JUNE 15, 2023 by Jill Collen Jefferson
In the past few weeks, Black Americans have commemorated three significant moments in our history: the 158th anniversary of Juneteenth, marking the day when Blacks in Texas finally learned of the freedom from slavery; the 121st anniversary of the Tulsa massacre of Blacks and destruction of Black businesses at the hands of White Supremacists, and the third anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by White police officers. And in late August, we will mark the 68th year since the lynching of Emmett Till.
In the aftermath of all these events – and similar others – did anything change? Did Black Americans truly emerge free from injustice and equal to White Americans? In fact, the mistreatment of Black people endures and far too often continues to go unnoticed, exposing the iniquity we experience simply because of the color of our skin.
I am a Black, southern woman who feels the uneasiness of knowing that my life could be unjustly taken from me at any moment, despite being an attorney and the founder of a civil and human rights organization. Two weeks ago, I thought it might be my last.
There’s a cruel contradiction in the United States: the police, those who are sworn and paid to protect me, are often my biggest threat. Lexington, Mississippi, a small predominantly Black town, is the epicenter of this reality. For the past two years, that town has quietly been the site of the worst police crisis this nation has seen in 50 years.
Last year, JULIAN, the non-profit civil rights legal organization I founded, leaked audio of Lexington’s white Chief of Police bragging about killing 13 people in the line of duty, even shooting one person, whom he called a racial expletive, nearly 100 times. JULIAN and the National Police Accountability Project then sued the city of Lexington and its police officers in federal court for civil rights violations.
Fast forward to June 10th, when I was driving in Lexington and saw the Police Department arresting someone near the town square. Given the department’s history of terrorizing Lexington’s Black citizens, I decided to record the incident in case anything went wrong. In short order, a flashlight shined on me, and I was flagged down. Scott Walters, an officer with LPD, asked for my identification, and why was I recording him. I was not obligated to answer.
But I quickly called my attorney and upon his advice, I presented my ID. Walters responded by pulling out his taser, while another LPD officer named Agee approached my car. Agee knew me because we had argued about a rights violation months before, and he’d seen me four days earlier at the town’s Board of Aldermen meeting.
Both officers yelled for me to get out of my car, and Walters reached in, snatched the phone out of my hand, and slammed it on the car roof. Then he unlocked my door, yanked it open, grabbed me and pulled me out, still armed with his taser. In an instant, I was cuffed and thrown into the backseat of the police car. I was told I was being charged with “failure to comply.” And from the back seat of the police cruiser, I watched the two illegally search my car and rifle through my belongings. Walters knelt to look under the driver seat, where he found my legally owned gun, shouting, “Lookie here! I sure hope it’s stolen.” He then called me a “shit lawyer,” took me to the police station, and threatened me with jail. There’s no question my arrest was an act of retaliation against the legal complaints I filed.
A while later, Chief Charles Henderson—a defendant in JULIAN’s lawsuit against LPD—walked in. He said he’d release me on my own recognizance but that I had to pay a $35 fee to be let go. I refused to fund the system that brutalized me just minutes ago, and those in my community regularly. So, they drove me to the jail and charged me with not only failure to comply, but also disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. My first court date is next month.
What happened to me is indicative of what happens to Black citizens in Lexington every day, only they suffer worse. If LPD falsely arrested the lead counsel in a federal lawsuit against them, imagine what they are continually doing to residents who don’t have resources like an attorney on call and knowledge of the law at their fingertips.
Since my arrest, I’ve been asked why I didn’t immediately show Walters my ID. Very simply, no officer in Lexington, or anywhere in this country, should think he or she can stop someone because they feel like it, and pretextual excuses don’t pass muster. He had no legitimate grounds to stop me on a public street simply because I was driving by and recording. As a result, he had nothing to support a demand for my license, and I had no obligation to produce it.
We said things would change after Juneteenth 158 years ago. We said things would change when the LAPD kicked and clubbed Rodney King to a pulp. We said things would change when George Floyd got the life choked out of him. But policing in America is largely the same. We have come to a dangerous place in America -- injustice has become the accepted norm in Lexington and much of the country, leading to victim blaming and, worse, to Black and Brown people dying at the hands of police with no accountability. This way of life has been rotting for some time now. It needs an immediate and proper burial.
Earlier this year at the State of the Union, President Biden said, “Public safety depends on public trust, as all of us know… But too often that trust is violated.”
He’s right. And when that trust is violated, there must be accountability--not just on an individual officer, but systemic accountability to ensure systemic change. It’s time for the federal government to partner with civil rights organizations and join us on the ground in small towns like Lexington again, like they did in the 1960s, instead of using us for information and optics. It’s time for a national and international disciplined, strategized, visionary movement that centers on impact and innovation. It’s time for a renaissance of civil rights.