Watering while Black: anatomy of a pastor’s Alabama arrest
CHILDERSBURG, Ala. (AP) — Michael Jennings wasn’t breaking any laws or doing anything that was obviously suspicious; the Black minister was simply watering the flowers of a neighbor who was out of town.
Yet there was a problem: Around the corner, Amber Roberson, who is white, thought she was helping that same neighbor when she saw a vehicle she didn’t recognize at the house and called police.
Within minutes, Jennings was in handcuffs, Roberson was apologizing for calling 911 and three officers were talking among themselves about how everything might have been different.
Harry Daniels, an attorney representing Jennings, said he plans to submit a claim to the city of Childersburg seeking damages and then file a lawsuit. “This should be a learned lesson and a training tool for law enforcement about what not to do,” he said.
A 20-minute video of the episode recorded on one of the officers’ body cameras shows how quickly an uneventful evening on a quiet residential street devolved into yet another potentially explosive situation involving a Black man and white law enforcement authorities.
“Whatcha doing here, man?” Officer Chris Smith asked as he walked up to Jennings, who held a hose with a stream of water falling on plants beside the driveway outside a small, white house.
“Watering flowers,” Jennings replied from a few feet away. Lawn decorations stood around a mailbox; fresh mulch covered the beds. It was more than an hour before sunset on a Sunday in late May, the kind of spring evening when people often are out tending plants.
But moments before, a woman had dialed 911 about a “younger Black male” and gold SUV that she saw at the house even though the owners were away, according to a call transcript obtained by The Associated Press.
Walking toward Jennings, Smith told him that a caller said she saw a strange vehicle and a person who “wasn’t supposed to be here” at the house.
Jennings told him the SUV he was talking about belonged to the neighbor who lives there.
“I’m supposed to be here,” he added. “I’m Pastor Jennings. I live across the street.”
“You’re Pastor Jennings?”
“Yes. I’m looking out for their house while they’re gone, watering their flowers,” said Jennings, still spraying water.
“OK, well, that’s cool. Do you have, like, ID?” Smith asked.
“Oh, no. Man, I’m not going to give you ID,” Jennings said, turning away.
“Why not?” Smith asked.
“I ain’t did nothing wrong,” the pastor replied.
Jennings, 56, was born in rural Alabama just three years after George C. Wallace pledged “segregation forever” at the first of his four inaugurations as governor. His parents grew up during a time when racial segregation was the law and Black people were expected to act with deference to white people in the South.
“I know the backdrop,” Jennings said in an interview with AP.
Meanwhile, the officers who confronted him on May 22 work for a majority-white city of about 4,700 people that’s located 55 miles (88 kilometers) southeast of Birmingham down U.S. 280. Most members of the city council and police department are white, as is the mayor, past police chief and current acting chief.
Jennings went into the ministry not long after graduating from high school and hasn’t strayed far from his birthplace of nearby Sylacauga, where he leads Vision of Abundant Life Ministries, a small, nondenominational church, when not doing landscaping work or selling items online. In 1991, he said, he worked security and then trained to be a police officer in a nearby town but left before taking the job full time.
“That’s how I knew the law,” he said.
As Jennings and Smith argued over whether the pastor needed to show an ID, another officer walked into view.
His voice rising, Jennings asked who called the police.
“You see a Black man out here watering his neighbor’s flowers and you think it’s something illegal,” Jennings said loudly.
“I’m not saying nothing about ...,” Smith responded.
“You have no right to approach me if I ain’t did nothing suspicious or nothing wrong,” Jennings said, gesturing with his right hand and continuing to hold the garden hose with his left. With the officers also talking, he added: “You want to lock me up? Lock me up. I’m not showing y’all anything. I’m going to continue watering these flowers.”
About 35 seconds later, after warning that Jennings could be charged with obstruction for walking away, officer No. 2, identified in a police report as J. Gable, put the preacher in handcuffs.
“I like this,” Jennings told them. He added: “It’s already a lawsuit.”
Alabama law allows police to ask for the name of someone in a public place when there’s reasonable suspicion the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. But that doesn’t mean a man innocently watering flowers at a neighbor’s home must provide identification when asked by an officer, according to Hank Sherrod, a civil rights lawyer who reviewed the full police video at the request of the AP.
“This is an area of the law that is pretty clear,” said Sherrod, who has handled similar cases in north Alabama, where he practices.
Giving police the same name he routinely uses as the minister of a Black church, where ecclesiastical titles are important, Jennings identified himself, without any prompting, as “Pastor Jennings” within seconds of Smith’s approach. That might have been adequate for someone steeped in the culture of Black Christianity, but it wasn’t for white police officers.
The video shows the officers repeatedly accusing Jennings of failing to identify himself.
Cuffed and seated between two shrubs on the front stoop of his neighbor’s home, Jennings told Smith and Gable that his son, a university athletics administrator, had been wrongly detained recently in Michigan after a young woman at a cheerleading competition said a Black man had hugged her.
“My son just got arrested and profiled,” he said. The incident, which didn’t result in any charges, happened about two months before Jennings’ confrontation with Alabama police, he told the AP.
A third Childersburg officer, identified as Sgt. Jeremy Brooks in a report, arrived while Smith was complaining loudly that Jennings wouldn’t listen and Gable was all but screaming at the pastor.
“You have to identify yourself to me,” Gable yelled.
“No, I don’t,” Jennings retorted repeatedly.
Smith returned to his patrol car while the argument continued. What Jennings said then is inaudible on the video, but a police report quotes him as telling Brooks: “Stop talking to me like I’m a boy.” But Jennings told the AP that he said something very different: “I told him, ‘I’m a full-grown man. You don’t talk to me like that, boy.’”
Whatever was said, it was enough for Smith.
“You know what? 10-15,” he shouted, using the police radio code for a prisoner in custody. “I ain’t going to sit there and have that, dude.”
Apart from the recent experience of his son, Jennings said he felt “anger and fear” during the entire episode because of the accumulated weight of past police killings — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others — plus lower-profile incidents and shootings in Alabama.
“That’s why I didn’t resist,” he said.
And, Jennings said, he already had experience dealing with suspicious white police officers in the racially integrated neighborhood where he and his family have lived for seven years.
Not long after moving in, he said, an officer cruised down the street while Jennings was out by the street checking the mail. The officer pulled over to question Jennings, explaining that he was responding to a caller’s claim that a Black man was going through mailboxes in the area, according to the preacher.
“I told him it was my house,” Jennings said. “He just went on.”
Jennings was already in the back of a patrol car by the time Roberson, the white woman who called police, emerged. Jennings, she told officers, was a neighbor and a friend of the home’s owner, Roy Milam.
“OK. Does he have permission here to be watering flowers?” Smith asked.
“He may, because they are friends,” she replied. “They went out of town today. He may be watering their flowers. It would be completely normal.”
Milam told the AP that was exactly what happened: He’d asked Jennings to water his wife’s flowers while they were camping in the Tennessee mountains for a few days.
Watering flowers wasn’t the problem, Smith told Roberson. The issue, he said, was Jennings’ refusal to provide identification after acting “suspicious.”
Realizing that she’d called police because one neighbor was watering another’s flowers, Roberson said: “This is probably my fault.”
A few moments later, officers told Roberson that a license plate check showed the gold sport utility vehicle that prompted her call in the first place belonged to Milam. They got Jennings out of the patrol car and he told them his first and last name.
“I didn’t know it was him,” Roberson told police. “I’m sorry about that.”
The officers spent much of their remaining time on the scene in a discussion that began with a question from Smith: “What are we going to do with him?”
After weighing different options, they settled on a charge of obstructing governmental operations that was thrown out within days in city court. The police chief who sought the dismissal after reviewing the 911 call and bodycam video, Richard McClelland, resigned earlier this month. Officials haven’t said why he quit, but city attorney Reagan Rumsey said it had nothing to do with what happened to Jennings.
Childersburg’s interim police chief, Capt. Kevin Koss, didn’t return emails seeking comment.
But the three officers, standing along the street as Jennings sat handcuffed in a police vehicle, talked among themselves about what happened.
“I said, ‘If you’ll just listen to me. You’re being audio and video recorded, and what we’re trying to do is identify yourself and find out what’s going on,’” Brooks, Smith’s supervisor, said on the video. “He wouldn’t even let me. He wanted to yell over me and say we’re racial profiling and talking to him like he’s a boy.”
Moments later, Smith walked around the house to the spot where Jennings had been watering flowers and shut off the spigot to the hose.
“I mean, all he had to do was identify himself,” he told Brooks.
“That’s it,” Brooks said.
“Jesus,” Smith muttered.
Michael Jennings is still friends with Milam, the neighbor with the flowers. Milam, who is white, said he feels bad about what happened, and the two men will continue watching out for each other’s homes, just as they’ve done for years.
“He is a good neighbor, definitely. No doubt about it,” Milam said.
Jennings also spoke recently with Roberson for the first time since the arrest. In the video, the handcuffed pastor assured her he would still be buying a graduation present for her son even though he wasn’t going to be able to make the party she invited him to.
Jennings, who lives less than a third of a mile from the police station, said he hasn’t seen any of the three officers who were involved in his arrest since that day. He believes all three should be fired or at least disciplined.
“I feel a little paranoid,” he said.
Nonetheless, he still waves at police cars passing through his neighborhood, partly out of the Christian call to be kind to others.
“You’re supposed to love your neighbor, no matter what,” he said. “But you’ve heard the saying, ‘Keep your enemies close to you, too.’”
Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity Team.