Early Sunday morning in an Alabama Waffle House, white police officers wrestled a black woman to the ground with her chest exposed and then choked and arrested her, allegedly because she acted belligerently and brought alcohol into the establishment. A video of the incident has since gone viral on social media, and what happened to Chikesia Clemons has led some to accuse the officers of racial bias.
"After reviewing our security video of the incident and eye witness accounts, police intervention was appropriate," Waffle House said in a statement posted to Facebook. "We take this matter very seriously and think it is important for all those involved or interested in the matter to exercise caution until the facts are developed."
Clemons can be heard asking toward the end of the viral video, which was captured by her friend Canita Adams, "What am I doing wrong? What did I do wrong? Y'all haven't told me anything that I did wrong." The clip also shows one officer saying he'll break Clemons' arm.
After the video was shared widely online, the Saraland Police Department held a press conference and justified the officers' actions. According to public information officer Collette Little, a Waffle House employee called 911 after two women and a man — who appeared to be drunk and were allegedly carrying alcohol — refused to leave the restaurant when asked, AL.com reported.
Videos shown by the department at the conference show that the patrons left the Waffle House for a short time, but that Clemons and Adams returned. The public information officer said the women raised their voices to the employees and used threats and profanity. Clemons was reportedly also upset that a worker tried to charge her for the restaurant's plastic utensils. A spokesperson for the company told The Washington Post on Monday that Waffle House provides free plastic utensils.
According to her mother, who spoke to AL.com, Clemons protested the charge — saying that she had never been asked to pay for flatware before — and the worker reacted by canceling her food order. She says that her daughter requested the contact information of the restaurant's manager and that the police showed up while she was waiting for it.
Neither the videos provided by the police nor by Adams show the full incident. The department's clips lack audio, don't show Clemons' arrest, and don't include footage from a fourth camera present inside the Waffle House. Adams' video cuts from when the officers initially grabbed Clemons to when they pushed her to the ground.
The public information officer says that the incident wasn't motivated by racial bias. "It was based solely on the fact that they were asked to take their beverages out and not consume them on the premises, per Waffle House’s policy," he said.
But many voices are questioning whether the officers acted appropriately, including the NAACP, which is looking into the event. Chance the Rapper commented on Monday, tweeting, "Protect our women. [...] Defend their voice, and their right to ask why they’re being handled, being removed, being CHOKED."
"Chikesia could have easily been me, my friends, or my cousins," racial justice activist Brittany Packnett wrote in The Cut about the incident. "Waffle House is a gathering place for many people of color, who long for a taste of southern home cooking in the hustle and bustle of life."
"Waffle House no longer seems to be a place where Black bodies will be safe or our dollar will be respected," she continued. "Despite the 'angry Black woman' accusations that have come about Chikesia’s behavior at the Waffle House, cursing in a restaurant does not deserve a beating, any more than carrying a toy gun bears a death sentence." In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police officers while holding a toy gun.
Clemons' arrest occurred the same weekend that a white man killed four people at a Nashville Waffle House and about a week after two black men were arrested for allegedly loitering in a Starbucks. Responding to the latter incident, Starbucks' chairman said that the employee who called the police on the men was probably influenced by her "unconscious bias."
A GoFundMe page has been created, apparently by Adams, to help Clemons cover her legal fees.