(CHICAGO) — Kobe Richardson rolled up his pant leg to show where the bullets had torn through his flesh. His leg looked mangled, even after three years of healing. “I was shot 14 times and left for dead,” he said.
Richardson was just 16 years old when another young man he thought was his friend riddled him with bullets. But Sally Hazelgrove was one of the first faces he saw when he woke up from a coma in the hospital.
That’s one of the reasons why Richardson, now 19, is fiercely defending the woman known as “Miss Sally,” who is embroiled in controversy after a viral video showed her cutting off his dreadlocks two years ago.
The social media onslaught began when Hazelgrove’s organization, Crushers Club, which helps at-risk youth in Chicago through boxing and mentoring, received a $200,000 donation from Inspire Change, a social justice collaboration between Roc Nation, the company founded by Jay-Z, and the NFL. A mostly unknown Twitter account with the handle @RzstProgramming dug up a 2016 tweet from the Crushers Club account that shows Hazelgrove, who is white, cutting off the dreadlocks of two black male teenagers — Richardson and another unidentified teen.
The tweet, which Hazelgrove wrote, was captioned, “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!”
The filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who is behind “A Wrinkle in Time” and the Netflix miniseries “When They See Us” about the Central Park Five, retweeted the original video last weekend, helping to set off a firestorm and charges of racism against Hazelgrove.
DuVernay, who is black and wears dreadlocks herself, also started a hashtag #loclife and encouraged people to share pictures celebrating the style. For many in the black community, dreadlocks symbolize an embracing of natural hair and are a symbol of pride — deeply personal and political.
Controversy erupted late last year after a New Jersey wrestler was forced to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match. And a 2017 study found that black women with natural hair are often placed at a disadvantage in the workplace.
DuVernay’s #loclife post received over 50,000 likes, many from the association of social media accounts known as ‘Black Twitter’ – accounts run mostly by people of color who often use the platform to sometimes express outrage over social injustice as well as discuss culture, politics and topics.
The backlash to the video was so intense that Hazelgrove was forced to make an apology via the Crushers Club Twitter account.
“The Crusher’s Club does not have any policies prohibiting dreadlocks – we welcome all hairstyles from our youth. On two occasions, our kids looked to change their hairstyles and asked us to assist. I understand how my social media posts could be interpreted as insensitive, but that was never my intention,” she wrote. She declined to comment further when reached by ABC News.
Richardson said it was a huge misunderstanding and was so irked he made a video defending Hazelgrove and Crushers Club, which was posted by media outlet TMZ.
He told ABC News that he felt that dreadlocks were a hairstyle that represented his life as part of a gang. After he was shot and joined the Crushers Club, he wanted to cut them off to disassociate himself from gang culture.
“You shouldn’t judge a person over a picture,” he told ABC News. “Because that’s not who they are. And they don’t know Sally. Sally is a good woman. All I know her to do is help and love people.”
Richardson, who now works with Crushers Club as a supervisor and is trying to finish high school, was adamant that he was the one who asked Hazelgrove to cut his hair. He said he felt comfortable enough to ask both because of his relationship with her, but also because she is the mother of biracial kids.
DuVernay did not respond to a request for comment.
The individual who purports to run the Twitter account that initially shared the tweet of Hazelgrove cutting dreadlocks told ABC News in a message: “When Jay-Z announced the Inspire Change initiative would be the ‘actionable items’ answer to the kneeling protests and the non-profits would be ‘hand-selected and vetted’ I decided check for myself,” the individual, who did not identify wrote. “It was clear that this group had not been vetted and was practicing assimilationist views.”
Hazelgrove launched the Crushers Club, where young men can go to learn to box and interact with mentors, in 2013, three years after moving to the Englewood neighborhood, which had historically high crime and incarceration rates.
Elizabeth Talbert said the organization helped turn her son’s life around.
More than six years ago, her son Elijah Tribitt, who had been struggling in school, came to her and said he wanted to try boxing. Talbert was familiar with Hazelgrove, who she often saw picking up kids from school and dropping them off at Crushers Club.
“My son was failing at school,” Talbert said. “Miss Sally got him a tutor – now he’s 4.0. And still boxing.”
Talbert, who herself wears dreadlocks, was also frustrated with the criticism leveled against the organization. She said she finds it “unnecessary.”
“What does the hair have to do with the kids? No one else in the community put in that much time, energy and love,” Talbert said.
“People was in that neighborhood for years, never helped a child out,” Talbert said. “Let me help you get off the streets. Let’s play basketball. Let’s pick up trash around the neighborhood. Let’s clean the parks up. Those are things Sally do with the kids.”
Talbert said that Crushers Club helps the kids and their parents in the community in other ways, as well.
“When school [time] comes, the whole gym room is amazing,” she said. “Full of bookbags, school supplies. Some kids can’t even get that at home.”
Both Talbert and Richardson say they can understand the reactions to the controversial tweet, and the uncomfortable optics of a white woman cutting a young black man’s dreads with the message of giving him a better life. But they remain steadfast in their support for Hazelgrove.
“People are quick to judge because she’s a white woman,” said Talbert. “But she sees things in these kids that other people don’t.”
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