Police killings and context
As you are reading this post, please keep the families of the police officers cowardly gunned down in Dallas in your thoughts. As President Obama said in the wake of this tragedy, “When people say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter.” Senseless violence is not the response to senseless violence.
On July 6th, as I was driving south of St. Louis at night, a car cut in front of me as I was exiting the interstate. Both the guy who cut me off and I ended up driving on the wrong side of the road, going against traffic. It just happened that a police officer was driving on that same intersection at that time. He stopped his car, turned his lights on, and came see why in the name of all that is holy were these two cars going against traffic. He talked to guy in the other car first, and then came to talk to me. At this point my heart is beating pretty fast. I hope he understands what happened and lets me, my wife, and our 5-month-old daughter go easy. Maybe a ticket, I will be okay with paying a ticket. I just hope I come out of this unscathed. The officer approaches me, I tell him what happened (“officer, the other car cut in front of me and I followed him”). I wait anxiously for his response. He says, “Cool dude!” Then he tells me he will block traffic so we can turn around and drive on the right side of the road. No ticket, just a “cool dude!” and some help. I call that a win.
The day before my “cool” interaction with a police officer, Philando Castille was shot dead in St. Paul, Minnesota by a police office in a routine traffic stop. Two days before that, Alton Sterling was shot point blank and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. To paraphrase what a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday, this really makes me wonder if I could be the next hashtag.
I believe that context is important for everything, but especially in issues surrounding race. I grew up in Brazil (where we have our own issues with police brutality against black citizens), but in 2000 I moved to a sleepy town in Kansas to attend a small college. My first four years in the United States were pretty sheltered, much like the lives of many students at Luther College (where I teach Political Science). All my interactions with law enforcement were positive, even when I was, shall I say, bending the law like most college students do. I really didn’t think much about being a person of color in the United States for those four years. I also did not have a car.
After I graduated from college, I bought a car and moved to Kansas City. That’s where I was made aware that the color of my skin could get me in trouble. In a matter of months I was being pulled over almost every week, sometimes for going five miles over the speed limit (something all my white friends have always told me it was okay to do, that they never get pulled over for doing that), some times for whatever reason the police officer thought fit the situation. Then, in 2006, the scariest situation I have been through happened. I was pulled over because the light on the left side my license plate (a light I didn’t even know existed) was not working. The officer pulled me over, asks for license and registration. I told her that the registration is on the glove compartment and I was going to open it and get it. As I moved to get the registration the officer yelled at me “hands where I can see now!” and reached for her gun. She continued to yell at me for another minute or so, and it is not until she was somehow convinced that I was not going to try to harm her that she allowed me to reach for the glove compartment to get the registration. The situation escalated and de-escalated quickly, but it was enough to make me very weary of any interaction with police officers (I had at least three other stressful interactions with police officers after that, but this one was by far the worst). That is why I was anxious when I was stopped July 6th.
I know this does not sound like much, and I know many friends of mine, mostly also persons of color (male and female) had much scarier interactions with law enforcement.
This is my context when thinking about interactions with law enforcement. I never like to be pulled over because I was pulled over many times for dubious reasons, I try to avoid interactions with law enforcement as much as possible, and when I do have interactions I try to be as cooperative as possible. It works most times, until it doesn’t. Until something like what happened to Philande Castille happens to me, or a friend of mine.
My context reflects what some data has shown us. When tracking police stops in a number of major cities, The DOJ found that black citizens are three times more likely to be pulled over by police officers, even though they are less likely to have any illicit material in their car than their white counterparts (see report here). The pervasiveness of “driving while black” has been detailed in many reports, academic articles, newspapers, and personal accounts, including in the book “Pulled Over” by University of Kansas (my alma mater) professors Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Don Haider-Markel.
The Washington Post reports that Castille is “at least the 506th person shot and killed by police so far in 2016,” one of 123 black Americans killed so far this year. This year has also been an above average violent year for law enforcement officers, as officer deaths involved in shootings has gone up considerably in the first quarter of 2016 (according to another Washington Post article). The Officer Down Memorial Page reports that, so far this year, 21 (26 with the killing of five Dallas officers) police officers have been killed by gunshot, up 31% from (I assume) last year.
I share these numbers to express the fact that law enforcement officers experience violence. I know being a police officer is not easy and I respect anyone who is willing to do a difficult job that does not pay as well as it should. But as a person of color who has had a few tense encounters with police officers, it is difficult to see what happened to Philando Castille and Alton Sterling and not feel frustration and anger.
I know that many times the interactions law enforcement officers have with citizens are complicated. Police officers do not know what is going on inside a person’s head, and there are environmental variables that can lead to the escalation of such interactions. But, when there are 506 civilian deaths (123 of those black Americans) by a police officer in half a year, and 26 shooting-related police officer deaths during that same period, it seems to me that it may be more dangerous to have an encounter with a law than being a police officer.
I also know that not all police officers are racist. However, there is enough conscious and unconscious bias that we must question what needs to be done to change that. Moreover, not all police officers are violent, but when most of the police force sits silent or try to justify bad behavior, it is hard for me, in the context of being a law abiding person of color, to take the side of police officers in the arguments that ensue immediately after events like the killing of Castille and Sterling.
In the age of social media, we are now witnessing what has been happening for decades, if not centuries, in many black communities: the use of excessive force by a white dominated police force. In the context of a white person, I can see how you may have downplayed the protests of black Americans all these years, since you have not seen it for yourself. But since Rodney King (ESPN’s “O.J.: Made In America” does a superb job capturing the racial tension of that period), the white majority has had a number of opportunities to see police abuse (many times led by a racist and violent culture inside police academies and departments). The argument that one does not see how some law enforcement officers oppress black Americans is less credible today. I wonder how many more deaths like the ones we saw this past week will take for police departments to take a hard look at their training and their department culture to help minimize violence against persons of color.
I am not against police officers, but I am against the deafening silence (or worse, racialized rationalization) that follows videos like the ones that surfaced this week.
May the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille (and the many others who had the same fate in the last years) find solace in the fact that the lives taken from their loved ones will not be forgotten by those seeking social justice. And may we live in a world where we do not need hashtags to mourn the violent and untimely death of so many souls.