My initial reaction to the Rayshard Brooks video was: Why did he run? Goddamnit, he’d still be alive if….
It’s not that I thought his killing justified. Hard to defend shooting an unarmed guy in the back who wasn’t so much as suspected of committing a violent crime. If he just hadn’t run!
I’ve got some experience being detained by police. I’ve been detained without just cause. I’ve been stopped for “fitting the description.” I’ve been illegally searched. I’ve been handcuffed and arrested. I’ve been taken to jail and fingerprinted. In some file somewhere there’s a little mugshot of mid-‘90s me.
For all that, never once did I feel particularly uneasy, let alone tempted to run. I never feared for my safety even while my civil rights were being violated.
But this has everything to do with my Whiteness, including both my lack of negative personal experience with cops and my consciousness of White privilege.
I came of age during the 1970s and ‘80s in an upper-middle-class North Orange County suburb. Aside from family friends “Aunt” Cissy and “Uncle” Adam, I don’t think I saw a Black person in person until 4th grade. A few Korean families. Mexican gardeners to manicure our suburban lawns. Otherwise, it was White people as far as the eye could see.
Police weren’t a major presence in my community. Warrants weren’t being served, doors weren’t battering-rammed, kids weren’t put against the wall, neighbors weren’t carted off to jail. Police (ab)use of force was a theoretical concept, at worst. One night a few plants were stolen from our front walkway. Four patrol cars showed up, radios crackling, lights twirling red and blue. They were there to protect and serve.
Like most people with my skin tone, my formative encounters with cops were for moving violations ― speeding, illegal U-turns, carpooling with myself. Even though I was almost always guilty, about half the time I was let off with a warning. Even when I was wronged and argued my innocence, the officers were professional, respectful, courteous. I never saw an unholstered weapon, was never bent over the hood, never even asked to consent to a search let alone subjected to one. License and registration, please. Do you know why I stopped you? Next time be sure to come to a complete stop at the stop sign.
When you go through your first quarter-century like that, it sets a tone. Regardless of your intellectual awareness of injustice happening out there somewhere, viscerally you don’t feel it. Maybe you get a trifle anxious entering an intersection as a stale yellow light turns red; otherwise, police are almost a welcome presence. If they’re here, you’re safe.
But as my social consciousness broadened and leftist, lowercase-L libertarian leanings took hold, I grew increasingly suspect of existing power structures and their built-in abuses. I became an ACLU acolyte and learned the legal concepts everyone should know when approached by police (consensual contact, reasonable suspicion, probable cause, detention, Amendments IV–VI) and how to make it crystal clear that I knew my rights. I will always remember the first time I tried it, when two cops hailed me on an apparent fishing expedition as I was leaving home for a walk to the grocery store. “Are you asking me for consensual contact,” I asked, “or are you detaining me?”
“Oh, well, we just want to ask you a few questions,” one said disarmingly. “Do you live here?”
“Are you asking for consensual contact,” I repeated, “or am I free to go?”
They turned around and retreated to their squad car.
A few years later, my mistrust of law enforcement yet more acute (with continuing study, how could it not be?), I watched police roll up on a small group of young adults sipping on beer outside their apartment. By now I had taken to documenting or at least actively witnessing police encounters just in case. Nothing much was happening here, but the cops were annoyed and asked what I was doing.
“Taking pictures of you,” I said, knowing I was well within my rights to do so as I snapped another. Once they finished speaking with one of the beer-drinkers, I walked up to ask him what was happening. The cops were doubly annoyed and told me to step away and wait for them to talk to me. “Are you asking me for consensual contact, or are you detaining me?”
Detaining, they said, so I did as I was told. After talking to me briefly ― without any apparent plans to do more ― they sent me on my way. I politely demanded their names, badge numbers, precinct. As soon as I got home, I called their watch commander to complain about my detention. After a couple of earnest conversations, he volunteered to discuss with them how they had overstepped their bounds. Satisfied, I chose not to file a complaint.
Talking to police like this, asserting myself, remaining calm ― it’s easy because of my experience; and my experience is inextricable from my Whiteness. But that experience was fully put to the test the day I stood on a downtown Long Beach corner trying to get a couple of good photos of people texting while driving for an article I was writing. I didn’t pay any mind as a group of eight Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies crossed the street towards me. I didn’t know what was happening even as they asked what I was doing. Only as they encircled me did I see that something was amiss. “Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Are you taking pictures of the courthouse?”
I wasn’t, but that wasn’t the point. “Is it illegal to take pictures of the courthouse?”
I knew it wasn’t ― and that was the point. But they took my camera, held my hands behind my back, patted me down as thoroughly as you can do someone dressed in just jogging shorts and a T-shirt. They questioned me (respectfully) for 10 minutes, took my name, address, phone number, driver’s license number, employer. They asked for permission to view the pics on my camera, which I granted hastily because of my eagerness to start recording this clear violation of my rights. Once I was free to go, I continued the conversation, extracting from the officer in charge exactly what this had been about, politely expressing my indignation and my intent to follow up.
The details of what transpired (which concerned an unconstitutional post-9/11 policy of detaining and filing reports on anyone photographing “critical facilities”; and an ACLU lawsuit whose settlement included the Sheriff’s Dept. changing that policy ― read about it here) are beyond the scope of this piece. What matters here is that, even with cops surrounding me for no good reason, holding my hands behind my back, patting me down, I was perplexed but not worried. I felt sure I’d be okay if I just waited it out. I was calm and compliant and knew how to show it.
And I was White. Honest to God, that awareness was there, hazily hovering somewhere between unconsciousness and explicit articulation. Yes, of course police sometimes abuse White people; but by any metric, people who look like me are not nearly as likely as people who look like Rayshard Brooks to come away from police encounters injured or dead, even in identical scenarios, even for exactly the same alleged behaviors and crimes. As a White person, you always know you’re not being racially profiled; you know you’re not in a demographic that gets unequal treatment under law. Standing there at the mercy of law enforcement, the worst I feared was a bogus arrest. My day might be screwed, but I would come out of this fine.
Rayshard Brooks ran because he didn’t have that confidence. He didn’t get that quarter-century of easy encounters with police. No, I’m not a mind-reader, and I never met Mr. Brooks. Beyond his arrest record, I know nothing about his personal experience with the law, his thoughts, his fears. But he fought and ran from two uniformed officers with guns. They’d seen his driver’s license. He left his car behind. He wasn’t getting away; it wasn’t rational. It was an act of panic.
And little wonder. This was three weeks after George Floyd ― nonviolent, compliant, at most guilty of passing a counterfeit $20 bill and being Black ― was murdered in broad daylight, his murderers undeterred by a camera pointing right at them. It didn’t matter whether George Floyd knew his rights; it didn’t matter whether he was calm and clearly demonstrated his compliance; it didn’t matter when he was handcuffed and placed face-down on the ground and repeatedly informed the police that he couldn’t breathe, I can’t breathe, over and over. They murdered him. And now Rayshard Brooks was being put in that same position.
He should not have run. Nothing good could come of it. I wouldn’t have run. But Rayshard Brooks did not have my privilege ― not in his personal experience, not in his consciousness of how police treat people who look like him.
I’m embarrassed that it took me a minute to realize this. But that’s how deep White privilege goes. It is so embedded in our sociocultural DNA that even those of us who know better still may have a bit of trouble empathizing with how deep a lack of privilege can cut.
No matter who you are or what you look like, you’ve got better odds complying with police than fighting or running. But until there is systemic, generational change, until experience like mine is the only experience there is, ease in the presence of law enforcement can never be embodied equally across the cultural spectrum. No justice, no peace.