My wife, Liz, and I hosted a very fun party Monday night at our home in Little Rock’s Capitol View neighborhood for our friend Ryan Davis, a candidate for the open seat for state House District 34. The party was awesome — so many of our favorite people, with kids running around playing together. It was vibrant, diverse and fun. We were doing something important: helping our friend Ryan get elected to the legislature. It was everything I love about our community.
Then the party ended and the crazy started. People lingered in the front yard, reluctant to break up a great conversation or say goodbye to friends. In the end, there were two people left: Ryan and state Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), who co-hosted the party. I had gone inside to put my kids to bed when I received a text from Vivian that something was happening outside.
Ryan had walked Vivian to her car about four doors down from my house, and they lingered a moment in front of her car finishing their conversation. The car was parked in front of a neighbor’s house, and those neighbors began harassing Vivian and Ryan, telling them they didn’t belong there and yelling at them to leave. (If you don’t know or haven’t yet guessed, Ryan and Vivian are black, and our aggressive neighbors are white.) Two men exited the house and entered the yard, approaching them threateningly. Ryan and Vivian both called the police.
Meanwhile, an older white woman from the other side of the street came outside and joined in yelling at Ryan and Vivian. She told them to leave and to “drop dead.” Then the sound of a gunshot rang out from the woman’s house. Ryan and Vivian each called 911 again to report the gunfire.
I didn’t know yet about the neighbors and the arguing and the gunshot. I came outside of my house after getting Vivian’s text to find police officers approaching with their guns pointed at Vivian and Ryan. I ran into the street, yelling to the police officers that they had their guns drawn on my friends. They slowed to tell me they had a call about two people arguing in the street and gunfire. I reiterated that they were my friends, that one was a state legislator and the other was a candidate for office, that I KNEW they didn’t have a gun and weren’t arguing, and that the officers didn’t need to aim weapons at them.
Then, they turned their weapons on me and ordered me back to my house. I was furious and afraid someone had falsely claimed that Ryan and Vivian had a gun and that the police were escalating the situation on bad information. Losing my cool, I yelled at the officers, then called Kathy Webb, my city board representative, as my worst fears played out in my mind.
Minutes passed, and more officers arrived. I walked with them to make sure Ryan and Vivian were OK. Both of them were far less upset than I was. They explained what happened and that they understood why the police approached the scene the way they did. But they were both outraged by the behavior of my neighbors, and I was too.
The racist neighbors who started it all had gone inside and wouldn’t answer the door when one of the officers returned to their house to ask more questions. The other neighbor who told them to drop dead and who we suspect fired the gun got a citation from the police for terroristic threatening.
Kathy Webb arrived in her pajamas to make sure everyone was OK. We all gave each other hugs. Ryan, Vivian and Kathy drove home, and I went inside where Liz and I explained to our kids that most of our neighbors were fantastic, but a few are ignorant racists, and one of them was so mean she fired a gun. We explained that the police came to protect our friends and us, that everyone was safe, and that this is why we have to work to make sure everyone gets treated fairly. We kissed them goodnight.
I’m troubled by a few things: I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 25 years. I’m troubled that our awesome, somewhat-diverse neighborhood is occupied by some neighbors who think they can threaten people simply because they are black and in public. We need to root that racism out of our city.
I feel horrible that guests in my house — in my neighborhood — are not safe just because of who they are. I suspect that yours aren’t either in your neighborhood, wherever you live. We have to change that.
I’m troubled that I have a neighbor who feels privileged enough to fire a gun when she feels threatened by two African Americans having a conversation 50 feet from her house on a public street. She should not have a gun.
I’m troubled and a bit ashamed that I have not done more to build relationships with the people on my own street when strengthening communities across the state is the focus of my career.
I hate that this situation was radically novel to me, and depressingly familiar to Ryan and Vivian. I know as a white guy that I can go almost anywhere in the state and be safe. I know that in those rare places where I’m not safe, I can be confident that the police are not going to mistakenly shoot me.
I’m troubled by the whole situation with the police. I hate that my mind, when I saw their guns drawn on my friends, went to the worst place, and I hate that I lost my cool with them. I owe those officers an apology. But I also hate that, given Little Rock’s history, my worst fears were not completely unjustified.
And I want to learn more about what police best practices are for a situation like that. I saw a domestic disturbance and officers running into it with guns drawn military-style. That could well escalate a situation rather than calm it. I understand that the police saw a disturbance on a dark street with reported gunfire and they had their guns aimed at my friends — who called the police — because those were the only people they could see from a half-block away. I want there to be a better way for the police to de-escalate situations like that while remaining safe. Maybe there’s not.
I hate that this hatred is a foundation of the city, the state and the country that I live in. And that it’s probably not any better anywhere else. The work is here because the work is everywhere.
I’m amazed at how calm Vivian and Ryan remained, like the battle-tested leaders I already knew they were. Representation matters, and we need more leaders like them in our government and every level of our society. I have to say how thankful I am to Kathy Webb for taking my panicked call, getting out of bed, making the phone calls to other city leaders, and showing up to make sure everyone was OK. She is another example of the kind of leaders we are lucky to have.
I am determined to make something of this situation. There are misguided racists everywhere. We have entrenched racist policies driving inequity. I’m going to meet with my neighborhood association, and anyone else I can think of, to see how we can make some progress. It’s easy in our comfortable bubbles to forget how fragile those bubbles are, and what reality is like outside them. It’s easy to avoid conversations about race and equity, working in multiracial coalitions and organizing our own neighborhoods, because that’s all hard.
It’s fresh and we’re still processing. I need to listen to a lot of people about what comes next. I know my sense of outrage must feel quaint to the leaders who do this work every day. But it’s never too late to be reminded why the work of love and justice is so important, and to be reminded again that the work is here, because it is everywhere.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.