CJ Willingham Oral History, 2020/11/27.


Title (Dublin Core)

CJ Willingham Oral History, 2020/11/27.

Description (Dublin Core)

The Oral History interview is with CJ Willingham and she describes her experiences and views during the pandemic year. CJ gives her encounters during the initial pandemic and how the pandemic is affecting her now. She explains her perspective on more than the pandemic. CJ shares her knowledge on protests, police brutality and police reform.

Recording Date (Dublin Core)

Creator (Dublin Core)

Event Identifier (Dublin Core)

Partner (Dublin Core)

Type (Dublin Core)

oral history

Controlled Vocabulary (Dublin Core)

Curator's Tags (Omeka Classic)

Contributor's Tags (a true folksonomy) (Friend of a Friend)

Collection (Dublin Core)

Date Submitted (Dublin Core)


Date Modified (Dublin Core)


Date Created (Dublin Core)


Interviewer (Bibliographic Ontology)

Travis Gunnells

Interviewee (Bibliographic Ontology)

CJ Willingham

Location (Omeka Classic)

North Carolina
United States of America

Format (Dublin Core)


Coverage (Dublin Core)

March 2020-November 2020

Language (Dublin Core)


Duration (Omeka Classic)


abstract (Bibliographic Ontology)

CJ Willingham was born in Framingham, Massachusetts and grew up there before moving to Greensboro, North Carolina. Where she is currently serving as a Police Officer with the Greensboro Police Department since 2018. CJ currently lives in Gibsonville, North Carolina with her spouse Katlin Greene. CJ also is a Technical Sergeant for the Air National Guard of North Carolina and her occupation in the Guard is a Security Forces member. She has served as an Air National Guard member for nine years and has deployed several times overseas. CJ was recently deployed to the Middle East when the COVID-19 pandemic started. She shares her experiences of witnessing the pandemic start from a far and reflects on the protests events that occurred while she was deployed. CJ also highlights the effects of the protests currently (Member of her Departments Riot Team) and her perception of how the George Floyd incident should have been handled. She also describes her views of police brutality and the ways police reform could work.

Transcription (Omeka Classic)

Travis Gunnells (TG): An its recording I'm Travis Gunnells, student at Arizona State University. I am doing an oral history interview with CJ Willingham. It is for the COVID-19 A journal of the plague year a collaborative effort for archiving events during the pandemic year. So we'll get in with introduction—introduce—introducing CJ. So just give us like where are you from originally—where you're from? What you do now and stuff like that?

CJ Willingham (CW): I'm CJ Willingham. I'm 25 years old. I was originally [inaudible] and now I live in Greensboro, North Carolina. Where I am a civilian law enforcement officer.

TG: I know that you—what else do you do for occupation?

CW: I'm in the Air National Guard as a security forces member.

TG: Okay. And how long have you been a police officer?

CW: Been a police officer for two years [background noise]?

TG: How long you've been in the Air National Guard?

CW: Nine years.

TG: So… getting into the topic COVID 19 has been a big year for that. Just the initial effect. Tell me how COVID initially affected you when it started? Where were you stuff like that?

CW: So what initially started, I was deployed to the Middle East and at the time we didn't really know a whole lot about it just because access to the United States and other places wasn't really—we didn't—really feel the same effects that people in the US did with like all the panic buying and stuff like that. So initially it was just kind of it's like Coronavirus was mentioned on the news one day and then the next day they declared it a pandemic and so for us—it's you know we started hearing—you know wear face masks, don't wear face masks, six feet, three feet, three to six feet and it was it was very confusing especially for us in our day to day operations overseas because I—it's like, how do you necessarily carry out a mission when you have to also follow these guidelines and we were pretty isolated at that point where we were so it was kind of [audio breaks] detrimental—was because we were around the same people that we had been around for going on six months. So yeah it was—it was tough and then a lot of us wound up getting extended past our time to go home too. So that impacted impacted our personal lives a lot.

TG: Okay… yeah… so your daily life was definitely interrupted, your personalized back home… stuff like that people worrying about it. How did that like affect you?

CW: So day to day it was it was just hard because like early on it was [audio breaks] our we shut down or not shutting things down new restrictions. Going to the chow hall not being able to sit in it or having to wear your mask and where you can't. Where you mask them as far as back home it was it caused more of a concern and more of a stress on us because I—you know… being being the primary provider for my household… it was tough to not be here. My my spouse was furloughed from her job. So having to go into unemployment and stuff [audio breaks] threes and pain then obviously there was there was the concern with being able to buy cleaning products and and toilet paper in where to find that and so it added a little more—It was very unusual stress to have because it's stuff that we never really thought about that we kind of took for granted until it happened.

TG: And so when you have that then and see you see it now how does it affect you now, especially with your job and your daily life job?

CW: Job it's it it's tougher now being a civilian police officer because before I mean I encountered I encountered people every day that had active MRSA, HIV positive, to have the common cold or like, even during flu season people that have the flu and you know—sometimes you have to go hands on with those individuals and it's not unusual to get bodily fluids all over you during a shift so and before it was never really a—it was a cause for concern and you would go to the hospital and you get seen for like now it's [audio breaks] to have to get close to people if you don't have to. I know our city has a directive that all city employees will wear a mask for the duration of their shift. A lot of officers didn't necessarily take that serious at first but now it's —we're basically being told you you need to wear a mask and we've seen how detrimental it can be. We've had some officers test positive for COVID-19. My district—my police district in particular we have an entire shift that is out on quarantine right now because they all tested positive so now we're having to figure out we're having to have people [audio breaks] cover that overlap in time. So it's it causes a lot of operational and logistical concern and as far as my personal life. I just it's it's business as usual. We kind of have a plan in place that if if I do—because we do—we are usually made aware of we're on our way to a call, if somebody's involved in that call is tested positive for COVID-19 and like you know what would happen from there where I would stay and stuff like that. So.

TG: Yeah that's pretty interesting to hear about going from no you have no you—have no worries—right and then you get hit with this pandemic and it's a serious effect on the manpower… right and you know, COVID-19, wasn't the only thing this year that was interesting. This year has been interesting throughout. Many things have happened like the protests starting out with COVID. What do you remember about the initial protests?

CW: So I was still overseas if you're referring to the George Floyd.

TG: Oh yeah.

CW: So I was I was overseas when the Georgia incident happend. I don't necessarily watch the news a whole lot just because it's— I'm not a huge I'm not a fan, but it was circulating social media. The George Floyd incident and people typically expect you as a police officer to side with the other police officers and I I'm not an advocate for Monday morning quarterbacking just because I've I've been through a critical incident myself and it's very easy to say what you would have done when you're on the outside looking in [audio breaks] so with George Floyd was—it was it was pretty gut wrenching. We're not in any way shape or form any department in the United States we are not taught to kneel on anybody's neck to block their airway. One of the things they harp on with us with us during our SCAT or Subject Control Arrest Technique is to constantly monitor your arrestees airway and whether they're breathing in there okay. Greensboro police had an in-custody death [makes noise with lips] which couldn't have necessarily been avoided, but since then we've been hyper vigilant on making sure that the people that you arrest you know if they— if they tell you if you can tell clearly that they're not doing okay you need to get EMS [Emergency Medical Service] started. There's certain protocols in place, but there's zero protocol stating that it's okay or acceptable in any way to block somebody zero way. Especially when you have four officers on scene against one person. It seemed like a little much [audio breaks] people were kind of outraged with it but I think what added to the protest was you have… you have people in the United States who were forced to basically be cooped up in their house for for going on for months so you have people that were used to going out and and they were able to distract themselves with their day to day lives in their hobbies and their jobs and now you know your quarantine people were stuck in their phones. Tick Tock was a thing that blew up and so then you had this huge movement and I feel like the anger wallet was justified it evolved into this domino effect almost have what I like to call recreational anger. Where people just they're bored, or they don't find any purpose… and so like if they feel like if they can be angry at something it keeps them entertained—I guess [audio breaks] but I it kind of it kind of turned into chaos there with some of the rioting in the looting and that cause concern for me because I'm an advocate for for protesting… protests whatever you feel as long as it's peaceful because I'm on the riot control squad with the police department so we get called out frequently for protests at abortion clinics and what have you and we're all about keeping the peace but when it turns into to rioting it's I think it was kind of counterproductive. That's where it got pretty counterproductive because your your kids have to be raised in the city and you're essentially going to be raising them in a city full of ruin.

TG: Okay, what what protest? So you have the George Floyd protest—right and then you have the protest prior to that, do those protests… what are your views on those protests? Are they saying the does it take away from those or does…

CW: Are you talking—which protest?

TG: So you had the restrictions on staying in your home…

CW: Yeah.

TG: Stuff like that… is it different? What are what are your views? What… what type of… does it the protest in general?

CW: I think it's a lot of it's hard because in a way you're comparing apples to oranges,

TG: Right.

CW: But in other ways you have and I've heard people's arguments before where you know they feel as though like the the stay at home order and and the where you know the mandating of the mass and everything was a violation of of their constitutional rights and I—I understand where people can get that and then you've got the George Floyd protest where people are protesting basic human rights so in a way you're [audio breaks] there's some different in their own way as far as like the severity of it. I feel right…all the protests on the restrictions didn't get to my knowledge. They didn't get violent in the way that the George Floyd protested. I just feel like a lot of it was if you look at the some of the demographic of the people who were protesting a lot of them it was I think it's about the the point in like the origin of what we're trying to get done here is most protests are a movement and there's generally a there's an epicenter of okay this is the mission we're trying to accomplish. I'm not necessarily sure what the people protesting the restrictions we're trying to accomplish but I think both instances in their own way it was a lot of people have had a lot of angst because they were cooped up in their house. Nobody knows [audio breaks]. The CDC [Center for Disease Control] and the World Health Organization will tell you something today and then three days later they'll negate what they said. No this is actually what we what you need to do and it was— it's a lot of frustration. It's a lot of generalized frustration.

TG: Okay, so from those protests—right—in the George Floyd one what—so my question really is how can police brutality if it can be—how can it be prevented? How can police brutality be prevented?

CW: So this is I had friends… I've had family members reach out about this topic. So before it was really hard to truly discuss. I think what it what it comes down to is is accountability. I don't necessarily—you know you get the conversations about defunding the police and they'll say defund the police on one hand and then on the flip side of that coin they'll say we need more training. Well in order to get more training you need to train us. I think [audio breaks] because a lot of times with some of these large police organizations so you've got like the NYPD [New York Police Department, New York] and the Eric Garner case—you've got the Charlotte Mecklenburg police department here in North Carolina. and then you've got like the Minneapolis [Minnesota] with George Floyd—you've got the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department, California]. A lot of these large municipality departments—you're as an officer you're just another number and when you do that it's easy to get lost in the system. So they don't I don't know personally some of their [audio breaks] that it's it's probably got to be difficult when you've got a department of—like you got the NYPD probably. We'll sit…we'll throw out a number like 20,000 police officers in the NYPD—it's hard to ensure that they're getting their in service training and they're getting their legal update and they are getting the proper you know refreshment training that they need when you have that many officers so I think it comes down to accountability. Not just with the department and [audio breaks] officers as well it's something that we learned so generally with North Carolina one of in basic law enforcement training—one of our courses is law enforcement code of ethics and part of the code of ethics, one of the ethical fallacies that we tend to have in the police community is what we call the blue curtain code of silence. Which essentially is I see another officer doing something inherently wrong, but because that's my brother or my sister I'm going to shut my mouth and I'm going to support them because I would expect them to do that with me and I feel like we need to move away from that while we are a fraternity because officers police officers have a bond. Like in the military we have a bond it's pretty similar. I mean, your your [audio breaks] code to call with these people… you're doing CPR [Cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on victims with these people—you I mean—you're you're experiencing the unthinkable with these people in a 12 hour shift however, I think people need [talking in background] to need to speak up when wrong is being done in their presence and I don't think that that happens enough because I feel in the case with George Floyd—it's just it the bystander effect took place because he kneeled on his neck for a total of nine minutes was how long the clip was before they finally got it [audio breaks] to understand how in that nine minutes nobody not another officer had the presence of mind to say hey man, maybe we should like take control of this situation and get him up off the ground, so I think it boils down to accountability not just from the top down but from the bottom up. Systematically there needs to be that accountability if somebody is doing something and that's where I feel like the Greensboro Police Department does a very good job. We audit our body worn cameras bi weekly [audio breaks] footage. Our Internal Affairs Bureau is outstanding they investigate any type of citizens complaint officers complaint, or otherwise they are very very… they're not partial at all and the city council does a very good job as well, of keeping us in check that we keep them in check.

TG: So do you think police—so can police reform work?

CW: It can—it's just it's not going to be an overnight process and I think that's where the the generational disconnect happens with this younger generation is they're you know you're born these kids are born now and they're you know [snaps fingers] phones putting their hand and they're given everything at the speed of light so that's how they expect everything to happen on but with any type of organizational restructure or any type of training restructure—it's going to take time because you're going to have these officers that have been here for 15 2030 years that you know… are set in their ways. It's it's going to be difficult to try and reform their type of policing and I believe that that's why you're seeing a lot of resignations and a lot of departments. I know the Baltimore Police Department [Maryland] this week had about 43 officers resigned so I… I think it can be done. It's just going to be a slow and excruciating process

TG: And going back to the George Floyd protests can you describe the effect of the protest towards George Floyd in the social justice movement? Again, does it take away from the actual social justice of what happened because you you reiterated that the chaos of it kind of?

CW: I think that it started out great and it started out—I mean it started out pretty pretty well. I mean it was to be expected that that there was going to be some sort of civil unrest and I think that some of the movements that were behind the protests they started out very well and then I think what will you had happen a lot of times what we saw at least in our protests here in Greensboro was a lot of your your singular and specialized groups you're ANTIFA [Anti-Fascist Political Movement] [inaudible] used the protesting as like subterfuge to essentially reign chaos and a lot of people it's easy to point at the face of the movement and be like it's your fault you guys are the ones that are doing it but I know at least here in Greensboro the ones that we arrested—because our Civil Rights Museum was actually— it was it was destroyed and I know the individuals that we arrested for that I think we arrested five or six individuals for that and they they were all white and had nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. They were ANTIFA, anti fascist, and affiliated with sovereign citizens or Moorish nationals as they would like to be called. So I think it's hard. I think that now what those organizations are doing where they are you know that they use the presidential election. They're pushing out education about you know hey look at your candidates. Make sure you know who you're voting for and they're actually trying to reform policy that's the route that should have been taken in the first place because as much as I'd like to say that protests get the job done. They don't necessarily [audio breaks] get the job done.

TG: So who would be able to get the job—you think the reformers in the politicians?

CW: Right, I think that… you know by reforming policies, by paying attention to the elected officials that you put in office, and actually holding them accountable, because a lot of times you have constituents that will elect somebody into office, but then it's over after—it's like, oh, we won okay [audio breaks] into office accountable and when those individuals don't come through, there's no acount—there's no accountability there.

TG: Okay. Have you noticed or what about the organizations taking a stance for social justice equality like outside agencies that could be possibly helping the their local, state level areas for minorities and stuff like that? So you have like colleges, NBA [National Basketball Association], stuff like that?

CW: Are you asking?

TG: Yeah, what? So what are your views on those organizations helping? Are they better? For?

CW: Absolutely, I think—I've always had the mindset as a leader in the military and you know if you're—it's better to come to me with a solution along with your problem than just sitting here screaming the problem like we don't already know what's going on so I think it's great that a lot of these organizations they've identified the problem. They voice their issues with the problem, and now they are working to fix it and they are finding solutions and I think they're better they're better for it.

TG: So the concluding question, you've covered everything I had. What are your hopes for social justice movement movements moving forward?

CW: To be honest it's it's gonna be tough with COVID-19 going on and I think [audio breaks] that was a that was a tension that I mean is unprecedented at this point. The amount of tension that was in the public at that point. We'll see what happens in January—when the new is inaugurated into office hopefully from their work gets done. I just—we're never going to go back to normal and I think people need to get over that where it's because you have [audio breaks] COVIDs gonna be and I don't think that that's feasible. I just hope that the new normal is a little more peaceful and there's a little there's a little more tolerance in the world and a little less you know just hate and ignorance.

TG: All right, this is the conclusion of our oral history interview. Thank you, CJ Willingham. [both laugh] It was a pleasure hearing you this day 27, November 2020. Concluding the interview at 2009 hours Central Standard Time. Do you have any questions for me or anything you would like to add?

CW: No.

TG: No [inaudible tone]. All right, thank you so much.

CW: Thank you.

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