To Williams, 75, who is Black and grew up in the surrounding Isle of Wight County being taught to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to all White men, it was a shockingly public example of what he once viewed as just “the way it is” in that part of the old Confederate state’s Southside.
But as he toggled between his phone and watching coverage of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, Williams realized there could be power in the spotlight suddenly being shone on his little corner of rural Virginia.
The raw footage of police pointing guns at Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, 27, in his military fatigues — captured at the BP gas station in Windsor on Dec. 5 but having just now come to light — was going to shake things up. “Perhaps this incident here will open up eyes of more people and may be the catalyst to challenge the culture of Windsor,” Williams said this week.
So on Tuesday night, Williams did something he’s never done before: He made the 10-minute drive into town to attend a Windsor Town Council meeting. Dozens of other people had the same idea. TV crews showed up. Protesters from BLM 757, a Black Lives Matter group from Virginia Beach, were on hand with a bullhorn and a large protest flag. Squads of county sheriff’s deputies and Virginia state police provided security, but town police were absent.
Mayor Glyn Willis arrived about an hour early and paced the cavernous gymnasium outfitted for the meeting, folding tables set up for the council, folding chairs for the audience, arranged at pandemic-safe distances across the parquet floor.
Willis seemed nervous about the attention. After the Virginian-Pilot newspaper broke the story last week that Nazario was suing the town and posted the video, the council put out a news release assuring the public that disciplinary action had been taken. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called for a state police and federal probe; Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) vowed to investigate the department’s civil rights practices. Pressure mounting, the town announced on Sunday that it had fired Officer Joe Gutierrez, who was seen in the video screaming that Nazario was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a slang term that can refer to a stun gun or execution.
Now Willis, who is White, found himself having to deflect questions about whether his seven-member police department was racist and whether the town would take any further action. A lawsuit is pending, he explained. The council was meeting later in private with its lawyer.
Does he believe his town has a problem with systemic racism? “No, I don’t think so,” he said. Willis, 64, a software consultant, grew up in the town, spent 30 years away and has been back for 14 years.
“There are a lot of good people in Windsor,” he said. “As I see the many emails about people characterizing Windsor as this, that or the other — all in negative terms — I’d love to invite them over to my house next week, when the azaleas are in full bloom, and let them recognize a different aspect of Windsor than the impression they might be getting.”
He excused himself and ducked away to consult with the town manager. People were filling the seats in the gymnasium — some local residents, others from cities throughout Hampton Roads who said they had never spent time in Windsor beyond sitting at a stop light or filling their car with gas.
But Windsor had their attention now.
A pass-through town
Almost nobody sees Windsor in its best light. With a population of about 2,700, it’s a place most people pass through, a strip of businesses along Route 460 — a Food Lion, car repair shops, three gas stations, a grain elevator, Dollar General, hardware store. The Burger King faces the Dairy Queen across Prince Boulevard. The town sits at the intersection of a road leading north to the meatpacking plants of Smithfield and south to the paper mill of Franklin. The surrounding Isle of Wight County is about 73 percent White and 23 percent Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Similar hamlets are strung along 460 from Suffolk northwest to Petersburg, most with names from romantic British literature — Ivor, Waverly, Wakefield — old train stops that no longer have depots. The highway that links them follows the rail line, four undivided lanes with long, hypnotically straight stretches and no shoulders, just ditches and scruffy pine forest and sandy fields of peanuts. And in each town, the speed limit drops to 45 mph, then sometimes 35 mph, and regular drivers know not to push it.
Traffic fines account for about 6 percent, or $120,000, of Windsor’s current-year budget. For last December, the month Nazario was stopped for not having a license plate on his bumper, the department reported one felony arrest, 10 misdemeanor arrests and 177 traffic stops.
But the highway is only part of Windsor’s nearly four square miles, and some families count their time here not in years but in generations. Just off the main road, a sign points to Centennial Park — a postage-stamp oasis with two park benches and a picnic table. Down the street, across from a row of comfortable old homes, is a deluxe baseball field for the high school, “Welcome to the Castle — Home of the Dukes” spelled out on the fence. In the distance beyond Town Hall, a tractor passes up and down a dusty field as daylight fades.
On a recent weekday, many local residents were leery of talking about their town and the situation with police. One older White man riding a mower along a field in the county said he knows that everybody regards Windsor as a speed trap, and wondered if that negative reputation partly explains why reaction to the police video was so harsh.
“It is hard to do well when everybody despises you,” he said on the condition of anonymity because he goes to town a couple of times a week and doesn’t want to stir up trouble.
But Robert Johnson, 52, a tow-truck operator from the nearby hamlet of Zuni who said his family’s roots in the area go back to the 1600s, defended Windsor and its police.
“It’s a congested area, people should slow down,” said Johnson, who is White, as he unloaded a stack of tires from the back of a pickup. And the furor over the Nazario video? “People are blowing it out of proportion,” he said. “I think the cops were justified in doing what they did.”
Asked if Black people are disproportionately targeted by police, Johnson said no. More than half of the people in Virginia prisons are Black, he said, adding that he thinks that they’re there “because they don’t know how to behave.”
Incumbent Donald Trump won Isle of Wight County last year by about 18 percentage points in the presidential election, and his campaign signs still dot the landscape. Windsor is one of just two incorporated towns in the 316-square-mile county, along with Smithfield to the north on a tributary of the James River.
The county was not immune to the changes that have been sweeping the country in the past year. Its five-member board of supervisors, one of whom is Black, voted unanimously in February to take down the Confederate statue outside the courthouse. It offered to relocate the monument to a cemetery in Windsor, but the town declined.
But Williams said there is a sharp cultural divide within Isle of Wight County.
The southern part of the county “is — how do I want to say it — it’s redneck country, it really is,” he said.
He pointed out a yard sign near his home, put up by a White family, that says: “We the People demand honest and fair voting in Virginia and in our Country.”
To him, the sign evokes the spectacle of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and contains a subtle but powerful message about race and power.
“Who are ‘the people’ ?” he said. “The most frightening thing for White America is the fact that America is browning, and they are actually fighting to maintain superiority. But they got to give it up.”
County Sheriff James Clarke, who is Black, said he is not aware of any extra racial tensions in the Windsor area. “But I would be remiss if I don’t say that Isle of Wight is almost like two different counties,” he said, noting that the north is a bedroom community to the shipyards and military bases of Hampton Roads.
Windsor and points south, he said, “is generational farmers. Rural land.”
Volpe Boykin, 63, who is White, said he grew up near Windsor during the time when public schools were being integrated and never saw any problems. Race relations, he said, are “extremely good.” A private investigator who spent 13 years as a Norfolk cop, Boykin said he’s seen far worse racial tensions in the city than in his rural hometown.
“I’ve got people of different colors that I love like family and they love me like family,” he said.
On Tuesday night at the council meeting, Boykin spoke on behalf of an organization called the Southern and Central Isle of Wight Citizens Group. Wearing a lapel pin depicting a police shield with a black band across it, Boykin said the group “wishes to express its support for the town of Windsor police department and town council. We agree with and support the actions they have taken in reference to the December 5, 2020, incident.”
That included the firing of Gutierrez but also the continued employment of the other officer in the incident, a recent police academy graduate named Daniel Crocker who grew up in the town.
Few of the other dozen or so people who spoke at the meeting had anything good to say about the police. One after another, Black and White, local and out-of-town, the speakers poured out their anguish — about policing, but ultimately about race.
Williams, the pastor, walked slowly to the microphone and addressed the council quietly.
“It is a rare time when a symptom of a problem so clearly shows itself,” he said. “There is a problem. The problem is not just the town of Windsor, but we have a more deep-seated problem in Isle of Wight and ultimately in America. And that is that we have a problem of racism.”
“Enough is enough,” said Taylor Copeland, 19, a nanny who is White and grew up in the town. “This brings the issue of police brutality and abuse of authority close to home. . . . America has a racism problem, one that we can’t sit by and allow to happen anymore.”
“You made me ashamed of a town that I grew to love,” said Judith Dempsey, who has lived in Windsor for 20 years since retiring from the Air Force. Her voice cracked with emotion as she spoke.
Pointing out that no one from the police department was at the meeting, she said, “Why should I pay you guys my taxes for you to hide? Where’s the Windsor Police Department?”
She singled out a council member who had been writing on a notepad as people spoke. He immediately put down his pen and looked up.
“Writing on a piece of paper, not paying attention to what half the people are saying — it breaks my heart. Because that tells me he really doesn’t give a damn,” she said. “That’s how a lot of people are feeling. . . . I’m hurt, Windsor!”
The council members sat silently.
It wasn’t until the next day, Wednesday, that town Police Chief Rodney Riddle finally addressed the issue, speaking at a news conference. He blamed Nazario for creating the situation by not complying immediately when police told him to pull over and get out of the car, but condemned the actions of Gutierrez and pledged to work with the community to heal wounds.
Riddle said he would seek “implicit bias” training for his seven-member force, and he pledged to make diverse hires. But he pointed out that Gutierrez had been one of two Hispanic officers on the force, and said that while he has an adjunct officer who is Black, he has had a hard time recruiting people because other departments pay considerably more.
On Tuesday night, in the face of the public onslaught, Mayor Willis seemed to struggle with how to respond.
“As I sat through the past few days, it’s many mixed emotions of how could this happen in the town I grew up in,” he told the audience.
As the meeting broke up and council members prepared to meet with their lawyer, BLM 757 leader Japharii Jones, who had carried his black-and-white flag into the meeting, buttonholed Willis.
What Windsor needs, Jones told the mayor, is to talk more about its problems.
Willis agreed. Someone asked earlier, “is there systemic racism in town?” Willis said. “I think it’s a lack of communications. There are problems that we don’t communicate well enough in to figure out how to work around. And both sides get frustrated by things that happen and we’ve just got to figure out how to make it productive.”
Jones said his group could help. “We’ll extend the olive branch to be the ambassador,” he said. People are afraid to talk openly about race in their own community, he said, and sometimes outsiders can help.
“I’d be interested to see what I can learn from that,” Willis said.