By Hollis Wormsby
On December 1st, a black couple walked into the Walmart in Homewood at about 8 p.m. for what they expected would be a routine shopping experience. Shortly before they walked in, another customer in the store said that a black woman had taken her wallet out of her purse that was sitting in her shopping cart.
In response to this the Homewood Police decided they had the right to detain and search every black woman in the store. One of these women was Brenda Rivers, who according to witnesses, had just entered the store with her husband. When the police tried to search her purse, she told them no, they had no right. When she would not let them do so they then handcuffed her and forced her to sit on the floor, in an act of public humiliation that I firmly believe the City of Homewood will ultimately pay big dollars in settlement for.
As someone who has a wife, a mother, a daughter and a sister, I find the treatment of this woman appalling. As a citizen I find the justification offered by the Police Chief of Homewood even more appalling. Homewood Police claim to have been called to the store on a charge of theft of a wallet, which the Chief claims is a felony. But in fact a wallet theft would only be a felony offense if the wallet contained more than $500.
Nowhere in the story did I read where it was established that there was over $500 in the wallet. Who really goes to Walmart with $500 in cash and then leaves their purse sitting in the open?
But even if it was a suspected felony, that does not give police the right to search every black woman in the store randomly. It does not give them the right to detain a person for refusing an illegal search, and it does not justify the fact that they failed to release this woman, for more than 15 minutes after the supposed victim came over and told them she was not the one who did it.
I have talked with two attorneys that I respect regarding this subject and they both told me that they believe that what the police did was wrong and that this family is about to get paid by the City of Homewood.
First of all, the police have to have probable cause to demand to be able to search you. In America the fact that the victim said a black woman did it, is not probable cause to search every black woman in the store. Secondly, you know, and I know, that a middle age, conservatively dressed white woman would not have been treated in the same manner.
My heart goes out to her husband as well. To be there as a man and not be able to protect your family would be one of the lowest feelings I can imagine. I hate to go all melodrama, but it brings back memories of our slavery days, when our women were old Master’s property and he could do what he wanted with them, and we better not think otherwise.
I have talked with several men that I respect this week, who told me that they are not sure they could have handled this situation in the same way. One friend told me point blank, he would probably be dead.
There have been instances when I have been critical of Black Lives Matter, but it is instances like this that create the anger that drives this movement. It is watching a police chief double down on the indecency by claiming, in the face of all that makes sense, that his men did nothing wrong, which means he is also saying they are free to do this again.
Since city leadership does not seem to get it on this issue I hope this family sues them for all they are worth, not because money will solve the problem, but because when it costs the city enough, maybe that arrogant chief who did not see a problem with his officer’s behavior will finally be called to task for the actions of his legion that are not acceptable.
Or at least that’s the way I see it.
Hollis Wormsby has served as a featured columnist for the Birmingham Times for more than 27 years. He is the former host of Talkback on 98.7 KISS FM and of Real Talk on WAGG AM. If you would like to comment on this column you can go to Facebook.com/holliswormsby or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.