701 CCA Responds to Police Incident Involving Artist In Residency

701 Center for Contemporary Art’s board of directors and its executive director, Michaela Pilar Brown, were shocked and saddened by the events of May 17 at 701 Whaley Street.  At 2:00 a.m. on that morning, John Sims, the CCA artist in residence, was accosted in the bedroom of the CCA apartment he occupied by Columbia Police Department officers with guns drawn, shouting commands, detaining Mr. Sims, and handcuffing him for 8 minutes while officers verified his identity.  

Anti-Black bias is pervasive.  It is inescapable.  The death of George Floyd brought this injustice to light, and we are now engaged in a global conversation about police brutality, racial profiling, and systemic injustice.  By inviting Mr. Sims to present his powerful, nationally-recognized work in Columbia, CCA had hoped to create a platform for creative art-making, public dialogue, and risk-taking in a safe place.  

After all, art spaces are intended to be safe spaces, sanctuaries insulated from the dangers of the surrounding world.  But art spaces are also spaces of privilege.  And that privilege is about race, too, and who has the privilege of enjoying both the safety of these sanctuaries and the assumption of belonging.

This incident involving Mr. Sims was not the first occasion in which a resident of one of several apartments in the 701 Whaley Street building encountered a law enforcement officer searching the premises for a possible intruder.  It was the first time, however, such an encounter led to hostile confrontation, detention, cuffing, and a records check.  On the contrary, such previous encounters have resulted in courteous apologies from officers. The difference?  Race.  Mr. Sims is a black man; the other incidents involved a white man.

Like other community-based, nonprofit institutions, CCA has the responsibility to shine light on injustice it encounters and to be part of an active dialogue to make real and discernible change.  We cannot ignore the relationship between the white supremacy that permeates our culture and the racial profiling we believe infected John Sims’ treatment by CPD officers.

What we can and must do is to ask the Columbia Police Department to examine carefully its policies and practices related to racial profiling that unnecessarily escalated this incident and put the life of an innocent man at risk.  We also ask the Department to exercise care in its public statements to ensure that they fully and accurately represent events that will be scrutinized and that they do not, as a result, shift blame to the victim, as happened in this case with Mr. Sims.

What we can and will do is support the efforts of John Sims as the CCA artist in residence to tell his story, to provide context for that story through his artistic expression, and to seize the opportunity to join with him and the greater Columbia community as we continue the struggle for racial justice. 

CCA wants to recognize the constructive efforts made by CPD Chief Hollbrook and several public officials, including the mayor and members of city council, to visit Mr. Sims’ exhibit at CCA and to speak with Mr. Sims concerning the events of May 17.  We are hopeful those visits mark the beginning of a dialogue that will lead to an acknowledgement by the Columbia Police Department of its shortcomings in this incident and the need for continuing improvement.

Michaela Pilar Brown

Executive Director

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