Sunday Commentary: When an African American Confronts the Police

More than 35 years ago the British punk band The Clash sang, “When they kick at your front door, How you gonna come? With your hands on your head – Or on the trigger of your gun…”

But in America, the biggest threat to the African American is not the law invading your home, but a simple traffic or pedestrian stop – as we have now seen replay over and over again.

I was watching the Investigation Discovery show which I referenced on here a few weeks ago, and there was an officer who pulled over a young black man for a minor traffic violation.  The officer immediately noted the kid was so scared that he realized he had to completely change his approach and work to make this kid comfortable and to recognize he was not going to die.

While this officer is to be commended, we are confronted with the fact that African Americans – in general – fear encounters with the police.  That fear has been amplified by recent events, but it did not start with Ferguson.

As Elie Mystal wrote in an essay we quoted two weeks ago, while he is an affable family man who is well-educated and law abiding, he says he is “not safe from the white man’s police. I know that any police officer can murder me in the street, for any reason or for no reason at all.”

He later writes, “I know all of the rules of engagement with the police. I know to follow their instructions, even if their instructions are unreasonable or unlawful. I know to be polite even in the face of racial animus or cruelty. I know to submit. I know to let them emasculate me, if I want to survive.”

But the problem is that he is no longer sure that this is enough.  He writes, “Philando Castile broke the fragile, hypocritical narrative I tell myself to function in this world. Philando Castile also knew all the rules.”

He said, “None of it mattered. They shot him anyway. On tape.”

Simple and powerful indictment.

But as Tonya Jameson notes in an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer, “On May 3, I was confronted at gunpoint by Officer Janish while I was putting a license plate on an SUV that I purchased from his mother-in-law the previous week.”

Officer Matthew Janish thought that Ms. Jameson was stealing his mother-in-law’s truck and, after investigation, “Knoxville Police determined that Officer Janish’s actions were ‘lawful and proper.’”

As she points out: “My case is another example of how the system is broken. Although my encounter didn’t end tragically, it could have, as all too many have (Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Michael Brown and others), and his actions likely would have still been deemed ‘lawful and proper.’

“The system is designed to exonerate police officers, not provide justice for their victims,” she writes.  “My incident, however, gives me new insight into just how much the law values police lives over the citizens they are supposed to protect.

“Had I not reacted calmly, Officer Janish likely would have been within his legal rights to shoot me although I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” she continued.

“In her statement, Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero talked about the extensive training officers receive in appropriate use of force and de-escalation. Asking common-sense questions, before unholstering a weapon, should also be included in police training,” she writes.

She added, “I’m sure the situation looked questionable from Officer Janish’s house, but it warranted the question ‘what are you doing?’ That’s exercising common sense. That’s de-escalation.”

This is precisely the reality that many have to deal with – it is left to the citizens to de-escalate the police, rather than the police to ask questions and de-escalate the situation.  This also gives us additional insight into the Picnic Day incident where the officers, instead of calmly approaching the crowd, drove into it and ramped up the conflict.

It also gives us additional insight into what blacks have to deal with and whites don’t.

Ms. Jameson writes, “I wanted to show him the keys or reach into my bag for the registration and bill of sale. I fought every impulse to do anything that would make him feel threatened. I don’t have de-escalation training. I’m the one being held at gunpoint. I’m the one thinking my life could end if he panics. Yet, I’m the one expected to remain calm.”

Is this how people need to think in 2017?  If I reach into my bag to show registration and a bill of sale, I might get shot?  That’s certainly the lesson of Philando Castile.  We have to do things differently – do we not?

This is the point I think we have to keep in mind when we gauge the reaction of the young people who were arrested on Picnic Day.  People tend to view encounters with the police through their own eyes.

As I said in a column a few weeks ago on here, white people in this community generally have had good interactions with the police.  However, based on my conversations recently as well as over the years, people of color – particularly African Americans and Latinos – have had a markedly and quantitatively different experience with the police.

These experiences have caused many to be fearful about their interactions with police, it makes many reluctant to seek out help from police or cooperate in solving crimes, and the end result is that for many there is a distrust of the police.

The interaction between Tonya Jameson and Officer Janish is telling.  Instead of Officer Janish talking with Ms. Jameson, he immediately pulls a gun.  In the case of Philando Castile, he did everything right in that he identified that he had a weapon, he complied with the officer’s orders and still got shot and killed in front of his girlfriend and child.

Then there is the 2013 case of Eli Davis here in Davis.  The police had a indistinct report of a burglary suspect.  The description was vague – simply describing an African American.  Officer Jeff Beasley, a veteran officer, sees Eli Davis, a man in his 60s mowing his lawn in front of his house.

Rather than perhaps chatting him up to find out if he lived there, he asked for the man’s identification.  The encounter left Mr. Davis shaken to the point where this private man wrote a letter to the editor.

It is this kind of interaction with police that lead African Americans to distrust the police.  No one was shot or harmed, but these encounters breed frustration and distrust – and, down the line, I think they lead to a loss of life.

The key question is how do we change this – what can police do differently to better handle these encounters in the future?

—David M. Greenwald reporting



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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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