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Fight the Power: Artist's encounter with Columbia cops reminds me how far we have to go

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A picture John Sims took of police cars outside his loft at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art on May 18, which he has titled "Near Death Residency: Portrait of an Artist/Space." Provided

It was Christmas morning around 2 a.m. several years ago, and I had to find food.

The only place open was a fast food joint 10 minutes away from me. On the way home, I passed a neighborhood on Gervais Street and saw a woman lying in the street. I stopped my car and dialed 911, telling the dispatcher I saw a body in the road and was unaware if the person was moving.

Still showing concern, I said to the dispatcher I was going to get out of the car and check on the woman. The dispatcher, whom I assume is a Black woman, and she can probably tell I'm a Black man, told me, "No, I wouldn't do that. Matter of fact, what kind of car are you driving so I can let the officers know that you were the one to make the call?"

The moment hit me as I thought of something that could happen: Cops arrive. Instead of assuming that I'm helping the woman on the street, they believe that I'm a perpetrator and somehow perceive me to be guilty, not a Good Samaritan. The moment gave me pause because it made me go against my instincts to help as I sat in the car waiting for the ambulance and officers. A cop then approached me, and I spoke to him with my window down, and thankfully the woman was alive and taken to the hospital.

This moment reminds me of John Sims, the current Black artist-in-residence at 701 Center of Contemporary Art (where, full disclosure, I am on the board of directors).

“Police officers burst inside his provided apartment with guns drawn while he was in bed and offered no explanation before detaining him in the early morning of May 17," reported The Post and Courier.

Whether it is ironic or fitting, his Columbia exhibition, “AfroDixia: A Righteous Confiscation,” includes many of his recolorations and recontextualizations of Confederate flags, including “Five Flags: A Group Hanging,” which displays Confederate banners hanging on gallows.

"While I am very glad to be alive, I know many have never made it out alive," Sims told arts and entertainment site theGrio.

Incidents like this bring me back to last year and how the country responded to the murder of George Floyd and, more specifically as it pertains to Sims’ encounter, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor getting fatally shot in her home.

It leaves me with a question for Black and brown friends reading this: Do you feel things have improved?

Yes, being a cop is difficult. Yes, we value you and thank you for what you do. Yes, the majority of cops are good, hard-working people (and I know a few). But also, yes, I'm f#!king terrified.

Just two weeks ago came footage of Jamal Sutherland, a mentally ill Black inmate who was killed in custody at the Cannon Detention Center in Charleston on Jan. 5. Sutherland was in jail for a behavioral incident at a health care facility and wasn't sent to a unit at the prison for special management needs.

As with body cam footage of the 701 incident, I was unable to bear watching the footage. Transcripts describe him being tased and pepper-sprayed numerous times. Sutherland even asked, "What is the meaning of this?" during the incident. The transcript also details officers telling him not to resist, followed by him saying he wasn't fighting. The officers involved have since been fired.

Not sure what the solution is when these incidents occur, and this is probably the umpteenth column I've written about police's relationship with Black and brown people. From a human perspective, the fear we feel is accurate, and maybe we can start there.

To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates from “In Between the World and Me” on police reform, "You may have heard the talk of diversity, sensitivity training, and body cameras. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them. The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.”

Preach Jacobs is a musician, artist and activist and founder of Cola-Con and indie label Sounds Familiar Records. You can hear his podcasts and read more work at FightThePower.co.

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