My family has lived in Conway, Arkansas since April 2007. We have committed our selves in a variety of ways to seek the good of the city, one for a level of self-interest and secondly, we recognize a responsibility to freely use our skills and talents for the betterment of society.
Rarely have I had to consider the conduct of our elected and/or service officials during this residence. My work necessitates interactions with elected officials, government staff at the local and state level, and interactions with city and county law enforcement. In general, it has been my experience of substantive interactions to address issues which are commonly not on the radar of most Conway persons. At the same time, these personal well meaning interactions can not act as an inhibitor to actions by our government or its representatives which are not in the best keeping of all Conway citizens.
Our national context since the end of May shifted from COVID-19 to actions and discussions circling around race and law enforcement. The deaths of George Floyd and Breona Taylor and the associated responses across the nation served as a black hole exerting its powerful force on every body within its sphere of influence. Conway was not immune to experiencing the gravitational field of race, “Black Lives versus All Lives,” defunding police, peaceful protest, and outside agitation. In the context of businesses placing signs in support of Black Lives, I myself hosting meetings to help individuals negotiate the dynamics of the situation, the city organizing a march downtown culminating with gathering of songs and sermons, unbeknownst to the city, another collapsing star was set to pull on the lives of Conway citizens.
On Wednesday July 29th, 2020 the city of Conway and the Conway Police Department released body cam footage of a February 4, 2020 arrest of Lionel Morris at the Harps Grocery Store. Mr. Morris along with his companion were identified as being shoplifters and CPD responded to conduct an arrest. During the arrest, Mr. Morris fled CPD, participated in actions which clearly demonstrated resisting arrest, and he was finally subdued and handcuffed by CPD officers. At the five minute mark of the video, Mr. Morris who is handcuffed, face down, and surrounded by officers is moved by an officer to his direct left shoulder, the officer places his right foot on the back of Mr. Morris who then responds with “I can’t breathe.” (You are able to view the video at the Conway Police Department Facebook Page).
Marisa Hicks for the Log Cabin Democrat reported the “ASP and the prosecutor’s office cleared all officers involved of any criminal wrongdoing” (https://tinyurl.com/y2j9agcc). In response to the release of the video, Mayor Bart Castleberry issued a follow up statement on the afternoon of Wednesday July 29, 2020 an internal investigation would be conducted, local Black Conway residents were involved in a review, and the officers involved placed on paid administrative leave.
What are we to learn about the death of Mr. Lionel Morris in the context of our national and city discussion? I believe it is incumbent for us to learn interactions between law enforcement and citizens can descend into outcomes which are violent and in some cases can result in the loss of life for one or in some cases both of the participants. Our second lesson, is the recognition there are systems in place designed to review and report on activities conducted by law enforcement officials and sometimes the outcomes are simply mind blowing.
Now I want to pivot to personal responsibility and I want to begin first by speaking to my beautiful Black Men and Women. Your live does matter. In our current situation, some people are desperate, tired of being alienated, hungry, angry, and hurt. I get it. I would plead with you to consider your lives if per chance you have an interaction with law enforcement. I would ask you to suffer the brief embarrassment of accusation and being detained instead of the permanent situation of physical harm or death. The second lesson for us to learn as Black Men and Women is we have the opportunity even in the shadow of death to use our human agency to make changes. These changes will require your involvement. Commit yourself to run for public office, join the police department, apply for a position on the Civil Service Commission, contact city. We have a personal responsibility to take the necessary steps to reform and in some cases end practices which can be a contributing factor to the death of others.
Now I would like to pivot to our city and county officials. It is necessary as elected leaders and servants in the city of Conway to disclose the rationale as to how decisions were arrived at regarding the officers involved in the death of Mr. Morris. If I may, the optics of this situation are poor. These optics are poor because of the release of this video within our current context, on the heels of “demonstrations” in support of unity, and the previous statement of the Mayor to increase funding for police (https://tinyurl.com/y5steyel) with the associated announcement about a duty to intervene policy by the new police chief during the same statement.
Let me be clear, I do not advance the sentiment this death was racially motivated. At the same time, our elected officials and law enforcement need to clearly understand the power of the moment. The power of the moment was a Black man saying “I can’t breathe” in the custody of law enforcement. A Black man who consequently dies. Such an incident only lends support to those who want to carry out solutions which will have significantly long term consequences, reinforces the idea of the prevalence of White Supremacy, and the belief there is an orchestrated plot to kill Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, when the data proves otherwise. Needless to say, I hope the Mayor, Chief of Police, City Council and other officials gain an understanding citizens are not looking for marches, socially appropriate signs, changing school building names, and other pontifications rooted in “white fragility.” Citizens, especially Black citizens will be looking for substantive changes which morally, ethically, and legally demonstrate equality under the law.
Personally we must commit to ourselves the necessity to view one another and practice a high level of affirmation for human dignity. We must commit to hearing the anger, the expressed grief, and outrage of others considering the moment.
I challenge those who are ardent supporters of law enforcement to consider the following question. Under what circumstance will you raise your voice about the actions of a law enforcement officer? It was Annette who stated, “There is a moral to this story, “Don’t break the law and never think you’ll win in a struggle with the LEO’s! Good job CPD.” It was Donovan who stated, “So sick of doped out trash attacking police sometimes like this one with a deadly weapon and then the police are treated like the criminal. He caused his own death.” Finally let’s hear from Clayton who said, “Really Tired of Bart “Simpson” Castleberry not supporting his officers. This was solely the fault of the shoplifting convict doing drugs and fighting the police.” (Source: Critical Incident Briefing on Conway Police Department Facebook Page).
There must come a point when principle must outweigh allegiance, when the rights of citizens innocence must be greater than the crime accused. You claim America is great but how great is it when I am not afforded the opportunity to face my accuser. I was dismayed by the comments of Conway citizens who presented various rationales to justify the death of Mr. Morris. How can you ever justify death?
Lastly, I issue a challenge to our city. We are not immune to problems. We are not immune to experiencing a Minneapolis. In our own city, a soul cried out “I can’t breathe.” I challenge you to find common ground, engage constructively, and build solutions which will impact the maximum amount of our citizens. The ability to accomplish such activity will require the presence of a diversity of ideological persuasions. Law enforcement activity is not simply a concern of Black citizens of Conway but all of her citizens. These solutions will involve trade-offs and the best trade-offs will involve maximizing the freedom of Conway citizens to pursue human flourishing while reducing the power and influence of her government.
Do we understand the power of the moment and the presence of a collapsing star which can pull us downward? If we understand the power of the moment, I believe through love and human engagement we can achieve enough power to escape the gravitational pull of this moment and be better Conway Citizens.