Larry Edwards, a native of Bluffton, speaks to attendees at the community meeting held Jan. 31 by Bluffton Police Department and the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee. The meeting was called in response to the Jan. 7 killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of police. PHOTOS BY LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

The Jan. 7 murder of Memphis resident Tyre Nichols at the hands of five black police officers was catalyst for discourse and action. This spurred the Bluffton Police Department and the Bluffton MLK Observance Committee to co-host an open discussion Jan. 31 to give residents an opportunity to share their feelings and experiences.

“I’ve gotten positive feedback from the community,” said Bluffton Police Chief Joe Babkiewicz a week later. “The next day I had several people call me talking about what we do, where we go from here?”

The program was moderated by Bluffton Councilwoman Bridgette Frazier, chair of the MLK Observance Committee. Panel members included Gloria Holmes, professor of education at the University of South Carolina Beaufort at the Bluffton campus; Michael Lewis, a retired social worker, community organizer and member of the Campbell Chapel Social Action Ministry; Michael Maybin, pastor of Kingdom Seekers Family Worship Center, and retired lieutenant with the City of Baltimore Fire Department; and Jamal Toure, cultural director of the Geechee Kunda Cultural Arts Center and Museum in Riceboro, Georgia.

Before the meeting, Bluffton resident Octavia Lewis said she came to see if there would be any valuable solutions to police brutality across the country.

“I hope that they would listen to the people in the audience for suggestions as to what could possibly correct this crazy system that’s in place now. Is it a symptom of location or local culture?” she said. “It seems to me that the people who are police officers here were born and raised here. They went away and came back, so they know the people. And even if they were not born in Bluffton, they are from the local area and their experiences are different with people of color. This is a major problem and specifically for black lives. We are not held as of much value. When you speak to young people, they don’t feel as if they are valued.”

Hilton Head resident Jenifer Gajdalo also came because of similar recurring tragedies. 

“Yes, we also have a policing problem, but the public can’t point to the police, and say ‘it’s your fault.’ Communities need to work together, discuss what we think would be safe, fair and equitable for all citizens. Then develop ways, training methods that we periodically evaluate,” said Gajdalo. “Citizens should feel part of the process, and then everyone will feel they are part of the end result.”

Pastor Bennie Jenkins from First Zion Missionary Baptist Church is also the police department chaplain. 

“I’m going to present a solution working toward the harmony. We need to have this discussion about injustice, stereotype about police officers, just to bring about harmony and understanding, and to promote dialogue,” he said.

Babkiewicz began the meeting by saying the panel wanted to hear about the community’s experiences and how changes can be made.

“Too often you’ll see statements being made across the country from law enforcement leaders, but it ends there,” said Babkiewicz. “We don’t want to have it end there. We don’t want to just make a statement. We want to sit here and talk this out.”

Frazier noted that the Bluffton community is able to engage in and have a conversation about the elephant in the room.

“We have seen these instances of brutality that have occurred in our society. In each instance, it leads everyone to ask what do we do different?” she said. “Why does this continue to happen? What are the issues and circumstances surrounding it? And we ask questions, and some people are afraid to tackle the serious issue.”

Bluffton resident Erin Dalia, a mother of five, felt after the meeting was over that there was really good discussion with a lot of basis for change, a lot of ideas. 

“I think it starts with the kids, and that representation matters. Our kids aren’t seeing people of color in every position. I have five children, four of which are black. And all of them have been in the AP honors, gifted and talented, programs here in the area. And they are just one of a few,” she said during the meeting. “Sometimes I wonder if the reason that I chose those classes is because I as their white mother have pushed this. It needs to start at the bottom. My 10-year-old son is currently the only black boy in his gifted and talented class in his elementary school. He hates it but he doesn’t want to leave it. He says some of the other black kids in his grade don’t talk to him because of where he is.”

As a former educator, Frazier acknowledged Dalia’s concern.

“I would often have, if not zero kids in my honors or gifted classes, maybe one or two black kids. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of doing it. What we found was that they would group students based on their testing scores,” Frazier said. “When we looked back at the data for some of the issues, we would pose that we know that testing itself is biased. How do we remove barriers that exist early on that will separate them and give them a feeling of being better than other kids?”

Toure said it is up to individuals to act.

“Bluffton is doing a lot better than a whole bunch of other communities at the moment,” he said. “I say this all the time: good people must stand up. We want someone else to be the hero, or the she-ro. You must be the hero or the she-ro, but we tend to run from that discussion of race and ethnicity. (When) you see injustice, remove it with your hands. And if you can’t do with your hands, then speak out against it. That’s what we could all do. And that’s something simple.”

Larry Edwards, founder and executive director of Edwards Mentoring and Social Services in Acworth, Ga., is a Bluffton native, and worked in New York City for 18 years. He sees the bigger problem as having to do with privilege.

“I’ve been in every one of your situations, the only black kid in a predominantly white school. Self-hatred is real. Black-on-black is real,” he said. “The problem is, with the privilege, you haven’t dealt with inequality in the benefits that a certain group gets from the privilege. There’s a certain level of accountability that we all have to own when it comes to privilege. It’s deeper than just starting with the children. Your self-esteem is established based on how you can look at somebody and devalue them. Until we stop doing that, we are going to keep having these meetings.” 

Maybin had similar concerns.

“There are problems that people have with self-worth. If you are selling yourself short because you lack the self-confidence or the inner knowledge of who you are, you’re going to take other people for granted,” he said. 

L.J. Bush, another Bluffton native, is the executive director of Changing Our Image Now, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission “to help young adults in the Lowcountry of South Carolina to find their purpose, and discover hope where hopelessness resides due to external and internal challenges.”

“Start talking to your kids about what the history was. Not looking at it to let it be a crutch, but understanding so as to move forward with your best friend who is white or Hispanic or black,” Bush said. “Better relationships start with having more meetings like this on a quarterly basis. Let’s move forward in a strategic way to be intentional about what we do.”

Among the key takeaways Frazier noted was that the open discussion was a conversation that should continue to happen. 

Other important recommendations included knowing about election cycles and that each vote always matters; South Carolina is still one of only two states that do not have a hate crime bill on the books – Wyoming is the other state. Frazier recommended contacting State Representative Bill Herbkersman to ask why that bill has not been passed. She suggested that citizens participate in community opportunities, such as the Bluffton Police Department’s law enforcement advisory committee. 

Frazier also noted that the Chief Babkiewicz has an open door policy, and all of Bluffton’s residents are encouraged to bring issues to the town’s elected officials. 

“What we do want everyone to know and walk away with is tonight has been productive in the sense of this is something that for far too long people were refusing to do,” Frazier said. “I don’t want anyone to ever be disengaged or feel like this is something that we should just talk about one time, and leave it alone.” 

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.