhood-by-neighborhood rundowns of crimes from the previous week. This Tuesday the meeting began instead with an airing of The 5K Motion, the almost-30-minute video in which Wilkerson starred.

The U.S. Attorney’s office put together the video with 18 nonprofessional actors, young people from crime-scarred neighborhoods in New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport. (U.S. District Court Judge Janet Arterton, street outreach worker Shirley Ellis-West, and various law-enforcement agents appear, too.) Set in the Church Street South projects across from New Haven’s train station, the film draws on true stories told by women doing hard time in federal prison in Danbury. Wilkerson plays a drug dealer named Trigger who fires fatally into a crowd, then has his (unbeknownst to him) pregnant girlfriend Kim hide his crack cocaine and Uzi. The cops catch Kim. Trigger pretends not to know who she is, so she takes the fall the fall. The authorities pressure her to cooperate with the case against him in exchange for a “5K motion” that will enable the judge to bypass tough federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Kim refuses, and ends up with 40 years.

In other words, a cautionary tale.

The point of the project is to convince young women not to destroy their lives to protect gangbanging boyfriends. And to convince young people in general to discard the violent drug-dealing life before it’s too late.

Wilkerson did that. He sold weed on Stevens Street in the Hill beginning at 14 years old, he said. Two years later he stopped. Now 18, he’s enrolled at Gateway Community College and working a waiter job at a seafood restaurant.

The movie is powerful—a sentiment clearly shared by many in the Compstat meeting after the lights came back on.

A question it raised proved more complicated.

Wilkerson and Leandra Brooks, an 18-year-old Bridgeport community college student who plays Kim in the film, took questions from the Compstat room after the screening. Amid praise, Chief Dean Esserman asked the pair what they think it will convince young people to avoid or quit the life.

Brooks suggested that “media”—films like this one, positive-themed music—can help.

Wilkerson put the ball back in part in the police’s court.

“If the cops were more caring, more loving,” he suggested, “it might make a difference.”

In the corridor outside the room Tuesday, Wilkerson was asked the question more specifically: What made him walk away from drug-dealing?

“God,” he said.

Well, first it was his girlfriend. He was wild about her. He was 16. He agreed to accompany her to God’s Miracle Unlimited Church on Dixwell Avenue. He started attending regularly.

He wanted to stay with her, and came to the conclusion that the drug-dealing life “wouldn’t be good for our future,” he said.

She eventually broke up with him anyway, he said. But, he said, he kept going to church, embraced a religious life—and stayed straight.

Around the same time the police raided his family’s home on Stevens Street. Wilkerson watched his uncle go to jail. Did that also influence him?

“I thought, ‘That’s not what I want.’ I felt I had to be a good influence for my little brothers,” Wilkerson responded.

Wilkerson claimed he never went beyond selling marijuana, never got involved in violence. He was living with his grandmother at the time. “I didn’t have a go-to person,” he said. “I wanted things I felt I needed at the time that made me feel like a better person.” Things like clothes and late-night food when he stayed out of the house.

On Stevens Street, he came to recognize Lt. Holly Wasilewski, his neighborhood’s top cop.

“There go Holly! Everybody duck!” he recalled everyone saying.

He didn’t get to know her. But he respected her for dealing in a straightforward manner with people. He noticed that when she would pat down obvious dealers, and they had nothing on them, she would urge them to go straight.

“I always just saw Holly as doing her job. I never had a problem with cops,” Wilkerson said.

He got to know her better after a street outreach worker suggested he try out for a part in 5K Motion and he landed the lead. Wasilewski was one of the law enforcement agents appearing in the video. The night of the video’s red-carpet premiere at Yale (read about that here), Wilkerson’s family asked Wasilewski to pose for a photo with him.

In the Compstat room Wilkerson made a point of telling people, “I know Holly.”

Afterwards, Wasilewski was asked what she believes convinces a young person like Wilkerson to ditch the drug-dealing life. She paused to consider the question. “Sometimes it’s the last straw,” she said. “Sometimes an early intervention [from] church or family.”

“I wish I knew ‘the one thing,’” Wasilewski concluded.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which produced the film, isn’t conducting feedback sessions before it releases the video to the general public on YouTube, probably in the spring, said senior investigator Charles Grady, who organized the project.

In the meantime, you can click on the play arrow to sample an original song from the soundtrack, “Change.” Leandra Brooks—aka “Coolie Brooks,” who’s pursuing a performing career—performs it.

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