By A. Spruiell
It’s a humid night and the orange glow of streetlights is bouncing off of moss covered brick facades. I am a tall, awkward, angular 6th grader attending an Arts and Sciences sleep-away camp at William and Mary University in Williamsburg, VA, a stone’s throw from this nation’s first colonies. One of my best friends, Gavin, is there with me, my acne is under control and I’m having a great time.
As our dorm group and counselor walk back from a late night activity, we are suddenly stopped by a campus security guard. An emergency button had been pressed along the route we walked, and the officer wanted to know why. As we stood, silently waiting in the muggy summer air, he suddenly and quickly approached my friend and I, suspecting that we had pushed it as a joke.
“What are you two laughing at?” he sneered. We looked at each other, confused. We hadn’t been laughing. We hadn’t even been smiling.
“Nothing, sir” Gavin replied, truthfully, but still stone-faced.
“Did you two boys push this button? These are for emergencies only. You two shouldn’t be playing with these!” he said, voice raising an octave with each sentence, and now towering over two eleven year olds.
“Sir, we didn’t push the button. We don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I spoke up for the first time, clearly afraid, but not willing to accept blame for something I know I didn’t do.
“I didn’t ask you a question!” he snapped.
The counselor finally stepped in at this point, assuring the officer that neither of us had done what we were accused of, as we had been by the counselor’s side for the duration of the walk. Placated, the officer left, but not before reiterating, to the group this time, that the emergency beacons shouldn’t be played with.
As he rode away on his bike in the opposite direction, we continued back to our dorm, much quieter than before. Another camper turned to us and broke the awkward silence after we had trudged another couple hundred feet, the guard no longer in eyesight. “Why did he think you guys did it?” he asked.
I looked over at Gavin again, who looked back and and sighed heavily. I glanced around at the rest of the group, remembering that we were the only two black men among them.
“No clue.” I lied. “I really don’t know.”
Growing up in southeastern Virginia, you’re neither immune nor unfamiliar with experiences like the one above. I have been driving up and down route 58 between Virginia and North Carolina for the past ten years since enrolling at Duke, passing through the kinds of towns that are on the way to somewhere else, never the destination in anyone’s GPS. This road is lined with fruit and peanut stands, and farmland sprouting cotton and tobacco head high. It’s here where you’ll find people clinging to the last vestiges of Norman Rockwell’s 50’s Americana, the only remaining subscribers to the myth of American exceptionalism. It’s here you’ll often see confederate flags flying proudly overhead, on billboards, painted on the side of makeshift general stores, and waving unassailed, adjacent to the Stars and Stripes.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is only a rural problem, though. I can assure you it is not. When I was a kid, the souvenir and hokey t-shirt shops along the Virginia Beach boardwalk sold confederate flag shirts with bumper stickers and rear window decals to match. They would show up in my high school from time to time, not explicitly banned by the school’s dress code. In 2nd grade, another student told a friend and I that we should do his homework “because you’re black”. I was told my size would make me “a good slave” in the 5th grade. Some enterprising student thought my nickname should be “Coon” sophomore year of high school until I slammed that door shut. I was taken out of sixth period one day during junior year to find “NIGGER” scrawled on my locker door in permanent marker and unable to be washed off.
I’m not telling you these things for sympathy. I don’t need or, frankly, want any. I’m telling you because this is the reality of the world we live in, and I need you to know and understand that first. Any discussion on race in America starts there: acceptance that we have a race problem in this country.
Charlottesville was a wake-up call for some, a stark reminder of the strain of hate and prejudice that hides dormant in our nation’s immune system until another outbreak occurs. But for many others, it was just another day in America, the old, new, once and future normal.
The emotion I was most struck by in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville was one of frustration. Not with the white supremacist demonstrators and Nazi sympathizers. They are some of the most predictable people on Earth and I’ve come to accept them as an annoying inevitability in my life, like mosquitos in the summer. I was frustrated at the amount of surprise, from friends, acquaintances and strangers, that the incident occurred at all. It was as if a large percentage of the country really and truly believed that racism was restricted to a small subset of the population and this dashed their hope that we were moving into a post-racial society.
We’re not. We never were.
At nine years old, my father sat me down for “the talk”. Not the birds and the bees; no, that had come much earlier. We were going to have a conversation about the police. He detailed what to do in a traffic stop, no matter what the situation. Park your car, turn off your engine, turn down your radio, turn on your headlights, put your hands in a visible spot on the steering wheel or out of the window. Don’t do anything unless the officer asks you to. Always respond with “yes, sir” and “no, sir”, no matter what they say to you. This conversation ran back through my head like Kobe Bryant game film as the officer yelled at me in Williamsburg that night. I had been prepared for that moment.
That’s why stories like the one Michael Bennett shared this week are so important, illustrating that this can happen to anybody. Money, fame, notoriety and, in some cases, even innocence cannot shield you. Bennett, the conscientious, outspoken All-Pro defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, released a statement this week detailing an encounter he had with Las Vegas police in the aftermath of the Conor McGregor/Floyd Mayweather fight. Bennett was wrongly detained, cuffed and subsequently released, but not before having a knee shoved in his back and a gun pointed at his head.
He reports fearing for his life, as anyone would, and feeling utterly helpless in that moment. But what’s most terrifying is that this is the reality most African-Americans live through each day. It’s why, even when it’s cold, I balk at raising the hood on my sweatshirt for fear of being profiled, unfairly. It is an experience people like Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Mike Brown among others did not get the chance to reflect on. There is a fundamental truth that some Americans are unwilling to accept: racism persists and it is prevalent in our policing, and if we are going to hold criminals accountable, we have to do the same for our law enforcement officials.
It’s difficult to explain to someone who has never had the experience what it feels like to be in a situation like that, one where you can’t put 100% of your trust in the group of people tasked with your protection. It sounds like a contrived conspiratorial plot from an Oliver Stone movie. But more often than not, when stopped by officers, the onus of levelheadedness falls to the aggrieved whenever a minority suspect is involved. Any untoward emotion is almost always seen as aggression, so you are expected to remain calm while the world tumbles into chaos around you. Ignore the knee in your back, the barked orders, and general calamity around you, or you will get shot. And it will be your fault.
This responsibility should fall to the officers trained for these situations, but we often overlook their over-emotional inattention to detail in favor of absolving their shortcomings. The burden of our safety as African American men and women becomes inextricably linked to our ability to stomach unfair treatment. Why should we put our faith in a system like that?
“Well, why are you blaming the cops?”, I hear. “Why not place some blame on the criminals? Don’t get in trouble and you won’t have anything to worry about.” A willful misinterpretation of the subject in favor of your own viewpoint, this assumes two fallacies: first, that innocent people don’t get detained by police every day and second, that a person cannot compartmentalize enough to be upset by more than one thing simultaneously. I can condemn the criminal and still feel that they deserve the modicum of self-respect afforded them by the Bill of Rights. I don’t agree with Donald Trump on literally anything, for example, but I still think that if he were to be impeached, it should be done for cause and by the book of the law.
So, when the Las Vegas poilce officers’ union sends a letter to Roger Goodell requesting that Michael Bennett be investigated for his allegations, most people should balk at that. We created the laws we uphold to avoid having individuals as their own personal arbiters of justice, and some officers have stepped over that line. Wanting them to perform better is not a condemnation of the profession, but those particular officers.
Disavowing a group of rogue, violent, violating officers is no more an indictment on all police than any other stereotype. The hypocrisy stares them directly in the face each time their PR departments craft a response to these incidents. “Not all cops, blue lives matter.” Unless they want to encourage the implication that these policies are endemic to modern policing, why encourage the association? How hard is it to disavow rogue actors while still seeking to uphold your own tenets? ************************************************************************************
When African-American scholars, thinkers and authors produce think-pieces, and blogs, and books, and tell you things like this, we’re not looking for sympathy. Only empathy. Michael Bennett was not typing that letter in the hopes that people would feel sorry for him. Colin Kaepernick did not sacrifice his immediate career prospects to be cute for social media. We seek change to benefit everyone, not just ourselves. The more we are able to trust police officers, the less incidents like these happen, but we can’t do that if no one wants to believe there’s a problem in the first place. It’s not just African-Americans being profiled. The details behind Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s pardon should tell you more than enough about how Hispanic individuals suffer. The war on drugs and the for-profit bail system prey directly on the poor, indiscriminate of race and these problems will metastasize and spread.
And much like a tumor, an effective tool to combating these injustices is awareness. It always has been. The arresting officer in Bennett’s case decided against turning on his body camera for reasons that may never be enumerated. But cameras like those are an important asset in turning the tide. The more videos we see of officers overstepping our bounds, the more people that will realize we are cutting corners where we shouldn’t. The nurse recently accosted in Utah for refusing to turn over a blood sample could attest to that. Prejudice operates like a vampire, tending to wilt when exposed to the unyielding light of day. It can only propagate in the shadows, avoiding judgement and unimpeded by anything resembling sound logic.
The foundation of a white supremacist’s thinking is fundamentally flawed from the ground up. To claim inherent superiority is to operate from a place of unquestioned strength, so why fear a challenge to that? A lion, to the extent that they could be, is not concerned with his place in the food chain being usurped by a gazelle. The answer is simple: when you start your life with a leg up on your competition, equality can feel like oppression. But that doesn’t make their position any more valid than a study on eugenics would. It simply explains their flawed sense of logic.
There are people who are desperately looking for a scapegoat or someone to blame for their own misfortunes. Their lack of success can’t possibly be their own fault. What’s the easier truth to accept: your own limitations or the conspiracy of an entire racial group working against your personal interests? The latter removes all personal blame and allows you to continue life unimpeded by hard truths or revelations.
If we’re going to make progress, we have to be willing to accept those things that are unpleasant. Instead of debating over the veracity or helpfulness of NFL anthem protests, we should pivot to the issues they are protesting in the name of. It’s not about Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins or Colin Kaepernick, and they are all smart enough to know that. It’s the rest of us that are caught up in the particulars. They are sacrificing of themselves for the greater good, an example we should all strive to follow.
I think about that night in Williamsburg from time to time. It wasn’t nearly as life threatening or dangerous as it could have been, but it’s stuck with me all these years later. It’s the only thing I really still remember about that camp experience. It was an early lesson in how an incident like that can easily go wrong. What if that had been a real officer? Would I have ended up in handcuffs? What if the counselor hadn’t stuck up for the two of us? Should I have told those kids the truth? Would they have even understood? Why was our word worth less than that of our peers?
And what if it happens again?