On MSNBC, a new look at the 32-year-old Phillip Pannell tragedy in Teaneck

An idyllic town — built over what people only recognized, in hindsight, was a volcano.

Call it Pompeii. Or call it Teaneck, New Jersey — where a single incident on April 10, 1990 caused an eruption that is still felt in that town, and around the country.

The tragic death of Phillip Pannell, a Black teenager shot by a white policeman, exposed racial fault lines that were shocking to those who felt they were living in a progressive town, one that had "licked" the problem of race.

The fallout was fiery. Political tribalism on both sides. Demagoguery. Demonstrations that sometimes turned violent.

In other words, it's almost a dress-rehearsal for the moment we've been living in ever since May 25, 2020 — when the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman sparked the Black Lives Matter movement.

Phillip Pannell

That's one of many good reasons to revisit the Pannell episode, at length, in MSNBC's four-part documentary series "Model America," premiering 10 p.m. Sunday Sept. 18, and airing on subsequent Sundays at the same time.

"Every week, there were marches," said William Broughton, a sergeant with the Teaneck Police Department at the time of the incident. He remembers it well.

"There were a lot of marches," he said "And it went on for months."

More:Gone but not forgotten: Phillip Pannell is remembered 31 years after he was shot by a cop

He appears in the series, along with many others, including activist Al Sharpton — in 1990, a major player in the drama — former state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, and not least, the Pannell family, still trying to make sense of their loss, 32 years later.

"I think this family suffered a great tragedy that no family should have to endure," said Walter Fields, in 1990 political director of the New Jersey NAACP, who also appears in the documentary.

"I think they've exhibited incredible courage and incredible decency over the last 30 years, given what they had to confront," Fields said "I think they deserve a lot of credit for keeping the name of Phillip Pannell alive, so we can have this discussion."

Trouble in paradise

Was Teaneck in fact ever the "model America" its boosters liked to imagine?

In some ways, perhaps. Mike Kelly, who has lived there for nearly 40 years, notes that it was always hospitable to people of all religions, creeds, races.

"We moved here because we admire the town's idealism," said Kelly, the award-winning Record columnist whose 1995 book "Color Lines: The Troubled Dreams of Racial Harmony in an American Town" was the guidepost for the series. A story producer on the show, Kelly also appears 50 times in the course of the four episodes. He moved to the town in 1983.

"People wanted to live in this town because it seemed welcoming to everybody," Kelly said. "That's an admirable trait. Was it a perfect record? No, it wasn't. But I'd rather live in a town that at least tries to do that."

At a time when the suburbs were notoriously restrictive — Ridgewood, a century ago, had a clause in its real estate contracts banning resale to non-Christians, Kelly notes — Teaneck chose a different path.

"It's significant that in the 1930s, as Nazism was rising, Teaneck actively opened its doors to Jewish people," Kelly said. "That's why Teaneck has such a vibrant Jewish community today."

By the 1950s, the civil rights movement was challenging the nation's conscience. Where most of Bergen County was closed off to Black people, Teaneck opened its doors.

"A lot of progressive people in Teaneck said we have to offer homes to African American people who want to move here," said Kelly, also a principal consultant and narrator of a five-part podcast, "Color Lines: From Phillip to Floyd," from Upward Media. "That was no small thing."

Not only were African Americans invited in, they were even made — to some extent — welcome.

They were recruited for the school board, and the town council. Their children could join youth sports leagues, and the high school cheerleading team. It all culminated, in 1965, with the decision to voluntarily integrate the schools through busing. It was the first town in America to do so by choice.

"There was an active effort to integrate the town," Kelly said.

Amid all this, there were mutterings.

Why were Black families shunted off to the Northeast section of town? Why were Black students — according to their parents — shut out of advanced placement courses?

Above all, why was the police department of an integrated town 95 percent white?

"I think there's a lesson here," said Michelle Major, who co-directed the series with Dani Goffstein. "When you think you've got it right, when you think you've gotten rid of racial bias, that's exactly when you need to start reexamining, seeing what's hiding just under the surface."

Moment of truth

All of this subterranean rumbling surfaced, explosively, in April 10, 1990, when someone spotted 16-year-old Phillip Pannell with a gun, and called the police. A white officer named Gary Spath and another officer responded. Moments later, Pannell was dead.

In the aftermath, some tried to paint Spath — the officer at the center of the tragedy — as a racist villain. In fact, he had been mentored by an African American cop, and in turn had mentored both Black and white kids.

Gary Spath in 1991

"He was a good person, a good officer and he cared about people," said Broughton, at the time one of five African American officers on the Teaneck force. He knew Spath well.

"He definitely wasn't a racist," Brougthon said. " He was one of the people who helped get me the job."

But Spath also had a record of nervous-trigger-finger behavior that his superiors had swept under the rug.

"He did have incidents that in hindsight would raise concerns," Broughton said.

Moreover, the question of whether Spath was or wasn't "racist" in some ways misses the point, Fields said.

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"You don't have to be overtly racist to act in a racist way," Fields said. The conditioning of Americans — police, above all — to see young Black men as threatening played a pivotal role in the Spath-Pannell encounter, Fields believes. As it may have in other cases: Daunte Wright, Tamir Rice, Andre Hill, Amadou Diallo and a great many more.

"As a society we are conditioned by race," Fields said "Particularly law enforcement officers. I believe race had a role. Would it have been the same if it was a 16-year-old white male? Absolutely not. The data doesn't support that."

In the meantime, Spath's supporters tried to paint Pannell as a thug. In fact, he was a nervous kid who was being bullied in school. He had borrowed his mother's gun — without permission — to use for self-defense, and was showing it off to some friends when someone saw him.

"So many of the characters are deeply flawed," Kelly said. "Pannell was not a choirboy. Spath was not a perfect cop."

Conflicting statements

How did the confrontation between kid and cop play out? It was disputed.

Spath claimed that Pannell, on the run from him, had his hands down — as if about to reach for the gun — when Spath shot him in the back. An initial autopsy by the Bergen Medical Examiner seemed to corroborate the story. But then a second, definitive autopsy, performed after the first was called into question, suggested a different scenario — that Pannell had his hands up, as several witnesses had claimed.

"His arms were up, possibly to surrender, yet Spath shot him," Kelly said "Why did Spath feel his life was threatened when it was not threatened? What happened here are really basic questions that are still being asked today."

Rev Al Sharpton and Phillip Pannell Sr. 11/12/90

Certainly, they were being asked in 1990. The town of Teaneck became the center of demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations. Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan showed up. Jesse Jackson called Spath an "assassin." At one point there was rioting: shop windows were smashed, a police car was overturned.

Angry demonstrators flip a police car in Teaneck, N.J.  the night after Teaneck police officer Gary Spath shot and killed Phillip Pannell who was suspected of brandishing a pistol.  The teenager was unarmed.

Meanwhile, WOR's right-wing radio personality, Bob Grant, railed against the unfair treatment of Spath. A Nutley cop-turned-radio host named Steve Rogers led a pro-police rally where the crowd chanted: "He had a gun… He had a gun He had a gun."

An awkward moment for Broughton — African American, and a police officer.

"I didn't participate in any of the police marches," he said. "Yes, the officer deserves the support of his department, and yes, he's innocent until proven guilty. But I just don't think the police should march against the public they serve."

The verdict

Front page of The Record, Wednesday, February 12, 1992, reporting Teaneck Police Officer Gary Spath not guilty in the shooting death of Philip Pannell.

Ultimately there was a trial. And in a pattern that has become all too familiar in recent years, the jury — all white — voted in 1992 to acquit the police officer.

So much for the model American town. The Phillip Pannell tragedy, and its explosive aftermath, shocked many people in 1990. Not Fields.

"It didn't surprise me," said Fields, then a Hackensack resident. "I recognized the irony of it happening in Teaneck. But I never regarded Teaneck as being anything different than another community in America that has never dealt with race in any meaningful way. I wasn't shocked. If anything, I wondered why it hadn't happened sooner."

And now? Teaneck was always known as a town that tried. And after that awful moment of truth in 1990, it's still trying.

The police force is now about 30% non-white. New groups, including a small but growing Muslim community, have benefitted from the town's commitment to diversity.

Has anything really changed — in Teaneck, or in America? Maybe.

"Something has changed, perhaps," Major said. "There appears to be, in the aftermath of George Floyd, and camera-phones, and all the evidence for what people have known all along — that African Americans are not treated fairly, oftentimes, by the criminal justice system and the police — there seems to be more of a willingness to concede there is a problem. Something we need to explore.

"I don't think that was a conversation that most of America was willing to have in the 1990s."

Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: beckerman@northjersey.com 

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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Phillip Pannell shooting: New MSNBC documentary on tragedy