Revisiting a Teaneck nightmare

Revisiting a Teaneck nightmare

MSNBC to air former resident’s documentary on the killing of Phillip Pannell

In a still from “Model America,” Phillip Pannell’s mother, Thelma Pannell, speaks. (Psycho Films)
In a still from “Model America,” Phillip Pannell’s mother, Thelma Pannell, speaks. (Psycho Films)

On April 10, 1990, a Black 16-year-old, Phillip Pannell, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Gary Spath, in Teaneck. Mr. Pannell, who grew up in Teaneck, recently had moved to neighboring Englewood with his mother, Thelma, and his sister, Natasha, but his death irrevocably tied him to Teaneck, and arguably changed the town’s history.

The shooting undercut Teaneck’s earned self-understanding as a progressive place — it was the first municipality in the country to vote to desegregate its schools rather than waiting for a court order. The high school already was integrated — there’s only one — but the lower schools were not.

But the vote was necessary because Teaneck, like so many other places, was segregated by neighborhood; the most realistic way to reorganize its schools to have everyone come together by grade.

That  also meant that there was underlying racial tension in Teaneck, a town with a diverse population, including many African Americans, many Jews, and an increasing Muslim community.

When Mr. Spath shot and killed Mr. Pannell — an act that would be profoundly upsetting under any circumstances, because whether or not it was justified for the police officer to have shot the teenager, the death was a tragedy — those shoved-under racial tensions exploded.

Al Sharpton visited the town and led a march to the county courthouse.

Mr. Spath was acquitted of manslaughter, but the ugly facts of the case — Mr. Pannell was shot in the back, it was unclear if he’d been reaching for a gun — meant that the acquittal did little to calm the tensions.

In the 30 years since, the case has dropped from the top of the minds even of most people in Teaneck, most of the time, although it’s often been revived when other white police officers have shot other young Black men.

Now, it’s the subject of a four-part MSNBC documentary, “Model America,” that will be aired starting September 18. The documentary’s co-director and executive producer, Dani Goffstein, grew up in Teaneck.

That’s not coincidental.

“I was born in 1992, two years after the shooting, and a few months after Gary Spath was acquitted,” Mr. Goffstein said. “I grew up in the aftermath of the shooting, during the fallout from it, and my parents talked about it.”

His parents, Lisa and Ken,  divorced when their kids were young; they lived mostly with their mother, in the town’s mostly Jewish northwest quadrant. “My father lived on Garden Street, in the northeast quadrant, which is largely African American,” Dani Goffstein said. “One day, when I was about 10, he pointed to a yellow house on Teaneck Road and Intervale, and he told me the story. He said, ‘That’s where this Black teenager was killed.’

From left, Dani Goffstein, Natacha Pannell and her mother, Thelma Pannell, and the film’s executive producer, Tyger Williams. (Psycho Films)

“I remember that very vividly.”

But his friends didn’t talk about it much, he said; he didn’t think they knew about it.

Mr. Goffstein grew up rooted in Jewish Teaneck; he went first to the Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and then to MTA, Yeshiva University’s high school for boys in Washington Heights. He became bar mitzvah in his mother’s shul, Beth Abraham. His father moved around in Teaneck so he’d change shuls; his longest-lasting membership  at Arzei Darom, his son remembers.

But “in my angsty teenager years, I became more interested in exploring the larger community of Teaneck, outside my own Jewish community,” Mr. Goffstein said.

He’d get his hair cut on Queen Anne Road in Teaneck. “There is a block with two barber shops,” he said. “Chubby’s is run by an Italian-American guy, and a lot of the Jewish kids went there. The other, the Chop Shop, is Black-owned, and I started getting my haircuts there when I was 13.

“Martyse Lewis, who owns it, now has more Jewish clients, he told me, but back then, I was the first one. And I learned that Martyse actually had known Phillip Pannell pretty well, so I learned a little bit about it from him. I was curious.”

When he graduated from high school, Mr. Goffstein moved across the country to Los Angeles; he went to USC’s film school, graduating in 2015. “I started going back into the Pannell case,” he said. “It was around the time that Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, and there were echoes of Teaneck. So I started researching it, and I started developing the documentary in 2017.”

He began his research online, he read local journalist, columnist, and author Mike Kelly’s book, “Color Lines: The Troubled Dreams of Racial Harmony in an American Town,” “and once I had my facts straight about what was on the public record, I went back to Teaneck and reached out to different people who could represent different points of view,” he said.

“I interviewed Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin and Deputy Mayor Elie Katz.” (Mr. Hameeduddin since has retired from politics; Mr. Katz, who had been mayor before Mr. Hameeduddin, still is on Teaneck’s township council.)

“Teaneck has a reputation for diversity and integration, and it had a Muslim mayor and an Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor,” he said. “And Hameeduddin had gone to high school with Pannell, and Elie Katz was on TVAC” – the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps — the night after the shooting.”

He also talked to Mr. Kelly, who was very knowledgeable and helpful, he said. “And I went to the Teaneck public library, and I found a whole bunch of old footage from 1990 about the case. I had never done a documentary before — my college major was screenwriting, I was interested in narrative work, and I was figuring this out — so I didn’t realize at first how valuable what I had stumbled on was.”

That footage contained images of Steve Rogers, a police officer who spoke at a rally the police held to support Mr. Spath. “I found him,” Mr. Goffstein said. “I thought he’d make a good foil to Al Sharpton. They represent two different ideological points of view.”

A masked marcher holds a sign quoting the Bible in Hebrew and in English at the march in Teaneck in the summer of 2020. (James L. Janoff)

His friend Martyse Lewis introduced Mr. Goffstein to Thelma Pannell, Phillip’s mother, and Natacha Pannell, his sister. “I first spoke with Natacha in around 2018,” he said. “When the Pannells first heard about me, they were very skeptical. I did not have their blessing. They didn’t know me or my motivations. I was very upfront with them. I just wanted to explore this thing that was introduced to me as township lore that I didn’t live through.

“I told them from the beginning that if it would cause them more pain for me to do this, just tell me not to, and I won’t. Thelma was ready to put the kibosh on the whole thing, but Natacha was more interested in meeting with me, talking to me, learning more about me.”

Mr. Goffstein is vice president for development and acquisitions of a production company called Psycho Films. “We’d done some work with rap artists who Natacha liked, and she liked some of our work, so she became more open to speaking with me,” he said.

“I spent two years trying to gain their trust. In 2020, they started the Phillip Pannell Foundation,” and eventually the foundation decided to allow the film to go ahead.

“In April 2020, which would have marked 30 years to the day since he was killed, the Pannell family was going to a have a tree-planting ceremony in town — and then covid happened. I figured that my documentary was on pause.

“And then George Floyd happened.” The unarmed Black man was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis during that terrible covid summer, and mass demonstrations followed.

“I had been in touch with Natacha, and she called me to say that Teaneck was going to hold a march on June 5, that the Pannell Foundation was cosponsoring it, and that if I wanted to come out and film it, I could see how Teaneck reckons with this moment, given the history it has with this issue, which it has lived with longer than any other town I know of.

“So I went to Teaneck and started filming as the story was thrust into the spotlight for the first time in 30 years.”

What about the Jewish community?

“Natacha pointed out to me how much more diversity there was in the present day than there had been when her brother was killed,” Mr. Goffstein said. “You saw yarmulkes,” worn by people on the march and holding signs of support on the sidelines,” he quoted Ms. Pannell as saying. “That was surprising to her. It was not something they saw in 1990.

“There seems to be more diversity of perspective in the Jewish community on this issue than there had been. Natacha said that they have seen more support from the Jewish community, and that it has changed their perception.”

And  now the community has a chance to see the documentary, and consider how things have or have not changed in the last 30 years.

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