Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott — the list of African-American victims of police shootings (many of which are captured on video) has become overwhelmingly long, with hundreds of these instances occurring in just the past couple of years at a rate at least nine times higher than that of other Americans. And now we add the back-to-back, videotaped shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
As my law school friend and a former prosecutor, Professor Paul D. Butler, stated to the New York Times, “[a] lot of white people are shocked by what these videos depict; I know very few African-Americans who are surprised.”
I am not surprised. Heartbroken. Devastated. But not surprised.
Last year my teenage daughter and I drove a lifelong friend from San Francisco to our childhood home of Dallas, Texas. On a two-lane highway outside of a small town near Amarillo, a Texas state trooper pulled over our minivan because I was driving about 10-15 mph over the speed limit. Too wrapped up in reminiscing with my friend, I admittedly didn’t pay close enough attention to the rapid speed limit changes from 55 to 35 to 20 and back up again, over and over every time we approached another tiny community.
The trooper was perfectly polite and somewhat amused at our description of our cross-country journey and let me continue with just a warning to pay better attention, rather than a ticket (which I deserved). A little while later, my New Yorker daughter, who had been silent for a long time, asked: “Do you think he would have been so nice to us if we didn’t have a disabled white lady in the front seat?” All I could honestly say is: “I don’t know.”
A few weeks later, Sandra Bland was found hanged in a Texas cell after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation by a state trooper while on her way to start a new job at Prairie View A&M University, my mother’s alma mater.
I am an African-American woman and a mother. I am a law-abiding, respectful, relatively mild-mannered American with an Ivy League law degree. But none of these things protect me or my child.
The Facebook Live video that Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Lavish Reynolds, posted showed her calmly pleading with the officer that Philando was not a gang member, had no criminal background, had never been to jail, had a good job, etc. They calmly informed the officer that he was lawfully carrying a gun (Minnesota is a conceal carry state), and that he had a permit for it, while responding to the officer’s demand for him to produce his license and registration.
After the officer shot Philando four times at point blank range in front of Lavish and her four-year old daughter, she held herself together despite the trauma she had just experienced. Though her boyfriend lay bleeding to death in her lap, she never raised her voice. She kept her hands out in front of her in view of the officer without moving a muscle. She repeatedly called him “sir.”
As another law school friend, Areva Martin, commented last night, it was is if “somehow, as an African American male, she had to justify his right to not be shot by the police officer.”
Lavish Reynolds knew the stakes of ratcheting up the temperature in that situation. She may even have been trained by her family on how to act in such situations, as I and my friends train our own children. In the same way we made sure our babies slept on their backs to prevent crib death, and strapped bulbous bike helmets on their heads when they went out for a bike ride, we constantly talk to our children and attempt to train them on how to protect themselves, not just from criminals, but from the police.
Keep your hands open and in view. Don’t sass or show ‘tude. Don’t even talk back or ask questions — only respond to the questions officers raise as courteously and succinctly as possible. Try not to go out alone — at least if you are in a group, there will be witnesses (and cameras) to possibly temper the risk. Say “sir” and don’t raise your voice.
To be clear, we do not teach our children that police are bad people. But we care about them enough to make sure they understand that, in the heat of an encounter, the evidence has proven time and time again that the situation is more likely to ramp up to involve deadly force for them than for their white peers. That regardless of whether they are prep schoolers or kids on a street corner, neither their relative privilege, nor the Constitution, will serve as a bullet-proof vest.
It’s not paranoia: A member of my husband’s fraternity at his alma mater, University of Virginia, was thrown on the ground, injured, and arrested by officers for having a fake id while at a bar with white friends (none of whom were arrested). Another law school friend, Lawrence Otis Graham, wrote a poignant piece on how his efforts to teach his children to be inoffensive, deferential, and exemplary in behavior and academics did nothing to insulate his children from being singled out or tormented because of their race.
Though efforts exist in many communities across the country to train and work with police officers on this issue, it is not enough. Our elected representatives need to expend the same amount of care and resources to help our police officers de-escalate these situations and decrease the rampant use of unnecessary deadly force. Because there is too much fear and mistrust on both sides. And too many African Americans keep dying over traffic offenses or minor infractions like selling single cigarettes. Or for no reason at all.
Before appearing on CNN yesterday, Areva Martin polled her social media network whether there was anything we can tell African-American boys and men that will cause them to trust the police. The response was overwhelmingly, “no.” There is too much history. And there’s too much anger at the double-standard in treatment of our community and our constitutional rights by law enforcement that is far more real and relevant to our day-to-day lives than the dubious but repeatedly shouted “double standard” which GOP congressmen are accusing FBI Director Comey of perpetrating as I write this.
As Chris Cuomo pointed out on CNN, “[d]oes it seem a little odd or tone deaf that they’re going to be talking to the FBI director today about this e-mail investigation, and there’s no action on Capitol Hill with the police shootings, again, at least to ask questions, at least to get some kind of board together … that they’re focusing on that when we’re dealing with more shootings?”
Though Black Lives Matters is routinely criticized and demeaned for the GOP for not being “peaceful” enough, and for being “anti-police,” it’s actually protesters and community leaders and ordinary citizens who have been working hard to come up with concrete policies to work with law enforcement to promote justice in policing and prevent the double standards that Paul Ryan’s Congress has chosen to ignore.
With respect to gun violence in general, the GOP’s only response has been to defend the NRA. Interestingly, the NRA has been tellingly silent on the violation of the Constitutional rights of two lawful gun owners by instruments of the State in these instances.
The GOP not only ignores police brutality against African-Americans, but they have fostered a political climate that allows negative sentiments about African-Americans to fester that certainly contribute to the propensity for heightened violence and deadly force to be used against us. A sensibility that causes an officer to tackle and draw a gun at a young African-American girl in a bikini at a pool party. Or drag a teenager out of her school desk and roughly throw her across the classroom because she wouldn’t “mind” her teacher.
And their presidential candidate has neither addressed these recent shootings, nor is he likely to do so. If Donald mentions Alton or Philando at all, it will likely be to blame the victims, in the same way he blamed Jewish Americans and the media of anti-Semitism for mentioning that his Star of David-featured ad was offensive to them.
Hopefully we can all stop playing political football for just a moment and treat the continued, senseless and unjust killings of African-Americans as a human tragedy worthy of our attention and efforts to prevent. As President Obama suggested in his poignant remarks about these tragedies and the efforts he is putting forth to combat racial bias in law enforcement:
“Rather than fall into a predictable pattern of division and political posturing, let’s reflect on what we can do better. Let’s come together as a nation, and keep faith with one another, in order to ensure a future where all of our children know that their lives matter.”