September 2, 2014 10:29:30 AM
Monday, black and white citizens of West Point gathered at First Baptist Church to pray for Ralph Weems IV, who was badly beaten in the parking lot of the Huddle House restaurant in the early-morning hours of Aug. 24.
This was also an opportunity for the community to refute allegations from those outside the community who were quick to label the attack proof that West Point is a city divided along racial lines, a narrative that emerged quickly after initial reports of the incident suggested Weems was beaten in retaliation for the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by a police officer two weeks earlier.
That charge was first offered by David Knighten, Weems' companion on the night of the incident, who was also injured. To date, Knigten's has been the only version of the event that has been made public.
Knighten told The Associated Press that the incident began at the Waffle House and that as he was entering the restaurant he was warned by a man outside the restaurant not to enter because people were upset about what had happened in Feguson and that the restaurant was "not a safe place for whites."
According to the account Knighten gave the AP, he and Weems left the restaurant and stopped at Huddle House. It was there in the restaurant's parking lot that Knighten said he and Weems were accosted by a group of about 20 black men. He said he suffered cuts, bruises and broken facial bones. Weems' injuries were far more severe. He was taken to the hospital in Tupelo and put under a medically-induced coma.
Two men have been arrested and charged for aggravated assault in the case.
It did not take long for Knighten's account to be accepted as indisputable fact, even though Tim Brinkey, West Point's police chief, said the evidence did not support the claim that the beating was racially motivated. Weems' father wrote in a letter to the editor in The Dispatch that he supported Brinkley's investigation and urged community members to come together.
None of this seems to matter, mainly because some people are inclined to believe what they want to believe.
Last Wednesday, the following email arrived in my email inbox at The Dispatch:
"Has West Point listed the restaurants that will be safe for White people to enter this weekend? We know the Waffle house and Huddle House are off limits. Are there any others? Please publish the names because we are from out of town Thanks. A White Person."
This is the sort of attitude West Point residents gathered to refute Monday.
It will likely take quite a while before the public is informed of what really happened in the Huddle House parking lot on Aug. 24.
But it is against our nature to wait patiently for the truth to be revealed. Instead, the earliest version of an event and, after it has been sufficiently mangled through social media, forms a rigid opinion where anything that does not fit neatly into our perceived account of "the truth" is vilified.
Is West Point a divided city?
Some outsiders will argue it is, no matter how the story unfolds.
But we are far more inclined to "go to the source" on this subject. That source can be found among the people who live in West Point. To date, we have not heard from anyone in West Point, black or white, who has portrayed their city as a racial tender box.
Monday's prayer service suggests that both black and white residents view what happened to Weems' was a tragic crime.
But it is not the collective crime of a city and its people.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.