IT was in Louisville, Kentucky, that I first encountered the problem that ultimately – but remotely – resulted in the tragic deaths of five policemen in Dallas, Texas, last week.
The problem? The hostility between black men (especially young ones) and white police officers.
I was on a short attachment to a prestigious newspaper called the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the magazine section of the weekend paper had asked me to write a piece about my impressions of the United States. To illustrate my piece, the editor asked a photographer to take me around the city and photograph me against the backdrop of recognisable landmarks.
The photographer took me to an overpass on a highway that ran through the city. He asked me to walk along the highway, while he captured the image from a position below the overpass.
I'd only been in the US for a few weeks, so I didn't know anything about the laws governing places where one might, or might not, walk. I had heard about “jay-walking”; apparently, the American definition of “jay-walking” is different from the definition I was familiar with. I am sure that to the police, what the photographer was asking me to do amounted to “jay-walking”.
Anyway, a police car drove up as I was walking.
The police car was going the opposite way.
It stopped about fifty yards from me.
On the opposite side of the road.
The two white police officers in the car got out.
They beckoned me to cross over to where they were.
I attempted to cross over to where they had parked. But it was a very busy road. There was no crossing point where there would have been lights saying “WALK” or “DON'T WALK”. I could only cross if and when the traffic allowed it.
The policemen watched as I tried several times – unsuccessfully – to cross the road. Yet they kept beckoning me to come over to their side.
Now, I was aware that a policeman's order MUST be obeyed in America. Or the result could be FATAL. So I kept attempting to cross the road: I'd take a few steps forward, but would then realise that the vehicles were coming towards me were coming too fast.
The policemen looked at me.
I looked back at the policemen.
They stood where they were and continued beckoning to me to cross over.
They could see my difficulty. But they did not relent.
Neither did they make any attempt to stop the traffic for me to cross the road. Nor did they make any attempt themselves to cross over to my side, though they were in uniform and the oncoming vehicles would have checked their speed on seeing them.
So – Deadlock!
“God almighty!” I thought. “This is a situation from hell! These policemen, like all policemen in the United States, are armed. If I don't obey what they are instructing me to do, they may think I have something to hide and so don't want to cross over to them. They might even think that I am faking my inability to cross the road!”
The situation might have developed into a very nasty one for me had not the photographer used his presence of mind and realised that a “confrontation” between a young black man and white police officers in America was no joking matter.
I saw him running very fast towards the policemen.
He safely reached the policemen and their car.
He talked to them. He showed them his Press pass.
They listened to him and nodded their heads.
Then they drove off without looking at me.
Nothing was said to me. It was as if I didn't exist.
We left the scene and drove back to the office. IN SILENCE!
My imagination now set furiously to work.
Suppose the photographer had not been a white man like the policemen but had been a black man like myself? What would have become of him as he ran towards the policemen?
If they had perceived a black man running as a potential threat, would they have opened fire to 'protect themselves'?
I swear, although it was a cold November morning, I began to sweat profusely.
The situation illustrated for me was how easy it is for (a) misunderstandings to occur; (b) then to lead to situations that can quickly escalate into a completely different scenario and (c) such scenarios contain pre-determined responses, based on the history, group-think and embedded sociological factors in US society.
To translate that into a crude but accurate language: white police officers [slave masters] order a black man [slave] to do something. The black man [slave] “goes through the motions” of complying with the order, but does not succeed, presumably because he has no intention of complying. The slave-master always misconstrues the black man's inability to comply as an act of deliberate rebellion/defiance/arrogance.
Such challenges by slaves were not tolerated in the past and cannot be tolerated now, either. Rebellion must be punished. But slaves are very strong physically, and the only way to punish them is – to shoot them dead.
Now, when I was growing up, my mother used to warn us to be careful when crossing the road, because, as she put it, “a corpse is always the guilty party before the law!” In other words, if we were knocked down by a motor vehicle and killed, we would be adjudged guilty of carelessness because, of course, we would not be in a position, as corpses, to dispute anything alleged against us by the [living driver!
This logic is the construct that governs the black man-killed-by-white-policemen syndrome in the United States.
Sagacious black parents are constrained to have what is called “The Conversation” with their young sons, as soon as the boys reach age 12.
“The Conversation” goes like this: “Son, what would you do if a policeman told you to “STOP!” as you were walking?”
“I'd ask him why he was asking me to stop?!”
“No, son, you don't do that. You do as the policeman says. You stop. When you stop, don't attempt to put your hands in your pocket to pull out a handkerchief or tissue paper to wipe your face. The policeman will think you are taking out a gun to shoot him and he will “defend” himself by shooting you dead!
“DO NOT attempt, either, to reach into your pocketbook to bring out your ID card, even if he orders you to show some ID! Tell him first that your ID card is in your wallet or glove compartment (if you're in a car). Let him see your hands all the time.
“DO NOT answer the policeman back if he addresses you in a rough, aggressive manner. So he calls you a “mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch” when you have not done anything. So what? Your priority must be to come out of the encounter alive!
“Challenge the policeman and you will end up dead.
“ Son, do you know how many black men have so far been killed by the police in 2016?”
“No, I don't!”
“Okay – listen! This is the Huffington Post:
QUOTE: Here’s How Many Black People Have Been Killed By Police This Year – TOO MANY!
“Police [have] killed at least 136 black people in 2016…. Philando Castile became the latest addition to the list [on]Wednesday night [6 July 2016], after an officer shot him dead. …Castile was shot and killed in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights, Minnesota…. The officer “shot him three times because we had a busted tail light,” Castile’s girlfriend [said]…….
“[One day earlier], Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old father of five, became the 135th black person killed by police this year [2016)…[He] was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, early Tuesday morning [5 July 2016].
“….Black males between the ages of 15 and 34 [are] nine times more likely to be killed by police officers than any other demographic. This group also accounted for 15 percent of all 2015 deaths from law enforcement encounters, despite making up just 2 percent of the U.S. Population.….In 2015, at least 306 black people were killed by police.“ That is, just under one per day. UNQUOTE
“Thank you Dad. I will remember this as long as I live.”
END OF 'THE CONVERSATION'.
How often will 'The Conversation' continue to be conducted between black parents and their offspring? That is the real challenge that the US faces. Electing a black President once in a while will not eliminate the necessity for 'The Conversation'. Only positive action in police departments and mayoral offices across the land, translated into inflexible rules about how the police should act on the streets or face punishment, will do that.
If that does not happen, and soon, then God help America.