None of our business? I have a dear friend who lives in Petal who took at least a little objection to those residents of Hattiesburg who got involved, speaking out against the comments made by Petal Mayor Hal Marx on the death of George Floyd. Some Hattiesburg residents even showed up at demonstrations in protest of the mayor at Petal City Hall. For those of us who reside in Hattiesburg, my friend thought this was "none of our business." Really? (Hold that thought.)
As us locals know, indeed, much of the nation knows, Mayor Marx whipped himself into a nasty controversy earlier this month, with his personal comments, shared on social media, regarding the Minneapolis resident's death. Mayor Marx, surely unintentionally, brought national notoriety to the city of Petal.
Now, on any other day, that could have been a good thing. But in this case, Marx managed to disprove the old adage, "any publicity is good publicity." Not this time. Mayor Marx did the city he leads no favors; instead, he ends up mocking Petal's nickname, "The Friendly City."
Following Mr. Floyd's life-ending interaction with Minneapolis police, Marx got into what came off as a heated exchange on Twitter. Responding to another person's comment, Marx added his own contribution to the mix.
As the story goes, after receiving a phone call about a counterfeit $20 bill being passed at a local restaurant, Minneapolis police showed up at the scene. Mr. Floyd was questioned, arrested and handcuffed for passing the suspected fake twenty. Worth considering, even if the bill were counterfeit, he may not have known. Any of us could end up being recipients of a phony piece of currency. We've all experienced our $20 bills being examined by cashiers at Walmart, or even the gas station.
After his arrest and handcuffing, Mr. Floyd was forced to lay on the ground, while police officer Derek Chaunvin and three fellow officers continued their investigation. Handcuffed, and placed on his stomach, as Officer Chauvin used the force of his knee, pushing Floyd's face into the concrete. At one point, Chauvin, along with his partners, could all be seen holding Mr. Floyd down on the street.
In painful and frightened distress, pleading for help, 46 year-old George Floyd hopelessly called for his late mother, "Mama!," adding the three words that have become a symbolic cry for justice in the case of his murder: "I can't breathe!"
We know how the story ends. After nearly nine minutes with the pressure of Chauvin's knee on his neck, George Flyod's pleas diminished, along with his body's movements. By the time an ambulance arrived, his cries had stopped, his body motionless, leading observers to one conclusion. He was likely dead at the scene.
Obviously having seen the video of Mr.Floyd's death, Mayor Marx, responding to someone else's Twitter comment wrote, "If you are talking about the incident in MN, I didn't see anything unreasonable. If you say you can't breathe, you're breathing. Most likely, that man died of overdose or heart attack. Video doesn't show his resistance that got him in that position. Police being crucified."
Well, actually Mr. Mayor, you're right. The video didn't show his "resistance" because, from what we saw, there was none. George Floyd appeared cooperative during his initial interaction with the police. In fact, even confused, wondering why he was being arrested in the first place. It would seem Hal Marx made a judgement call, aided by his own suspicious pre-judging.
Why is it,when a black person, especially black men, die or are seriously injured in altercations with the police, it's automatically assumed, by some, he must have done something to "deserve" injury or, in Mr. Floyd's case, his death? Mayor Marx's comments were, at best, heartless, and egregiously condescending. At worst? (Draw your own conclusions.)
Regardless of his past, Mr. Floyd did not deserve to die in such a dehumanizing way, at the hands (knee) of a police officer. (Imagine our outrage if we saw someone treating a dog like this.) But the way Hal Marx saw things, Chauvin's actions were "reasonable." No big deal; George Floyd either deserved or invited his own death. Right, Mr. Mayor?
But no, wait. I'm a resident of Hattiesburg; what happens in Petal is "none of my business." You think? Well, consider this.
Hal Marx's statement became big news, even making the New York Times. Upon reaching the national news level, you can bet the first two words in the story's headline were not "Petal Mayor," but "Mississippi Mayor." There you go; cue the collective groans from the rest of the country. "What else do you expect? It's Mississippi." Mayor Marx's insensitive remarks cast a negative spotlight, not just on Petal, but on our entire state, feeding the racial stereotypes Americans have of Mississippi.
I've been fortunate enough to visit much of this country in my lifetime, almost every major city in the country. During my travels, I often try and dispel the negative ideas people have about Mississippi. I love telling people blacks and whites get along better here than in most parts of the country. That view comes from the heart. Sure, we have our problems with race, but so does the rest of the country. And, as we've recently witnessed firsthand, problems often on a much more unsettling scale than our own.
When I was growing up, I lived on Fairley Street, a short walk from the Leaf River, just across the Bouie Street bridge from Petal. My mother often shopped there, at the city's Better Living and Jitney Jungle supermarkets.
As Hattiesburg grew into a metropolitan area, in addition to eastern Lamar County, much of Petal's growth was due to white flight from the city. In fact, as an African-American, I felt uncomfortable going into Petal, not welcomed. I'll admit, that may have been a bit of an overreaction on my part.
Since those years, I frequently visit the city of Petal. It's where I took my family's dogs to the vet. My dentist's office is there (the best in Petal or Hattiesburg), and I fill up my gas tank in Petal, too. (Gas is always cheaper across the river.) And, oh yeah, I sure do miss the great farmer's market, once located on Central Avenue.
Still, when I heard about Mayor Marx's senseless comments, I went into a mild state of panic. You see, some of those stereotypes I had about Petal still lived in my head. I was thinking most of the white residents of the city would quickly come to the defense of Mayor Marx. I feared a racial backlash that would reopen old wounds, degrading race relations in our area.
There I was, wrong again, misjudging the city of Petal. During a Petal Board of Aldermen meeting, the city's leaders called for Marx's resignation. Not surprisingly, the mayor refused to step down. Instead, he issued what came off as an emotionless "apology," insisting his words had nothing to do with race or racism.
To be fair, Marx has had his defenders and I'll not do as he did, "prejudge" what's in their hearts. Instead, I take great comfort in seeing the many peaceful demonstrations that have taken place in Petal, with equal numbers of black and white citizens participating, standing up in defense of their city. Initially, because of the mayor's remarks, some people were angry enough to swear off shopping and spending their money in Petal. I was never on the same page with that one. Why would I be? The citizens of Petal didn't make those crude and, some would say, racist remarks about the death of George Floyd. Only one man did. That was Hal Marx.
Incendiary remarks about race, made by the city's mayor, "none of my business?" Well, what's said in Petal doesn't stay in Petal. There are more than 150,000 people in the Petal/Hattiesburg metro area. Hal Marx hurt Petal, and when he did, he hurt all of us. He has announced he will not run for another term, and at least we can look forward to that. The city deserves better representation of who they are.
In the meantime, Petal, you make us proud, living up to your nickname: The Friendly City.
Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of both Hattiesburg High and the University of Southern Mississippi.