Political artist John Sims detained, handcuffed by S.C. police in his gallery apartment

EXCLUSIVE: "While I am very glad to be alive I know many have never made it out alive," John Sims tells theGrio.

A Black artist in Columbia, South Carolina was held at gunpoint, handcuffed and detained by police officers who thought he was an intruder in his own apartment and art gallery.

Artist and activist John Sims — a Detroit native and Sarasota, Florida resident whose work explores the Confederate flag and other symbols of white supremacy — is an artist-in-residence at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Columbia, next to the University of South Carolina.

John Sims
Artist John Sims (Photo: WLTX)

Sims’ show AfroDixia: A Righteous Confiscation, which is on display at the 701 CCA until June 25, is part of a series of his work throughout the South, and a culmination of his 20-year project, Recoloration Proclamation. Featured in Sims’ exhibition in Columbia is Five Flags: A Group Hanging, which displays reimagined Confederate flags hanging from nooses on a gallows. The Confederate flag flew at the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia until 2015, after pro-Confederate gunman Dylann Roof killed eight Black members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Read More: Dylann Roof staged hunger strike to protest ‘harsh’ treatment inside federal prison

Sims’ exhibition “confronts the ideas and symbols of white supremacy and visual terrorism, Confederate iconography, propriety of Southern Heritage, and transformative ritual in the context of the African American experience,” according to the artist. His works and performance pieces will also appear at the Houston Museum of African American Culture, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and the Tampa Museum of Art.   

At nearly 2 a.m. on May 17, police entered Sims’ apartment, which is adjacent to the 701 CCA art gallery, because the side door of the building, which is normally closed, was open. This, according to both an incident report and a separate press release issued by the Columbia Police Department.

Police searched the building, guns drawn in accordance with department policy and procedure, and yelled verbal commands ordering the person to come out and identify themselves. Police saw Sims, whom they had awoken, in the loft overhead, and they ordered him to drop his cellphone and hold up his hands.

Officers also ordered Sims to turn his back to them while his hands were up, to which he did not comply because he thought they were white supremacists were posing as police officers and had come to vandalize his art exhibtion. First, at [that] point I didn’t know they were cops. I thought there were neo-confederates,” Sims said. “Either way I would not turn my back to cops or anyone, especially if they haven’t been identified.”

Columbia police in South Carolina enter the apartment of artist John Sims with guns drawn.
Columbia police in South Carolina enter the apartment of artist John Sims with guns drawn. (Photo: WLTX)

Sims had requested that he take photos of the officers with his phone, which the police denied him — “the only misstep” in the way the officers conducted themselves, according to the CPD press release. Meanwhile, the police incident report and the police press release have inconsistencies in information. While the original police report omitted any mention of Sims’ request to take photos of the incident, the press release fails to mention the officers entered the apartment through a closed and unlocked door.

“I was in my bedroom in the upper loft in the dark. The issue of suppressing my Civil Liberty to record the event. This is a serious ‘misstep,’” Sims told theGrio.

Handcuffed and detained for eight minutes, Sims was released once the Columbia PD determined he was an artist-in-residence and had permission to be in the building. Sims, who became known for burning and burying the Confederate flag on Memorial Day, has also spoken against police violence.  

Read More: Video shows South Carolina deputies tase Black man before dying in jail

“When a police culture suffocates the voice of justice, why should I trust the police with my body? Why? If resisting and cooperating bring the same outcome — death — what am I to do, especially if good cops cannot stand up to bad cops? When there are no internal moral checks and balances, you become a pack of animals in an uncivilized wilderness motivated by fear and the naked power to punish and destroy,” Sims said last June in a commentary in the Orlando Sentinel. “You become the judge, jury and looter of Black bodies. You become a virus of racism and white supremacy. You become the face of a broken America.”

John Sims looks at one of his art pieces
John Sims looks at one of his art pieces. (Photo: WLTX)

Today, Sims now plans to release an “Artist Incident Report” and an open letter to the Columbia Mayor and City Council. “On the eve of the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, this incident affirms to me in the most real way that American policing, profiling and the persistent fear of death when Black folks face the police, in the streets, their cars or their art space or in their beds, are the enabling elements that promote white supremacy and Black subjugation,” said Sims of his recent incident.

“While I am very glad to be alive I know many have never made it out alive. While I am very fortunate to have a platform to respond, many are silenced or ignored. The time has come for American policing to be held accountable and reconstructed in ways that puts common senses and humanity first and racist maneuvers last.”

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove

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