Having grown up (black) in the American South, the good Rev. Michael Jennings, 56, both was and wasn’t surprised last May 22 by the “surreal” arrival of (white) cops in his small Alabama town to confront his nefarious crime of watering a neighbor’s flowers like the good Christian he is. “When they first pulled up, I already knew it was gonna be something,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Here we go.'” And so it went. “Whatchadoin’ here, man?” asked officer Chris Smith as he walked up to Jennings, streaming hose in hand, outside a tidy white house in Childersburg. “Watering flowers,” said Jennings, studiously declining to add, “Duh.” Smith: “Ok, well that’s cool. Do you have ID?” At that, and Smith’s noting of a “suspicious” person report, Jennings goes off, done with it all. “I’m Pastor Jennings, I live across the street. I’m supposed to be here. But no man, I’m not going to give you ID.” Smith: “Why not?” Jennings: “Cause I ain’t done nothing wrong.” Also, ’cause he trained to be a cop, and knows that under Alabama law police can only stop someone in a public place and demand ID if they suspect a felony or other public offense has been committed, and watering flowers isn’t listed under the state’s criminal code, unless, evidently, you’re, you know…
Voices rise, things escalate, alternately scary and absurd. Jennings storms home, marches back, charges racial profiling like his son just endured despite a Master’s and a good university job. Smith asks him to calm down. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” Jennings reiterates. “If you want to lock me up, lock me up. But I’m going to continue watering these flowers.” Smith tells dispatch, “We’ve got one that’s not listening to us.” Jennings again rails he’s just watering. Smith: “How do I know that’s the truth?” Jennings: “I’m holding a water hose in my hand.” Etc. Minutes later, the pastor of the Vision of Abundant Life Ministries in nearby Sylacauga, where he grew up, is handcuffed and hustled into the cruiser – but not shot! – as the puzzled cops try to decide what to do. Amber Roberson, a white neighbor, appears and admits “this is probably my fault”; she called police, not recognizing Jennings though she invited him to her son’s upcoming graduation. Yes, she says, Jennings and the absent neighbor are friends and it “would be completely normal” for him to be watering. Jennings’ distraught wife and daughter emerge and offer ID; the cops say they can’t un-arrest him. In the scene’s weirdest moment, Jennings, in handcuffs, assures Roberson he plans to get her son something nice for a gift.
Last week, Childersburg police released bodycam video of the encounter his lawyer deems “police abuse, police intimidation and racial profiling.” The charge of “obstructing governmental operations” police cooked up was dropped “faster than moldy bread,” and Jennings plans to file a lawsuit soon for unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. Meanwhile, “I feel a little paranoid.” Living blocks from the police department, he still waves at passing cruisers; he notes the Bible “teaches us to love thy neighbor,” while it also urges “keep your enemies close.” Anden route to jail, Jennings says he even prayed for a cop having issues at home when he asked him: “Now that’s eccentric.” But he argues the three officers should be fired or disciplined for what could be a lesson in “what not to do.” Above all, weary of what he gently terms “the burdens of living while Black,” he says “we need to see change.” He quotes John 7:24: “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.” He cites history, the “ongoing battle” of “our life as black Americans,” from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights Act: “We now have 59 years of civil rights, and they’ve been violated in all those 59 years.” He bears no ill will, and he keeps his faith, “God will work things out for me.” Nonetheless, “Right is right, and wrong is wrong,” and can we get an Amen?
Abby Zimet has written Common Dreams’s Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women’s, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues.