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After Inglewood Tussle, Teen 'Has to Move On'

September 15, 2002|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most people know him from a videotape: that kid who got slammed and socked by an Inglewood cop.

His large and close-knit family knows him, in the words of an uncle, "to be the least likely kid in America" to tangle with police.

Donovan Jackson, at 16, is a polite neat freak who irons his T-shirts and fusses over his hair. He struggles a bit in school but dreams of college and a modeling career. He has opened doors for his grandmother since he was 6.

He is also, relatives said, particular about his friends, about baking from scratch, about video games--got to be Wrestlemania 18, Spider-Man. He even wants his Cheetos just so. "He'll say, 'I gotta have the perfect ones, unbroken,' " said Dominick Wells, 18, Donovan's cousin and best friend.

With the start of the school year, Donovan has returned to his old routine, having escaped the blistering national spotlight after the July 6 gas station encounter with police. Donovan finished summer school at home, to avoid a storm of questions from classmates.

But two months have passed and now, his family said, he wants life to go on as before.

"He's doing OK in school; he says it's going fine," said his aunt, Nancy Goins. "I'm sure the deep feelings are still there about what happened to him.... Donovan's life has to move on."

It is Donovan's senior year at Leuzinger High, the small public school in Lawndale where he and Wells had a class together last year. The cousins were trained as peer mediators--students who can be called in to defuse peer conflicts before they grow violent.

"We figured peer mediation class would teach us to handle things better and deal with almost any situation," Wells said, shaking his head.

The irony is not lost on Donovan's loved ones as the racially charged case continues to play out, with numerous investigations underway and criminal cases pending against two Inglewood officers.

Donovan's childhood dream was to be a cop, as was his father's. His grandmother worked for 14 years for the Inglewood Police Department that would jail father and son in separate cells after the encounter.

"Donovan would say, 'Grandma, I want to be a policeman when I grow up,' " said Cora McGrew, who retired from the department 11 years ago. "I'd say, 'No baby, Grandma don't want you to be a policeman. It's too dangerous; you could get hurt.' "

There may never be agreement on how a vehicle code infraction devolved into a donnybrook. It is undisputed that, on that sunny afternoon in July, at least one white officer struck the African American teenager. Several minutes of the episode were captured on tape by an amateur videographer and broadcast around the country.

Police issued questions and commands to Donovan as he returned to his father's car after buying potato chips and $6 in gas. Officers told an L.A. County grand jury that he had not responded immediately. Donovan told the grand jurors he had complied.

In the days after the video was broadcast, Donovan's family told reporters that he had a hearing problem and a speech impediment, which could have accounted for any communications gap between him and the officers.

Donovan has made no public comments about the episode, not even while sitting as Exhibit A last month in the second row at a hometown congressional hearing on police misconduct. His media-savvy lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, has kept him off limits.

But in interviews, Donovan's friends and family tried to explain him.

"I'd like people to know," said his uncle, Edward McGrew, a hotel chain executive, "that Donovan is a good-hearted, basic, all-American kid ... that has the same dreams as any other American kid--of one day making something out of himself."

Wells, who likes to dance and hopes someday to be a "funny hard-core rapper," adds this assessment: "Donovan is just a wonderful person."

To know Donovan, his family said, is to understand that he doesn't talk much. He speaks only when he has something to say. Relatives describe his impairment as an "auditory processing disorder" that makes it hard for him to grasp immediately what he hears.

In the days after the gas station ordeal, Donovan's cousin, Talibah Shakir, 50, a sixth-grade teacher, said, "He's been in special ed most of his life." But she noted that he is also in regular classes.

He was one of 35 students in an after-school modeling program last year. Classmates at Leuzinger said Donovan works hard and has a good sense of humor. He doesn't swear or disrespect his elders. He was never before in any kind of trouble.

"The parents should be commended for raising such a nice child," said his former special education teacher, Cresia Green-Davis, newly elected president of the Inglewood Unified School District board, at a recent town hall meeting.

Donovan's father, Coby Chavis Jr., spoke proudly of his son in an interview in the presence of his attorney, Milton Grimes. A plain-spoken man, Chavis called Donovan "a good kid."

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