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Member of charity tied to Roc Nation and NFL speaks out on controversy over dreadlocks photo

Kobe Richardson defends the Crushers Club founder who cut his hair

When it was reported earlier this month that Roc Nation, the entertainment company founded by rapper Jay-Z, and the NFL would be donating $400,000 to two Chicago charities, it appeared to dampen some of the criticism lobbed at the nascent corporate partnership. In the face of accusations of blackballing, selling out and capitalist greed, the partnership’s Inspire Change program had offered tangible opportunities that could make real-life changes in underserved communities by donating nearly half a million dollars to the Better Boys Foundation Family Services organization and Crushers Club.

But on Sept. 5, a Twitter account named Resist Programming began unearthing old posts from the official account of the Crushers Club, a South Side-based organization founded in 2013 with the mission of reducing gang activity in Chicago. Crushers Club’s 56-year-old founder, Sally Hazelgrove, who is white, had posted or “liked” multiple racially insensitive posts on the organization’s Twitter account, mostly surrounding hair, the police and President Donald Trump.

The account, on numerous occasions, also praised the Chicago Police Department, which has been embroiled in numerous incidents of police harassment, abuse and corruption over the years. And then there were photos of Hazelgrove cutting off the dreadlocks, or locs, of two young black men. One of the captions read that the haircuts were “symbolic of change and their desire for a better life.”

When those tweets from Hazelgrove resurfaced, further criticism of the NFL and Jay-Z resumed.

Following the backlash to the photos, Hazelgrove released a statement to USA Today: “Out of 500 youth going through our doors I cut two young men’s hair because they asked me to and we are a family structure and so I did it and didn’t really think about it after that. I tweeted about it without much thought. It’s hair. But I regret it now and I promise you I will not be doing that again if asked.”

One of the young men in the photos has come to her defense.

Last week, Kobe Richardson, who got involved with Crushers Club in 2015 after years of being involved with gangs, released a video to clarify that it was his decision to cut off his hair in October 2016, not Hazelgrove’s. He said he couldn’t find anyone else to cut his hair and felt most comfortable with her doing it. And while he partly cut off his locs because he was “fed up with my past,” he also did it because it was becoming a difficult hairstyle to maintain: Outside of daily maintenance, people would pull his locs whenever he got into fights, and he said he was frequently stopped and racially profiled by police for having locs.

“But now, I feel blessed. I feel like I’m not trapped no more,” said Richardson, who added that he is speaking out of his own volition, not because Roc Nation, the NFL or Crushers Club asked him to. “I can walk freely now.”

As a youth, Richardson said he sought attention that he wasn’t receiving from home, which led him to seek acceptance from those who may not have had his best interests at heart. Aside from his mom and some family members, he said, Hazelgrove was the only other person who cared about him as a person, the only person who gave a damn.

Richardson would get into fights and run with the wrong crowd, which eventually led to his being placed on probation for strong-arm robbery. (He says the charges were later reduced.) That’s how he discovered Crushers Club, which gave him a new lease on life. He was captivated by the organization’s boxing program. He took advantage of its music program and hip-hop studio. He learned how to fish.

Elizabeth Talbert, a mother of another Crushers Club member, said the Hazelgrove being portrayed in the media is not the Hazelgrove she knows.

Talbert said her son has locs, as do half of the boys in the organization. She would know — she does their hair.

The 44-year-old, who has been a hairstylist for 23 years and also has locs of her own, said that she would have been taken aback by the photos if she didn’t know the Crushers Club leader personally but thinks others should learn of the work Hazelgrove has done in the community before passing judgment — including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who voiced her displeasure with the Crushers Club by tweeting out photos of herself on various magazine covers with locs.

“I wish people would take the time and get to know her. She’s not nothing what people are saying, not at all,” Talbert said. “Six-and-a-half years. That’s family.”

Both Richardson and Talbert can understand how it looks for a white woman to cut off the hair of young black men. Black people and their hairstyles have always been a contentious issue in America. Earlier this year, a high school wrestler was forced to cut off his locs on the mat, and last month an Arkansas college basketball player was told by his white coach that the “face of our program” can’t have that hairstyle. “She could’ve worded the picture with more care,” Richardson said of Hazelgrove. But both argue that a collection of tweets doesn’t represent who Hazelgrove is.

“They don’t know her. They’re on the outside looking in,” said Richardson, who was in a coma after being shot 14 times in January 2016. When he woke up, Hazelgrove’s face was one of the first he saw.

Talbert added: “I didn’t understand the backlash because I just don’t understand who puts their time, love, energy and their unselfishness into kids six days a week, and for someone to say that she’s racist, I could never understand that.”

One of the most criticized tweets was Hazelgrove stating, “All lives matter” in response to the deadly shooting of Dallas police officers in the summer of 2016. “All Lives Matter” sprung up to combat the Black Lives Matter movement at the time. It’s since been hijacked by white supremacists and opponents of anti-racism.

In responding to the criticism of Hazelgrove last week, Richardson said, “Everybody’s lives matter — everyone, not just black.”

“I don’t see color,” Richardson told The Undefeated. “We all are human.”

When asked if black lives matter less in the eyes of some people, he responded, “I don’t know.”

Outside of social media, to the most casual observer, Crushers Club’s entire existence could be read as perpetuating respectability politics. The organization’s official website preaches “respect, discipline, ownership, and love” to help its members “restore their lives and improve their neighborhood,” putting the onus of decades of redlining, police brutality and wage disparity on the victims of said policies. When he was asked if the predicaments he found himself in when he was younger were the result of his personal choices or systemic impediments, he said, “That’s all really the way we grew up here in Chicago. I’m trying to overcome that now.”

There’s no internal conflict for Richardson or Talbert of being black and having to defend a white woman from a loud chorus of criticism from black people. “They need to come and meet her, actually talk to her one-on-one,” said Richardson, who is starting his final year at Excel Academy of South Shore and now mentors younger kids with the Crushers Club.

For Talbert, as crazy as it sounds, it was Hazelgrove who was there when many others who should’ve been were not.

“She’s the white woman, and not one person in that black neighborhood — been there 30, 40 years — never took that much time out, never in their lifetime, to put that much time and love for kids, kids she don’t even know.

“I don’t know where my boy would be, really,” Talbert added, “but I know he’s not in the streets.”

Martenzie is an associate editor for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"