Mr. Snyder's Opus

A police beating can't hold back the Hallandale band director and his irrepressible charges.

Show business was never more challenging.

The Hallandale kids do a laudable job of keeping their composure, which is broken only after they spy the arrival of the awesome Bethune-Cookman marching band.

The collegians march in perfect lockstep to a precise snare drum, looking impossibly cool despite the heat, resplendent in their maroon uniforms with gold trim. The younger Hallandale students gape with admiration; the seniors among them holler out the names of Bethune-Cookman students who came from Hallandale, hoping their friends will turn their heads.

Velvet and polyester aren't made for the September sun, but Hallandale High band students march through it.
Velvet and polyester aren't made for the September sun, but Hallandale High band students march through it.

Members of this band played in the 2002 film Drumline, which celebrated a style of marching that is equal parts musical performance and modern dance. The movement has grown slowly but steadily since the 1960s, advanced by Dr. William P. Foster, band director at Florida A&M, who wanted to distinguish his "Marching 100" from the conventional marches at most universities.

"Dr. Foster at Florida A&M took that same style... and kind of customized it to fit the needs and the desires of our young black college musicians," says Bethune-Cookman director Wells, whose band is an old rival of FAMU's. "The steps changed a little bit. The knees went a little higher. It was more aggressive, more entertaining, more stylish, more exciting."

Foster and those who admired his style freed their bands to play more contemporary music — pop, rhythm and blues, and, more recently, hip-hop. "The final thing, that really is our signature piece, is that we started to dance," Wells says.

All of this gave a fresh coat of glamour to being in band. "I think it's the selection of the music," Xavier Smith says of the band's popularity at the school. Alongside standards like "The Pink Panther," the band mixes the familiar bass lines of hip-hop hits like E-40's "U and Dat." The crowd is happy to supply the lyrics.

One recent afternoon, the band shared its football field with the football team. A crowd of student spectators all sat on the band's side of the field. When a football player made a spectacular catch, no one noticed, but when the band left the field, the bleachers emptied. Here, band seems to have more social cachet than football.

On the evening of November 7, 2004, as a bruised and bandaged Snyder sat in a Broward County Jail cell, the job of repairing the marching band's spirit fell to the parents.

Pamela Lamar-Dukes had a daughter in the band, and she'd watched Snyder conduct practices many times before the night she saw him taken down by police.

"If you're in a marching band, there's certain discipline that you have to have," she says. "You must have respect for authority. You must be where you are supposed to be."

It came as a huge shock to those students to see what happened to the conveyor of that message. "They're seeing their band director manhandled by cops; they see him kicked and punched — there was no way for him to defend himself," Lamar-Dukes says. "They arrest him. We hear that it's for assault, and that makes no sense, because he didn't hit anyone. The students could see him."

Lamar-Dukes and other parents brought the band back to its room at Hallandale High, the site of so many Snyder lessons.

"You're dealing with a lot of emotions," Lamar-Dukes says. "You have some kids who are very angry about what was going on. A lot of them were crying. There were tears of not understanding. We had to go to the band room and just let them talk it out, let them process it."

Of course, the students were not blind to the racial component. "The kids see a lot of police officers who are white doing this to their band director, who is black," Lamar-Dukes says. "They say, 'This is a Rodney King thing.' Basically, they feel 'If it happened to him, it could be me as well. '"

Snyder never even considered a guilty plea. Not after prosecutors tried to induce one by reducing the felony charges to misdemeanors. Not even after his attorney warned him that, by taking the case to trial, he faced the possibility of two years in prison and a minimum of 60 days.

Snyder wanted to keep his teaching license, and pleading to the misdemeanor meant accepting a suspension, if not permanent revocation. But perhaps more than that, Snyder had a point to make. "Whatever the police think, my school, my kids, and my family, they know the truth," he says. And for their sake and his own, he had to stand up in his own defense.

That the arrest and beating took place in front of the band, their parents, and his professional colleagues was humiliating for Snyder the band director. But as a defendant, the circumstances were heaven-sent. Scores of witnesses could corroborate Snyder's version of events.

Lamar-Dukes had joined Snyder in dashing from the stands to break up the fight. At trial, she testified that Snyder never struck the police officer, that he appeared cooperative. Another parent, Kerris Delgado, said the same, as did the vice president of the Hallandale Band Parents Association, Myrna Sims.

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