How we talk about race. Or don’t.
President Trump’s racially charged rhetoric has changed how neighbors see one another, said journalist Greg Jaffe. In one South Carolina suburb, a swimming pool confrontation left an integrated community badly divided.
Before he heard from neighbors about the confrontation at his subdivision swimming pool, Jovan Hyman saw a shaky video of it on his phone, where it was quickly going viral.
He clicked the link, which opened on turquoise water and a white woman walking quickly toward three black teenage boys, one of whom is filming her with his cellphone.
“Get out!” the woman yells, slapping at the phone in the teen’s hand. “Get out now!”
As the three boys head for the pool exit, the woman follows and takes another swing at the boy and his phone.
Hyman called his wife, Tameka, over and played it for her.
“PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell me this was NOT where I think it is,” she typed in a Facebook post that linked to the video. At that point, the video, shot in late June, had only been online for about 10 hours.
“In my neighborhood!” her husband added on Facebook a few minutes later. “This is totally uncalled for and downright embarrassing!”
The video rocketed around the country and the world—one of more than a dozen online clips from the summer that captured whites accusing blacks, often improperly, of trespassing, loitering, and in one instance involving an 8-year-old black girl, selling bottled water without a permit. At least six of the videos took place at neighborhood swimming pools in places such as Indianapolis; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Pasadena, Calif.; and the community pool in Summerville, S.C., just a few hundred yards from Jovan and Tameka Hyman’s house.
Hyman’s first post, reacting to the video, had been online for only 20 minutes when he received a private message from Stephanie Sebby Strempel, the woman in the swimming pool video. The video was rapidly piling up views, and Strempel’s Facebook inbox was filling with threats and insults from around the country.
“You’re a hotheaded racist,” read one that she forwarded to Hyman. “Love to see y’alls getting your lives ruined.”
Hyman and Strempel had never met, though Hyman and his wife had hazy memories of seeing her around the subdivision and at the pool. She lives less than a block away from him. Now she had an important message: “Jovan if you live here. You don’t know what happened…. Please let me explain. I need someone to know what happened…. This is out of hand.”
The Summerville video, shot in late June, spanned only 19 seconds. Darshaun Simmons, 15, who was holding the phone that day, waited 24 hours before he showed the video to an adult. The confrontation at the pool had taken place on the same day that his great-grandmother was rushed to the hospital. She died the next morning.
Because his parents were busy with family and the funeral arrangements, Darshaun first played it for his aunt. His phone screen shattered when Strempel knocked it from his hand, he said. So it was hard for his aunt to make out exactly what was happening.
She could hear Strempel screaming “Get out,” threatening to call 911, and disparaging the three boys as “little punks.” She could see Strempel draw back her hand to slap Darshaun two times.
“Is this you?” his aunt recalled asking her nephew. He replied quietly that it was.
Darshaun’s aunt said she noticed that none of the adults at the pool seemed to be doing anything to help him. She called over Darshaun’s mother to watch. Darshaun told them that he and two friends had been invited to the pool by a family that lives in the subdivision. They were just sitting down at a table and kicking off their shoes when Strempel approached them, asked them if they lived in the subdivision, and then accused them of trespassing.
Darshaun’s mother took him to the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office to file an assault complaint.
His aunt looked Strempel up on Facebook and dashed off a quick message.
“Good evening, Stephanie. Is this you in the video?” she asked.
After four hours passed without a response, Darshaun’s aunt posted it to her Facebook page, tagging local activists, two television news stations, the NAACP, and the Coast Guard unit where, she had learned, Strempel’s husband was serving.
“This kind of behavior is unacceptable and we WILL NOT TOLERATE IT!!!! PLEASE SHARE!!!!” she wrote. “…Racism at its best.”
She hit post at 11 p.m., flipped off her computer, and went to sleep.
Online, Strempel would soon be dubbed “Pool Patrol Paula,” joining “ID Adam,” “BBQ Becky,” “Permit Patty,” “Coupon Carl,” and others branded as exemplars of racism and white entitlement.
It was 10 the next morning when Strempel, who declined to comment for this story through her attorney, sent her first message to Jovan Hyman. She denied hitting Darshaun—even though the video showed her doing so—and defended herself as an involved member of the community.
“I have children,” she wrote. “My husband is a respected Coast Guard officer. I have a special needs son…. My husband and I are being threatened and slandered all over social media [and it] is not okay.”
By this point, Hyman had watched the video several times and he had no doubt that Strempel had targeted the boys at the pool because of the color of their skin.
He and his wife had moved to Summerville after serving together in the Navy. They bought their first home in the subdivision, known as Reminisce in the gauzy feel-good language of newly created communities, five years earlier. He taught English at a local elementary school and coached high school football in nearby North Charleston. Together they were raising a 3-year-old son.
Hyman said he didn’t want to come across as “a bitter African-American person.” But as he watched and rewatched the video, he thought of all the times he had seen white teenagers from outside the subdivision use the pool without being questioned by residents. He imagined someone, someday, confronting his son at the pool.
“Hello, the video is very damaging!” he messaged Strempel. “I understand your concern, but you have to understand the points of view of others!”
Strempel replied that she had been trying to help the boys by telling them to leave before someone at the pool called the police.
“No one knows what the kids said to me or did,” she wrote. “They only see me looking like I’m beating him up. Not the case, but it’s disgusting.”
The next day the Reminisce Homeowner’s Association sent out an email to the subdivision residents urging the homeowners to call 911 or the sheriff if they spotted trespassers. “We hope this incident will allow us to come together as a community and work with law enforcement to provide security for your community as you might need it from time to time,” it read.
To Hyman, the email missed the main point. Like Strempel, the homeowners association had assumed that the teens were not guests. “That was not the case,” he said.
Even worse, the language about providing “security” suggested that the boys posed a threat to the subdivision’s residents, Hyman said. In fact, they were just boys trying to escape the summer heat in South Carolina and didn’t harm anyone.
For much of its history, Summerville was a quiet vacation town, about 30 miles from Charleston. Its main square is crammed with antique stores, art galleries, and Victorian homes. Today, Reminisce is reminiscent of a typical Southern suburb, where blacks and whites live side by side but usually avoid sensitive topics such as race and politics. It’s a precinct where Trump took nearly two-thirds of the vote—mostly white and made up of schoolteachers, police officers, and employees of the nearby Air Force base and Boeing plant.
As the video was taking off online, several black families in the subdivision tried to post a link to it on the homeowners association’s closed Facebook group account, hoping that it would generate a discussion about exactly what happened and the role race may have played in the incident.
Each time, an administrator for the page would remove it. Eventually, the black residents quit trying. Tamanu Lowkie, a black Reminisce resident, complained on the page that the censorship was absurd.
“I posted [the video] because it was shared with me from someone that doesn’t live in the neighborhood,” she wrote shortly after her first post was taken down. “It’s all over Facebook. You can delete it from this private page, but it’s on Live 5 [News] and everyone’s page…. Just saying.”
To Lowkie, the message from the white residents was clear: “The subject is very uncomfortable to them.” They didn’t want to discuss it.
Instead, many white residents fretted about the effect the video might have on their property values and complained about the reporters who were converging on their neighborhood.
“Hopefully if everybody just ignores them they will leave,” one resident wrote in the Facebook group.
As his neighbors argued, Corey Grant, who is black, grew frustrated with the debate. He, his wife, and their three children had moved to Reminisce one year earlier in search of good schools and a “certain level of peace,” he said. He thought he had found it. “Most of my neighbors are nice. Some aren’t,” he said. “I love where I live.”
Still, he couldn’t understand how his white neighbors could suggest that the teens and Strempel shared equal blame. “Did the kids touch her?” asked Grant on the Reminisce Facebook page. “She is the adult!”
Grant was one of a small percentage of blacks who had voted for Trump in 2016. Since then, he had come to regret the decision. “Trump has opened racial wounds,” Grant said. The upheaval within the homeowners association was further proof.
Today, the 19-second snippet from the swimming pool has faded from the online discussion, usurped by other videos. Back in Summerville, Darshaun and his two friends have returned to their normal lives: basketball practice, video games, and bike riding. Strempel faces a third-degree assault charge, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
In the Reminisce subdivision, black and white residents have given up on reaching an understanding about the pool incident or other issues that touch on race. The tensions dredged up by the pool video, though, still rumble beneath the surface.
Grant was at a backyard barbecue with a few of his white Reminisce neighbors recently when talk turned to the upcoming National Football League season. During a speech in Alabama last year, Trump referred to NFL players who knelt during the national anthem as “sons of bitches.” Last month, he suggested in a tweet that the football players, most of them African-American, didn’t know why they were demonstrating.
“The deeper we got,” Grant said, “we almost got to the NFL protests.”
Grant considers the neighbors from the barbecue as friends. “Our families do things together all the time,” he said. But they seemed uncomfortable talking about the protests with him. “The conversation stopped,” he said. “That’s a rough one for my neighbors because it means they have to pick a side…. We never touched on it.”
Hyman and his wife similarly avoided talking about the pool video with white neighbors, beyond Hyman’s initial brief exchange of online messages with Strempel. “If there was an open discussion, it would shine a light on racist neighbors,” Hyman’s wife, Tameka, said. “I’d rather not know—especially if it’s someone living this close.”
Hyman agreed. Shortly after it went viral, Hyman asked his white next-door neighbor if he had seen the “crazy” video.
“Must be the hot weather,” the neighbor said, offering his explanation.
“Global warming,” Hyman joked.
The two men said nothing more about it, and retreated to their air-conditioned homes.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission. ■