Ron Stallworth, a retired law enforcement officer and ‘Black Klansman’ author, talks about the current state of policing
Angela Kocherga interviewed Ron Stallworth about the current state of policing in the wake of global protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Stallworth is a law enforcement veteran and author of “Black Klansman,” a memoir about his undercover work as a police detective infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado. The book was the inspiration for the Academy Award-winning 2018 film “BlackKklansman.” He grew up in El Paso and returned to the city with his wife, Patsy, after retiring from law enforcement.
The following are five questions selected from an extended interview that aired on El Paso’s public radio station KTEP 88.5.
Question: What did you think when you saw that video of Mr. Floyd and those officers in that moment?
Stallworth: I was surprised. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. What was especially upsetting to me was looking at (police officer Derek) Chauvin’s face, officer Chauvin’s face especially, and the apparent lack of compassion, lack of empathy on his face. He had a very cold demeanor, as if he was gutting a wild animal. As if he had been out hunting and was getting a wild animal while Floyd was lying there calling out, I can’t breathe, calling for his Mama, and everything else he was saying. It was very disgusting, to say the least. And that’s what was galling for me in terms of the officer who is staying around. I can’t think of his name, I believe he’s a Hmong officer or Laotian. He was just standing around looking at all this and what not and not saying anything to or doing anything to try to intervene and put a stop to it. He knew what was going on. He saw it, he was witnessing it. He’s standing right there. He knew what was happening was wrong. He could have put a stop to that and saved him, saved this man’s life. But that’s what was upsetting to me was that this blue wall of silence was in effect at that point. He was not willing to break it, and he allowed that crime that murder, that lynching to take place.
Question: It was horrifying for the public to observe the public display of that blue wall of silence. As someone in law enforcement who has a much deeper understanding, what are your thoughts?
Stallworth: That’s the problem with my old profession. We participate in incidents, we witness things like this and we’re afraid to stand up and be counted when we see wrongdoing occurring right in our midst. And because we’re afraid to stand up and challenge our fellow officers when they do wrong, we basically keep silent and back them up and support them. The blue wall of silence, we erected it. We become participants in their wrongdoing, unwitting participants. We know it’s wrong.
But we don’t want to stand and be counted. And that’s what’s wrong in our profession, always has been. When all you have to do is take that first step and say, stop it. What you’re doing is wrong, it’s against the law you’re hurting this man, you’re killing this man. Stop it. You have to stand up and be counted. Your voice has to matter. You have to be better than that.
I’m glad these officers are being charged. I hope they are held accountable by the law. And I hope reform is done throughout the country, federal reform takes place. I hope the police departments stand up and do revisions internally. And I hope the profession becomes cleaned up and better as a result of all this.
Question: What do you think about the massive demonstrations, lots of young people but also people of all ages and all ethnicities and all races?
Stallworth: I love the fact that these protests are taking place.I don’t like and I don’t condone the violence has taken place. Those are just a bunch of idiots trying to cash in on an opportunity. That makes no sense what they’re doing, makes no sense. The protest itself, I’m happy for. One of the things I’m happy for is that they are making people stand up and take notice about the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement is one that is not anti-police, it’s never been anti-police, is one that is for making a difference as a modern civil rights movement, led by young people. And it’s always been about improving community relations between (police and) primarily the black community, but also the community at large. I think this is a turning point in the Black Lives Matter movement and the fact that this thing is literally gone global. And I’m happy for that. I applaud the fact that these protests for the most part have remained peaceful and non-violent.
I think it’s disgusting what Trump did the other night. I couldn’t believe what I saw on TV. (President Trump’s photo opportunity at St. John’s Church after protesters were cleared from Lafayette Square near the White House.) And it’s indicative of the fact that this country and the voting public experienced a major hiccup four years ago, when they put him in office. And I think it’s indicative of why we have to ensure that is removed hopefully in five months.
I think that’s going to be one of the biggest outcomes of this whole affair is that it has galvanized people, and especially that incident the other day in D.C., I think it has galvanized the public to the fact that they need to go vote. And there’s been a lot of clamor about whether (former Vice President Joe) Biden is the right man for the job to replace him. I think Trump basically put a nail in his coffin and galvanized young people to go out and vote. There’s only going to be one other person on that ballot, no third party candidate stands a chance of getting elected. And I think we have now seen young public galvanized to the point where they probably will go out and vote for Biden and will ensure Donald Trump gets defeated. At least I’m certainly hoping that they recognize that.
Question: What lessons does El Paso offer for the rest of the United States in terms of being tolerant and peaceful?
Stallworth: First thing they should learn is that they want good Mexican food, come here.
It’s got the best. El Paso is a good community, it is a peaceful community. It’s a very welcoming community, always has been.
It is the type of community that will open its arms and embrace you. And it is a very warm community. I would encourage anybody around the country to come to El Paso, to visit El Paso, to consider making El Paso their home. It may not have an ocean with all its amenities. It may not have certain beautifying characteristics like a lot of other places, like San Diego and in places like that. But we have our own certain type of beauty. There’s a certain beauty in the desert. You have to experience El Paso to appreciate it and to love it. And I would encourage anybody out there to come visit El Paso, experiencing what El Paso has to offer. You won’t be disappointed. I think we have a good mix in terms of our racial terms, of our racial breakdown just by the very fact that we live on the border. It’s going to be dominated by the Mexican community and culture. That’s a given. That’s understood. But you learn to live with that. With that breakdown you learn to understand it, and you learn to adjust to the dominance of the Mexican culture here. It’s a part of the character makeup of El Paso. One of the things I’ve always said and I’ve never understood why is the fact that with the dominance of the Mexican culture, why they don’t dominate politically. You have this dominance. But yet, you have a white dominance in terms of the overall political character of us, and it’s always been that way. To me it’s never made any sense.
Why can’t the dominant culture of El Paso get its political act together and rule?
It’s always been on my mind. Why can’t they learn to consolidate their political power
and maintain control of the city in which they dominate? I’ve never understood it.
That’s one of the things that intrigues me nationally too. If they were to put that dominance to the voting booth, they could do a lot of good things. We don’t see it here in El Paso, where it could really show an effect. We don’t see it nationally. I wish somebody could come together and build a movement where we could see that come into play.
Question: What gives you hope right now as you look ahead or what would you like to see that would give you hope, as we look ahead?
Stallworth: I’m hopeful, in terms of what I’m seeing on TV in terms of these peaceful protests, these kids. The activity that they’re displaying protesting the killing, protesting the government, the totalitarian nature of our government right now. Quite frankly I’m loving the fact that in Washington, D.C., especially they have forced Trump to back down from his threat to bring the military out and “dominate the streets.” They’re standing up to him. They’re daring him to do that and thus far, he has cowered and backed down, I love it. They’re proving that he’s more talk than action, which I think we all recognize. And this is a young people-powered movement and I think it’s only going to get stronger as time goes on. So the fact that these young people are standing up and challenging the totalitarian nature of our current makeup of our government, I think is encouraging. If they keep this up, and they follow this up with going to the ballot box in November, and they make the right vote. And I say right, not as a pun but the right vote in terms of electing Joe Biden, Then I think we will see good positive change in the immediate future. This country has got to get back on track. And by that, I mean we got to get rid of Donald Trump. And quite frankly, we have to get rid of Mitch McConnell and every other Republican out there.
Whenever you get a mixture of the races, or rainbow coalition like what we’re seeing right now, it always gives hope. But what needs to happen is you can’t have this mixture come together for a moment like this, and six weeks from now it all fades away after the music stops. It has to be an ongoing effort. You know, the Black Lives Matter movement, as I recall the Black Lives Matter movement came into effect right around the time of Ferguson. And it’s continuing, it has continued rather. Quite frankly, it has continued because things keep happening, which keeps adding fuel to that fire and allows him to keep growing. The message keeps expanding. And right now I think we’re seeing that their message has a worldwide appeal.
When we see signs that say Black Lives Matter t in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and London and places like that, now we’re seeing a worldwide movement under Black Lives Matter. I think that’s good. We have to hope and pray that this thing does not die down as these kids keep it going. But it has to keep going with a purpose.