It’s been awhile, I know! But I’m back to discuss the most recent incident of police brutality against young people of color, particularly young African Americans..
Of course I’m talking about the black high school student in South Carolina who was brutally assaulted by a white police officer in her classroom. It took me awhile to watch the video because to be honest, I really didn’t think I could stomach it. I’ve been exposed to A LOT of violence in my work and I try to limit my exposure to it when I’m off the clock. But I decided it was important and I want to be as supportive as I can be to the Black Lives Matter movement, which means being informed. So I watched it and it was terrifying. The officer flips her over in her chair and the potential for serious head injury is so clear. I mean, he could have killed her.
I’ll admit that while this was part of my initial reaction, I had another, privileged knee-jerk reaction. And that was, “Why didn’t she just follow the officer’s orders?” As soon as I thought this though, I realized it was coming from a place of privilege and just not getting it. I mean the bottom line is that she is a child and was not posing a threat or being violent in any way. It is brutal to treat a non-violent person, never mind child, that way. And truthfully the way this officer responded probably wouldn’t be appropriate even if she had been physically aggressive (which she wasn’t). What I mean by that is that the officer looks entitled and enraged as he throws and drags the student. He doesn’t look like he’s trying to protect himself or subdue her. He looks like he’s trying to show her that he is the boss and he is superior to her.
That his actions are so brutal is what is most important. How he treated her doesn’t make sense in this situation and that is the bottom line. But let’s just explore this notion that white people know best and well, she should have just accepted his orders.
How do we, as white people, know that would work for people of color? We know what works for us as white people. We have no idea what works (or doesn’t) for people who are not white. My guess is probably nothing works for people of color, they’re going to be mistreated and brutalized, no matter what they do. Let me use some of my own life experiences to illustrate this point.
The first time I was pulled over, I was in my early 20s. I had been driving for five years already (that it took that long for me to be pulled over probably says something in and of itself). Anyways I was pulled over for speeding and I had a good friend in the car with me. I was terrified. I had never been pulled over before and the officer was pretty aggressive and intimidating. I didn’t even think, I just responded with “No Sir, yes Sir”, etc. Looking back, my friend must have thought that was hilarious. I can have quite an attitude and have ranted quite often about police/authority. But then suddenly, I was all polite and obedient. Like I said, I was scared and unable to think through my behaviors so I just instinctively reacted. And my response happened to be submissive. But I couldn’t have predicted that. Like I said, I reacted in that moment and at another point in my life, I might have reacted differently, maybe even been defensive or sarcastic.
So let’s break that down. I am white and I have far fewer reasons to be afraid of the police. As (straight, cisgender) white women, the only times we may have a truly horrific experience with the police is when it comes to issues of violence against women. Police aren’t really known for their ability to respond compassionately to sexual and domestic violence. But anyways, I am unlikely to be severely mistreated by police when I’m pulled over for speeding. People of color, especially African Americans, are likely to be mistreated or even brutalized by the police when they get pulled over – or when they’re walking down the street or just sitting in class. My point is that as someone with so much privilege and so much less risk of brutalization, I was still scared. So can you imagine how someone less privileged would feel? My guess is they would feel immense terror. And when you’re terrified, you’re likely to go into flight or fight (or freeze) mode. So it’s easy for us, as white people, to judge people of color’s response to police when we can’t imagine the terror they feel when interacting with law enforcement. We should trust that people of color are protecting themselves as best as they’re able when faced with a police officer.
Because this is the other thing, I don’t think it really matters what people of color do when it comes to police. At the core of all forms of oppression is the dominant groups’ belief that they have the right to control the oppressed group and therefore they will do as much or as little as they need to in order to have this control and power. White supremacy exists and law enforcement has long been one of the primary means to establish and maintain white superiority in this country. If people of color were always polite and submissive to police do you honestly think police brutality against people of color would end? I really doubt it would. Because that’s not the point. The point is that we live in a white supremacist society and the way people of color are treated is not a result of anything they have done. Rather the way people of color are treated is the result of the choices white people make.
As time has gone on, I’ve been pulled over on a few other occasions. I’ve never had a problem and aside from that first time, I always found the police officers to be kind and patient with me. I’ve come to relax and I’m confident in knowing that if I am demure, I will not have problems. That’s what works for me as a white person. I do not believe that if I were a black person, a polite attitude would keep me safe and out of trouble with the police. I think I would be completely merciless to the officer and how they choose to treat me. I’m sure some police officers would be nice but I’m sure many would not be – whether consciously or not. And you know what? If I were a person of color, that would probably be true no matter what I did or what I didn’t do.
Oh and you know what else? There are plenty of times white people have given the police an attitude or have fled the police or have become aggressive and more often than not, they do not get treated the way this young lady did.
So white people, when we get all judge-y and preach-y, let’s remember our privilege. And remember that when we say “well why didn’t she just do this?” that we are victim-blaming.