Saturday, December 6, 2014

Moving Violation?

Consider the following exchange:

“You were walking by … you were making people nervous.”
“By walking by?”
“Yes, they said you had your hands in your pockets.”
“Wow, walking by having your hands in your pockets makes people nervous to call the police when it’s snowing outside?”

Even reading it, you can hear the incredulity.

And this is one the issues that plays into difficulties between African-Americans and police officers. Here in Seattle, it seems to be difficult to get the police to respond to a theft when you can pretty much hand them the perpetrator on a silver platter. Yet, apparently, Pontiac, Michigan has so little for the police to do that the mere report of an African-American man walking down the street with his hands in his pockets is enough for an in-person visit from an officer.

To be sure, without the actual call to the police, it's impossible to know why Brandon McKean was stopped. The actual caller may have said that something much more serious was afoot. It happens, and the officer may not have wanted to share what was actually reported. But with only the facts that we have, it's easy to understand that McKean may have felt that the officer was simply harassing him. After all, there are likely no jurisdictions where "walking with one's hands in one's pockets on a cold day while Black" is actually a crime.

White fears of African-Americans, especially men, as being violent and having little regard for the law are well known. Especially among conservatives, who are much more likely to be open about such feelings. But even given that, had you said to me that there are White people so afraid of us that walking down the street would itself be enough to prompt them to call the police, I wouldn't have believed you. (In fact, I'm not sure I believe that now.) Given that the job of the police is to find and arrest people who have broken the law, and they are not obligated to be truthful in their statements, I doubt that I would have taken the officer's statements at face value.

Which is where I think things often begin to go off the rails. Dealing with someone who has quite a bit of authority, not to mention lethal weapons, can be stressful enough as it is. Not knowing what they want - or what they think they know, doesn't make things any better.

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