An Open letter to Al.com, Greg Garrison, Dennis Pillion, and their Editor from “Others in the Crowd”

Written with Elizabeth Tucker

{An introduction to this piece: My sister and I pivoted to a rally in a suburb of Birmingham when the Birmingham protest we originally planned to attend was cancelled. When we read the report of the rally, linked here, we found that the report misrepresented what took place and encouraged some toxic racial dynamics that may not be immediately recognizable. We have sent this letter to Al.com, but are also posting here in the hopes that it encourages both us as writers and you as readers to be sensitive to the dynamics that may be at play in these racial conflicts. We do not present this as experts or as individuals who “have arrived,” but as two women working to, as Onoyemi Williams said, “think a little bit deeper.}

Greg Garrison and Dennis Pillion wrote a report on a well-attended rally at the Vestavia Hills City Hall that took place June 5, 2020. The original headline as published on AL.com read, “Ex-Miami cop gets shouted down at Vestavia Hills rally.”

The report of this rally largely featured a conflict between a white woman and a black woman, when it should have featured on the central theme of the rally, which was the conflict between Black lives and the racist society insisting that their lives matter less. Furthermore, the report of this rally reinforced historical and covertly racist stereotypes to cast the white woman, Sally Herring, as the victim and the black woman, Jasmine Linson, as the aggressor. The public deserves responsible reporters and articles that treat every individual and their stories with equity and fairness, but this particular AL.com article fell short of these standards. The Black community deserves a medium that centers them in their own stories.

Sally Herring took the stage as the final speaker, after having heard the stories and pain of the Black voices that had gone before her. Herring did not simply own that she had racially profiled or that her ancestors were South Carolina slave owners. She was insensitive to the hurtful effects her words could have and, she failed to hear the pain and trauma expressed by the previous speakers and experienced by the Black population in our city, state, and nation.

As her speech continued, we felt an increasingly uncomfortable aura from the crowd. Many of the Black participants seemed agitated and angry. The two of us, white women, sensed a familiar awareness that something was wrong with her speech, but most of us likely would not be able to define what. This voiceless discomfort in the white onlookers was a response to a white woman centering herself in a space and narrative that should have centered on the Black voice and experience. While many of us may not have been able to define it, we knew that Sally Herring’s story was out of place. In organizer Onoyemi William’s words, “you need to think a little bit deeper.”

Garrison and Pillion left out Herring’s more egregious statements, including a passive request for grace saying, “this is not easy for any of us [white people] – – – it’s complicated and it’s really hard,” to describe the reforming internalized racism. In addition, Herring struck multiple trigger points, including failing to recognize the wound of pulling someone over for driving while black, passing over the history of slavery in her own family, and describing black friends not being welcomed by her parents, which is a specific event the previous speaker shared as something hurtful that had happened to her.

When Linson challenged Herring with the same brave vulnerability and justified anger as the Black voices before her, Herring held up a scolding finger to say, with a hard edge to her voice, “I believe I apologized for that, young lady.” This is the infantilizing response of a white woman scolding a black woman for talking back. Her words of so-called apology were belied by her refusal to receive the passionate testimonies that her speech had inflicted pain. Even her statement, “I don’t want my words to hurt you,” were a camouflaged resistance to receiving that her words had already hurt Linson and a passive statement that it was Linson’s fault for being hurt and angry.

Garrison and Pillion concluded their report with Herring’s sense of endangerment, “I feel like I need an escort to walk out of here,” a quote that gives the report a tone subtly reinforcing Herring’s own casting in her narrative as the tearful white woman victimized by Black anger. The Tearful White Woman trope is a woman who uses her emotional response to appeal to the sympathy of the crowd majority in order to cast herself as the victim of the anger she incited in the first place. In this way, the tearful white woman has now placed herself the center of the narrative while the angry Black woman is suddenly blamed as the antagonist who caused the tears.

Garrison and Pillion cemented Linson’s antagonistic role by describing her sign as “anti-police.” In fact, her sign read, “What is the point of taking an oath if you don’t abide by it? Serve & protect Black lives.” In other words, Garrison and Pillion defined a call for police to abide by their own oath as being against police. This absurd description further emphasized a toxic racial dynamic between the two women and between the media and Black Community they misrepresent.

This rally was not a space for white people to work out their own racism in a public way nor for us to appeal to the grace of the Black persons present. This, like all Black Lives Matter protests, rallies, and marches, was a space for the Black experience, pain, and trauma to be expressed while the white participants were present to hear, learn, and, hopefully, exit as actively anti-racist set upon a lifetime of hearing, responding to, and advocating for Black voices and bodies. The speakers were brave in their vulnerability, entrusting their stories to hundreds of strangers who may or may not have held those stories with the respect and honor they deserved. Sally Herring most certainly did not.

It is white fragility to misrepresent a conflict between a white woman and a Black woman by casting them in racially charged roles in a news report.

It is white fragility to speak hurtful words then refuse to hear the pain they caused. It is white fragility to refuse to hear a Black rebuke. It is white fragility to hear grace then contrive your own danger.

It is white fragility to describe learning about and reforming systemic racism and individual racism as “hard and complicated.”

Linson said it best, “There is nothing ‘hard’ about protecting Black lives.”


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