That I can draw on a sample size of larger than four isn’t quite tragic, but it is pathetic.
Pathetic, as no one with a clean criminal record should have experienced five intimate, uninitiated, unexpected, and uncomfortable personal encounters with police.
Perspectives like mine explain the wide disparity in responses to the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, and I don’t mean the responses between the racists and non-racists. I’m talking within the population of those that think there was an injustice. Many people think the outcomes were wrong, but only a few of us—those that compose America’s over-policed racial underclass—needed to be convinced that an injustice was committed (heck, some of us knew what happened in the Garner case before we saw the video).
In this demographic, so ordinary are confrontations with police that many of us (perhaps most) don’t think our personal stories are interesting enough to share. For example: yes, I’ve been the target of racial profiling, and the recipient of aggression that would probably qualify as “brutality.” I’ve also slipped off a skateboard and scraped my knee, and cut my finger while slicing a bagel. It really is that routine (in terms of frequency, not in impact).
But the thoughts I’m about to share with you aren’t like most of the others that I’ve read so far, and not because mine are more dramatic or important or noteworthy.
What I have to say isn’t about my troubles with racial profiling.
It’s not about my experience with police brutality.
I’m not offering a witty allegory or metaphor for the prison industrial complex.
I offer no comparison between our justice system and a corrupt political regime in another country.
The stuff that I read of this ilk is usually unhelpful and sometimes even histrionic. I can admit that 2014 is the best year ever to be black, just about anywhere. I’ll also admit (happily even) that the United States of America is the best country in the world to be black in. And I write this from the seething fingers (and mind) of an African-American man with racial politics that sit to the left of your favorite black MSNBC pundit.
But what I have to say isn’t really about me at all. It’s about policing. And it’s partly about a “good” interaction with a white police officer during an unexpected encounter (emphasis on the quotations around “good”).
And it’s about how this “good” encounter made me less tolerant of police violence.
It made me less inclined to defend police in these recent cases, not more.
And it made me stand in stronger solidarity with the “I Can’t Breathe” movement.
It begins on a dark late summer night in a New England city, sometime during the spring of 2012.
I was walking home from a…date, I believe.
(It’s hard to remember, as I was carrying a man-purse containing a tablet computer and a small population genetics book, and I can’t, for the life of me, remember why I would bring either, let alone both, on a date)
Between the bar/lounge, where I was on my date, and my apartment was a dark stretch of road near a main street. I was walking at a fairly brisk pace.
From behind me, I heard an approaching siren, and then felt (yes, felt) the police lights.
Then the announcement from a speaker yelling X, Y and Z. It was muffled, but loud enough that whoever was saying it meant business.
But those lights, man. Those lights.
Ask a black friend who has had this experience, and they’ll tell you this, exactly: the police lights that radiate on your back, or in your eyes (should the car emerge from in front of you) can feel almost extraterrestrial in their brilliance. For half a second, you don’t know if you’re being stopped by the police or summoned by Space Marines to fight aliens. The lights are that bright. And when it hits you that these are, in fact, police lights, you hope (pray if that’s your thing) that they aren’t stopping you. You feel this way for several reasons:
One, because you’re simply not in the mood. If you’re anything like me, your background state of being is fatigue, because you are usually walking away from somewhere where you were working hard. Having a dead battery in my cellular phone is enough of a nuisance to make me want to scream. Just think about how a run-in with police makes you feel. You’d rather step on a crack in the pavement and sprain an ankle. You just want to get home and relax.
Two, because you’re actually afraid. I don’t want to make this more dramatic than it needs to be, but you have to understand: at the most basic level being cornered by police officers is, before anything else, being cornered by (usually) men with loaded firearms. This is true before you’ve recognized your own race, or the race of the officers, or you’ve thought about the bigger race and class dynamics of policing and how this intersects with the guns in your face. We don’t even have to get that far for fear to be justified. There are (usually) men with guns. And then there is you, with no gun. Bring on the fear.
And what is another reason why you (the person being stopped) should be afraid? It’s because you’re afraid that they, the police officers, are also afraid. And many of them are. After all, they want to get home to their families, just like you. And they make mistakes, just like you. All of this humanization sounds like empathy, but it’s really more of the reason why you should be afraid: when encountering a police officer, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that mistake, that Malcom Gladwell-ian Blink moment when they decide to hit the “better safe than sorry” button on the joystick, which means several bullets in your gut. I recognize this and act accordingly, because “it was a mistake” won’t cut it for my loved ones (even if it seems to work for the grand jury).
And the last dark feeling in your heart when you get stopped?
This is an odd one: you feel like you’re actually doing something wrong, even when you’re not. This is a feeling that is almost impossible to communicate to those who haven’t felt it. After all, being black (in America, at least) is to feel like you’re always wrong, even when you’re not. Always in the wrong place, even when you’re not. Guilty, even when you haven’t done anything.
(This sentiment is best summarized in an old Chris Rock joke, where he talked about how, when accused of stealing a car that he owned, the accuser was so persistent and convincing that Rock questioned his own innocence. To paraphrase: “Maybe I did still this car?”)
Eventually reality sets in. They are stopping you. At this point, your heart races, you breathe, and adjust your stance and stature to appear as non-threatening as humanly possible. That means talking in that English, sloping your shoulders, un-puffing your chest. I’m 6’0, 200lbs, and despite my best efforts to fall out of shape, I retain some muscle mass from my boxing and football days. Yep, your average police officer carries enough doubt about my ability to take them in a fistfight that my fear of quick trigger is justified.
(Hell, Trayvon was a skinny little boy, completely unarmed and the bigots had no problem him turning him into a menacing monster, when he was fighting for his life….against a sociopathic thug, no less. Turning me, a grown man (who is actually strong) into a monster in an encounter with a real cop would be a fastball for Fox News: “Cops shoot (kinda) large negro who threatened them and resisted arrest.”
So I stood less tall and unpuffed my chest. Within seconds I went from a confident, proud African American man to a feeble, wimpy boy.
All because of those damn lights.
I turned around (the car and lights came from behind me), and immediately held my hands up.
Now, the ‘hands up’ gesture is, as most of us know, a sign of surrender. ‘Hands up’ says one of two things: “I’m innocent, and I’m showing it, so leave me the hell alone” or “I’m guilty and am giving myself up.”
(As my criminal record is as clean as a whistle, I only know the former)
Either way, it’s says “I’m not interested in a fight, so let’s make this easy on everyone.”
Two officers emerged from the car flashing the lights (one black, one white) and approached me. Not far behind them I see another car, flashing the same spaceship lights, slowly pull up to the side of the road, just behind the first car.
I’m thinking “well, damn. They got reinforcements?”
I greeted the officers (I don’t remember how, probably with something calm and proper like “How are you doing, officers? It’s disorienting to them, takes the edge out of the situation, and has worked so far).”
The officers reply, and from what I remember, were pretty respectful (relative to my other encounters with police in the past).
But they give the same set of commands and questions. “Same” as in, the ones I’m used to:
“Let me see your hands”
(I smirked on the inside, as I had them beat on this one).
(Had them beat here too. Your boy was 2/2).
“Where are you coming from?”
(I wanted to say: ‘well my great grandmother was born a slave in North Carolina’.)
“Where are you going?”
(I wanted to say: ‘home to make some guacamole and watch the Knicks hopefully not get their ass kicked’.)
“What is your name?”
(I wanted to say as Bart Simpson would: ‘Mr. I.P. Freely’.)
I gave satisfactory answers, sounding like Carlton Banks (as even Obama-tone is too threatening in these circumstances).
They then went through my pockets. A nice, thorough pat down. Combed through my keys and pack of chewing gum.
They went through my man-purse, fumbled with my tablet computer and copy of the population genetics book.
Just then, another man emerged from the second car. This one, a much older white police officer. Shorter. Much less physically imposing.
The way the other officers responded to him suggested that he was an authority figure (after searching me, they turned toward him in a “so, what do we do now?” kind of way).
The older officer walked slowly toward me, sizing me up with his eyes with step. He started shaking his head in disapproval almost right away.
He arrived, and calmly said:
“Are you guys kidding me? This isn’t the guy. No way.”
I quickly decipher that “the guy” means that the officers were answering a call or complaint. The black officer tells me that they were responding to a call about someone breaking car windows.
The white older officer elaborates slightly. He tells me to pack up my bags. He tells me to leave.
It’s important to mention that this white, older (presumably higher-ranking) police officer wasn’t particularly nice. He wasn’t friendly. Or patient. If anything, he looked annoyed by the entire encounter, including by how I was talking. And so its not as if I was interacting with a progressive activist police officer. He was—in stature, demeanor and manner-of-speech—not unlike most cops I had interacted with.
Somehow (magically), however, he was able to tell instantly that I wasn’t the person they were looking for. And I mean, instantly.
Maybe it was the man-purse.
Or the copy of Hartl’s Primer on Population Genetics with a bookmark resting a few pages into Chapter 4.
Maybe it was the boat shoes.
(Of course, it was none of the above, as the older officer didn’t even get a chance to look at this stuff)
Maybe I didn’t match the description exactly.
Or maybe his instinct and experience told him that I looked liked the last person who would be breaking into cars, as I was dressed more like someone you’d find at Gamestop standing on a long line for the release of the new ‘Call of Duty.’
Either way, he did police work. And his police instincts allowed him to overlook my race, as it wasn’t my defining characteristic.
It wasn’t what he used as a guide to determine whether or not stopping me was a good use of time.
I turned and left, respectfully bid my farewell: “Take care, officers. Goodnight.”
And went on my way.
I ate my guacamole. The Knicks didn’t get their ass kicked. And I never went on another date with that unlucky woman again.
Police encounters are stressful, and the first order of psychological business after they conclude is to take your mind off of the encounter.
I tried, but couldn’t help but ask the question: if my race wasn’t the defining characteristic for this police officer (the older one), then why is it for so many others?
Might it boil down to the fact that the others simply suck at their job?
And what should terrify us about police violence is both how biases and fears create it, and how many police officers use violence as a crutch for being bad at their job.
The use of crutches to mask incompetence isn’t unique to police officers. Ask, for example, an experienced cardiologist about the problems with young cardiologists and they’ll tell you that the young ones order too many expensive tests, don’t know how to conduct a proper physical exam, read the right signs that lead to the correct diagnosis. In the medical context the consequences can be similarly fatal—improper technique leads to misdiagnosis where, for example, the early signs of a preventable but ultimately fatal stroke can go undetected.
In the policing case, poor police work, based on a reliance on racist assumptions rather than real detective work makes them use weapons rather than skills.
This is how unarmed black men end up killed…by “mistake.”
I’m not sure anyone has a quick solution for the police brutality problem. I think police cameras would be a start, and might be effective because they would allow us to see which cops are doing their job properly and which aren’t (they’d also protect police officers, a point that is oddly absent from the conversations about why they are good idea). But they are only a part of the solution.
The more global solution is in giving police work the respect that it deserves: fighting crime is hard. Fighting criminals is hard. And you betcha–telling the bad guys from the good guys ain’t always easy.
But this is why police officers are police officers. We entrust them with a power that everyone can’t have. And with that comes an expectation: you have to be great at your job.
You have to be smarter than I am.
You have to be more skilled than I am.
You need to practice, use good judgment, and face consequences for poor performance or abuses of your power and authority.
We expect more of the men and women of our police departments.
Everyone, including the protesters in the demonstrations from a few months back, knows that we need a police department (whether they admit it or not).
And a part of them wants to respect police officers (I already do, and again, I’m a victim of police violence).
So what we want isn’t the end of a criminal justice system or police departments.
We simply want “good policing,” authored by a highly skilled staff, strong and smart enough to not rely on their racist biases (which we all have) and the use of blunt force to serve and protect.
That is precisely why they are special and why they must be better than we are.
Nobody said it was easy. But this is why we’re in America: “Freedom and Justice for All” isn’t free.
It’s costly. It takes time. It takes energy. And it’s worth every penny.
Featured image by JJ under creative common license