Dave Chappelle has always been a vocal critic of racial profiling and police brutality—his first HBO special Killin’ Them Softly devoted ten minutes to the cops, all the way back in 2000, and he hasn’t let up since. Earlier this week, stand-up comedian Kevin DeForest took to social media to share a truly moving story about how Chappelle turned a racist heckle into a teachable moment.
The encounter happened five years ago, around the time that a grand jury refused to indict the policeman who choked Eric Garner to death in 2014, leading to protests across the United States. As the country grapples with the aftermath of another police murder of a black man, this story offers a lesson in how empathy and open conversation can change people’s minds.
Kevin DeForest wrote:
My coolest night of comedy was when Chappelle dropped by Comedy at the Knitting Factory when Will Miles, Clark Jones & I were still hosting. We were in the back room & he was in town supporting Kevin Hart hosting SNL. I texted Joyelle Nikki Johnson like “any chance Dave wants to go up?”
We start the show thinking he MIGHT come. A couple comics in, he sneaks in like a boxer with his hood up. We’re in the green room smoking, drinking & joking. The dude is a machine. Every topic that came up, he had something profound for. We bring him up last, the crowd LOSES IT
He was asking the crowd for headlines to riff on. They toss one out, he riffs a joke. Every topic, he immediately had a perfect joke for. Now, this was days after the cop that choked Eric Garner to death in Staten Island (you know, murder) was not indicted by a grand jury.
Protests etc were all over the city. Tensions were high. About 15-20 min min to his set he asks for another topic & someone shouts “police brutality!” He pauses then says “you really wanna do this? Ok.” He chugs his Tecate and sets it down. Our crowd was always beautifully mixed.
The show was started by Hannibal Buress, so it’s always had a black base, but it’s in Williamsburg so there were always hipsters of all persuasions and, amazingly, people from all over the world. We always had global tourists which I thought was incredible for a free bar show
So Chappelle starts talking about Eric Garner and wathching him get murdered in cold blood on camera and how it makes him scared for his children. I remember he said “I thought body cams would help, but what good is video evidence if y’all don’t care?”
A clearly privileged white girl (she had a wide brimmed felt hat for chrissakes) shouts “Life’s hard, sorry ‘bout it!” and it takes the air completely out of the room. A collective gasp. Chappelle zeros in on her. “What did you say?” She repeats it. Chappelle starts going in.
He starts educating the crowd on the history of black people and the police. He talked about slave patrols and Rodney King and Watts and Emmett Till and Black Wall Street. He talked about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and he talked about John Crawford III
If you don’t remember John Crawford III, google it. It happened right around the time of some higher profile killings, but it’s as awful as anything you’ll see. He was on the phone in Walmart and picked up a BB gun (that was for sale in said Walmart) and was just looking at it
Some scared cracker-ass called the cops, and this officer comes in, doesn’t even bother saying “drop the weapon” or “hands up” and just guns him down. The security footage makes it plain as day. The footage will make you sick. Disgusting and outrageous in every conceivable way.
“I shouldn’t have to be Dave Chappelle to survive police encounters”
Chappelle then tells a story about getting pulled over in rural Ohio where he lives. This is before the Crawford shooting but after Ferguson so racial tension is bubbling. He said “I may be white on paper, but I’m still black. So I’m nervous”
He says “the cop approaches and he can tell I’m nervous. I have both my hands on the wheel and I say ‘officer my license and registration is in the glove box. I’m going to reach for them now. I’m promise not armed’ I could tell the officer was offended that I was nervous. He said ‘I know who you are Dave Chappelle’ & I said ‘so why do you need my license and registration?’” He gets off w/ a warning. The twist? The same cop would go on to murder John Crawford III. His take away: “I shouldn’t have to be Dave Chappelle to survive police encounters”
He goes on to explain that one of his best friends is South African. He said “I asked him what it was like in South Africa right before apartheid ended and he said it was chaos in the streets. There were riots & car bombs etc, but the amount of people caring hit critical mass and there was nothing they could do to stop it. The people had momentum and apartheid ended. Critical mass. That’s what we have to hit. Once enough of you care, there will be nothing they can do to stop the change”
It was incredibly powerful. The crowd was somber and silent
After the show, we’re in the green room. Joyelle Nikki Johnson comes back and says “that dumbass white girl wanted to talk to you, but I told her you were busy” and he goes “no, bring her back” so Joyelle leaves and comes back with wide-brim hat girl and her friend.
Hat girl is humiliated and her friend even more so. Hat girl speaks first: “I just wanted to say I’m sorry for what I said and thank you for educating me. I was ignorant before, but I want you to know I learned from you tonight and I won’t say things like that anymore”
Chappelle responds “you’re ok. That’s all we can ask. Know better, do better. I want to thank YOU for hearing me and listening. That’s your role. And now you know. Now you’re part of that critical mass we talked about and next time you hear a friend say some ignorant shit like you said, it’s your job to correct them and share with them what you learned tonight. THEN, you’re no longer part of the problem, you’re part of the solution.”
She starts crying and he pulls her in for hug “it’s ok. You’re part of the solution now. Do you want a picture?”
She says “really?” And he says “of course! Friend get over here for a picture” the friend approaches, they take photos, he hugs them both and reiterates that it’s ok and just to be part of the solution and sends them on their way. CLASS. I couldn’t believe what I witnessed.
He changed everyone in that room that night. 200+ people became part of the solution if they weren’t already. Even a privileged girl in a privileged hat with a privileged mindset. Point is, it doesn’t matter what you thought before. You can always change, and you can always become a part of the critical mass trying to push this shit forward. All you have to do is care and allow that care to become education and action.
I’ve been sitting on this story since January 19, 2015. I wanted to respect his process and not burn any material for him. But, since he’s released HOURS of material since then I think it’s safe to say he won’t be using any of this bc he’s a genius who can just come up with more.”
DeForest’s story struck a chord with many online, including Jimmy Kimmel, who retweeted the thread to his audience sending Dave Chappelle to the top of Twitter Trends. As the United States continues to become more polarized, this story is a heart-warming example of how openness and compassion can help bridge the gap.
DeForest’s thread also found its way to someone who had been in the audience at the Knitting Factory that night, and had been inspired enough to make a comic about the encounter.