BLM and Me
tags: racism,Black lives matter
Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.
In early October, 2015, I flew from Washington, DC, to Seattle, to speak at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Judicial Educators. A little incident marred the beginning of my trip, in Reagan Washington National Airport. I tell it in present tense to give some sense of how it unfolded to me.
The TSA line is longer than I have ever seen at National Airport. It zig-zags through the holding area, guided by stanchions and cloth tapes, then shoots in a straight line across half the length of the terminal. I walk to the end of the line. Shortly thereafter a black man joins the line ahead of me, standing behind a family group with a cocker spaniel that is not really in the line, just accompanying someone who is. I wait to see if he is connected to the group or the person behind, then conclude he simply butted in.
For some reason, I often take it upon myself to deal with these situations. When I'm in a generous mood toward myself, I credit my "improve the world" mindset. Those not so generous might simply call me bossy. Either way, I walk up past the four or five people between me and him, gently touch his arm, and say, "Sir, this is one line."
"First of all, speak to me," he responds angrily. "Don't touch me."
"I did, I called you 'sir,' " I reply.
"And second," he goes on, "there are two lines," gesturing ahead.
"It's a single line," says a man standing next to me. The interloper looks again and realizes we are right. Wordlessly, he starts turning his carry-on around to go to the end of the line.
I go back to my spot in the line. As he passes me, he repeats angrily, "Don't touch me." "Yes sir!" I reply, with some sarcasm.
I'm steamed. What flashes into my mind is one of the many videos of bad police behavior toward African Americans that have gone viral throughout the summer and autumn of 2015, this one from St. Paul. An African American man, Chris Lollie, was sitting in one of the "skyways" — enclosed passageways that connect downtown buildings so pedestrians don't have to go outside in Minnesota winter weather. Lollie recorded his own arrest and put it on YouTube, titled "Black Man Taken to Jail for Sitting in Public Place." Lollie was waiting for his children to be dropped off by a bus from their daycare center. As the police begin to take him into custody, he says, "Please don't touch me" repeatedly. Nothing happened to the police, of course, and nothing tragic happened to Mr. Lollie either, beyond the disruption of life and dignity caused by an unjustified arrest.
I think this black man at National has placed me in the role of the harassing police officer simply for touching him lightly to get his attention. This makes me angry, because I've done nothing wrong. Owing to BLM, black folks are increasingly touchy, I conclude, deliberately using the pun to myself.
Then I recall my only prior unpleasant interaction at Reagan National Airport, maybe three years earlier. I had walked up to a Dunkin' Donuts kiosk to see if they had muffins, not wanting to waste my time in line if they did not. They did, so I turned toward the back of the line. Just then a white man in the line snarled at me, "You'd better get to the back of the line!" Stunned, I continued walking toward the back of the line. While waiting, I noticed where my antagonist sat, after completing his purchase. After eventually buying my muffin, I walked over toward him, planning to say I was sorry to have upset him but was only trying to learn if they had muffins. He saw me coming and waved me off angrily. I looked at him but didn't approach.
Recalling this incident helps my frame of mind. Just as I could never generalize from that angry white man to all whites (because I myself am white), I should not generalize from one angry black man to all blacks. I know better; I teach better.
About then, a black woman a couple of persons in front of me darts out of line to get a spoon to eat the yogurt she was carrying, having been warned that she could not bring it through security. (No one knows why not!) I make a point of saying "that's fine" as she asks the person in front of me if she can step out of the line for that moment.
When my antagonist behind me finally enters the zig-zag part of the line, the stanchions guide us so we face and come near each other. We stare at each other wordlessly. The next time that this happens is near the scanning area. I'm not looking in his direction but rather out a window, and as he passes me, in a line going to a different scanner, he touches me. "I want to apologize for what happened back there in line," he says. Immediately I put forth my hand to accept and we shake hands. "I'm a vet," he continues, "43 years in the Marine Corps, and I suffer from PTSD. In fact, I'm on my way to a treatment center." I put my hand on his forearm in sympathy, then snatch it away as if I'd touched a hot stove. "I'm sorry," I say, for touching him. "That's all right," he says. I then tell him I taught for eight years at a black college and have spent my life in race relations ever since. "This wasn't about you," he replies. "This wasn't personal. This is on me." We shake hands again, and I reach security.
Afterward, the woman who ate the yogurt asks me, "Did he apologize?" I realize she overheard the original incident. "Magnificently," I reply.
What do I conclude from this encounter?
First, that the "Black Lives Matter" movement touches us all. I have been in favor of the movement, have spoken positively about it, and have signaled with a raised fist or a "thumbs up" on those few occasions when I have encountered it live. But I realize now that BLM may have affected the ways I think categorically about African Americans. And, occasionally, I do think categorically about African Americans. I think most African Americans occasionally think categorically about white folks, too.
A word about how I have been thinking about "Black Lives Matter": I think BLM is elliptical for "Black Lives Matter Too." Thus the phrase intrinsically implies that white lives have always mattered; African Americans want the same regard for their humanity, dignity, and very existence that whites have always enjoyed. Whatever one might think about white privilege, there can be no question that it exists at the moment of confrontation with a police officer, often even a black police officer.
Yet that's too simple too. None of us, of any race, feels at ease when a police car is on our tail, even if we know we are not speeding and have done nothing wrong. We know the officer can always make something up. Consider Sandra Bland, who pulled over for a police officer and was arrested for not signalling before she pulled over! Anyone might respond identically. To be sure, Ms. Bland did not enjoy white privilege. Consider then the white guy in Utah, Dillon Taylor, shot for walking away from an officer. Apparently he could not hear the command to stop because he had his ear buds blasting at high volume. Like Michael Brown, this young man was no angel. But as with Michael Brown, his character and prior actions were not the issue. And as with Michael Brown, although the victim had no gun and the officer was in no danger, the officer was cleared of wrongdoing.
The unease that we whites have vis-a-vis the police may help explain the widespread sympathy for the BLM movement in white America, especially among young adults. Yet we know we have white privilege, particularly at the moment of arrest. We agree with Chris Lollie's expressed view that had he been white, he would not have been handcuffed and jailed in St. Paul.
Regardless of the race or character of victim or officer, the issue remains reckless police behavior, sometimes more reckless vis-a-vis people of color, often more reckless vis-a-vis the poor and homeless. Perhaps more careful police recruitment coupled with better police training can help, but the problem is systemic, so it cannot be cured merely by making changes within or among individual officers. We need an independent agent to investigate questionable police conduct and bring some accountability to bear. Everywhere, police officers are crucial work partners of prosecutors, so the latter cannot easily investigate the former impartially. The recent shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, not really “recent” since the prosecutor sat on it for a year, shows that. The Department of Justice provided an answer in Ferguson, Missouri, and will now invesetigate Chicago, but it can hardly police the police in every jurisdiction. Civilian review boards with teeth including investigative power might provide one answer.
With such a system in place everywhere, we might all breathe easier (and yes, I am referencing "I can't breathe") when tailed by police. We and the officer would then know that unprofessional police behavior is likely to impact the officer, not just us. Then, as our justified paranoia about the police decreases, even in African American and Native American communities — those most heavily hit by unprofessional policing — unjustified paranoia might also decrease, making ordinary encounters across racial lines easier for all of us.
Copyright James W. Loewen
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