Whether it's a routine police encounter or hanging out at a yogurt shop, African Americans don't have the luxury of forgetting they might be seen as suspect.
Don’t f****** move.
That’s all I can think when a friend whose car I’m riding in gets pulled over by Seattle police last spring.
We’re heading to Capitol Hill for a night out when the blue and red lights start flashing from behind. Apparently, we’ve made an improper right turn at a red light, a pretty harmless offense that shouldn’t cause us much worry. We’ll probably get a traffic ticket, then be on our way. At least that’s what I should’ve been thinking.
My friend, who’s white, looks annoyed but takes the situation in stride when not one but two officers approach — one on his side of the car, one on mine.
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I’m a lot more than annoyed. I’m afraid for my life.
As I sit there in the passenger seat with an officer’s flashlight beaming on me, my mind plays a grim film reel of police-involved killings that happened in situations just like this, involving African Americans just like me:
I see Philando Castile taking two bullets to the heart as his girlfriend’s daughter cries in the back seat, even though he took the extra precaution of warning the officer that he had a permitted gun in his glove box.
I see an unarmed Terence Crutcher with his hands up by his vehicle as an officer watching from a helicopter describes him as a “bad dude.”
I see Sandra Bland dying in a jail cell after getting into an argument with a trooper who had arrested her during a traffic stop.
The psychological response is automatic. I can’t turn off the images.
First I want to panic. Then I want to pick up the phone sitting in my lap and turn on the video recorder. Just in case someone needs evidence of my last living moments.
I want to ask the officer on my side of the car why he’s shining a light on me when I’ve done nothing wrong.
I recall trying to catch his face but the light is so blinding, I turn back and look straight ahead.
Sitting there, paralyzed with fear and confusion, I can’t even speak up for myself. I can’t even face my potential executioner.
Don’t move. I say it to myself over and over. Better not to escalate.
Police work is stressful and dangerous in ways I can’t even imagine and you never know what biases people carry around with them, what triggers will set them off. Is my skin one of them?
For all I know, he’s as afraid of me as I am of him.
So I settle on stillness, to keep him from hurting me.
But if this is just a wrong right turn, why do I fear it’s my death sentence?
African Americans learn to use perfect composure as a survival strategy early on. It’s a way to diffuse/defuse our blackness in the presence of authorities so that they — not just we — don’t make false moves. It’s a way to live with the undeniable reality, the statistical fact, that the color of our skin marks us for potentially unequal treatment by officers of the law. It’s a way to live with the fact that some civilians consciously or unconsciously view blackness as suspect even when black people are behaving in the most innocuous of ways. Right now, we’re still reeling from news of an African-American man being ordered by police to leave a yogurt shop in Kirkland after employees called authorities.
For African Americans, this disproportionality is a chronic condition. It never seems to go away. Most of us just handle the aggravation by keeping cool on the outside, even when we’re seething on the inside.
For those of you who have never feared the police, I say cherish that feeling of security and never take it for granted. I can’t say that I relate. It pains me to even write that, but the gruesome history of unjust use of force by police in this country prevents me from sugarcoating my wariness. I know where I stand in society, even as I dedicate my life as a journalist to exposing the wrongs and inequities that keep others from transcending their own harsh realities.
Yes, it seems crazy to go through life wondering whether the authorities who are sworn to serve and protect me are actually serving baser impulses and protecting others in my community from me.
But is it?
It’s far from irrational, this gut feeling that makes me want to seem less suspect.
I have the right not to fear the police but I know I have no business forgetting why I should.
The officers that night were friendly and professional.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can’t find fault with anything they said to me and my friend. In fact, they let him go with only a warning about traffic safety at intersections.
But those of you who see law enforcement only as your protectors need to know that many of your colleagues, friends, neighbors and even loved ones can’t afford the luxury of unquestioned security.
My complaint isn’t really with the police who stopped us that night. My complaint is with a society that has made me feel as if my life depends on understanding the need to have second thoughts about the guardians of our communities — and those who call on them.
I projected onto those officers every fear I harbor and every frustration I’ve vented over the senseless killing of African Americans by law enforcement. Likewise, I have a hard time understanding the ridiculous and potentially perilous act of calling the police on black people doing innocuous things simply because they don’t look like they fit in wherever they’re doing them.
The people who enforce our laws, and those civilians who ask them to do so, deserve the benefit of the doubt.
What makes me fear the police, and think twice anytime I venture into a place where I’m a racial outlier, is that people might not extend the same courtesy to me.