‘People gotta be woke’: Oberlin chief, magistrate talk with students about race

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Jason Hawk | Oberlin News-Tribune
Oberlin Police Chief Ryan Warfield tells high-schoolers Monday that he worries for the safety of his children when they go out, because as a black man and a police officer, “I know how it is.”

JASON HAWK
EDITOR

There may not be segregated bathrooms anymore, but a collection of community leaders and Oberlin High School students agreed Monday that racism remains a part of the American culture.

Police Chief Ryan Warfield told the students they are right to be frustrated.

He said like any parent, he worries when his three sons head out on the town. Fearing for their safety, Warfield has taught his children what to do if they are stopped by the police: Keep hands on the steering wheel, don’t argue and do as you are told, no matter what.

It’s a lesson he learned from experience, and one reason he became a police officer.

Warfield recalled when, during a break from college, he was pulled over by police in Lorain. His father was a prominent union member and the family could afford a nice car, he said — the officer in charge noted the vehicle, but wouldn’t say why the stop was made, or why Warfield and his friends were forced onto their knees with hands behind their heads.

Warfield and other community leaders joined about 40 high school students in the school library to talk about race relations after a field trip Friday to see the new film “Just Mercy” starring Jamie Foxx, Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson.

The movie tells the true story of Walter McMillian, who was sent immediately to Alabama’s Death Row while awaiting pretrial for the murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison. A black man, McMillian was wrongfully targeted as a suspect because he was having an affair with a white woman, and police coerced a witness to lie under oath at trial to make the murder charge stick.

The jury, presented with fake testimony, recommended a life sentence. A judge overrode it and demanded that McMillian be executed. McMillian was set free after six years when the case was overturned on appeal. He died in 2013 at age 71 due to dementia, believed to have been spurred by trauma suffered in prison.

“Someone told me that Jim Crow is dead, but his children are still alive,” teacher Kurt Russell told the students.

Russell told students the case was an example of how prejudice is still an issue today, leading to a conversation about its role in not just the justice system but education and health care.

Parent Charles Peterson, who sat in on the discussion, said Americans have to look only as far as the U.S. Senate to see race inequality. Of the 100 seated, only two — Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California — are black.

Inequality breeds racism, and racism perpetuates inequality, said Peterson: “There’s no way to break out of that cycle.”

There also is institutional racism in banking, college financial aid packages and at the doctor’s office, Warfield said.

“How do we fix it?” he asked. “One, our people gotta be woke. I’m so happy you are all here, and the start of it is being woke. But you have to treat it like your life depends on it.”

Magistrate Charlita Anderson White, who is president of the Lorain County Bar Association, said it’s easy to think racism is only a problem in the Deep South.

“This entire community needs to advocate for people of color in all positions, in every phase of law enforcement,” she told Oberlin students.

The message of “Just Mercy” rang true for her. Anderson White said that as a prosecutor, she tried cases in which she was unsure whether the suspect was guilty, and after each police shooting she calls her adult son to make sure he is safe.

“I don’t want you to walk out of here being afraid of police,” she told high schoolers — there are good people in uniform, but the ones she trusts are “woke.”

Warfield said police across the nation handled 750 million calls last year, and abuses were documented in only a tiny percent of cases.

According to a database published by The Washington Post, 1,004 people died last year due to police use of force. In 2018, the number killed by police was 995.

Warfield promised to return to talk with students about how to handle a police stop.