Flashing Lights Scarier than a Gun to the Head
I knew the scum with the gun to my head was there for what he was there for and would be on his way as quickly as possible. Sure, the guy was dumb enough to think stick-up kid a valid life choice, but I figured (perhaps stupidly) that he wouldn’t be dumb enough to think he’d get away with murder. He just wanted a little come-up. It went down in an apartment complex and there was a witness (who I suspect was in on it, but what was I really going to do – I’m no criminal). I lost a stack of Kevin Durant rookie cards and a nice digital camera and whatnot. But so long as I remained calm and did as I was told, things would be okay. And they were.
No amount of calm soothes years in the system - let alone death by cop - if a traffic stop goes awry. I’m an unassuming white guy who hasn’t had so much as a moving violation in eight years. But those flashing lights inspire more fear than any random ruffian in the streets possibly could.
Why? Terence Crutcher showed how that scenario can play out, no matter how acquiescent. Let alone the countless who are remembered only by their survived. Those whose families suffered posthumous character assassination at the hands of ass-covering law enforcement and parroting media. Or those who were framed with planted evidence and couldn't afford a proper defense.
A number of years ago I was out late for the release of the latest Madden football game when those lights appeared. Unbeknownst to me, my license had been administratively suspended. The successful completion of five years probation had turned a DUI conviction into a reckless driving and so my license was suspended as though it were a new offense. My reward for good behavior. The cop was cool (whiteness at work!) so he didn’t impound my car, but I had to walk home at 2am. It was only a few miles, but I was wearing a dressy, collared shirt and boat shoes (sans socks, of course) along with earrings and a watch. I was carrying the bag containing my purchase, and my wallet and keys. I felt like a target. And these tweekers kept coming up to me asking me for a cigarette. By the third tweeker, for kicks, I figured I’d preemptively request of him a stoge to deflect (I don’t smoke) and he was like I was about to ask you the same thing, man. And that is considered to be a positive encounter with law enforcement.
My car was once broken into while I was swimming at the lake and I had a few hundred CDs stolen along with a set of still-in-the-box tweeters and the pants/keys/wallets of a few friends. I did some sleuthing and found the culprit along with the place my items had been pawned. I called the cops to the pawn shop and they wound up kicking me off the property and telling me I’d be trespassing should I return.
I once had a crazy old lady for a neighbor who kept egging my car and once threw a bowl of cereal at me. The cops came and said they could smell her cooking bacon, but she wouldn’t answer the door and since I didn’t have video evidence…
Cops are useless at best and a nuisance in practice. Just the other day I was on my way to work when those flashing lights appeared. I hadn’t done anything wrong and my documents are squared away. But what if the cop was simply having a bad day?
In states where cannabis is legal, the legal threshold for DUI means anyone who medicates more than roughly once a month could be busted any day of the week. If it’s not a trumped-up DUI or an unknown administrative suspension it could be a late fee on a paid traffic fine that returned from collections and turned into a bench warrant. Suddenly you aren’t just late for work or your car impounded – now that’s your job. That’s your rent. You could be homeless and you can’t put your previous employer on your resume to find a new one. Your family can’t get food assistance if you live with them. They stopped awarding Pell grants to people in jail. You can’t get a student loan because of your record. You have to check a box for being a felon so you can’t even get your foot in the door. You can barely get a minimum wage job at a fast food joint. Pharmaceutical companies & alcohol companies & private prisons & drug treatment centers, etc rely on the continuation of a racist drugs war which creates a lucrative black market. The prohibitive financial burden of post-release supervision increases recidivism. We send people to private prisons where they are raped and no one cares. We charge exorbitant fees for phone calls with their families and community. They make to provide slave labor to prison factories. They are put in isolation where their minds are ravaged. The dehumanization inherent in our method of penance is reinforced by disenfranchisement upon release.
Those flashing lights and all that they represent: Slave patrols and fire hoses. Rodney King and Tamir Rice. Generations of a terrorized people with pleas unanswered. Years in the system and perhaps death by cop. There are myriad solutions – beginning with justice and accountability leading to meaningful reform. But nothing can be achieved until we admit that we have problems with policing and criminal justice that need fixing.