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‘What’s Going On?’: Black Political Artist Wakened Out of His Sleep and Wrongly Detained by South Carolina Police, But That’s Not What the Chief Believes Was the ‘Misstep’

A Black political artist in South Carolina artist is speaking out after being wrongly handcuffed and detained at gunpoint by police officers who mistook him for an intruder in his own apartment and art gallery at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Columbia, located next to the University of South Carolina. 

The incident occurred on Monday, May 17, at 701 CCA, where John Sims is an artist-in-residence — meaning he is allowed to reside and work at the gallery while his art is being displayed. Around 2am an officer noticed that the door was propped open. According to a statement from Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons, “[An]officer noted that the door is usually secured especially after business hours. Making sure that there was not a crime in progress or anyone in distress, the officer notified central dispatch of his intention to search the building.”

Additional officers arrived on the scene and began searching the art center near the Olympia Mills student apartment complex. At the time, they adhered to department policy and procedure, which allowed them to have their weapons drawn.

However, according to bodycam footage obtained by Free Times, the officers did not announce themselves until they initially found Sims’ unlocked apartment door. They yelled for anyone inside to come out with their hands raised, and that’s when Sims, who had been sleeping in his bed, woke up and yelled out, “What’s going on?” When authorities reached the living room below his lofted bedroom, they ordered him to come out with his hands up. When the artist asked them for identification, he was ignored. 

Law enforcement ordered Sims to face the wall. They marched up the stairs and told him to stop resisting as they handcuffed him. Initially, Sims refused and asked to take their photos because he says he was under the impression that these men were white supremacists posing as police officers and had come to vandalize his art exhibition, but he was denied. Sims’ work often explores the Confederate flag and other symbols of white supremacy and had seemingly offended some people over the years. 

“I saw lights in the window. I’m thinking they’re coming from outside. I’m thinking they’re protesters, confederate, neo-Nazi’s, white supremacists coming in the space, responding to my work, coming to my show,” Sims told WLTX.

Despite telling the officers he was an artist-in-residence, they did not immediately remove the cuffs. Sims was handcuffed for six minutes inside his apartment and detained for a total of eight minutes. When Sims asked after his hands were freed if he could photograph the officers, he was denied and told he’d “probably post it somewhere.” CPD Chief W.H. Holbrook said that was the officers’ only mistake during the incident.

A statement from the department read in part, “In review of the incident, Chief Holbrook has concluded that CPD officers conducted themselves professionally and within policy. The only misstep was when the on-scene supervisor did not agree to allow the artist to take pictures of officers.

Additionally, the City Manager has expressed a need to better identify areas that operates as Airbnb locations and how that is communicated”

“I could’ve been shot,” Sims told local TV WLTX. “I could’ve been killed if I moved the wrong way, if I have a medical condition, or I’ve been sleeping, I was startled. We see countless individuals who don’t survive. I am happy to still be alive.”

Executive director of the 701 Center Michaela Pilar spoke out against the incident, telling Free Times, “I don’t know that the reaction to him would have been the same, if it would have been a small white woman, as opposed to a big Black man.” She added, “They treated him like he was a suspect, as opposed to being concerned for his welfare. And that’s problematic.”

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