PROFILE: The events that provoked the activist behind the bullhorn

Dozens participate in Black Lives Matter protest in Kennedy Plaza.

PAWTUCKET, RI (WPRI) Long before Gary Dantzler led a group of protesters onto Interstate-95, his life had taken a series of tragic turns that led him to his current stint as an activist.

Brother Gary, as he’s known in the Black Lives Matter organization, has rarely talked about his past. But he acknowledges that certain events had an impact, pushing him to where he is now.

Trouble had a way of finding Dantzler when he was younger, growing up in Brooklyn.

Brother Gary talks about the events that led him to activism.
Brother Gary talks about the events that led him to activism.

“I’ve been shot twice,” he said. “In my arm and my head. I survived. I’m lucky I survived.”

About 20 years ago, a crime that he says he did not commit put him in the Adult Correctional Institute for about six months.

It was there that a horrific phone call from his father-in-law broke his heart.

“He was crying on the phone and he said Gary, there’s been an accident with your son,” he said. “My son hit his head in a bath tub and he drowned. We started crying on the phone.”

Brother Gary remembers tumbling into a dark funk for the remainder of his short sentence and for years after he was free.

“It just changed me. I shouldn’t have been [in the ACI.] I didn’t commit a crime,” he said. “I saw greatness in my son. He could’ve been president.”

About a decade later, a moment struck that he said propelled him into activism.

It was July 3, 2006. A police involved shooting that killed his friend James Wilcox nudged him toward getting more involved. Police alleged the unarmed Wilcox was shoplifting, and a confrontation prompted gunfire.

North Smithfield Police Chief Steven Reynolds spoke this week about the eleven-year-old case, saying it was investigated by State Police and the Attorney General’s office, and the officer was cleared by a Grand Jury.

“I want to see that the country is at ease. I want to see kids all advance and we should work together.” Brother Gary

The impact of the North Smithfield shooting was strong, leading up to a number of protests including the one two years ago, when he led a crowd onto Route 95 in a demonstration provoked by a lack of charges in the police involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The goal was to get your attention,” Dantzler said when asked if he saw the danger of walking onto an interstate at night. “To disrupt them. To say, hey listen, you need to pay attention to these shootings across this nation and to say this has nothing to with black or white.”

BLack Lives Matter protest in Kennedy Plaza.
Black Lives Matter protest in Kennedy Plaza.

Dantzler said there are many things most of us do not know about Black Lives Matter. For one, there are more white people in the movement than black people.

“They’re making change in America, making change where they live and what they’re about,” he said.

He admits he’s not always optimistic about the potential for meaningful change.

But while critics call Black Lives Matter divisive, this is what Dantzler hopes we will see in this country, maybe when his 7-year-old is 27: “I want to see that the country is at ease. I want to see kids all advance and we should work together.”

He also pointed out that he’s never drank, smoked or flown in an airplane.

“It proves I live a boring life,” he added with a grin.

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