Three years ago, Heather Ellis, a college student, stopped at a Walmart in Kennett, Mo., something she often did. When she decided to switch lines, cutting in front of other customers, things got ugly. Today, Ellis, 24, could face up to 15 years in jail if convicted of the charges brought against her: assaulting police officers, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. Local activists have marched in protest of Ellis’ arrest and to support her during the trial. Hate groups have also marched, but for very different reasons. This simple trip to the store has brought national attention to a town with a history of racial tensions. Depending on the verdict, which is expected soon, things in Kennett may only get worse.
There are no straight answers about what happened in that Walmart three years ago. Ellis says some White customers pushed her and yelled racial slurs when she cut the line. She claims store employees were disrespectful and that police officers also made racially offensive comments toward her. Some witnesses and the officers who arrested Ellis have a different story. They say she shoved store customers and kicked police officers. Walmart won’t release video of the incident.
Many in the small town of Kennett support Ellis, who dreamt of going to medical school who has no criminal history. A rally was held by local activists this past June to show support. The KKK decided to show up as well, littering the area with subtly threatening paraphernalia. In November, another rally was held as her trial began; a handful of neo-Nazi’s showed up, waving confederate flags. Ellis’ trial is under way and her family hopes for a fair trial. That may be difficult: the prosecutor assigned to the case is the author of a book with a confederate flag on the cover.
Kennett, a town of about 11,000, is no stranger to racial tension. The Missouri Attorney General’s office produced a report that shows police there target people of color disproportionately for stops, searches and arrests. African-Americans are just over 12 percent of the Kennett population but they accounted for almost 15 percent of traffic stops last year. African-American drivers in Kennett are also more than twice as likely as White drivers to be searched and to be arrested. Hispanics don’t fare much better in the town: they are stopped by police more than three times their population numbers and are more than four times as likely to be searched and arrested as White drivers.
Racism—overt, ugly racism—is alive and well in America. The work of organizations like the NAACP and SCLC is still greatly needed. Local organizations that fight against injustice also need your support. As you gear up for the holiday season, consider making a gift, in someone’s honor, to one of the many organizations that fight for equality and fairness. When stories like the one in Kennett make the news, share them on your Facebook and Twitter pages. More people need to be made aware of these situations. Though this country has come a long way in and racial tension has eased substantially. However, the activities in Kennett show that we still have a ways to travel and that we must all play a part.
(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)