El Dorado is gearing up for next week's 31st annual MusicFest, but an activist's social media post Wednesday night has drawn unwanted national exposure to Union County and its sheriff's office.
Shaun King, an activist and columnist, said in posts on Twitter and Facebook late Wednesday that the Union County sheriff's office was forcing suspects to wear Nike shirts in booking mug shots to mock the apparel company's recent advertising deal with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
King posted photos of 12 inmates wearing Nike shirts and said Sheriff Ricky Roberts was "putting Nike t-shirts on people they arrest and making them wear them during mug shots. Source says it is to mock Nike and Colin Kaepernick. Disgusting."
The post drew an immediate reaction, and by 9 p.m. -- less than an hour after King had made his post -- the sheriff's office had removed all inmate photos from its online roster.
Janice Bush, president of the Union County chapter of the NAACP, said in a social media post Thursday morning that the incident was "appalling and disgraceful" for El Dorado and Union County.
"We are about to celebrate MUSIC FEST and attract many people of all opinions and cultures to our community," Bush said in the post. "This is not us, our question is, who is the responsible party."
Roberts said in a news release Thursday that it had come to his attention that the shirts had "been deemed offensive by certain individuals" and that the agency would ensure "that this will never happen again."
The sheriff said the suspects in the photos chose to wear the Nike shirts. Roberts said the suspects lacked "proper attire" when they were booked into the jail, and the shirts were among the clothing provided from which they could choose for their mug shots.
"It is not our intent, nor has it ever been our intent, to demean or disparage those who are innocent until proven guilty," Roberts said in the release. "I require that my staff treat everyone with the utmost dignity and respect. In an attempt to provide those individuals with a sense of dignity, along with providing a photograph which is appropriate for public viewing, we provide these individuals with clothing to wear."
Roberts said the sheriff's office did not buy the shirts but they were "on hand and available."
"We are not, and will not be influenced by current political and social debates in the media," Roberts said in the release.
He closed the statement by saying he understood "the concern of those who may have found this offensive" and apologized.
One of the most recognized shoe and apparel companies in the world, Nike came under scrutiny in September when it began using Kaepernick in an ad campaign.
Kaepernick was thrust into the national spotlight in 2016 when he began kneeling while the national anthem played at NFL games to protest police brutality and social injustice. His protest set off a national debate about whether it was appropriate for athletes to protest by kneeling during the anthem.
Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017, but he was not picked up by another team. He eventually filed a grievance against NFL owners, accusing them of colluding to not hire him. He has not returned to the NFL.
Nike's campaign featuring the quarterback drew criticism from people who viewed Kaepernick's protest as disrespectful to the flag and to those who served in the military. Many declared they would boycott the company. It even led the mayor of a New Orleans suburb to issue an order that banned the city's recreation department from purchasing Nike products. A week later he rescinded the ban, saying the order had divided the city.
King told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Thursday that "two or three" people had contacted him and made him aware of the photos.
"At the same time an anonymous source who said they worked in some relationship with the jail told me it started in September," King said. "I started going through hundreds of photos and it appeared it started on Sept. 15, which is right in the thick of the [Nike] debacle."
King's post included photos of two Nike shirts: a large, black T-shirt with Nike Athletics in boldface font above the company's signature check mark and a black polo shirt with a small white swoosh in the upper right-hand corner.
The second shirt could be seen in mug shots that dated as far back as July, well before the Sept. 3 announcement of the ad campaign featuring Kaepernick. The Nike Athletics shirt began to show up in mug shots around Sept. 15 on the jail's roster.
King said a source told him the photos were Roberts' attempt to mock Kaepernick and Nike because he viewed them as anti-police. Multiple attempts by the Democrat-Gazette on Thursday to speak with Roberts about the mug shots were unsuccessful.
Nike didn't respond to a request for comment Thursday, and attempts to reach Kaepernick also were unsuccessful.
Informed by a Democrat-Gazette reporter of Roberts' explanation, King said the comments were "the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard."
"Listen, man," King said with laughter. "I didn't see that one coming. I knew he had to say something, but if that is what he is going with, then he was better off not saying anything at all."
King said he had never heard of inmates choosing their own shirts for their booking photos and said he found the statement unbelievable.
"It's kind of strange the inmates just all started picking Nike," King said. "Does this box only have Nike shirts? He is saying everybody just loved our new Nike addition we added? Come on, man."
The Union County Public Defender's Office, which represents some of the people shown in the mug shots, declined to comment when asked if the suspects chose their attire in the photos.
King said he believed the mug shots were meant to be dehumanizing.
"They have been used as political props," King said. "The most disturbing thing is people were being used this way."
Bush, president of the local NAACP chapter, said someone sent her the photos a couple of days before King's post but she thought the image had been altered.
"I couldn't believe it was an actual photograph," Bush said. "I would have never thought something like this would happen in our city."
Union County Judge Mike Lofton said he has never heard of any racial trouble in El Dorado and doesn't expect there will be any problems stemming from the mug shots. He said he had a short conversation with Roberts and that he believed everything will blow over soon.
"I think when people find out the facts of this thing it won't escalate any further," Lofton said. "Once we find out all the facts, this will pass."
Bush said she has known Roberts for a long time and said she couldn't believe he would do anything malicious.
"I can't see him doing something like this, regardless of his political views," Bush said. "But in today's day and age, nothing surprises me anymore."
Bush said the incident isn't reflective of El Dorado.
"This isn't the reputation of general population of El Dorado," she said.
State Desk on 10/12/2018
Print Headline: Mug-shot apparel at Arkansas jail draws flak; activist’s post on suspects in Nike shirts roils town