Two recent events – one real and one fictional – sent me back a decade ago to an experience that changed my view of the world forever.
The real event was the recent acquittal of a Minnesota police office for killing Philando Castile, a black male, whom he had stopped because his car had a broken tail light. The video of this encounter is riveting – a driver trying to reason with an obviously terrified policeman while his girlfriend screams repeatedly, “Don’t move baby!” and a four-year old-child watching from the back seat yells at her mother, “Please stop cussing and screaming because I don’t want you to get shooted.” The officer shot the seated driver five times.
The second story, a scene from the TV show Nashville, involves a rising young country singer, Maddie, who is riding in the car with her boyfriend, Clay, when a squad car with siren blazing stops them. He comes to the window, demands that Clay (who is black) roll it down, and accuses him of a “rolling stop.” Mindful of the dangers lurking when white policemen stop black drivers, Clay quietly and politely follows the orders given by the cop, even warning him that he is reaching for his registration from the glove compartment.
Meanwhile Maddie (who is white) is becoming increasingly more upset. Clay looks pleadingly at Maddie, asking her to just let him take care of this. But Maddie is angry about the unfairness she is seeing. She questions the cop about the “rolling stop.” She tells her boyfriend not to get out of the car when he is ordered to do so, shouting “You didn’t do anything wrong.” She gets out of the car and begins to film the confrontation. Both she and Clay are hauled off to jail.
My story takes place a decade ago in my small town on Thanksgiving Day. I am driving my African-American husband home from an 8-day stay in the Telemetry Unit in the hospital for a very serious case of pneumonia. A few days earlier he had undergone surgery for a lung abscess. I am driving more carefully than usual because any bump causes pain in his chest. Suddenly, Fred shouts, “There’s a cop!” As a white woman, I have always been dismayed with Fred’s instant alarm when he spies a cop, but I’m not too worried today.
A young police officer comes up to my window and tells me to roll down the window. I do. He looks us over. “Why did you stop us?” I ask. He says to Fred, “You aren’t wearing a seat belt.” Fred just looks at him. I respond, “We’re just coming from the hospital. He had surgery and the seat belt hurts his chest.”
The officer responds, “He still needs to wear a seat belt.
I point into the back seat, thinking the policeman doesn’t believe me. Somewhat defiantly I say, “See there’s the hospital bag with his stuff in it. We just left the hospital.”
“I still need to give you a ticket,” he responds. I look at Fred who has not said a word and looks at me as seriously and solemnly as I have ever seen him look. I just stare at the cop. I can’t believe what is happening. Fred nearly died in the hospital, we are now finally on the way home on Thanksgiving Day, and this cop is mad because he’s not wearing a seat belt. I am convinced that he stopped us because he saw a black man in the passenger seat. (I’m not as naive as I used to be).
Finally, he says, “Well, you’re lucky it’s Thanksgiving Day. I’ll let you go with a warning. Put the seat belt on, sir.” Fred buckles the seat belt, groaning in pain.
As he turns to leave, the copy says, “Have a good day.”
What are the lessons from these stories? Here is the first: Black people (even 4-year-old girls) have learned to FEAR the police. A routine traffic stop can turn into deadly murder if the officer requires instant obedience or is quick to panic and/or quick to shoot. Philando, Philando’s girlfriend, Clay, and Fred learned early in life to be polite and obedient and even subservient when stopped by the police. To me this reeks of plantation ethics; Massa requires respect.
And here is the second: White people traditionally view the police as friends. This is our implicit bias based, I suppose, on our experience that policemen and women are generally helpful. These two biases collide when blacks and whites are in the same pulled-over car. Maddie went to jail trying to explain and then defend her African-American boyfriend’s actions and rights. On that long-ago Thanksgiving Day, even though nothing bad happened, I learned to watch for police and, if stopped, to be properly submissive when Fred is in the car.
And here is the big picture lesson: These events are reminders of the institutional injustice that treats people differently because of their color. A system that is meant to protect instead often brings chaos into the lives of people whose skin is the wrong color.
The movie The Passion of Christ famously ends with a huge tear drop falling from the heavens onto the scene of the cross of the crucified Christ. I can only imagine the number of tears that fall as a suffering God watches his people hate and kill each other because they are different.
Check out this video for more of the story of Philando Castile and his little family.