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  • Leila E. Cole

"Out in the Night"

Updated: Mar 22

Out in the Night”, a documentary directed by Blair Doroshwalther and released in 2014, chronicles the incident that led to the arrest of Terrain Dandridge, Patreese Johnson, Renata Hill, and Venice J. Brown — the New Jersey 4. What started as an evening out among 7 friends, turned into an attack on their very identity. The group, all identifying as lesbians came to the city to hang out when confronted by a man wanting to gain the attention of one of the friends, Patreese. After nonchalantly informing him that she was gay before they continued on their way, the man began shouting expletives at the friends and the interaction soon became physical. Parallels can be drawn between the incident’s subsequent media coverage, how the legal system unfolded, and “The Black Stork: The Eugenic Control of African American Reproduction” by Harriet A. Washington. They all reflect disparities in treatment and a number of the ways marginalized communities are subjected to the preconceived notions of those in positions of advantage and power.

Prior to sentencing taking place, the headlines and articles that were published about the incident and the group, presented them as a violent lesbian gang who had attacked a man for just that, being a man. Much of the public discourse minimized, and in large part overlooked entirely, the fact that he was the aggressor and provoked the initial interaction. Commentary included that the man was “stabbed, beaten and punched in an unprovoked manner,” with the prosecutors presenting him as “an almost bewildered man.” Criticism followed that, “women should welcome your advances because that is how the race should propagate itself — we are not saying all gay causes are wrong, but we don’t feel it’s the same as civil rights, seems more like devil rights to us — 80 percent of serial killers are homosexuals.” These sentiments are reminiscent of racial inequalities throughout history. The dominant perception went from Blacks not even being human, to Blacks being subservient to whites, undeserving of equal treatment, barbaric in their ways and needing whites to save them from themselves. We get such a wild take on this through eugenics. The term well-born has a double meaning of “born healthy”and “born wealthy,” and this is fitting, because eugenic scientists and their followers constantly confused the concepts of biological hereditary fitness with those of class and race. Highly educated persons of good social class were considered eugenically superior; the poor, the uneducated, criminals, recent immigrants, blacks, and the feebleminded were eugenic misfits (Washington, 2006).

Doctors like Harry J. Haiselden knowingly let sick infants die because he deemed them defective, genetically inferior and unfit for life. “In titling the film [“The Black Stork”], Haiselden was mindful of both the negative and the racial connotations of the word black,” as was the media in publicizing the incident as an attack by a lesbian gang. This was indicative of a number of things, the level of disapproval towards those identifying as anything other than straight, the implicit biases flagrant against them - particularly when a man was involved in the attack, and classifying 7 individuals as a gang, despite not having any gang affiliation. Per Christopher O’Hare, the arresting officer on the night of the incident, “according to the law, if it’s 3 or more people, it’s considered a gang assault.” The misuse of that term doesn’t help with public perception. It “brings up an image in your head that doesn’t apply here.” Among the press coverage was a New York Post article by Laura Italiano, reading, “knifed in the gut right there on a Greenwich Village sidewalk — by seven bloodthirsty young lesbians.” After seeing all the headlines and articles, Kimmi, Terrain’s mother knew “it was going to be a gay thing.” This case was an example of the plight that comes with intersectionality. In this instance the offenses were being Black and gay.

Like the absurd medical experimentation done on Black Americans, the case built against the friends was simply illogical. Renata, who had been sexually abused by her mother’s husband as a child was so triggered by those memories at the onset of the interaction the night in question. The way she was spoken to that night reminded her of how she was treated by him back then. Between her and Patreese, trauma from their past played a huge role in how they responded. Rape came to Renata’s mind, and for Patreese who not only witnessed her 17-year old brother get shot by a cop when she was 7 years old, was considerably small in stature, resorting to her use of the knife she’d been encouraged by her brothers to carry. Patreese used that knife to defend herself and the best friend she was convinced would be murdered before her eyes. What’s interesting is that the injuries sustained by the man, did not include a large cut to his stomach or a laceration to his liver, as initially expressed in court filings. This information however, was used to the detriment of the friends. It’s as though the legal system chose to run with it, under the guise that they were making the city that much safer by getting this gang off the street. It’s also interesting that after being hit with 7 charges between the seven friends, 3 of the friends took the option to plead guilty and not go to trial.

From criminal possession of a weapon in the 4th degree with intent to use, assault in the 3rd degree, assault in the 2nd degree, gang assault in the 1st degree and attempted murder in the 2nd degree, the group was told they were facing 25 years in prison if they fought it and went to trial. The other option was to plead guilty and get out that same day. Although three of them were coerced by the circumstances, the NJ 4 of course refused, standing strong in their conviction that they hadn’t committed a crime and were merely defending themselves. More often than not, when someone accused of committing a crime is tasked with deciding whether to plead guilty or go to trial, pleading guilty is chosen based on fear. This same looming fear of the unknown is largely what fueled eugenics — not wanting to risk a less than optimal result. In yet another show of how deeply flawed the legal system is, Renata’s rapist got 5 years and she got 8.

To add another layer of psychological stress in the midst of the situation, memory of a teenage girl by the name of Sakia Gunn surfaced. Sakia had been fatally stabbed at a bus stop, by a man she’d refused advances from. While being interviewed in the documentary, Patreese recounted wondering that night whether this would be another situation like that. So in their case, the friends chose to fight back. As said by one of the appellate lawyers, there was “No justice when people fight back.” This reminded me of Fannie Lou Hamer, who after finding out that her uterus had been removed by a surgeon, rendering her sterile, took matters into her own hands, using political power as a means to redress injustice.

In an analysis of “Out in the Night” and “The Black Stork: The Eugenic Control of African American Reproduction”, the sometimes subtle and often blatant ways that not only Blacks but other marginalized communities are subjected to decisions being made for them, and against them, without any regard for their well-being, is abhorrent. From the medical field to social spaces, we’ve seen that many times seeking justice can be a long road, paved with refusals in recognition and indifference. My hope is that we can learn from these outrageous cases, and through awareness, education and empathy, see that history doesn’t continue to repeat itself.

Works Cited:

  1. Washington, Harriet A. pg. 191. “The Black Stork: The Eugenic Control of African American Reproduction”, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. 1st ed. New York: Doubleday, 2006.

  2. “”. Pg 192.



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