David Baker, head of Calhoun County’s NAACP chapter, stood in front of a microphone Wednesday in Oxford and stated the obvious. Someone had to say it.
“We don’t want to see what happened in Missouri happen in our area,” he said.
We can all agree on that, right?
Let the Missouri town of Ferguson be known for questionable police tactics and racial unrest. Let Ferguson dominate cable news. Let Ferguson be labeled the negative example of post-racial America.
That’s not us, right?
We’re better than that.
I think so, though you never really know how a community will react until awful arrives. In Missouri, an unarmed black teen was killed by a white police officer. Protests turned ugly.
In Oxford, a 32-year-old black Talladega man, Melvin Mathews, died in Oxford’s jail in June from what the coroner says are drug-related causes. Baker, once informed of the death, contacted Oxford police and reviewed the video and audio from the arrest.
What Baker saw were officers who treated Mathews “with dignity and respect,” he said. “They were professional.”
The only stain on this story — other than Mathews’ death — is that Baker and other community leaders felt the need to quell rumors that something sinister and racially unjust had taken place in Oxford’s jail. Whether that was genuine concern or a Ferguson-caused byproduct is irrelevant.
“We don’t want anyone to be looting, burning or killing,” Baker said.
When’s the last time you heard something so adamantly true spoken about race relations and community spirit in Calhoun County?
Whether white or black, those who have lived through the rough parts of the county’s history get it. In our own way, there is a little bit of Ferguson in our cities, especially Anniston, the county’s longtime center.
In the 1960s, the Freedom Riders, the Willie Brewster night-rider murder and the racial beating at Anniston’s public library. In 1971, the Wellborn integration unrest. Monsanto pollution that ripped apart predominantly black neighborhoods and led to the largest environmental justice court settlement in U.S. history.
And, more recently, the seemingly constant refrain from protesters that (a.) attorneys in the Monsanto case were shady with settlement payouts; (b.) police in Anniston are corrupt; and (c.) the Calhoun County Courthouse is, too. None of that, by the way, has been buoyed by a single speck of proof. It’s old news now, but it’s still a fair question: Did former Anniston City Councilman Ben Little spend more time on city business or ring-leading many of these protests?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of wondering what would have happened had Ferguson occurred here — on West 15th Street in Anniston, on Snow Street in Oxford. No one knows because it’s hypothetical. And, frankly, it’s too convenient to predict that Anniston — a majority-black town like Ferguson — would have endured the same unrest. So don’t.
The appeal of the summit between Oxford police and the county’s NAACP chapter is its obvious logic: people talked. They didn’t protest. They didn’t march. They didn’t call for firings. They sought information. To steal Baker’s words, they acted professional. (Though Oxford should have revealed Mathews’ death when it occurred, not two months later.)
This situation could have turned out different, mind you. What if Baker’s review of the video and audio had uncovered a story different than the police version? What if the coroner said Mathews’ death was suspicious? What if Oxford police had ignored Baker’s call?
It might have been time for protests and marches.
It’s too Pollyanna to take one instance and say it’s a new day for race relations in Calhoun County, particularly as it involves police. But there are signs. In Anniston, the creation of a citizens advisory committee is a monumental step that should open new lines of communication. And in Oxford, a template has been created: no police department is perfect, but discussions often can ward off distrust and rumor.
Unless you’re in Ferguson, on the street and tired from the turmoil, it’s impossible to understand how deep the rifts between police and people are today. Baker’s admonition, that “we don’t want anyone to be looting, burning or killing,” is both unforgettable and admirable.