It's been a few days, and this post has been incredibly difficult to write...
Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Alva Braziel...
On Monday, there was the video of Alton Sterling pinned to the ground by two police officers, shot multiple times in the chest before bleeding to death on the parking lot concrete, for the crime of being black in America.
The next day, there was the video of Philando Castile, pulled over for a broken rear light, before being shot five times by an officer, in front of his girlfriend and child sitting.
During one of the ensuing protests, a man shot and killed five law enforcement officers in Dallas, in a seeming act of rage and retaliation.
On Thursday, a black man was found hanging from a tree in Piedmont Park - my old neighborhood. No official autopsy has been conducted, though police claim suicide. But a black man is found hanging by a rope from a tree in Georgia and we have to ask - will there be more lynchings?
Today, I wake up to as-yet-unclear news about a man being shot by law enforcement on the street in Houston. [Are the police doing drive bys now?]
How does one write about these things? How does one try to comprehend the place we have arrived at in our country? This week has been a constant state of emotion and a general feeling of incomprehension and fogginess.
There is a race problem in America. And it exists among law enforcement.
Does this need to be stated more plainly?
This week, I was honestly shocked to see how many people continue to refuse the obvious fact that black Americans are shot and killed by police officers at wildly disproportionate rates. Last year it was reported that black men (6% of the population), made up 40% of the unarmed deaths by police officers.
I remember the first time I was pulled over in a vehicle with a black male driver. It was in high school - I was in the passenger seat, and my friend Av- (17y.o black male at the time) was driving the car he had bought, registered, and owned.
It was after sunset but we were on a fairly busy, multi-lane street in a suburban center, with traffic. The officer that had pulled us over came up to the window without giving a reason for having stopped the car, and asked for license and registration. "Is this your vehicle?", he asked.
As soon as the officer had walked around toward toward our car, Av- had immediately raised both hands in the air and held them in front of him, just like that. When the officer asked for papers, Av- answered in an ultra-calm tone that completely contradicted both his and the officers' body language: "Good evening, sir. This is my car, I have my license in my front pocket and the vehicle registration and insurance in the glove compartment. With your permission I will reach for them now."
The officer gave his permission, as if this was the most normal thing in the world. As if it should be expected that he need not give a reason to us for pulling us over and demanding vehicle registration. As though it was right and proper for Av- to be as tense and frightened as he clearly was, for having done absolutely nothing.
Av- retrieved everything and handed them back; the officer went to run it. Av- stayed with both hands raised in the air, until he had his things back and we were told we could proceed.
What children learn about race in America.
By the way - Av's father (also black) has worked in law enforcement for over a decade.
And still, Av-'s clearly received "the talk" -
The Talk is different for minorities of different races, but I'm convinced that all responsible parents of color raising children have given it at some point. For me, it was simply being told at a young age that I would have to do better and work harder than my white peers to prove myself.
But that night driving with Av-, I was made painfully aware that black men in America are taught a much more nuanced and careful lesson - one that must be taught well, because it could mean the difference between life and death.
Among many other lessons, Av-'s father taught his son thus: Be wary around law enforcement. Never appear confrontational. Do exactly as you are told. Always have your hands in plain view and never reach for anything without asking first for permission. Swallow your pride.
Before that night with Av-, being pulled over had always been tense and annoying, but had never felt dangerous. When we were pulled over, Av- and the officer seemed to both clearly understand that if anything were to go amiss - any small misstep in their careful and scripted exchange - it would be the worse for Av-.
There exist underlying inequalities in our country, and Black and White are not treated the same.
The next Monday at school, 'a hilarious story' made its way around: a white boy from my high school had been found drunk wandering around his neighborhood, took a piss on an outdoor lawn chair, tried to punch a police officer when they approached him, but was then driven home by the officers to his parents, with a friendly "don't forget to lock the liquor cabinets".
What if it were Av- that had been found alone, drunk, belligerent, wandering alone in the streets? Would he have been given a pat on the shoulder and a ride home?