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Old Gold & Black

Old Gold & Black

Wright Can’t Admit Wrong

Sheriff Chuck Wright, surrounded by his ‘posse’ of supporters. Illustration by Walker Antonio.

Spartanburg sheriff refuses to apologize for insensitive comments

Chuck Wright’s career as Spartanburg County Sheriff has been consistently embroiled in allegations of unprofessionalism. In his fifteen years as Sheriff, Wright has been criticized by the ACLU of South Carolina for his xenophobic Facebook posts, and condemned for hiring and openly supporting deputies under investigation for and later convicted of domestic violence.

The latest scandal has ignited a divide amongst the Spartanburg community, with Sheriff Wright straddling a fissure predominantly along racial lines. The controversy surrounds the Sheriff’s repeated refusal to apologize for comments he made concerning the arrest of two Black men on Sept. 13.

Facts of the case: Around 4:15 a.m., several gunshots rang out in Inman near Interstate 26. Two police officers were parked nearby in the TrueTimber parking lot. After hearing the shots the two deputies, Jonathan Payne and Graham McLellan, “notified dispatch that someone was shooting at them and gave their location.”

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The original report from Master Deputy Tony Ivey stated “One of several deputies responding to the scene observed a green in color Camaro driving at a high rate of speed on Interstate 26 East away from the incident location. A traffic stop was performed on the vehicle.”

During this traffic stop police took Akymzee Holbert (22) and Tarus Mallory (23) into custody. Inside of the car the officers found a glock magazine and two glocks, and several shell casings were found on the roadway. While Holbert and Mallory admit they fired their weapon, they maintain that they were unaware of the officers’ presence.

As Holbert shared at his bond meeting, “We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn’t mean to cause anything, any danger to anyone, officers. No one was on the road, so I don’t know how it got to be a misunderstanding that we were shooting at them.”

The two were charged with two counts of attempted murder and one count of possession of a weapon during a violent crime, the former being a felony and carrying up to thirty years in prison. However, on Thursday Sep. 17 these charges were dropped and Holbert and Mallory were instead charged with breach of peace, high and aggravated. The solicitor Barry Barnette found insufficient evidence that the accused had fired at the deputies at all, making an attempted murder charge unprosecutable.

Controversial comments: Sheriff Wright spoke with the Herald Journal on Tuesday Sept. 15 about the charges and quickly engendered contention with inflammatory rhetoric. In the interview Wright, seated before a campaign poster for his reelection, referred to Mallory and Holbert as “idiots”.

He proceeded to state “I want the community to know, these were two young Black males that the liberals are trying to say we’re after to try to kill all the time. We’re not trying to kill anybody, we’re not trying to hurt anybody. We had every opportunity to kill two young Black men and we did not do it.”

The anger over Wright’s comments only intensified after the charges were dropped. Many in the community called for Sheriff Wright to publicly apologize for his comments, including Michael Brown, President of the Spartanburg NAACP and County Councilman. The Sheriff quickly doubled down on his statements and refused to offer an apology.

On Friday, one day after the charges of attempted murder and possession of a weapon during a violent crime were dropped, Wright changed his statement from “we had every opportunity to kill two young Black men” to “the deputies had every right to return fire and they chose not to.”

The Council meeting: A number of Spartanburg citizens were appalled by the Sheriff’s statements and had the opportunity to air their grievances at the County Council meeting on Monday Sep. 21. There were over one hundred people in attendance at Monday’s meeting through both in person attendance and via live stream. The crowd was visibly split along racial lines, as several white attendees donned ‘Back the Blue’ masks and t-shirts and several Black attendees wore Black Lives Matter paraphernalia.

The Sheriff spoke first. Here, he once again doubled down on his original comments. In his two minute speech, Sheriff Wright reiterated “people got very upset when I said we have a right to shoot those two young men. By constitutional law and by our policy, we certainly did have a right to return fire.”

He also added “it’s not my fault if you misunderstand me. I don’t owe you an apology for doing my job… no matter how loud you get or what you say.”

Following the Sheriff, at least fifteen speakers stood before the Council. A handful of the speakers were present to offer support of Wright by offering character statements, pointing to Wright’s fifteen years of service as Sheriff and his religiosity.

The others used their three minutes before the Council to implore the Sheriff for an apology. Several speakers spoke of distrust between the population and the police, arguing that the Sheriff’s rhetoric pulls apart a community in need of unity amid the racial tension visible across the country. At least three speakers criticized Wright for depriving Holbert and Mallory a fair trial by “undermining their right to due process” as Jennifer Barnet shared.

The evening soon took a turn for the worst. As the tenth speaker began, Sheriff Wright stood up and left the building, flanked on all sides by his supporters. It is sadly ironic that every individual who walked out in a pseudo-solidarity with the Sheriff was white.

It’s necessary to remind Wright of what he said in a June press conference following nationwide protests against the murder of George Floyd. The Sheriff announced “We want to make sure that when you come out to protest, or to march, or whatever you’re going to do — the peaceful ones, I promise you, we’re there for you, and with you.”

Well, Sheriff Wright, what is more peaceful than speaking at a County Council meeting to call for an apology? I guess you’re not with us, considering you weren’t even physically there.

Liberal tears or legitimate fears?

The community’s desire for an apology is not driven by political correctness. It is driven by the legitimate fear Black individuals have in regards to the police, a fear that the Sheriff’s divisive rhetoric played directly into.

While speaking personally to Sheriff Wright before the Council, resident TyQuian English remarked “You didn’t say he had the right to kill two citizens, he said he had the right to kill two Black males. How am I supposed to feel about that? I’m not a liberal, I’m not a Republican either. I’m just a Black man trying to survive in America. And I don’t know if I can live with Chuck Wright.”

Personal thoughts: In his initial press conference on the arrests of Mallory and Holbert, Sheriff Wright decried the shooting of two police officers in LA that occurred in early September. Wright explained he is tired of police being targeted.
As a police officer’s daughter I understand this sentiment. I understand the fear that accompanies the job. However, the fear over losing my father when he puts on a uniform isn’t comparable to the grief Black families face when their loved ones are murdered on account of their skin; a grief that is strengthened by the ongoing refusal to acknowledge the pervasiveness of racial inequity. When Sheriff Wright repeatedly boasted of his ‘right’ to kill two innocent Black men without evidence, he further burdened an already stricken community.

So, in 2020, do we applaud cops for not killing black men? The answer is undoubtedly, unapologetically and relentlessly no. For a man who openly prides himself on his patriotism he chose to forget that in the United States you are innocent until proven guilty. Sheriff Wright defended a potential murder based on assumption.

So, Sheriff Wright, I add my voice to those of your constituents in imploring you to apologize. The rhetoric of mistrust and hate that you so proudly maintain is intolerable. If you want to truly represent your community and serve and protect ALL peoples, you will listen to the pain you caused and you will apologize.

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