“Until someone steps forward and tries to stop some of this, it is only going to get worse. There is going to be a lot more bloodshed and a lot more things like that,” said Wayne Riley, the founder of the Laurel County African American Heritage Center Museum.
Riley said historically, there are always good people in a town, but the history is often never told in its entirety.
“I think there is racism everywhere, and even back in 1919 [the year of the race riots] I think there were some good people in Corbin that had the whole story been told and not just the bad side of it, then Corbin wouldn’t have had the bad name that it has today,” said Riley. “If the story was ever told in 1920, that a jury, which we probably could imagine, would have been 12 white men, a prosecutor and a judge sentenced that man that started the riot to time in prison. If that part of the story had been told, then I don’t think Corbin would have had the name it has today.”
While we examine the history of Corbin 100 years ago, the history of cities around the country continues to be written as individuals across the country are protesting police brutality following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and George Floyd in Minnesota.
“There has been a huge issue with police brutality in this country specifically in the past five years, but the issue with police brutality has existed throughout this country’s history,” said emi, an organizer of the Sunup Initiative.
Sunup Initiative is a volunteer-led coalition that works in partnership with local and state organizations to promote racial justice in Corbin and beyond, according to the Sunup website.
“There has been no evidence that has come to the public that any of these people did anything that warranted their murders,” said emi. “These murders are very tragic - they are very frustrating.”
Emi said that the response to these incidents has been frustrating.
“It is really frustrating to me to only see the justice system getting involved when there is a public outcry,” she said. “They should take immediate action when these things happen; it shouldn’t take people getting out in the streets to cause change when these things happen.”
“We know that there were a lot of issues at the policy and structural level in all of these cases, and so my question is ‘How do we know this can’t happen here?’,” said emi. “I think it is critical that we take care of some of these structural issues now so that we don’t have more unnecessary black death.”
Emi sees the incidents as examples of structural issues that exist within law enforcement.
“We know that that police officer [Derek Chauvin] didn’t act alone. We know that there were, as I understand it, at least four other police officers on the scene at that moment and so that just compounds the issue,” said emi. “This is not a rogue cop, this is not a mistake. This is one person taking action and all of his colleagues standing by and not intervening.”
“There has been resounding condemnation of that case specifically, but all of these, from people who know a lot more about police policy than I do,” said emi, “they point out that cops have specific training, and this was not it.”
Emi said that the death of Floyd is just one example.
In the case of Breonna Taylor, emi said, “There were a lot of oversight issues like, ‘why did the cops not know they were in the wrong place?’ ‘why did the cops not know a subject had already been apprehended in another location?’ ‘why did the cops not knock?’.”
“They made tactical decisions, and they had the support of their superiors in making these tactical decisions,” said emi. “That is just a total system breakdown.”
Emi described what she sees as the solution for police brutality as being a change that begins within law enforcement.
“It needs to be the cops who are taking the first step because they are the ones who are messing up and they have a responsibility for proving to us that they are the ones fixing that,” said emi.
“I see a need for leaders within the police. I see a need for leaders within our elected officials, and I see a need for members of the community, like myself, to come together to make sure that we are making whatever changes are necessary whether that be body cams, additional training, additional oversight,” she said.
Emi said that there were two major ways for citizens to influence changes within law enforcement: protest/demonstrations and the creation of civil oversight bodies.
Emi said protests and demonstrations “help people see the scale of the issue.”
“If there are hundreds or thousands of individuals in the street then that sends a different signal than me just talking to someone,” said emi.
Civil oversight bodies have become more popular. Organizations like the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, established in 1995 in Maryland, provide guidance on how communities can create their own civilian oversight committees of law enforcement.
According to the NACOLE website, “You must first have a core group of citizens who are sufficiently concerned about the issue and who are willing to unite and work together over an extended period of time. This core group should seek out training and support resources prior to the establishment of a formal planning or advisory committee. If not, the voice of the community risks being marginalized once professional stakeholders become involved in the process.”
“Police oversight can benefit not only the individual complainant, but also the larger community, police and sheriff’s departments, and even elected or appointed officials,” according to NACOLE.
The organization promotes some of the benefits of forming oversight committees include:
“Complainants are given a place to voice concerns outside of the law enforcement agency;
Oversight can help hold the police or sheriff’s department accountable for an officer’s actions;
And, oversight agencies can help reduce public concern about high profile incidents.”
“There is clearly national demand for policy change, for systemic change, when it comes to police brutality and policing in general,” said emi. “If the cops can’t see that that is necessary and take the steps themselves, then we need to come together as a community to help them take those steps.”
Riley said he does not see that there is a lot of racial tension in London and Corbin.
“I don’t think we have had a lot of harsh racial tension here, said Riley. “I don’t even think, if we look at the history of Corbin, I think the people that were kind of instrumental in that were the people with money. The railroad had hired all these people to come in and work from Mississippi and Alabama. All these people came here during the war to work at the railroad terminal.”
Riley said that the 1919 riot could be attributed to racial tensions manufactured by railroad companies.
“When it [World War I] was over, they [railroad companies] didn’t want to dig into their profits and create more jobs for the white folks who were coming back home, so they pitted the poor whites and the poor blacks against each other and that riot happened,” said Riley. “That was part of what we call the ‘Red Summer’, those riots happened not only in Corbin, but those riots happened with the railroad people in Knoxville and down south different places where there was a lot of that tension and turmoil with blacks and whites during that 1918-1919 time frame.”
Riley did say that today, he does see more racism than in the past.
“I think we have gone backward in time, and we are going backward in time. We are promoting hatred again,” said Riley. “If you just look at some of the little remarks that elected officials will say now, and they act like it is okay. There was a time when you would have never heard that.”
As a result of society’s regression, in Riley’s opinion, police brutality has been allowed to resurface.
“In the past, we always knew there were clansmen and there were racist people who were part of the police department and part of the mainstream society,” said Riley. “I think that being said, it is allowing those people to feel like they are not going to be held accountable for things.”
Riley said he does not believe groups should begin rising up to fight against racism, but that the government should find solutions. He said that people also need to get back to the basics of life, “where people go to church, believe what the Bible says and understand the Bible, and live the Bible. Don’t take certain parts of it to fit the lifestyle you’re living.”
“When groups start rising up, is when you start having a problem,” said Riley.
Suzie Razmus, mayor of Corbin, said she shared a post on Facebook about people standing together because, “the only thing the establishment truly fears” is when people have each other’s backs.
“I feel like the establishment is pitting each other against each other constantly pointing out our differences, and I think with the COVID situation and the tremendous amount of stress that everyone is under, that it has thrown gasoline on a fire that has been brewing for a long time,” said Razmus. “It breaks my heart, and I feel that I can’t really speak to it because I don’t have personal experience as a black person. My heart goes out to the community.”
The Sunup Initiative will be hosting a candlelight vigil at 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 30 at Sanders Park in Corbin. The vigil will be free and open to the public. The event will be socially distanced and people should bring a mask if possible.
“The desire [is] to create an opportunity for people to come together in a safe and socially distant way. And, honestly, to mourn. In my personal opinion, what has happened to Breonna and the others is tragic, it’s infuriating, and I personally believe it is inexcusable. In my opinion, Breonna Taylor should still be alive. George Floyd should still be alive. Ahmaud Arbery should also still be alive,” said emi.