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'We Were Not A Threat To Anyone': Black Milwaukee Pastors React To Treatment By Sheriff's Deputy

Demetrius Williams of Community Baptist Church in Milwaukee and John K. Patterson (with microphone) of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Milwaukee speak during an event organized by Common Ground. (Courtesy Common Ground)
Demetrius Williams of Community Baptist Church in Milwaukee and John K. Patterson (with microphone) of Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Milwaukee speak during an event organized by Common Ground. (Courtesy Common Ground)

Two black pastors from Milwaukee were on their way home from a fishing trip in May when their boat trailer got a flat tire. They pulled over to the side of a highway in the suburbs and called for a tow truck.

As they waited, a deputy from the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department pulled up behind them. At first they were relieved. But then, after offering up their insurance papers, the deputy asked if they had any guns or drugs.

“We were like, ‘No,’ ” the Rev. Demetrius Williams says. “I said, ‘We are pastors. We would not have anything like that.’ ”

Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks with Williams and the Rev. John Patterson about the incident, which the community group Common Ground is investigating for alleged racial bias.

The sheriff’s department says it has received and “honored” Common Ground’s request to review the last 45 days of reports submitted by the deputy involved.

Interview Highlights

On their reaction when the sheriff arrived

Demetrius Williams: “We felt happy that the sheriff had arrived, because when we pulled over … trucks and cars were zooming past, so we assumed that he would put out orange cones to divert traffic until help arrived. But when he walked to the vehicle, he initially made a statement: ‘Are you the ones who called for a squad?’ We said, ‘No, but we’re glad you’re here, we just called Progressive and they’re on the way to fix the flat.’ Pastor Patterson then asked, ‘Well I have my insurance papers, would you like to see them?’ He said, ‘No, if you said you have insurance or someone is on the way, that’s fine. Do you have any guns or weapons or drugs in the car?’

“We were like, ‘No.’ I said, ‘We are pastors. We would not have anything like that.’ And as if he didn’t hear anything that we said, he proceeded from the driver’s side to the passenger side where I was sitting, and he said, ‘I need to see your license.’ And so Pastor Patterson said, ‘Well, here you go.’ He said, ‘No, I need yours, too.’ And I said, ‘Well why do you need my license?’ And he said, ‘It’s our policy.’ And I gave my license under protest, and I let him know that.”

On how it felt to watch this unfold

John Patterson: “It just made me feel violated. It’s happened before, but not to this extent, it hadn’t happened to this extent, where it was just so blatant.”

On if the deputy ever asked what the problem was or what he could do to help

DW: “That’s what’s so frustrating about the episode. … Those who have been hired and have been sworn in to protect and serve, did not at any time offer a service. I don’t think he used proper judgment. We were not a threat to anyone. We’re middle-aged men with a fishing boat. Why would that kind of encounter be necessary, when there was nothing to indicate that it’s [a situation where] some approach like that would be required in interacting with citizens?”

On how they have been grappling with this experience

DW: “These kinds of stories are not uncommon in African-American communities — whether you’re a lawyer, a doctor, a pastor. These kind of unfortunate encounters with law enforcement happen all the time, so I tried to use it as a lesson and a guide for my young people, to maintain their composure. You find other ways to ameliorate the problem. But challenging an officer in that moment puts power in their hands for them to exercise force, sometimes even deadly force.

JP: “I think that every citizen should be treated with dignity. It matters not who you are, what color you are, whatever. It just seemed to me, in many cases, it’s not the case. This kind of incident really kind of … it hurt a great deal for me to have to go through that. I could only imagine if it had been somebody else that didn’t have the dignity nor the type of love that we have toward people, period. If we didn’t have that, and we went off, we could have been statistics.”

On black people having the police called on them while doing everyday things

“What happened at Starbucks [in Philadelphia in April], or in Ohio — a 12-year-old boy mowing the lawn, has his own business, he happens to be in a white neighborhood and a woman calls the police — those are microaggressions. They don’t always end in some kind of violence, but yet they are deeply affecting to the individual.

“I’m reminded of a quote by Frederick Douglass. He says, ‘Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.’ These microaggressions are just those types of things, where if you quietly submit, they will contain you and they will exacerbate, get worse.”

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