“Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams says the St. Louis area has a serious race problem and he experienced it firsthand.
Williams traveled to Missouri on Oct. 11 and spent three days taking part in a series of protests dubbed “Ferguson October” and “Weekend of Resistance.”
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“I was actually astonished to be perfectly honest,” Williams told TheWrap in an exclusive interview. “The cops were really, really nasty, unnecessarily antagonizing people. It really creates a kind of plantation vibe – with people patrolling and literally in waves, beating their baton sticks against their hands, like they’re ready to deliver an ass whooping and enjoying it.”
The gatherings stretched about 12 miles from Ferguson to the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, with protesters demanding that Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, be charged with a crime.
Brown, 18, was fatally shot Aug. 9 by a white officer, later identified as Wilson. The Ferguson Police Department said Wilson stopped Brown because the teen and a friend were walking in the middle of the street, and that Brown tried to steal the officer’s gun in an altercation that followed. However, several witnesses contradicted the official version of what happened, saying Wilson shot Brown as the teen surrendered with his hands up.
Two months after the shooting, a grand jury is still trying to determine if officer Wilson should face criminal charges — something Williams says reeks of racism.
“It’s not simply about a cop killed Mike Brown. Cops kill people all the time,” the actor said. “What is really garnering outrage and people feeling really helpless and hopeless is that the legal system, the public servants that have been elected or financed by our tax dollars, literally don’t care and are doing nothing about it.”
Some of the protesters traveled from as far away as California and New York, including activist and academic Cornel West and rapper Talib Kweli. As the demonstrations got underway, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson tweeted: “We support the right to free speech & lawful assembly.”
But Williams claims the police in both St. Louis and Ferguson were far from welcoming. “There was an antagonistic, instigatory nature to the police behavior … Several times, just people walking around, not even in massive protest, just walking on the street, police shining lights in their faces, antagonizing them, snickering at them, laughing, taunting them, yelling at them to ‘go home,’” he said.
Late Saturday night, Dotson tweeted that protesters outside a gas station were breaking the law. “Protestors attempting to storm Quicktrip [sic] at Vandeventer & Chouteau. All protestors engaging in illegal behavior will be subject to arrest,” he wrote.
But Williams accused Dotson of stretching the truth. “I was there. They weren’t storming the QuikTrip … they were sitting down.”
According to local media reports, police in riot gear responded and used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Dotson announced 17 people had been arrested for unlawful assembly.
Neither the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department nor the Ferguson Police Department responded to TheWrap’s repeated requests for comment.
Williams said despite some obvious tensions with police officers, there was also a sense of unity at the gatherings. “What I was really warmed by is the incredible outpouring of white and Asian and Latin supporters and protesters there,” he said.
The actor — who said he went to Missouri out of love and to make a difference — frequently speaks out on social issues. He is on the board of directors for the civil rights organization Advancement Project and he’s involved with Harry Belafonte’s organization Sankofa, which encourages artists and performers to use their celebrity to bring attention to pressing social issues. And he took a video crew to Ferguson to record segments for Question Bridge — a media project that uses videos, art installations and the Internet to encourage dialogue between black men.
“I brought a team out there to be able to archive the perspective of folks there, what questions people are asking, what their concerns are and what internally people are discussing as ways out of this mess.”
Williams then called on Hollywood to pay more attention to what’s happening in Missouri and use it as an opportunity to learn and be more inclusive.
“I’d like Hollywood to take a real look at the small steps, the small gestures that they can take. We don’t need every movie and every TV show to have six white leads,” he said.
The Chicago native also took issue with casting choices in the 2014 films “Noah,” which starred Russell Crowe and the upcoming “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which features Christian Bale and Australian actor Joel Edgerton.
Williams said, “Instead of making all white ‘Noah’s,’ when it would be physically impossible for all those people to be white, or ‘Exodus’ when we know for a fact that the Egyptians were not white, Rhamses and Moses are all white, while the slaves and the servants and the thieves are black. That’s racism.”
Williams suggested such casting choices can do long-term harm.
“It’s damaging, it hurts people,” he told TheWrap. “It makes people consistently believe in white supremacy and it makes people very easily accept that Mike Brown might have been a thug, or Trayvon [Martin] was a thug, or Jordan Davis was a thug, because black people are constantly portrayed in a negative, aggressive, hyper-sexualized, aggressive, seething light.”
Williams ended by encouraging Hollywood to make more inclusive casting choices. “If we can’t even have our own empire, which Egypt was, they take that from us — you get the Prince of Persia and you get Egypt now? It’s getting vitriolic and nasty.”