Wendell Griffen Chastises City of Little Rock's Black Leaders On Police Residency Requirement Vote

Judge Wendell Griffen at Truthful Tuesday on the steps of the state Capitol in 2014.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR News

Judge Wendell Griffen is calling some of Little Rock’s most prominent black leaders “enablers” of a “deeply racist” system following a failed vote to require police officers to live in the city they have pledged to protect. The Little Rock City Board of Directors voted down a residency requirement on Tuesday along racial lines but approved a package offering incentives for living in the city to new hires across all the city’s departments.

The Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge, who is also a Baptist minister at New Millennium Church and no stranger to commenting on social justice issues, praised the united front from the city's three black directors but called out out City Manager Bruce Moore and Little Rock Police Department Chief Kenton Buckner as “black political functionaries” that are either unwilling or afraid to part from “white civic and business leaders.”

Griffen made the argument on his blog Justice is a Verb! early this morning, “Yes, black people can be enablers and defenders of “deeply racist” thinking and policy-making.”

He wrote that the city’s current strategy of addressing systemic racism, without explicitly acknowledging it exists, with “chat and chew sessions, polite dinners and banquets, and photo opportunities” won’t suffice. At best, he says the city is offering lip service to the perception of an mercenary police force without  a personal stake in the community. Griffen quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to argue that city leaders can’t be timid in regards to racial justice.

"Director Hendrix had the candor and courage to declare before votes were cast that racial injustice is pervasive in Little Rock, and that local civic and business leaders are unwilling to respect black voters.  She is correct.  Directors Hendrix, Doris Wright, and Ken Richardson are trying to move Little Rock policy making in ways that will address longstanding systemic racism.  But their efforts are opposed and defeated because of the way racial injustice works in Little Rock, in Arkansas, and across the United States.

In January 1969 (almost a year after he was murdered) Playboy Magazine published an essay written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which included the following observation: 

“Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive, and awesomely powerful?  The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially.  All too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.”

Those words are as true today as they were when Dr. King penned them."

Griffen didn’t mention it in his post, but the sentiment echoes a refrain from Civil Rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis to “get in the way.” Lewis credited Dr. King and Rosa Parks on a recent Late Show with Stephen Colbert appearance as his motivations to speak up, with unabashed conviction when he sees a wrong.

“These two individuals inspired to get in trouble and I’ve been getting in good trouble, necessary trouble ever since.”

Chief Buckner supports residency incentives for officers but opposes the requirement. He told the Arkansas Times that many white officers don’t want to live in the city limits because of the school system, "There are many officers that don't have a lot of faith in the public school system in Little Rock."

He also said that crime in the city prevents many officers from living among the people they have sworn to protect, “... maybe they feel like the crime [rate] is too high in Little Rock, and they don't want to live here.”

Griffen also shamed the city's leaders for not strongly condemning the state takeover of the Little Rock School District, referencing the Central High integration crisis of 1957.