Last Friday, a couple of friends and I saw something unusual: A police officer pulled over a car in downtown Washington, D.C. as it turned a busy corner. I've been in this city for many years, and the only time I can recall seeing a car pulled over for a traffic violation was when someone was talking on a cell phone and a police officer ordered him to hang up with a megaphone; when that failed, she pulled him over and wrote a ticket.
Speeding in D.C. appears to be efficiently handled by the many surveillance cameras that are automatically triggered and which last year resulted in 1.4 million tickets and $148 million in revenue for the city. I've always suspected that I never see people pulled over--as opposed to in my native Virginia--in part because the streets are already so narrow and doing so obstructs traffic. And so it was even more surprising to see a man pulled over on a major downtown street at 5:00 p.m., at the height of rush hour.
As my friends and I watched, I felt the influence of recent news stories on my autonomic functions. We could see plainly that the driver who had been pulled over was a black man. We couldn't see the police officer until he emerged from his car; he was a muscular white man with a shaved head.
None of this is surprising or particularly extraordinary...except that right now, I am adjusting to the reality of what I've learned only recently: that black men have every reason to be wary of police officers. The friends who I was watching with are both black women; they've had their lifetimes to adjust to this plain fact. And so we watched, my reaction a bit more alarmed than theirs but no more concerned. The driver put his hands on his steering wheel. As the police officer approached, we saw the two men speak, and the driver handed over what we assumed to have been his driver's license. The officer looked at it, spoke to the man, and the man fished around, presumably for his registration card. The officer stood at attention and so did we. The driver handed over the card and the police officer went back to his car and remained there for about 10 minutes. He returned, wrote a ticket, and then the two men left.
I deleted the video that I had taken on my phone...just in case.
Has it come to this, to policing the police? I think it has.
I am a 38 year-old average-looking white man. I don't look dangerous and I suppose I don't look "not dangerous." I don't think I look particularly unwell, either, but among certain unseen challenges I have fluctuating hearing loss that at times makes me close to totally deaf in my left ear and impaired in my right due to tinnitus. Two years ago I was diagnosed with Meniere's disease due to the characteristic hearing loss in my left ear combined with vertigo attacks. I choose restaurants based first on ambient noise and then on the quality of food. If a restaurant or any other setting is "kind of noisy" to the average person, all I can hear is that noise, and all I can do is nod and laugh when other people do, pretending I can hear what is going on around me.
Last week, Terence Crutcher was fatally shot by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was already devastated for the man and everyone who knew him when I saw the story on television. Then I saw the 40-year-old's twin sister, Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, on The View discussing her brother's death. According to Crutcher, her brother was significantly hearing impaired in one ear. Part of the justification given for his shooting, despite his hands being up in the air in the classic "don't shoot" posturing, is that he "didn't follow commands."
Terence Crutcher was about 18 months older than I am. Like me, he was hearing impaired. Unlike him, though, someone hovering overhead in a helicopter probably would not see me and determine that I "look like a bad dude." The so-called bad dude was on his way home from a class at a community college; his bad day went from bad to worse to over when his class was canceled, his car broke down, and he received the death penalty for--depending on your view--daring to be alive, or "refusing to follow police commands."
I don't even like it when I hear people talk about dogs taking "commands." Commands are given to computers and to trained military officers who follow a strict hierarchy. In a police state, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, for example, citizens are expected to follow commands or else to be "vaporised." Is this a police state now? We have to face the facts: Yes, the United States of America is a police state, at least for some people.
I never knew it, although I had hints from a young age but never fully allowed my experiences to penetrate my psyche deeply enough to accept that certain events were not exceptions. For example, shortly after I received my driver's license, I was speeding down a long road in the left lane in my neighborhood with a frustrating 35 mile-per-hour speed limit. I was probably going about 50; nobody drove 35 on that road. I saw police lights in my rear-view mirror and my heart pounded, my pulse audible inside of my ears. As I started to pull onto the shoulder of the road, the police car pulled over a car that I had passed--I was going considerably faster than it--in the right lane. That car was carrying a black family. I couldn't make any sense of my luck...in hindsight, I realize that I could make sense of it. I remember the guilt I felt. But that was just my luck. A near-miss for a gawky white teenager became a bad day for a black family.
Even so, until I moved into Washington, D.C. I never had any real concept of how racism manifests on an hour-by-hour basis for black Americans. I've always accepted that it exists, but imagined it to most commonly take place, for example, as suspicious looks by shop workers or mall security, more frequent traffic tickets.
I have been assured by my black friends that the shootings we are seeing first on the Internet and then on television nowadays aren't new in any way. They're just known because of the omnipresence of mobile devices with video camera.
I will never be black. I will never be a black mother of a black son who has to worry about his survival every time he leaves the house. Those are impossible scenarios for a white man. I am gay, though, and perhaps that makes some of this twisted treatment by authorities a little more relatable to me than to some people. The word "bullying" is used a lot these days, but I like to call things what they are, and when I was in middle- and high-school, I was physically and verbally abused by my peers, and no authorities--no school administrator, no teacher, no bus driver, no adult, save for one business teacher in the seventh grade who held me after class and effectively told me "it gets better"--ever intervened. They passively condoned the daily dehumanizing treatment that I had to go through as a rite of passage. I missed about 40 days of school every year and was roundly criticized for it. Doing so probably saved my life, as it gave me some respite from what was, as much as it will make some people roll their eyes, a cruel world.
When there is cruelty in the world, there are always witnesses. Black, white, Asian American, Latino, American Indian, all classifications or none, we are all those witnesses.
No, not all police officers are abusers of their authority. Not even most of them. Some are, though, and that is undeniable now. It is entirely, indisputably undeniable, and there is one class of people who are persecuted by them.
In the clip above from The View, Joy Behar asks Tiffany Crutcher if she believes her brother "ignored more than two dozen commands."
Crutcher replied, "I don't think that's true. One thing people don't know is that my brother has a very severe hearing issue in his right ear and a prosthetic eye. And I know that my brother was scared and people don't know that, because all they know is that he was a bad dude, but my brother was disabled and he was just trying to get his life together."
Is it a crime punishable by death not to hear police commands? In this case it was.
Is it a crime punishable by death not to obey police commands? In this case it was. I would argue that this question should have an affirmative answer only if the person on the receiving end of barked commands poses a very real, very clear, very evident danger.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a police state as "a country in which the activities of the people are strictly controlled by the government with the help of a police force." That is what this is. If we deny the evidence, we deny reality: between surveillance cameras and extraordinary abuses of authority applied liberally, but unequitably, to citizens, we can no longer deny that the United States is a police state. However, we ostensibly we still have certain Constitutional rights, and among those are freedom of speech (although...why does writing this make me so nervous?) and freedom of the press (although...read this) and taken together, we have the freedom to police our police, not with any kind of force, but at least with monitoring.
Is it a crime to videotape police officers? It isn't, but some officers still don't permit it, according to The Atlantic.
The ACLU's guide does caution that "police officers may legitimately order citizens to cease activities that are truly interfering with legitimate law enforcement operations."
What if that happens, and you disagree with the officer?
"If it were me, and an officer came up and said, 'You need to turn that camera off, sir,' I would strive to calmly and politely yet firmly remind the officer of my rights while continuing to record the interaction, and not turn the camera off," Stanley told me.
"In the majority of situations, an officer is just trying to intimidate you, and stop your reporting. Once you make it clear to the officer that you do know what your rights are and that you don't intend to be intimidated, I think in the vast majority of situations, the officer will back down," he says.
It's insane that it has come to suggesting that every person who sees someone of color detained by police should take the time to stop and videotape the encounter, but that's what I am suggesting. It's not only insane; it's scary, because my instinct tells me that doing so is a test of our freedoms that may reveal we have fewer than we think we do.
Even so, it really is time to #PoliceThePolice.
Not because police officers are all rotten, degenerate souls--that's not what I am saying, although I do recognize that many people will insist on reading that into this commentary. But because doing so could save lives, and will help bring to light what rights we all have in this country. Is it starting to feel more like a dystopian Orwell novel because of political rhetoric, or because that's what our country has become while we were all looking the other way?