Angelia Williams Graves says she didn’t have some grand plan to compare police to the Ku Klux Klan when she took the stage at an NAACP luncheon in Virginia on Oct. 1. But days after the Norfolk city councilwoman ignited a firestorm, she wasn’t taking her words back, either.
Modern racists, Graves told the mostly black crowd of more than 200, have “taken off their white hats and white-sheeted robes and put on police uniforms. Some of them have put on shirts and ties as policymakers and some of them have put on robes as judges.”
The speech at a fundraiser in downtown Norfolk was not recorded, but Graves recounted her remarks in an interview with The Washington Post. Others who attended the event told The Post that they recalled hearing the same thing that day at the Murray Center. The KKK comparison shocked the crowd at the Norfolk NAACP Freedom Fund luncheon, attendees said.
Graves, a member of the city council since 2010, has delivered brief remarks at the fundraiser in previous years. But, she said, she’d never said anything more incendiary than “thanks for your support.”
This year was different, she said, because she was outraged by the killings of black people by police officers and what she described as unfair treatment of blacks in the court system.
The speech was her soapbox.
“Racism still does exist,” Graves said in an interview. “Stereotyping of black people still does exist. We have to recognize that there is a problem before we can solve the problem. … We have to stop trying to tiptoe around it and deal with the issues.”
As the NAACP sought to distance itself from her words, saying they didn’t represent the organization, law enforcement leaders in the Tidewater area said Graves crossed the line with remarks that widened racial fissures and were deeply offensive to police in her community.
Leading the criticism: Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe, a white Democrat who is a two-decade member of the local NAACP.
“We all want to talk about looking at each other’s point of view, come to the table, listen to the concerns,” the sheriff said in an interview. “When you have comments from either side that are inappropriate or racist or over the line, then it kind of defeats the purpose.”
McCabe said using anti-police language makes it harder for reasonable people with different viewpoints to move the conversation forward.
“I think 98 percent of the people are in the middle, and you’ve got the 2 percent on either side who are ratcheting it up and trying to score points for whatever side they’re on,” he said.
Keith Winingear, president of the Norfolk Fraternal Order of Police, said he and other officers found the council woman’s comments “condescending
In Norfolk, invoking the KKK strikes a visceral cord because of the city’s history with what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the most infamous — and oldest — of American hate groups.” The Klan flourished in Norfolk before World War II, as the shipping industry brought a large transient population that competed with locals for jobs, historians say.
Cleve R. Wootson Jr. is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, covering the 2020 campaign for president. He previously worked on The Post’s General Assignment team. Before that, he was a reporter for the Charlotte Observer.