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Prairie View, Texas, Reflects On History Of Racism After Police Incidents


We're going to visit a place now that has become a big part of the debate over race and policing. That's Waller County, Texas. It's where Sandra Bland was stopped for a traffic violation. Bland was black. She was pulled from her car by a white officer and handcuffed for resisting an order. She later died in custody. Authorities say she committed suicide. Waller County is also where a black city councilman was recently Tased by a white police officer outside his apartment complex. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has our report.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Like the Texas State Troopers' confrontation with Sandra Bland, the police's confrontation with Prairie View city councilman Jonathan Miller started over something small.


PENNY GOODIE: I need you to...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Watch out. Watch out. (Inaudible) put your hands behind your back

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Put your hands behind your back.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Don't Tase him. Don't Tase him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Don't do it, Bro.

GOODWYN: A black Prairie View police officer sees three young black men, guests of Councilman Miller, standing outside their car in a parking lot. She suspects they're smoking dope. In fact, they're successful mechanical engineers, and they're changing into boots, getting ready to practice their fraternity step routine for homecoming. Her suspicions allayed, officer Penny Goodie is about to let the boys get back to their homecoming prep when a white officer arrives.


MICHAEL KELLEY: Penny, you have these three right here?


KELLEY: OK, Man. Come on. Go stand over there, Man. You - this is a scene. This is a scene. Come on. Come on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Officer, please do not put your hands on me.

KELLEY: Go over here before you go to jail for interfering. Go over there before you go to jail for interfering, Man.

GOODWYN: In the body camera video, Officer Michael Kelley focuses his attention on City Councilman Miller.


KELLEY: Go back over there to the end, Man. Do you always start problems? Go back over there. I'm not going to tell you again. We're not going to keep playing these games, Brotha.

JONATHAN MILLER: You're not my brother, first of all. Second of all...

KELLEY: Go back over there.

MILLER: Second of all...

KELLEY: Go back over there.

MILLER: ...I live here.

KELLEY: I'm telling you. This is...

GOODWYN: The officer grabs Miller to arrest him, and the councilman ends up on his knees, back to the officers. Kelley un-holsters his Taser, orders the kneeling councilman to move his hands from his sides to behind his back. And when Miller doesn't comply, he fires into his back.


GOODIE: OK. He's going to have to Tase you. You're not doing like you're...

MILLER: (Screaming).

KELLEY: Put your hands behind your back. Put your hands behind your back.

GOODWYN: Miller was arrested and charged with interfering with police and resisting arrest. And like the Sandra Bland incident, the videos of the councilman's Tasing have gone viral.

FRANK JACKSON: I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed because Prairie View's a good community.

GOODWYN: Prairie View mayor Frank Jackson is unhappy but not for the reason you might initially think. The mayor is not angry with his Officer Michael Kelley. He's mad at Councilman Miller.

JACKSON: You don't interfere with officers in the performance of their duty whether you agree with them or not. You step to the side. A maturely elected officials would've said, OK, Officer, I'm going to comply with your wishes, but I want you and your chief to meet me right here as soon as you clear this scene.

GOODWYN: In 1876 Prairie View A&M was built atop a large cotton plantation to serve African-Americans who were forbidden from attending Texas A&M in College Station. The town is 90 percent black and the university its reason for being. Before and during the Civil War, more than 5,000 slaves worked the cotton fields here, an extremely large number for a Texas county. Mayor Jackson.

JACKSON: It's a culture. So you have - we've never dealt with what we call post-traumatic slavery syndrome. We've never been able to fully recover because there was never a healing process. We've made it work over time.

GOODWYN: Part of making it work has meant acting respectful when interacting with white law enforcement even if being stopped and questioned for no apparent reason. But this latest generation of Prairie View students and alumni, as represented by Sandra Bland and Councilman Jonathan Miller, refused to play by the ancient Waller County script, and so retribution was swift.

MARIE HERNDON: They seem to have the opinion that you have to obey and be subservient. Why would that be the case when they're there to protect and serve?

GOODWYN: Prairie View city councilwoman Marie Herndon grew up in Prairie View, but unlike Mayor Jackson, she's 100 percent in support of her colleague Jonathan Miller. Herndon says she was horrified at the state trooper's brutal treatment of young Sandra Bland in July and stunned at the lack of regard afforded an aspiring city leader.

HERNDON: That was beyond belief. This councilman was on his knees with his hands to his side. That was total disrespect.

GOODWYN: Waller County district attorney Elton Mathis and police chief Larry Johnson declined NPR's request for an interview. Chief Johnson reported he expects to complete the internal investigation next week. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Prairie View, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.

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