For the better part of fifty years, Albert Woolum, a 66-year-old Navy veteran and grandfather, has stood on the side of progress and social justice. In September of 2016, he was thrust into the spotlight after he took a knee at a women’s volleyball game in solidarity with the team from DeSoto High School, who had used a similar gesture during the previous game to protest against social injustice. More recently, he was arrested while counter-protesting against demonstrators who were incensed by the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from a park in Dallas, Texas.
I got in touch with Mr. Woolum via Facebook so that I could take in his story.
James Conrad: When did you first become aware of injustice?
Albert Woolum: That happened in 1968 while in El Paso watching the Mexico City Olympics. I saw John Carlos and Tommy Smith protesting at the podium, raising their fists in the air to protest against racism. At that time, there were also demonstrations at the University of Texas at El Paso against Brigham Young University by black athletes protesting racial policies of the Mormon faith. I believe there were 8 black athletes at UT El Paso suspended as a result of their boycott of competition. I was a junior in high school at the time. I also attended UTEP from 1969 to 1970 as a member of the wrestling team.
My first street demonstration was in the summer of 1971 in San Francisco. There was a large anti-war march. I was stationed at Mare Island in Vallejo at the time. That fall I was assigned to the USS STERETT DLG-31 in San Diego. In early 1972, we deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin.
Conrad: Did you also protest at UT El Paso?
Woolum: Not directly. That summer I was at the San Antonio HemisFair and entered a pavilion that was sponsored by the Mormon church. I wrote some comments in their guestbook critical of their racist policies. I signed my name and address. A month later two local bishops knocked on my front door. (Laughing) I told them to get lost.
The Vietnam War politicised me somewhat. When I got out of the Navy I went to SDSU and majored in sociology and minored in Women’s Studies. The Women’s Studies was brand new and the first in the nation and the first to offer a minor. Proudly, I was the first male to pursue the minor. It definitely raised my awareness of social issues.
Racial issues came to the forefront in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the Rodney King beating, OJ Simpson, and riots in L.A. I saw Nelson Mandela at the LA Coliseum in 1992.
Conrad: Tell me about seeing Nelson Mandela.
Woolum: That was exciting. I traveled from Bakersfield to L.A. on a bus trip organized by the local Urban League Chapter. They invited me because of my work with a gang diversion program at a local elementary school. I taught a group of kids how to play chess and took them to competitions with other schools. Nelson Mandela was famous, at the time, for his time in prison and his stand against apartheid. The most interesting thing was being virtually the only white person there. On the bus and at the stadium I met doctors, attorneys, businessmen, religious leaders and other community members. It was a side of the black community I hadn’t seen as a school teacher or resident. It woke me up to a community I only saw through a media filter. My favorite memory was actually Ice T, who was part of the entertainment.
There were also various black groups in attendance such as some Black Panthers and Nation of Islam members. I was nervous about that but the feeling passed.
After that I never thought to get involved in any activism as I worked and raised a family. It was July 7th of 2016 before I felt the urge to get involved again.
Conrad: What happened there?
Woolum: That was the night when five police officers were killed in Dallas. I watched that story unfold on TV for the next six hours. It was Dallas Police Chief Brown and his poor treatment of a suspect or “person of interest” that caught my attention. That person I met three weeks later at my first Black Lives Matter protest. His name was Mark Hughes. We eventually became friends.
Conrad: Tell me about Chief Brown. What did he do?
Woolum: Chief Brown failed to say anything about Mark being cleared of any association with the shooting. Mark was receiving death threats and a simple public announcement by the chief, after the continued focus on Mark as a suspect, would have alleviated the problem. I believe Chief Brown’s failure was intentional. They had an undercover officer following Mark, who was carrying a rifle as a demonstration of his 2nd amendment rights. They also knew he was the brother to the event organizer, Corey Hughes.
Mark turned himself into the police immediately and surrendered his rifle to them. It took 6 months to get his rifle back even though it was clear he had no involvement or connection with the shooter.
After that I just quietly showed up at protests in the area until a local girl’s volleyball team caught my attention. They were in the news for kneeling during the national anthem. That was Sept of last year.
I showed up at their next match and took a knee in support. That story went viral. Shaun King covered it.
I’ve also protested in support of Standing Rock, as my wife is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Women’s March in Dallas, in support of immigrants at the airport, stood up to militia groups to defend a local Mosque in Richardson, Texas, marched with the Mexican-American community to support DACA , and proudly supported the LGBT Community because I have a gay daughter who I would die for.
Did I mention I despise Donald Trump? Come to think of it, I saw Obama give a campaign speech in 2008, voted for him and was selected as a democratic delegate from my local precinct that year. I miss seeing him in the White House.
Conrad: Was taking a knee the first time you made headlines for protesting?
Woolum: Yes. It was at the volleyball match in support of the team from Desoto High School just south of Dallas.
After the Women’s March I started Facebook group called Supporting Our Sisters (SOS) – DFW. It’s an intersectional feminist group. We also have a chapter in Salt Lake City.
Conrad: I understand you were recently arrested while countering the protest of a Confederate statue being removed.
Woolum: Getting arrested on September 16th of this year really elevated my profile. People started fundraising to help me and petitions to get my charges dropped.
Yeah, there was an armed militia group that came to Dallas the day I got arrested to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee monument that had been erected in 1936.
I showed up in a Black Lives Matter shirt and waving a white flag of surrender which I said was the last flag of the confederacy. That pissed them off.
Conrad: Did people threaten you with violence at the scene?
Woolum: There were some verbal threats but I was eventually pushed by one of their supporters and grabbed by two others who slammed me up against a truck. The police were right their and placed me under arrest for disorderly conduct. I spent the next 16 hours in jail. Right now things are still working their way forth through the legal system.
Conrad: Do you remember what the people threatening you said in the moment?
Woolum: No, I don’t, specifically.
Conrad: Did the police say why they decided to charge you with disorderly conduct?
Woolum: I was charged with disorderly conduct, a class C misdemeanor, and no, they didn’t tell me why. That’s part of why they are being sued.
Conrad: Did you respond to the people threatening you in any way?
Woolum: No. I never had a chance to. I was grabbed by two militia people the instant I was pushed. They slammed me back into a vehicle parked on the curb.
Conrad: Does it not seem sort of telling that the authorities pegged you as the aggressor and not the people threatening you?
Woolum: Yes. I think they just wanted to remove me and be done with the problem since I was the only counter-protester. I was the easy target and there were 100, mostly heavily armed Confederate sympathizers, there.
Conrad: Do you feel as though your Constitutional rights were violated?
Woolum: Of course! My free speech rights were taken from me as well as my personal freedom. They discussed releasing me at a point away from the park but they opted for jailing me.
Conrad: Did they say why?
Conrad: Is that the way that kind of business is done in Texas?
Woolum: It seems that way. They don’t go out of their way to keep you informed. Just the opposite. They want to keep you cut off from help and the outside to make your life miserable. Its called institutional punishment. For example, there are options on posting bail. As a first-timer on a class C ticket I could have posted a pre-release bond. Its cheap and quick but nobody told me. I found out about that in my jail cell from the others locked up with me. By then it was midnight and too late. Even after my bail was posted it took six and a half hours to get released; way too long.
Conrad: Given what you told me, would it be fair to say that there is no justice system in Texas?
Woolum: The quality varies but from what I’ve seen there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Conrad: Do you have any idea as to why certain jurisdictions in Texas take a “shoot first and ask later” attitude about enforcing the law?
Woolum: It is a gun-crazy state and racism seems to be rampant. The law also protects officers, doesn’t give them good alternatives for disabling suspects, nor train them to de-escalate situations… and it isn’t just Texas. It happens everywhere, Missouri and Oklahoma come to mind. Remember, the NAACP recently issued a travel warning to people of color about Missouri.
Conrad: So, in other words, the problems we have discussed, while not necessarily unique to Texas, are features, not bugs, yes?
Woolum: Basically, yes! People, like myself, are technically innocent but treated as guilty and “punished” for being swept up in the system.
Conrad: Would it be fair to say that through that, the legal systems in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri creates more crime than it prevents?
Woolum: I can’t answer that because I don’t have data to back it up but It does appear the “justice” system has an element of social control and punishment built in. It definitely isn’t all about justice. The New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander speaks well to that area.
Conrad: But is it possible that somebody who gets oversentenced for a flimsy offense or none at all could end up becoming criminal while incarcerated and end up more of a danger to society upon release than they were before being arrested?
Woolum: I’d say that getting arrested and being treated like shit does help develop a negative attitude towards the criminal justice system. The police seem to think it has a deterrence effect. I don’t think so. That’s why you end up with a whole community viewing the police like an occupying army. Ferguson, Missouri is a good example.
We need to INVEST in education and job training, not prisons and police.
Conrad: Do you feel that there are profit motives involved with all this rampant prosecution?
Woolum: Absolutely! The idea of property forfeiture, is just legal theft! Fines, court fees, and bonds are all part of the system and are especially punishing for the poor and working class.
All photos courtesy of Albert Woolum.