Commentary: Understanding How Black Men Think about White American Police

Last Sunday, in our piece, “We Need to Acknowledge that Race Played a Fundamental Role in the Picnic Day Incident,” I made the argument that people of color in our community and elsewhere have an experience with police that does not match mine.

I went so far as to say that their experience is fundamentally and quantitatively different from mine.

In the wake of some high profile acquittals of officers for killing black men, that view is only sharpened this week.  Nothing captures this sentiment better than the essay by Elie Mystal in Above the Law.

His column, entitled “Philando Castile’s Murder Proves There’s Nothing Blacks Can Do,” notes that of all the deaths, “Philando Castile’s death affected me the most.”

This is reminiscent of stories I hear from well-educated and fairly well-to-do black men in our community, who nevertheless have experienced racial profiling and other forms of indignation by the police.  The story of Eli Davis comes to mind – this was a soft-spoken, private man, moved to uncharacteristically write a letter to the editor after being questioned, while mowing his lawn in his front yard, by a police officer.

For Elie Mystal, who describes himself as an “extremely well-educated black man,” “affable,” “cautious,” a “family man,” “well spoken” and “clean,” writes, “I am, at least externally, exactly the kind of black man the white man has told me to be.”

And yet, he concludes, “I am 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. I know this, intellectually.”

He continues, “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.”

Mr. Mystal writes: “The psychic walls are fragile. I might come online and rage about the unnecessary murder of Eric Garner, but I’ll never go to Staten Island, much less try to make a buck while I’m there. I’m old enough to remember Sean Bell, but I’m wise enough to never reach in my pockets when I am in shooting range of the NYPD. I can see the Walter Scott trial as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history, but I know that instead of running from Michael Slager I’d need to step-and-fetch like a f**king minstrel if I wanted to stay alive.”

He notes that he, as the media and white society do, ends up blaming the victim when black people are killed by police.  He writes, “I distinguish myself from the victims. I tell myself that I am not like these victims, I would not do what these victims did, and thus, somehow, I will be safe.”

However, for him, “Philando Castile broke the fragile, hypocritical narrative I tell myself to function in this world. Philando Castile also knew all the rules. The media has made a big deal of how many times he was stopped; I noted that you cannot survive so many encounters with police harassment without knowing exactly what to do when they come from you. Castile, by all accounts, was also a nice, affable man. He was also a family man. THERE WAS A BABY IN THE BACKSEAT OF HIS CAR, much like my kids are often in the back of my car when I need to drive around a white neighborhood.

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

Moreover, “Seeing it didn’t matter either: white people STILL let his murderer go free.

“There is NOTHING a black man can do to survive an encounter with American police. Once the police stop you, your black life is theirs. They can take it from you, or give it back to you, but you are a FOOL if you think you have any say in the matter. It might be comforting, for white people especially, to think that the terrorists who work on their behalf have some kind of ‘code’ or ‘protocol’ under which it is possible for a well-behaving black man to survive. But that is a fiction. There is nothing the victim can do to save himself. Maybe you get lucky and you get one of the non-murderous cops. Maybe you don’t. But as the victim, you don’t get a choice of your persecutor,” he writes.

He relates a story: “The weekend after Castile was gunned down, last summer, I had a need to attend a party in Greenwich, Connecticut. I loaded my whole family in my car. I was terrified. I drove like I was looking out of an ambush, like IEDs dotted I-95.

“Near my destination, I missed a stop sign. I never miss stop signs; with my kids in the car, I always come to a complete stop. But I was so on the lookout for my predators that I missed this basic rule of the road. After I realized my mistake, I cursed myself, knowing that for all my cautiousness, it would be the missed stop sign that triggered the stop that could potentially result in my death. I live in a world where missing a freaking stop sign could be a death sentence.

“Then I remembered that I also live in a world where missing a stop sign could be a death sentence because I could be HIT BY ANOTHER CAR. Ain’t that a bitch? I was so worried about ‘the cops’ that I risked my small children getting t-boned because Daddy was distracted.

“Car accidents happen every day, but you are unlikely to be in one. Cops can kill any black man they want, but you are unlikely to be the one they kill. I can’t argue, I can’t defend myself, I can’t hope for the justice system to protect me. All I can do is throw myself upon the mercy of large numbers and hope that I make it home safely,” he writes.

“I realized then, and it was confirmed when the cop who murdered Castile walked free, that I was thinking about my powerlessness all wrong. I considered myself the driver, trying to follow the rules of the road to avoid car accidents,” he says.  “That was an error. That was giving the white-dominated justice system too much credit. In this country, I am a coon, trying to scurry across the road.”

Mr. Mystal concludes: “Black people in America are treated no better than roadkill. The rules are not there to protect us. Nobody is held accountable for our deaths. And if a white person drives by the rotting carcass of our hopes and dreams, the best we can hope for is for them to say, ‘Aww, so sad.’ They’ll take no action to make the roads safer; most of them won’t even slow down enough to avoid running over our dead bodies.

“Justice? Black people can’t even expect dignity from the American cop, or mercy from the white people that cop works for,” he continues.  “And there is nothing black people can do to stop them from killing us. There was nothing Philando Castile could do. There’s nothing that I can do. There’s nothing that the raccoon can do if it dares to cross the white man’s roads.  It’s always ‘open season’ on us.”

Remember, this is a well-educated man writing this.  He knows the rules and how to engage.  And he’s clearly scared.  Then again, he should be.

—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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  1. Ron

    I thought about making some comment regarding this article, but I decided to watch the Castille video again, first.

    Man, that’s chilling and sickening.  (Even more chilling, perhaps, is how calm the girlfriend is in her cell phone video in the immediate aftermath, which I’ve previously looked at.)

    Wondering if the subsequent investigation determined what Castile was actually (apparently?) reaching for.  Who would tell an officer that he “has a gun”, and THEN reach for it with an intent to use it?  And yet, why would he reach for anything, when the officer is already reacting and repeatedly saying “don’t reach for it”? (All within a very short period of time.)

    I don’t understand any of this.  But, this video (along with the cell phone video) will live on, forever. (Even though the subject of the video did not.)

  2. Tia Will

    It has taken me a day to be able to write anything about this.

    A few months ago, I was pulled over for speeding, and act of which I was unknowingly guilty. I became nervous. When the officer asked me to show him my driver’s license and registration, I did not move my hands from the wheel until I had told him their location, in my purse and glove compartment respectively and informed him that I was going to reach for them. He seemed mildly amused and was clearly attempting to be reassuring when he told me to go ahead.

    But despite my racial, age, and gender privilege, I have seen the tapes and was nervous. I cannot even begin to imaging how I might feel if I were of a different demographic. I see my recognition of my own privilege as only a small step forward in true empathy for others.

      1. Ron

        Just a thought (and not directed at Howard or Tia, personally):

        Is there an “older”, or “female” “privilege”, as well?  (In terms of not being seen as a threat.) (Seems that’s what Tia is alluding to.)

        If also “Caucasian”, then I guess that all three “bonus points” are in place! “Super-privileged”?

        Not trying to make fun of this, but I suspect that it’s a reality, to some degree. (Again, in terms of not being seen as a threat.)

        1. Howard P

          Good question, Ron… don’t know the answer… I do know I’ve been stopped… most were ‘bad stops’, and ~ half the time I was cited… decided Traffic School was simpler than anything else.  The “he said, he said” thing… didn’t feel like gambling… I prefer poker.

          One time, with a bad cold, I did a u-turn in the CBD (it was quite safe, but it was a technical violation)… had gotten a fast food meal as I didn’t feel like cooking… saw the blinky lights… got the citation… middle-aged white male.  That was a technically good stop, but was cut no slack for the cold distracting me.  No anti-histamines involved.

          Took the Traffic School option.

          Total stops in 46 years of driving… 5.  Citations, 3.  ‘Bad stops’ (ones I could reasonably have challenged as to wrong car, bad ‘facts’)… 4 [on two, convinced the officer they had bad facts/wrong car].

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