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
“It’s disheartening when you don’t have your elected city officials standing behind law enforcement,” Winingear said. “There’s good and bad policemen just like there’s good and bad doctors. There’s a greater percentage of law enforcement — a far greater percentage of officers who do good.”
In a statement about the council woman’s remarks, the NAACP’s Norfolk branch said “we certainly apologize to any person in attendance who were offended by her message.” The statement added that “the NAACP is an organization aimed at bringing people together and not dividing them and continues to be committed to equal protection and justice for all.”
But Joe Dillard, head of the local NAACP, didn’t rule out having Graves back as a speaker at next year’s luncheon.
“If somebody like Angelia doesn’t get to speak her opinion, how can we go forward?” he asked.
Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander and Council member Martin Thomas declined to discuss their colleague’s remarks. Other members of the council didn’t return calls seeking comment.
The first city council meeting since the luncheon is scheduled for Tuesday night.
Graves said she understands her sharp words came at a delicate time for her city and the country; both are engrossed in a debate about whether officers are too quick to use deadly force against minorities.
According to a Post database, 751 people have been killed by police this year. That number includes Keith Lamont Scott, a black man who was gunned down by officers in Charlotte as he waited for his son’s bus. His killing last month sparked days of sometimes violent protests.
Days before Scott’s death, Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black man, was shocked with a stun gun and shot by an officer in Tulsa. The officer who shot him has been charged with first-degree manslaughter.
Those shootings and others have sparked nationwide protests and calls for police officers to be fired and charged with crimes. Demonstrators have also demanded greater reforms in U.S. police departments.
But some law enforcement officials across the United States say the harshest anti-police rhetoric has led to a climate in which officers were targeted and killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge in July.
The head of the Louisiana state police said the three officers killed in Baton Rouge were “targeted and assassinated” during a calculated, violent rampage. A man who killed two officers in Palm Springs over the weekend told his father he wanted to “shoot all the police.”
In Norfolk — a city of nearly 250,000 people, 43 percent of them black, according to census figures — people have been closely watching the trial of a white police officer charged with manslaughter after he shot and killed a mentally ill black man who was armed with a knife.
The officer, Michael Edington Jr., was acquitted Thursday, days after the NAACP luncheon.
The victim, David Latham, had stopped taking his medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and his former psychiatrist testified that Latham was having a psychiatric episode when Edington encountered him.
The city didn’t experience major protests during the trial or after Edington’s acquittal, according to the Virginian-Pilot, which reported that reaction to the shooting and the acquittal was mixed.
Latham’s family is seeking a federal civil rights probe.
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.
In the 1920s, the city made national news when Klan members roughed up a Catholic priest who had been teaching black children to read, according to John Kneebone, who has studied the Klan’s spread.
At the organization’s peak, Klan members were politicians and police officers and judges, said Kneebone, the chair of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University. But the group’s power waned in the 1960s as people became increasingly unnerved by the Klan’s extreme tactics.
“The Klan of the ’60s was really bitterly against the Civil Rights Movement, and what they wanted was a completely terrified society,” Kneebone said. “They really weren’t the most important conservative resistance. Those people who want that kind of society are still with us. Certainly the ideas get passed down.
“But they did not go off into the judges’ quarters and the police chief’s office.”
Racism became less violent, Kneebone said; but it also became more subtle — and more enduring.
“In some ways,” he said, “it’s much more difficult to fight. You’re dealing with a more subtle argument. … You’re not dealing with someone that’s got a lash and a rope.”
Graves said her comments earlier this month weren’t intended to offend men and women she identified as “great police officers,” including those in her own city.
She said her greater point was that even though 21st century racism is less overt, it’s still dangerous.
“It was never meant to imply that all of anybody is anything,” she said, “because that would be the same as saying that all black people are the same way.
“The point was that [racists have] changed. The racists in our country have changed how they go about inflicting injustice.
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.