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Targeted in a Ferguson FBI Sting, Olajuwon Davis Eyes His Next Act 

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click to enlarge In this image from August 14, 2014, Davis and other members of the New Black Panthers helps direct traffic during a demonstration. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • In this image from August 14, 2014, Davis and other members of the New Black Panthers helps direct traffic during a demonstration.

In early January 2018, a new student walked into a prison classroom in a federal corrections facility in Milan, Michigan. It was the semester's third theater workshop for the instructor, Sergio Barrera, a graduate student with the University of Michigan's Prison Creative Arts Project. Each week, Barrera spent 90 minutes leading some twenty inmates in improvised theater scenes and preparations for the semester's performances.

It was Davis' mustache that caught Barrera's attention first. Wide as his face and styled to points, Davis' facial hair wasn't the only thing that set him apart from the other inmates.

"One of the great things that I appreciated from him was his vulnerability," Barrera recalls. "The fact that he was willing to just display his authentic self in front of men he knew nothing about."

Davis stayed in Barrera's theater classes through two semesters. As an instructor, the program barred Barrera from asking his students about the reason for their incarceration. But while on a long drive to prison one week, Barrera says one of the other college-aged instructors caved to curiosity and Googled Davis' name.

Barrera says he was initially frightened by the results. The reports described a violent bombing campaign thwarted by the FBI.

Over time, however, Barrera says he came to see something different in Davis, a presence the young actor used to command attention, deliver a monologue or launch into song from a "stage" made from nothing but a few chairs pushed next to the wall in a multi-tiered cellblock.

"I just remember him standing there, and everybody just stepping aside," Barrera says. "He was in the center of that open space, and all eyes were on him."

Looking back on what he knows about Davis' past, Barrera wonders if those same talents made him the perfect casting choice to star in the FBI's stage-managed bomb plot.

"He's essentially being targeted for being good at who he is, right? These are qualities that have potential to move the masses," Barrera points out. "He's so likable, so relatable, and there's charisma behind it. For an intelligence agency, maybe these are the types of people that you fear — because you don't know how much power they hold."

Perhaps. Ron Himes has a slightly different theory. The founder of St. Louis' Black Rep, Himes had directed a fifteen-year-old Davis in a 2008 stage production of the anti-Apartheid musical Sarafina.

He had followed the young actor's career from then on — until it was halted by Davis' other endeavors.

"He was serious and committed to the work," Himes recalls of Davis' role in the musical. "It was shock and disbelief for me when he was arrested. None of that seemed to fit the character of the person that I knew. None of it seemed to be feasible."

Himes lived through the civil rights era of the 1960s. He had experienced the rise and fall of the original Black Panthers, their ranks cut away by FBI infiltration.

In these movements for civil rights, Himes reflects, it always seems to be the young, the most idealistic, who pay the steepest price.

"This has been a continuous fight since the time Black people landed in America," he says. "Each generation of young people picks up the mantle, and when you are in that phase of life, in that phase of the movement, what you see is the need to be totally committed to effecting a change. You believe there are righteous people who believe like you believe."

And in that moment, Himes cautions, "that has the capacity to make you vulnerable to manipulation."

That's what the FBI was looking for, Himes concludes.

"They needed to find a pawn," he says. "They needed to find someone that they could manipulate. And unfortunately, in this instance, it was Olajuwon."

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