After watching a surveillance video of two white male police officers slam a black woman’s head into a countertop and yank her to the floor by her hair in the town lockup, the Jasper, Texas, City Council voted unanimously on Monday to fire the men, less than a month after the brief but violent encounter on a Sunday morning in May.
The incident has awakened the East Texas town’s ghosts.
The officers were fired four days before the 15th anniversary this Friday of one of the most horrific racially motivated murders in recent U.S. history – the truck-dragging slaying of Jasper resident James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old black man.
On the night of June 7, 1998, three white men chained Byrd to their pickup by his ankles and dragged him three miles along a remote country road to his death, decapitating him and scattering pieces of his body in over 75 locations. The men, two of whom were known white supremacists, were convicted in the murder and, in 2011, one of them was executed. Another remains on death row, pending continuing appeals, and the third is serving a life term.
Without the legacy of that killing, which drew the attention of much of the world, it seems unlikely that this recent clash of black and white in a small East Texas town would have received nearly as much attention.
Resisting arrest charges against the woman, Keyarika Diggles, 25, have been dropped and the City Council has asked the district attorney to explore criminal charges against the fired officers – Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham.
“People hear Jasper, Texas, and they think James Byrd,” Christine Stetson, one of the lawyers representing Diggles, told Hatewatch. “I think it’s impossible to have behavior like this on the part of law enforcement and have it not create fear on the part of African-American citizens in Jasper. It brings back terrible memories for lots and lots of people who live there.
“Jasper wants to think they have come a long way from 1998 to today,” Stetson added. “I think city officials have told the world, ‘We’ve made leaps and bounds,’ and then you see this and you say to yourself, ‘Really how far have we come?’”
Stetson and her firm are also representing Rodney Pearson, Jasper’s first black police chief, who was fired last year by the City Council. Pearson is suing Jasper in federal court, alleging he was terminated because of his race. His firing, according to black community leaders, left racial tension in the town of about 8,000 residents at “an all-time high.”
But Jasper’s mayor, Mike Lout, who is white, told Hatewatch that race relations in Jasper, which he said is almost equally divided between black and white, are not much different than anywhere else.
“Jasper was one of the first towns around here to integrate the schools,” Lout said. “It was one of the first towns around here to have a black mayor and a black president of the school board.
“I remember when people said the town was so divided, when James Byrd got killed,” the mayor continued. “I don’t think it was all that divided. Everybody I knew thought how horrible it was.”
Lout said that when the City Council watched the video of the two officers throwing Diggles to the floor, “everybody was disgusted.”
He said memories of the Byrd case had nothing to do with the decision to fire the officers, a decision, he said, “I think everybody is pretty happy about.”
“I wouldn’t give a damn if everybody involved was all black or all white,” the mayor said. “Mistreating people is mistreating people.”
Lout said police took Diggles into custody at her home on May 5, a Sunday morning, for failing to pay a $320 fine for an earlier disorderly conduct offense. He said she was taken to the town lockup, where she was allowed to make a telephone call in an attempt to raise the money for the fine.
During the video of the incident, one of the officers is seen suddenly hanging up the phone as Diggles is using it. She looks disgusted and walks away, apparently saying something to the officer. There’s no audio on the video.
Lout said she had been on the phone for 48 minutes when the officer disconnected the call, telling her he had to get back out on the street.
Diggles and the officer seem to be exchanging angry words as the officer backs her up against a wall. They begin wrestling when a second officer appears, and the officers together slam Diggles, head first, into a countertop. Then one of officers grabs Diggles by the hair and she is yanked to the floor.
They handcuff her and then one of the officers grabs by her the ankle and attempts to drag her across the floor toward a cell. But her shoe comes off and the officer stumbles and falls. He regains his feet and the two officers drag her into a cell.
Lout said that from watching the video, it was clear that harsh words were exchanged on both sides before the incident turned violent.
“She got mad, they got mad,” he said. “But they’re held to a higher standard. They’re the police.”
Stetson, Diggles’ lawyer, said Diggles is missing a “huge chunk of her hair on top of her head.”
When she was slammed into the countertop, Stetson said, Diggles’ braces were dislodged and she broke a tooth.
“The tooth shattered,” Stetson said. “She’s going to the dentist today to have it removed.”