I can’t imagine what it’s like being black. When friends of varying hues try to explain, I sympathize, try to empathize, but can never fully understand.
I can only imagine, if I were African-American, what it’d be like to be pulled over by a patrol car and ponder all the things that might happen. Nor can I imagine what goes through an officer’s mind when he pulls a car over, never knowing what he will face. But I can provide a real-life example.
A white friend, “Kirk,” — a local law enforcement officer — described stopping a couple of college-age guys for driving at night without headlights. He didn’t know they were black until he approached the car and saw the driver’s arm.
This was the weekend when unrest and destruction heated up across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“I emotionally prepared myself for the assault on my personal integrity I’d heard a hundred times after Ferguson,” Kirk said. As on every stop, he visually checked for weapons, kept his eyes on the occupants’ hands, and told them why he had stopped them.
“They were cool,” Kirk noted, but then the boys’ father approached the car walking with a purpose. Automatically Kirk did his visual check for weapons, position of hands, and any “pre-attack indicators.” He once again prepared “to be disparaged.” Maintaining his own cool, he treated Dad with respect. When Dad asked him what was up, Kirk told him and emphasized it was “no big deal.”
“Happens all the time,” Kirk said. “We just don’t want to see an accident.”
Dad quickly realized his son’s error and apologized unnecessarily on his son’s behalf. He explained that his son had just brought the car from California. “He politely asked me if his son could get out of the car,” Kirk explained, so Dad could show him what he’d done wrong.
When Kirk assented, Dad ordered the brother in the passenger seat to stay there and not move a muscle “like I’d have done if he’d been armed and wanted for a violent felony,” Kirk said.
Dad made a point of explaining to the driver how the headlights worked. “Part of me chuckled,” Kirk said, “because I know it was out of love for his son that he wanted him to be safe and responsible. I could relate to that.”
“The other part of me was intensely saddened,” Kirk explained, “because — particularly given the violence gearing up in the cities — I knew it was also out of terror that his sons might give police any reason to interact with them.”
He was worried his sons might “make a wrong move that would get them killed if they were in the wrong place or drew the wrong cop,” Kirk continued. “I’m comparatively privileged in that I can’t relate to that. For all our wealth and knowledge there is no excuse that we should live in a country like this.”
Kirk shook the driver’s hand and thanked the driver for listening and treating him with respect. Then he shook Dad’s hand and thanked him for taking the time to explain things to his son, teaching him to take safety seriously.
“It was about then I noticed Dad’s T-shirt,” Kirk said. “It read FIATM: Family Is All That Matters. I hoped Dad could also sense the deep respect I felt for him in how he handled a situation in which he was terrified for his sons’ safety, but still took the time to teach them life lessons.”
“It also gave me a chance to show I was trustworthy,” Kirk noted. “I wish now I had told them that.” Kirk added he hoped the sons “someday fully appreciate the father they drew. It was one fleeting moment, but maybe enough little things like that will someday make some kind of a difference.”
So what can those of us who are not police officers do to defuse confrontation? We can smile, nod, make eye contact. We can be courteous, show respect and otherwise enfranchise our fellow humans. It matters that we’re all part of the same family. Black, white, red, yellow or tan, we’re all part of the family of man.
Pete Haug has been concerned about racial issues since, as a teenager, he roomed with an African-American in the days of Jim Crow laws.