I waffled for many days about writing this post. I try to stay away from politics and Hot Button issues… and also deeply personal things, but I can’t stay silent. The more people who stay silent- the more things like this will continue to happen. Although it seems to happen overwhelmingly to people of color- this is a people issue. And until we do something to change our collective mindset- it will continue to happen.
Every adult person of color in the U.S. has a fear. And that is encountering the police. We can handle drug dealers, and crackheads, and violence. For a lot of us- those are normal things. What we fear is police, and what may happen with them. When we drive down the street, or walk down the street… or generally just leave our homes- we’re not looking for muggers, robbers, and rapists. At least- not at first. We are looking for cops. And once the coast is clear (or we have identified that the undercover cop sitting in the car over there is in fact NOT waiting for us)- then we look for the other dangers. Seriously. We all have stories and encounters, even those of us who don’t have criminal records. We hear them from our parents and aunts and uncles and their friends when we’re kids, but most of us don’t take them seriously, until something happens to US. The color of your skin really does dictate how SOME people treat you.
And some of you may ask why am I paranoid, when I haven’t done anything wrong? The quick answer to that is that I may “fit the description” of someone who HAS in fact done something wrong. Or someone I love may “fit the description”. And even if the description sounds nothing like you- most people don’t look past “black female” or “black male”. And if you’re a female who dresses like a man, or an effeminate male- you could STILL fit the description. The age could be 30 years off, the height could be over a foot taller or shorter than you, but you still “fit the description”. You could even be moving in a “suspicious manner”, or wearing something that’s a similar color to someone else, when you were just walking down the street with a t-shirt on. For a Caucasian person- this may happen once or twice in your lifetime. For a person of color- this happens with disturbing frequency. A couple of times a year, if you’re lucky. A couple of times a month, if you’re not-so-lucky.
This bias also happens a lot in the media. If you haven’t noticed- take a look again. Take a look at Trayvon Martin- the victim. The media found every negative report they could on him. That he took Facebook pictures making gang signs, holding up his middle finger, and that he was expelled for smoking weed. Now- I’m not saying that he was a choirboy, or that he didn’t make some stupid mistakes (and we ALL do as kids), but he was basically shot for going to the store for tea and Skittles. How about the story of Eric Garner in NYC? Who died, because police suspected him of selling LOOSE CIGARETTES without tax stamps. Police wrestled him to the ground using an illegal choke hold, and then four other officers moved in to restrain him. The media was quick to point out that Garner had been arrested 30 times for various things, and while that was true and it was true that he was out on bail- it was never proven that he was doing anything wrong AT THE TIME. There are hundreds of stories of people of color, some with criminal records and some without, who have been killed while not doing anything illegal.
Then there was Levar Jones, who was shot four times in South Carolina (but survived) by a State Trooper. The trooper said it was for not wearing a seat belt; but as Levar was out of his car, at a gas station, when the trooper pulled up- one would assume it was OKAY to not have on a seat belt.
I regularly get stopped for “Driving While Black”. The excuses of why they stopped me is usually “you have a tail light out” or “your license plate light is out”. This way they get time to run your information to see if ANYTHING pops up. If nothing does- they let you go “with a warning”. Because- if you actually had a light out- you would have gotten a citation. And that would have been dismissed, once you proved you fixed it. So yeah- if you ever had that happen to you and got home only to discover that nothing is out? You were just stopped for being the wrong color. And yes- it can happen to Caucasians. Usually that happens when you are the wrong color for that neighborhood (a.k.a. – they think you might be a drug dealer.)
The number of actual stops has lessened a bit as I get older, but not the number of times my license plate number gets run. That’s still 2-3 times a week (that I KNOW of).
As for notable incidents- there are a few:
The first time I ever was a part of filing a police report, was when my best friend (who is Caucasian) and I had our house broken into about six years ago. You HAD to file a police report (and obtain a copy) in order for the renter’s insurance to cover what was stolen. I think the main reason I was not treated with suspicion, was because my best friend was the one who called, and was the one they talked to FIRST. I think I had to work late that day, so they were already there, and had already looked around by the time I arrived. And even though there had already been several break-ins (and were several more after ours) in the neighborhood- the police still insisted that it was probably an inside job. That one or some of our friends had gotten together to take our stuff. Umm… no. I trust everyone that has visited that house to NOT take our stuff. Plus- as late as some of our RPG games run- they could have just taken it AS they were leaving (at 3 am), and we would have been too tired to notice.
And even though I know that something like 60% of robberies ARE inside jobs- I believe they might have been making veiled comments about the people I run with. You know- because of the color of my skin. I don’t really have proof of that, but I did notice that they didn’t start talking about that possibility until I showed up (verified by my best friend).
Another recent incident that comes to mind for me, is when we moved into our current apartment complex. We didn’t have a washer/dryer yet, so we were using the complex’s facilities. It was VERY WARM in the little laundry room, so I had dragged a chair outside to wait for my clothes to dry. A Sheriff’s car drove by. That, in itself, is not noteworthy. We always get cop cars riding through the complex throughout the day, basically doing a quick check to make sure everything LOOKS okay. We even have a few cops living in the complex. No biggie- I didn’t think anything about it. Until he came by again. And AGAIN. AND AGAIN. This guy drove through at LEAST thirteen times in rapid succession (sometimes from one direction, sometimes from the other), and each time he would speed through until he got to my section of the complex, then he would CREEP BY as slow as possible, eyeing me the whole way. The little room has LAUNDRY clearly marked. And I’m SITTING right outside of it. What am I going to do? Steal a dryer? So finally, I tired of being the Laundry Exhibit and moved my chair back inside the tiny little room. Who knows how many more times he rode by- I stopped counting once I went back inside. But I do know that there were several people (Caucasian) out and about that day, and I was the only one he gave the hairy eyeball to. Repeatedly.
I have many stories like this. Every person of color has stories like this. Some are worse. A LOT worse. Some are of police incidences, and some are of racism by regular people. (How many of you notice as a woman clutches her purse tighter, right when you step in the elevator? Or how many of you have been followed by the store detective, because he thinks you’re going to steal something?) If you are close friends with someone of color- probably the best thing you could do is ASK them if they have any stories like this. Some people will laugh it off, mostly because they are uncomfortable with talking about it (either they don’t want to talk to YOU about it, or they don’t want to talk about what happened), but some people will actually tell you. Why? Because you need to know. Even if these things don’t happen to you- they DO happen. And the more people who know- the less you will stay silent. Once it’s all out in the open, so we can find a way to deal with it- maybe then we will truly become ONE nation.