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Chester County Press

Life in Oxford after the death of George Floyd

02/22/2021 04:35PM ● By Steven Hoffman

“A black pastor, a white police chief, and a young teen of color come into a room…”

No, this is not the beginning of a joke, even though most of us have heard variations of a joke that begins just like that. The joke usually pulls in diverse religions, cultures, genders, races or ethnic backgrounds. They are subtle and, well, it’s a joke. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t like a good joke?

But are these subtle jokes really a casual and systematic method of enforcing the discrimination of people of color, or people of different religions, or ethnic backgrounds?

There was nothing subtle about the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The images invaded our homes as we watched, unable to turn away from the horrific sight of a white police officer holding his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd. The white police officer did this while surrounded by three other police officers. And for nine minutes, the officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck, his hand casually resting in his pocket, his face expressionless, squeezing the life out of a human being. And in his final moments George Floyd, with his dying breaths, called out for his mother.

People around the globe were shocked. Suddenly, this country was center stage displaying the killing of a black man, in the middle of the day, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.

Statistics have shown that, in our country, people of color are more likely to be detained by police offers,  civilian persons involved in a crime watch, or those just opposed to people of color walking in a park or jogging. As a country, we have seen this scene play out much too often and for far too long. There have been too many Emmett Tills and George Floyds through the years.

Unity Walk in Oxford

Shortly after George Floyd’s death, a Unity Walk was quickly organized in the Borough of Oxford. More than 40 people took part in the event that was organized by Katie Minnis.

“Bethany Atkinson and I talked about this and decided we wanted to do it quickly. We were both sick about what happened to George Floyd,”Minnis explained. She brought her two young children to the walk.

Dick Winchester, a retired professor from Lincoln University, watched the Unity Walk in town last year. Winchester and his wife, Connie, had peacefully protested racial discrimination or social injustice for the majority of their lives. This time, they would sit, they would watch, and they would remember. The irony of where they sat did not escape either of them. They sat facing the Historic Oxford Hotel, which was segregated when Winchester, as a young, white professor, first came to Oxford. Winchester joined his young students at Lincoln University over 60 years ago to protest and throw light on the discriminatory practices of the hotel.

When asked what was different about this time, Winchester said, “I think it certainly  galvanized the Black Lives Matter Movement. And, it also created some opposition to that. It has served to alert the nation to the depths of the racial divide in our country. Some want to create change and some still resist change.” 

So did the Unity Walk change anything in the Borough? Did the death of George Floyd change anything in our town and the rest of the world? Almost one year later, has the death of George Floyd caused real change?

Social change comes inch by inch

There are some signs of change in Oxford, but whether it is enough remains to be seen. 

Borough Council president Peggy Ann Russell, Police Chief Sam Iacono and Mayor Phil Harris all participated in the Unity Walk. Oxford Borough Council formed a Diversity Committee, which included borough council members Amanda Birdwell and Dick Winchester. Harris also sits on the committee. This is the first Diversity Committee that this Borough Council has had since the beginning of Oxford government in 1833.

One thing the committee has been working on is building a relationship between the town of Oxford and the historically black college of Lincoln University, which sits about five miles up the road. This relationship between the town and the college has ebbed and flowed since the college began.

Winchester explained, “We are trying to get Lincoln interested in this town and our town interested in Lincoln. There has been a cold war between Lincoln University and Oxford. There have been some changes. The Oxford Hotel is integrated. This town was a completely segregated town until after World War II. The Red Rose Inn in West Grove was the only restaurant that would serve people of color. When employees of Lincoln (those of color) would come into Oxford for lunch, they were not served.”

Winchester added, “the schools at the time were also segregated. Now they aren’t. Those barriers have fallen. Oxford was not an exception. The whole county wrestled with segregation at that time. Social change comes inch by inch. It’s a struggle. John Lewis’s career reminds us of that.”

Winchester may be part of the change in Oxford. As a council member, he is always acutely aware of discrimination of any kind and spoke about how the Diversity Committee blossomed.

“We are trying to find our way,” Winchester said. “I’m chair of the Police and Public Safety Committee. A year ago, each person on council was asked to identify concerns. It was Police Chief Sam Iacono who said, “kids at risk.” He was talking about kids 6 to 13 who struggle with the impact of poverty, and with a family structure that is non-traditional. His comment led other people to question housing. The Police and Public Safety Committee has, as a footnote, what is going on with kids at risk and the housing situation. That comment by Chief Iacono planted the seed for a Diversity Committee.” 

Winchester’s voice on Council is one of the voices attempting to create change in the Borough. And it is a change that looks at what the impact will be on everyone.

“I’m concerned about housing for everyone, especially in this pandemic,” Winchester said. “The national and state regulations that keep renters from being evicted run out in March. When those restrictions are lifted, you can’t just throw people into the street. But, we have to be aware of that from both points of view. Renters have to have housing, but we have to think of the landlords, too. There are small landlords for whom the loss of rental income is a significant factor. So it works both ways. We are trying to do something so people don’t lose housing and landlords don’t lose their properties.”

Winchester admits there is a lot to do and the current council is trying to be more proactive about those concerns. 

“Our town still has divisions between the races especially in housing,” Winchester said. 

So, as to the question of whether things have changed after the death of George Floyd, Winchester would say things are changing. But there is still a long way to go.

“The legislative process is part of creating change,” Winchester said.

He will not be running for council again when his term is up. He is hopeful that the Borough Council will become more diverse and representative of the community that it serves. But finding anyone to run for a political position is not easy these days. And bringing in someone of color to represent those in the community may not be easy, either.

A unique perspective on policing and race relations

Pastor Larry Redmond, an associate pastor at Life Community Church in Newark, Del., was also at the Unity Walk. He walked with Iacono and Harris. Redmond lives in the Borough of Oxford and has a unique perspective on policing and race relations. Redmond is black and grew up in Philadelphia and as such knew what it is was like to be targeted by police. He was stopped and questioned if he was driving in a predominately white community or if he was just driving. He attended college and then became a Pennsylvania State Police officer.

Redmond worked as a state police officer for eleven years and explained, “I was working undercover. At the time, I was the youngest black undercover officer in the state. But the Lord pulled me out of that. I just wasn’t built for that. However, I did get a valuable perspective from working that job, and as a police officer in general.”

Because of that experience Redmond said he can speak from multiple perspectives, not only as a minority, but also as a police officer. 

He said, “I can see things from the law enforcement perspective. I know all about the quick decisions officers have to make. Now that I am a pastor, my job is to care for all people regardless of color, gender, ethnic background or whatever the differences may be. And it is my job to not only care about the black man and his family if they are being discriminated against, but also the police officer and his family that is called upon to protect everyone.”

When asked if it would help if more people of color would run for office, Redmond answered, “It would, but why would a person of color want to be involved? They have been fighting this fight for years. Most ask if their vote would even be counted, or their vote could make a difference. It takes a certain kind of individual to be involved in politics.” 

He added,” You want people to see your side, but as a black male I can’t just look at the side of the African American being shot; I have to look at the police. You have to see the whole story without pre-judgement. How do you tell someone to step forward and be a part of the process, when they feel the process hasn’t worked?”

The act of voting itself, has been dangerous for people of color. No one can deny the long history of voter suppression of the black vote. Redmond is emboldened by the increased number of blacks voting in the Presidential election in 2020.

“People like Stacey Abrams worked tirelessly to help everyone vote, which meant helping with registrations, transportation, and education,” Redmond said. He is praying all people will continue to take voting seriously.

“In order to create real change, people have to be willing to listen to others. You can’t just be asking yourself how it will benefit you. Talking and listening may make you uncomfortable, especially if it requires you to believe in something you have dismissed before. You have to be a person of prayer when emotions get high. You have to have a willingness to be open to hear that which makes you uncomfortable. You have to take a look at the things you didn’t see in a situation, not just the obvious.”

Although Redmond admits he is a positive guy, he has his own ups and downs. “I’m waiting for  the next wave to hit. The thing that makes me hopeful is that more people have a willingness to speak to inequality. This is not a black thing, an Asian or Hispanic thing. This is an ‘us’ thing. At times, it feels like there is a larger demographic that wants to hear, instead of being heard.”

As he sees it, the change may come in the next generations. 

“My daughter’s best friend is white. When you are a certain age, you may notice a difference, but that doesn’t make you treat someone different. Seeing the relationship they have shows me how each generation is moving toward the idea of togetherness.

“Right now I see a ton of advocates against inequality. When you have the whole world crying out for a person of color, that gives me hope. My hope is that my daughter and her friend will advocate for each other. We can look different, but, it doesn’t stop us from being friends or liking each other.”

Split-second decisions that protect everyone

How did Iacono feel when he saw George Floyd’s death?

“It made me ill,” Iacono said. “I know every profession has its bad apples, but when you witness something wrong like that, I have to wonder how he got hired.”

Iacono stressed that police officers are there to protect people. But he admitted that the lines can get blurred when you actually are called upon to do that.

“Police have to think about everyone that is surrounding them in a situation,” Iacono said. “We have to protect all people and often times we walk into a situation not knowing how it started. We see what we see in the moment, and don’t know all the thoughts that have gone into it. If children are involved, you naturally worry about the kids. There may be a person with a knife,  and yes you have a gun, but you have to be aware of what damage that knife can do to a child. We are called on to make split-second decisions that protect everyone.”

Iacono explained, “In the George Floyd incident, once he is contained, there is no reason for that officer to have his knee on his neck like that.” 

He was already seeing changes coming to policing, even before George Floyd’s death.

“I know there is a lot of talk about criminal reform now, such as making bail easier for a lesser offense, and not sending someone to jail for a small bag of pot,” Iacono explained. “Training has never been more important. Training through MOPEC is aimed at diversity. The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police are also trying to make sure training is being worked on for diversity. Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed down some of that training. You have to choose your training carefully and weigh that training against the time off required. When you are doing it on Zoom or online, we don’t give the police officers off. If they get a call when they are taking an online class, they have to go to the call. More live, actual training is much better.”

Iacono said the police officers here in the small community see things differently than those in a big city.

“We see the same people over and over,” Iacono said. “We build a relationship with them. Our officers stay here longer than they may at a big city like New York or Philadelphia. They get to know the people in the community and are more in tune with what is going on.”

Crucial conversations 

Shortly after the Unity Walk in May of last year, local ministers, Mayor Harris, and some concerned citizens started meeting together. The theme for the meetings was “Crucial Conversations.”

The conversations were crucial. Harris, Iacono, Redmond and a host of others met. Young students were brought in. They talked. They listened.

When asked if taking part in the Crucial Conversations has changed him, Iacono said, “It has made me a much better listener.”

Iacono talked about his life growing up in Chester and how that affected him.

“When I went to Catholic school at St. Michaels in  Chester,  I was the only white male in my class,” he explained. “I like to think that gave me a different perspective.”

“We have to be aware of where people come from and what their perspectives of the police are. People that grew up in a big city have a different experience with the police than people in a small community like Oxford,” he explained. “It is much harder to weed out bad officers in a larger department. In smaller departments like Oxford, no one is going to cover up for anyone. We recognize that policing has to be much more transparent.”

The Oxford Borough Police Department is now using body cameras. The department also just joined Crime Watch, which allows people to give real live tips without giving their names. Those that are signed up to Crime Watch can see what is happening in the town and what the police are doing. 

“We are not waiting for other people to push out what is going on. With Crime Watch, we push it out,” Iacono said. “We get accurate information out to the town. People can watch what is happening as it is happening and respond back to the police. As police officers, people must feel they can trust us. Community policing and building relationships with everyone in the community has never been more important. The better we know the people we serve here in Oxford, the safer we all are.”

So, back to the question: Did the death of George Floyd change anything in this small community? Do crucial conversations continue?

Advocating for each other

Local residents were invited to a public meeting via Zoom to watch the crucial conversations.

Two local moms, one white and one black, were using Zoom to watch the Crucial Conversations. Meanwhile, interesting conversations were happening between the two moms. They have discussed white privilege. 

“I thought white privilege meant that I was rich or went to the right schools,” the white mom said. 

The black mom said, “No, that’s not what it means. It means you are privileged just because you are white. Just because you are white, you will get better jobs and you don’t have to wonder if someone is going to rent to you or if a bank will loan you money.”

During the Crucial Conversations meeting, Pastor Redmond, Chief Iacono and a young black teen are talking and listening to each other. All of them are trying to understand the divisions in this country. The chief and the pastor are listening to the young man talk about how his grandmother had “the talk” with him.

The two men know that phrase well. “The talk” is what young people of color, receive from their family when they are about to step out into the world without their family.

Black mom tells white mom the she has had the talk with her oldest child. The white mom’s eyes drop down, not wanting to see the fear in her friend’s eyes. They stumble through the conversation. Both have wanted to have this conversation for years. They have been great friends for years. And even though both moms are outspoken, fierce women, they didn’t want to say the wrong thing.

Their attention goes back to the meeting.  The young teen has moved his chair a little closer to the police chief. The pastor, sitting between them, puts a comforting hand on their shoulders, as if to say a silent prayer.

Back to the young mothers, their children are playing together. The children are coloring and can’t seem to find the right color of crayons.

Jacob, a four-year-old white boy, would not describe either of the moms as black or white. Jacob’s mother is expecting a baby sister any day. 

“Mom,” Jacob says, “I want a black sister just like Denise at day care.” The mothers look at each other and smile. Out of the mouth of babes! His mother tries to explain that daddy and mommy are white and can’t have a black baby.

But Jacob knows what he wants. “But mom. I want a black sister like Denise. I love Denise. And you and dad aren’t white. Snow is white. And you and dad are…tan,” he says, as he and his black friend are still looking for the right shades of color for the people they have drawn.

Both moms look at each other hopeful that Jacob will continue to love Denise. Maybe Denise and Jacob will marry when they grow up and have the black child he desperately wants.

There is hope, they think. Two moms, having their own crucial conversations, and that has happened because of the horrific death of George Floyd.

Two moms, like the white mothers, Katie Minnis and Bethany Atkinson, who were determined to have a Unity Walk almost a year ago, because they didn’t want to see another horrific death of a human being.

There were 40 people walking that day, but word spread after the walk. And people everywhere in the town of Oxford were having crucial conversations. And those conversations have continued. The Borough Council has created a Diversity Committee. Some Borough Council members will be stepping down and Pastor Redmond has been asked to run for Council or help find someone that is representative of the community.

Pastor Redmond is hoping, well, praying that his daughter and her best friend, who is white, will grow up advocating for each other. 

Listening to another person’s point of view

Chief Iacono thanked Council for their support recently in helping to build a better police department. They have body cams and their cars are equipped with new video cams. “Cameras keep us honest,” Iacono said. Training continues for his officers, and community policing is more important than ever. The police department continues their annual toy drive to collect toys for local children who the police officers know personally. Children they have met through their work as officers.

“It is important to have officers that know their community,” Iacono said. “Crucial conversations taught me to listen and to hear another person’s point of view. You don’t have to agree or disagree. You do have to listen. We need to see through the eyes of others. We cannot dismiss people. We have to be as transparent as we can and not rush to judgement. There is a lot to be taken into consideration, even when we are forced to make a split-second decision.”

And somewhere out there is a young man of color, but more importantly a young man who has heard the talk. He is someone’s son, someone’s pride and joy. He may be someone’s beloved grandchild. And he is just hoping he will have the chance to grow up. He just wants to go out for groceries for his grandma and come home alive. He is telling his friends about the Crucial Conversations. “Yeah, I talked to the police chief and Pastor Larry. They listened to me. And I listened to them. I didn’t know Pastor Larry was a police officer. And I didn’t know Chief Iacono went to a Catholic School and he was the only white guy there.”

And Jacob and his friend are still looking for the right color crayons to color “their” people. Because people aren’t just white or black, and they shouldn’t be described that way. They are people, not colors.

The death of George Floyd was a horrible thing to watch. We will ask ourselves for years to come whether our country changed after that. And, God willing, we must continue our crucial conversations.

Oh, yeah, back to the joke. A black pastor, a white chief of police, and a young man of color come into a room. And what do they do? They sit down, and they talk. And they listen to each other talk.

Well, that’s not funny. No its’s not. The old jokes weren’t funny either. They just perpetuated what led to the killing of George Floyd. But maybe, thanks to work by a lot of people, things are changing for the better.