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Out of the Woods? 

Can Brentwood put its past behind it? Will we let it?

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A few years ago, I ran into a former neighbor at the grocery store. "I haven't seen you around in a while," I said. "What's new?"

"We moved," he said. "Too many niggers moving into Brentwood."

I guess that was his way of describing a demographic shift documented in U.S. Census Bureau figures. In this leafy inner-ring suburb I call home, the number of folks identifying as African-American or part African-American has grown — from 75 in 2000 to 275 in 2010. Combined with the fact that Brentwood's overall population declined from 10,466 to 9,650, blacks have gone from being 0.7 percent to almost 3 percent of its population.

Community leaders are much happier about that trend than my former neighbor. "I want Brentwood to be all-inclusive," says Dennis Troy, a self-described "open-minded" Republican who won a write-in campaign in the mayoral primary, and who seems poised to be the borough's next mayor. What would he say to an African-American family moving to Brentwood, given its history? "The same thing I'd say to a white family: Welcome."

Of course, a shift of 200 people is the tiniest of trends, the kind that doesn't make headlines. But that's at least partly because it doesn't fit the headlines that have already been written.  

Early last February, when a Monessen basketball team alleged that "Brentwood" was hurling racial slurs at players during a game, local media outlets swarmed on the accusations like hipsters on bacon night ... all because of a huge pockmark in Brentwood's history: the death of black motorist Jonny Gammage.

Eighteen years ago this October, Gammage was followed by white Brentwood Police Lt. Milton Mulholland for "erratic driving." During the ensuing traffic stop, Brentwood officer John Vojtas arrived at the scene, along with three other white officers from nearby communities. Gammage died, the victim of "positional asphyxia," stemming from police actions the officers said were necessary to detain him. 

Mulholland's case ended in a mistrial; he's now deceased. Vojtas was acquitted of manslaughter and later promoted to sergeant. He's still on active duty.

But 30-year-old Jarreau Harris, at least, refuses to dwell on that history. Harris, one of Brentwood's newest African-American residents, moved to Brentwood just over a month ago with his girlfriend and two daughters.

"My girlfriend had family who lived in this area before, and they liked it a lot," Harris says. "And I feel a lot safer here than I did in the Hill District. It's a convenient location and it's quiet."

When I asked about the Gammage incident — Harris was a kid at the time — he told me he'd learned about it in history class. "We learned about how racism is still prevalent today," he says.

"My friend warned me about the police here," Harris acknowledges. "But I think profiling is everywhere."

Charlene Berger has a similar perspective. Berger is black, and a former city police officer: While she lives in Mount Oliver, she lived in Brentwood a few years ago and still comes there to shop. "I never trusted the [Brentwood] police, and I still don't," she says. "The people here were very good to me. I didn't feel like Brentwood was any more racist than anywhere else."

That's the message many Brentwood residents want you to hear: The police were responsible for Jonny Gammage, not the people.

"I don't think you can label a community racist," is how Jeff Healy, a former PTA president and Brentwood resident for 45 years, put it. "I don't think you can label 10,000 people with one name."

But as much as Brentwood might like to forget — the Gammage incident isn't even included on its Wikipedia page — it's not quite that easy. In the wake of Gammage's death, too many Brentwood residents kept their mouths shut, demanding little in the way of accountability from their police. Nor did they complain when standards were relaxed so that Vojtas could receive his promotion.  That makes us culpable.

So when a newcomer like Jarreau Harris is willing to give our community the benefit of the doubt, we have a special burden not to disappoint him.

But if Harris is willing to give Brentwood the benefit of the doubt, maybe everyone else — including the local media — ought to do the same. While Brentwood's history has earned it additional scrutiny, that doesn't mean any other community would look any better beneath the microscope.

Because after all, that former neighbor of mine, the one who left Brentwood? He could be living in your neighborhood.

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