Friday, July 24, 2009

Focus On The System Not the Officer

If there was ever a time for having open and honest discussion on race it would be now while President Obama is in office. Who better to lead that discussion than a bi racial president? I’m afraid we are going to miss the chance to use this Dr. Gates incident to open the discussion just like we did with Don Imus. President Obama made a mistake and used the word “stupidly” to describe the officer’s actions and now everything is all out of control. Although he was calling the actions stupid and not the person, you lose focus when you make things personal and there is no proof that the person is really the way you say they are. The issue of racial profiling in law enforcement has nothing to do with any one particular officer or one particular incident. Black America’s reaction to the story is based more in personal experience than anything. Racial profiling is about the easy acceptance of black people as criminals which leads to different treatment and more arrests. The acceptance of this image is embedded in our everyday fabric so it’s hard to make anyone who hasn’t experienced it understand. I don’t think I have the words to explain it myself but I have a story about an incident that happen to me one night that be a good example. This is a story about a night in Jefferson Louisiana. It makes every point that needs to be made.

One night about 12 years ago I was riding around having an old school cruise with my girlfriend at the time when I got pulled over. I looked at my girl and she looked at me with a confused look. I wasn’t speeding because my hooptie only did about 40 unless it was coming down and incline. We didn’t have any drinks in the car. We even managed to get the seatbelts to work and had them on by the time they got to my window. Two big guys with haircuts that made them look just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator came up along both sides of the car. They asked me to get out. I got out and walked to the back. I got frisked. I had to stand with my hands on their car while they ran my license, checked my trunk, checked my back seat, checked my girl’s purse, and check the glove compartment. When the flashlight search didn’t turn up anything, one of them asked me “Hey Cliff, you got any drugs or guns in the car?” I didn’t have anything on me and my record was clean so they gave me my license back and started writing a ticket.

So I am standing out there with my trunk open, hands warm from the hood of the car, embarrassed because people keep slowing down to look at me, and now my girl is not in the mood anymore. I went through all of that because my driver side tail light bulb was blown out. I never changed my demeanor the whole time but inside I was thinking “you got me out here on the hood and checking my car like I am smuggling kilos for a tail light? If I wasn’t one of the guys who knew how to keep their composure during times like me and my girl would have probably ended up in jail. Now here’s the part that shows why you can’t focus on the officer when things like the Dr. Gates story happens. Once they realized I wasn’t out looking for trouble and didn’t have any record, they became two of the nicest people on the planet. They even told me what to tell the judge so I wouldn’t have to pay the ticket. Those two guys as individuals were not racist. The environment that made it ok for me to be treated like a smuggler before they treated me like everyone else is racist. I’m sure people pass there all the time with blown tail lights. If they do get tickets for it, I don’t think they all get the privilege of having their car searched and assuming the position. It’s not about the person. It’s about the system. If you don’t change the system then it won’t matter if Barack Obama himself went to Cambridge and fired that officer. Worst things will be happening to people who don’t work at Harvard and know famous people.

1 comment:

Gab said...

Cliff, sometimes when reading, the words make me pause. The words, the ideas just bring me to a halt. It is a moment of learning, a moment of more clarity. I had that reaction to your post. Recently, while riding in a car with a black gentleman, we were pulled over by a sheriff; he said one of the brake lights was out. This was absolutely false; both brake lights were fully functional. The officer took our ID’s, ran a check, returned with a smile and said a bulb should fix the problem, wished us a good day and off he went. You are absolutely correct, racial profiling in “law enforcement has nothing to do with any one particular officer or one particular incident”, it is about “the easy acceptance of black people as criminals which leads to different treatment and more arrests.”

Though I am white, I knew the moment we drove past the sheriff, by his hardened and fixed stare, he was going to pull us over. I also knew that I was not willing to confront him with facts; any officer willing to lie about a non-functional brake light as justification to pull us over is not one I want to anger, particularly on a lonely stretch of road. Racial profiling has warped this officer to believe black equals probable criminal. My black friend was suspect, until proven not.