Mary Garris’s night had already taken a frustrating turn. She was visiting her sister, Leisa, on Oct. 19 in Charlotte, N.C., but when she went to leave, her car would not start. They got on the phone with AAA, but the call was interrupted by Susan Westwood. She was slurring, she was unsteady and she was spewing hateful words.
She is white, she told the two black women, and a resident of the apartment complex in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods where they happened to be standing. She makes $125,000 a year and pays hefty rent, and her children attend Myers Park High School.
“This is Myers Park. What are you doing hanging out here on a Friday night?” she asked. “I am white and hot. So what are you doing here?’”
The sisters — who said they could smell the alcohol on Westwood’s breath — used a cellphone to record the moment.
In viral incidents over the past few years, black and brown people have found themselves accosted or worse while going about their daily lives, in almost laughably innocuous scenarios, such as waiting for a school bus while black, throwing a kindergarten temper tantrum while black, drinking iced tea while black, waiting at Starbucks while black, AirBnB’ing while black and shopping for underwear while black.
But people who suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of racial harassment have been empowered by a new weapon: cellphones. Recordings of the incidents have sparked viral videos and spontaneous hashtagged nicknames for people such as #BBQBecky and #PermitPatty, who have been scorned publicly and on social media and, in some cases, fired from their jobs. Westwood has become known as #SouthParkSusan.
But the Garris sisters' encounter went beyond an uncomfortable moment for a black person in a public space, as Westwood escalated to profanity, racial stereotypes, then threats.
First Westwood asked: “Is your boyfriend here? Is your baby daddy here?” Repeatedly, she raised her cellphone in a mocking tone: “Mmm, girl girl, I got you. I got you girl, girl.” Westwood demanded to know where the women lived and screamed, “You’re not going to sell drugs here!”
Then she warned it could be dangerous hanging out in the mostly white neighborhood.
“Do I need to bring out my concealed weapon, too?” she asked the women. “This is North Carolina, by the way.”
The sisters' growing unease was reflected in the 911 call that Leisa Garris placed after retreating to an apartment balcony.
“The lady keeps coming out here harassing me still,” she said to the dispatcher, imploring officers to come faster as Westwood can be heard screaming insults in the background. “I don’t know what to do still. The lady was pushing me in my face.”
No one was injured, but officers who arrived found Westwood’s actions merited criminal charges. Westwood could not immediately be reached for comment.
According to Officer Keith Trietley, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spokesman, Westwood has been charged with two counts of communicating threats and two counts of simple assault.
The police report is scant but notes that Leisa Garris does, in fact, live at the apartment complex in question.
The drunken outburst also cost Westwood her job at the local cable company that paid her $125,0000 and allowed her to live in the exclusive community.
“The incident recorded in Charlotte is a blatant violation of Charter’s code of conduct and clearly disregards the company’s commitment to inclusion and respectful behavior,” Patrick Paterno, a spokesman for Spectrum Communication, wrote in a statement about the incident. “As such, Ms. Westwood’s employment with the company has been terminated, effective immediately.”
Even days later, the incident — and the fact they could be accosted and threatened by a woman they had never met — still stung.