It’s a question I’ve only been asked twice in my life, that I can recall. The first time was after I was hit by what turned out to be a stolen motorcycle (I wrote about it here). The police started to search the other bystanders and I wouldn’t let them not search me, and in the process they asked if I had a gun. Come to think of it, that was probably the very first time in my life I had an encounter with the police that didn’t leave me feeling too enthusiastic about their role in my neighborhood. That was six years ago.
The second time was just over a week ago, on a Sunday. I was walking, around 9 PM, headed to a neighbor’s house. A police car passed me slowly, clearly taking a long look at me. It’s not the first time something like that has happened. I kind of stick out in my neighborhood a bit, and get some inquisitive looks from police from time to time. I felt a little annoyed, and so as the car drove off, gestured slightly with my hand, waving the car off with a bit of chip on my shoulder.
The car turns around at the next intersection and pulls up next to me and the car doors open. Two cops get out, one with his gun drawn, and I hear those accusatory words directed at me. “Sir, what do you have in your hand? Do you have a gun?”
I am, of course, shocked by the situation, and even more so when I see four more police cars pull up behind me and cops start getting out. “Sir, place your hands on the vehicle and spread your legs.” I get patted down, my clothes adjusted, and am told that a call had come in reporting a “light skinned man with dreadlocks” walking around the neighborhood carrying a gun. Another office told me, multiple times (methinks the lady doth protest too much…) “This is for real. He’s not bullshitting you.” Though, the man in the description was wearing a white tank top, I’m told, so they ask me what is underneath my jacket, and sweater, and button down shirt, and even adjust some of my clothing to see better.
Eventually, they are satisfied that I probably don’t have a gun, and they leave without saying much.
Afterwards, I didn’t know exactly how to feel, but I could really feel a strong temptation towards something I knew to be wrong. I could feel every ounce of white guilt tempting me to say, Now I know what it’s like. Now, I too know what black men experience. I’ve arrived at the pinnacle of racial solidarity.
Except the thing is, I didn’t experience what I’ve been told many black and brown men go through with police, and I knew it immediately. One important ingredient was missing: fear. In the entire ordeal, I was annoyed and frustrated that I was being viewed as a suspect in my own neighborhood, stopped while carrying a cell phone for what very well could have been a phony excuse. I was annoyed because I didn’t know what my rights were and whether or not I could have refused the search or parts of it. At one point an officer asked if he could move an article of my clothing, and the way he asked it, I honestly couldn’t tell if I had a choice, or what would have happened if I said “no.” It bothered me to realize that the cops could have said or asked in a similar way lots of other questions and that I would have been equally clueless as to whether I could choose not to answer without being arrested.
Yet the one thing I wasn’t feeling was fearful for my life. It didn’t even cross my mind that the cop with the gun pointed at me might decide to shoot me if I moved too quickly. I didn’t put my hands up. I knew I didn’t have a gun and I was certain that the cops would realize that and move on. Of course it would be arrogant for me to assume that every black man stopped by the police is necessarily fearful for his life, but my parents never had to tell me what to do when I was stopped by the police. As we’ve seen far too often recently in this country, the presumption of wrong doing is often enough to result in deadly conflict with the police, yet I didn’t even entertain the notion that anything but my swift release would occur. Friends of mine have told me about being stopped by the police when they weren’t speeding, and how their parents counseled them how to avoid being killed by the police when it happens.
I’m not trying to make more of this situation than is there. I wasn’t even sure I’d write about it, because I don’t want to run the risk of it sounding like me saying, “See, it happens to white people too!” I don’t want to confuse my experience with experiences of racial profiling, abuse, and injustice. I am not a victim.
But tonight, as I drove home, I passed a car that had just been pulled over by the police, and as I drove by slowly, I watched a black man in the driver’s seat (with the cop still in the police car) reach both hands out of the window into the air with his license in his right hand, as if to say, “I don’t have a gun.” I nearly started to cry when I saw this, because it reminded me of thousands of people on Saturday in D.C., and tens of thousands in New York City, marching through the streets with their hands in the air saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” It’s not a slogan for a campaign, it’s an earnest plea.
That’s racism: a world where I can be stopped and frisked with nary a worry even with a gun pointed at me, while a black man sitting in his car has his hands in the air with the police safely in theirs 25 feet away. Lord, have mercy.