Last Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 Armstrong held an informative Campus Conversations on 21st century policing. A panel discussion- featuring Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap, Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Chief Joseph Lumpkin, Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher, and Armstrong Police Chief Wayne Willcox- invited faculty and students of Armstrong to contribute to the dialogue. The discussion happened to be scheduled at the same time as my Black Women Writers class with Dr. Regina Bradley. We had already spent half the semester learning about police brutality and the growing responses like Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name, so we decided, as a class, to be a part of the conversation. I was just beginning to understand the pain and necessity behind each movement, but what I witnessed on Tuesday in the Ogeechee Theatre was equally eye-opening, heart breaking, and infuriating. I had never heard such hurtful ignorance as the sludge that spewed from Sheriff Wilcher’s mouth that day.
When I began writing this piece I kept catching myself backspacing- brutally policing my own words, dancing around generalizations, carefully avoiding language that may offend- so much that I felt my point slipping away. So, I stopped because I realized that Sheriff John Wilcher had made no attempts to show the same courtesy to the students and faculty of Armstrong. In fact, he put such little thought into his responses that not only were they so deeply hurtful, but also they were ill-informed, often blatantly false, and oozed the same arrogance and racism as the mouth they were so proudly fumbling out of.
The other panel members were suspiciously rehearsed and political, but overall receptive of the questions and critiques put to them. Armstrong’s Chief Willcox and D.A. Meg Heap agreed that building trust between communities and the police is the first step to recovery, while Chief Lumpkin acknowledged the difficulty of building relationships when officers don’t see much time out from behind the wheel. Sheriff Wilcher, however, was a shining light of honesty. His carelessly biased responses revealed the truly troublesome mentality of many officers. My brain shot up the first red flag when the panel was asked to comment on how they approach issues of racism in law enforcement, Wilcher proudly claimed to have never seen any case of racism during his 40 years on the force.
The audience was visibly frustrated with this statement and followed up by texting in a more direct prompt. The text presented a statistic- that 1 in 3 black people, 1 in 8 Hispanics, and 1 in 17 white people will be imprisoned at some point- and asked the panel to reflect on the reason for this statistic and offer possible solutions. I honestly can’t remember the other panel members’ responses because I was too busy trying to wrap my head around Sheriff Wilcher’s racist ramblings. He suggested that in order to address this issue we need to go “back to the home” and look at how “these children” are being raised. He attributed these alarming numbers to absentee parents. He preached: “You have these kids calling their ‘aunties’ to bail them out because…Where are their parents? LOCKED UP!”…. Yes, that is an actual quote and yes, he actually said aunties. I will point out, however, that this statement has the potential to be true. If you were to continue the statement to include the fact that a staggering number of these arrests are over petty crimes, or that the conditions of many black and Hispanic communities only leave a few options for survival, then you may be at the beginning of the truth.
Sheriff Wilcher’s grand finale was the most heart breaking of all. He concluded the conference by bringing a student to tears, shaming and victim blaming her when she spoke up about the lack of police assistance she received after multiple 911 calls over domestic violence. The student bravely stood up and gave her testimony. She respectfully acknowledged their service and showed gratitude before leaving the floor open for the panel to respond. Each panel member took the time to sincerely apologize and offer their personal service to rectify the situation. Then Sheriff Wilcher raised his hand and began, “I’m sorry to hear about your experience, BUT….” He proceeded to berate the student, accusing and blaming her for allowing the abuse to continue. His voice was getting louder until he was practically shouting and pointing his finger directly at her. His words echoed through the theatre, “YOU come to bail them out! YOU call the cops and then go behind us and YOU bring them back into the house.”
Almost everyone in the room came to her defense, shouting over him, begging her not to listen to him.
I left the room shaking. My face was burning and my chest was tightening around my lungs. As I walked out of the theatre I was stopped by the sight of countless bodies strewn across the floor. Each one dressed in black and holding names of innocent black lives that had been lost at the hands of police. I looked at my peers on the floor in front of me and heard Sheriff Wilcher’s words all over again. I dropped my bags and collapsed next to a girl holding the name Sandra Bland. I closed my eyes and let the tears settle as Sheriff Wilcher exited through the back door.