When I was sixteen years old, I had three newspaper routes as my part-time job. One evening just after dark, I was out doing the collections from people, when I knocked on the door of an elderly lady who was my customer and who knew me. When I knocked, through the window I saw her go down on her hands and knees and crawl out of sight. Wondering what was going on, I continued to knock. Cell phones were a future commodity, so I couldn’t call for help for a woman who appeared to need it, but I thought there was a problem and I tried to get into her home. After a few minutes of this, the police came. When they saw me, they approached, pointing only a flashlight at me. They asked me what I was doing, and I told them. Without hesitation, they believed me. She came to the door then, realizing who I was and paid for the newspaper (although she canceled her subscription the next day with an angry complaint call to my boss.) It turned out she had been the one who called the police about the strange man trying to get into her home. In her confusion, she was afraid and called them for help. All they knew when they approached me was that an elderly homeowner had called to report an attempted break in and she was scared. But when the police arrived, I was allowed to share my story, which was accepted, and they left without even asking for ID or putting my name on the record in any police report.
But I can’t help asking myself, “What if absolutely everything about the situation I found myself in that evening had been the same, except the color of my skin?” Would I have been given the chance to explain? Would I have been believed? Would I have been arrested for frightening the woman in her home even though that hadn’t been my intent? Or would I have found myself facing the barrel of a gun, thrown down on the ground with my face in the gravel, and handcuffed without even getting the opportunity to explain myself? Even if that didn’t happen, would I have escaped the unfortunate incident with no police record at all as I did, if I had been black?
As white people, we trust the police. If something goes wrong, our first instinct is to call them, not to avoid them. We need to understand that even in today’s America, our black brothers and sisters aren’t afforded that same opportunity to trust. They have reasonable fear that they will be mistreated, disrespected, or even victimized. We don’t hear weekly about some innocent person who looks just like we do getting killed by police who were either making a horrible mistake or who were displaying a level of wickedness unworthy of the badge.
It’s time for us to be honest about this, and admit that skin color is probably the only reason the police were approaching the man in Oklahoma this week with their guns drawn in the first place. His car had broken down. He had neither committed nor been suspected or accused of any crime. And yet when they approached him, one of the white cops said he looked like a bad dude. Crutcher approached them with his hands in the air. (As a white person, would you even think to do that in the same situation?) They proceeded to point their guns at him, make demands, turn him around, and tase him to the ground (a painful assault that shouldn’t ever be allowed on a non-violent combatant). Then one of them starting shooting him. And another got on the radio crying out, “Shots fired! Shots fired!” Wording it that way made it sound like someone other than the police were doing the shooting, but that wasn’t the case.
If you are white, ask yourself, “In my encounters with the police, how many times have they even moved their hands toward their holster, much less taken the deadly weapon out and pointed it at my face?” Even if you were innocent, take a moment to imagine how fearfully you would react to that happening, and you might understand why some of the black men it has happened to react with raised voices and panicked expressions. It is only logical to react like that as an innocent person whose life is being threatened.
The police aren’t five year olds play acting what they’ve seen on cartoons. They are well-trained adults, very keenly aware of the deadliness of a gun. They know very well that it shouldn’t even be in their hands if they aren’t facing a situation that warrants using it. They know it isn’t a toy, but a deadly weapon designed to take someone’s life. And they must use that force only when justified. Stealing cigarettes or selling bootleg cds doesn’t justify it. And certainly approaching an unarmed man whom they knew in advance was just having car trouble doesn’t justify it. Good cops know this. And it is time for us all to stand strongly against those bad ones who don’t. It is also time for us to show the same sympathy and compassion for the families of the victims that we would show if they were white. We haven’t shown that. That’s why the “Black Lives Matter” movement started. Because we in white culture didn’t get that. It’s time we do. And we owe our black brothers and sisters an apology for having taken so long. It shouldn’t have taken viral videos to awaken us to a plight they were already facing before it was exposed online.