White Privilege ~ to Make Mistakes and Not Be Killed For Them

Black Lives Matter Protest in Bloomington
Copyright: shutterbreakerli

I saw the body cam footage from the Rayshard Brooks incident.

Upon viewing it, I became certain about something I already suspected.

The video shows an officer approach Brooks’ car, where he’d fallen asleep in a Wendy’s drive-through line. The officer directs him to park the car, which Brooks does. When another officer arrives, they administer a field sobriety test and a breathalyzer; they determine he is indeed drunk.

Throughout the 20-minute interaction, Brooks is cooperative and friendly toward the officers, cordially submitting to the tests. He admits he’s been drinking. He’s in town to visit his mother’s grave, he says, in the course of the conversation. He offers to leave his car where it is and walk to the house where he is staying.

The officers ask him to put his hands behind his back, and that’s when Brooks begins to resist. He wrestles a taser from one of the officers and runs away. The cop who chases him points a taser at him, and Brooks points his stolen one back at the officer. It is at this point, one of the police officers shoots Brooks in the back two times. He died later of his injuries.

This was not just one man’s life. It was his family’s life as well. He had a father, siblings, a spouse and three kids. The day he was killed, his daughter had had her eighth birthday party. According to his family, he was a “loving husband and caring brother.” He adored his children. His niece said, “He was silly, had the biggest smile and the brightest heart,” and yet he was “shot and killed like trash for falling asleep at a drive-through.”

I have another story to tell you. There is no video footage or press coverage of it.

Two women in their mid-twenties stand on the street in downtown Austin next to a parked car. It’s around 2am. They are talking loudly and animatedly with one another when a police officer approaches them and asks if there’s a problem. They explain to the officer that they are both too drunk to drive their car home, but it’s in a space that will be tow-away come morning. They’ve secured a ride home from a sober friend. They are trying to decide which, if either of them, has the capacity to safely move the car to a nearby space where it will be legally parked.

The cop does not administer a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer. He does not ask them any questions. He would be well within the law to arrest them for public intoxication, but he doesn’t. He volunteers to move the car for them. He reparks the car, returns their keys, and they ride home with their friend and sleep safely in their own beds. Their parents, spouses and friends have the benefit of their presence to this day.

The police did not punish or even chastise the women for behaving somewhat irresponsibly; the police, in fact, facilitated their safe return home. Oh, did I mention? The women were both white. They were my sister and me.

It didn’t have to be this way.

What I suspected when I first heard about Rayshard Brooks’s murder was that it didn’t have to end in tragedy; it could have gone much the same way the incident with my sister and me did. What if, instead of trying to arrest him, they’d taken him up on his offer to walk home? What if they’d followed him in their car, or even driven him, to ensure he arrived safely and without incident? Without wasting taxpayer dollars on a purposeless arrest. What if that cop, even after Rayshard ran off with his taser, realized killing him would be a far worse outcome than the possibility he might escape?

But no, instead, Rayshard Brooks is dead, and his children will grow up without him. His penalty for a lapse in judgment, which we all have from time to time, was death.

Police aren’t trained to be helpful.

Sure, it happens sometimes, like with the officer that moved my sister’s car for us; there are cops who are reasonable and have a sense they are serving, not policing, the community, at least when it comes to white people. But how often are black people given that kind of understanding? How often, in the face of the police, is a black person allowed to make a mistake without dire, unjustifiable consequences?

If you take the militaristic methods by which police are trained and combine it with inherent bias and racism, you get the dangerously dysfunctional kind of policing we have now. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though; I’ve never been trained as a cop, but this guy has, and what he says about the toxic, racist, warlike atmosphere of police training is scary as hell.

Police officers are trained to expect conflict, to approach every person as if they are a mortally-dangerous enemy. The folks who get the worst of that mentality are marginalized groups like black people and people who are homeless or severely mentally ill.

White Privilege Redux

The point here is this: We white people need to realize that our rights are respected way more often than those of black people. And nothing is going to change by making officers attend a handful of “diversity education” classes. When you hear shouts of “defund the police” what people are really saying is “dismantle the police departments and reconstruct something better.”

Our Privilege is Showing, White People

The Stand Up to Racism march through central London
Copyright: Ben Gingell

I scrolled through my Facebook feed today, and god, it made me so damned sad. Coronavirus stats, cops killing people, riots, looting, journalists assaulted by police and protesters alike. With the Trump administration as the backdrop for all of this, it’s starting to feel like end of days, end of times, end of…something.

Harkening Back to a Previous Era of Violence

But this is not new. George Floyd’s murder called to mind another time police officers committed violence against an unarmed black man already in custody. In 1991, police officers beat Rodney King, leaving the man with skull fractures, multiple broken bones, and permanent brain damage. Those cops were acquitted in the spring of 1992, despite what most thought was damning video evidence. A matter of hours after the verdict, rioting broke out in Los Angeles. The rioting and looting were so pervasive and violent, the National Guard was called in. Mail delivery stopped, stores closed, and people could not go to work or school.

The indignation and anger were not only for the cops who went free; it was the boiling point for tensions that had been simmering in what was then called South Central LA for years. Unemployment, gang activity and a drug epidemic were rampant, and occupants of the area were not only unprotected by police but targeted and harassed.

I was going on seventeen years old, and I was shocked the perpetrating officers were acquitted. I saw the video, and the acquittal made no sense. My surprise was part of the problem. I could not fathom someone’s rights being so egregiously trodden upon by people of authority as were Rodney King’s and with no consequence. But the people of South Central LA knew. It was happening long before, by chance, someone caught those four cops on video.

Just a White Kid from the ‘Burbs

I was a white kid living in a middle-class suburban neighborhood. I grew up in a place and with a face that meant people gave me the benefit of the doubt. I didn’t notice my privilege because I viewed that benefit, the assumption that I had a benign reason for walking down the street at night, as part of my natural right as a human being.

When I was in high school, two friends and I would sneak out of our houses at night. Sometimes we’d walk up to the all-night gas station and buy candy. Once, as we were walking down an alley behind the store, eagerly gobbling up melty Reese’s cups, a police car pulled up, lights and siren blaring. We were petrified. One cop got out, shined his flashlight at us and asked who we were. We gave our names and told him where we’d been. He said they were looking for someone who’d shoplifted at that same gas station. He told us to be careful and left. We were two white girls and an Indian girl.

In my twenties, I once got into an actual bar fight. These guys were being aggressively douchy, and I had just enough liquor in me to feel invincible. I got in the ring leader’s face and yelled I was going to kick his ass. A bouncer broke it up. The guys were kicked out, and my group left voluntarily, even getting our cover charge back for our trouble. The cops weren’t called; no one was arrested. We were a group of white girls, and the boys were white, too.

I remember college parties where cops arrived to find rampant underage drinking and possibly drugging, and no one even got arrested. “Keep the noise down,” was all they’d say. The party attendees were always, mostly, in appearance at least, white.

These are examples (and I can think of more) in which my white privilege — being given the benefit of the doubt even when I was acting less than admirably — showed. At the time, I didn’t notice.

I can’t tell you that the specific people in these stories — the cops, the bouncer –  would have behaved differently if we’d been black. But I do know that black people routinely have a very different experience with authority than I did in these instances.

Same Oppression, Different Day

Today, here we are in a similar boat as we were in 1992; it’s leaking, it’s on fire and the crew are fighting each other. People are rioting and looting; people are violent. We don’t have to condone it, but we do need to understand it. The black people of our country have been talking, shouting, working for change for generations, and the same thing is still happening: black people are dying at the hands of the authorities who are supposed to protect them. If you are not heard, if your fundamental rights get trod upon in both large and small ways every day, is it really so shocking that one day you grab that authority by the face and make them listen?

Trevor Noah says society is a social contract — rules we all agree to abide by for the common good. When police and people in power break that contract by killing unarmed black people, when that kind of grotesque display of hypocrisy is repeated again and again, why should anyone else abide by that contract? It’s not new: violence begets violence.

Our Privilege is Showing

As white people, we need to try to understand that the advantages we enjoy, the ones we are so accustomed to we don’t even notice them, are not available to everyone. Sarah Grimke, an early feminist activist, once said and was quoted by Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “I ask no favor…All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Your white privilege isn’t so much privilege as it is your unassailable right not to be held down — socially, economically, even literally, as we all saw as that police officer held his knee to a handcuffed and docile George Floyd’s neck until he was dead.

Jody David Armour, a USC professor and author of a book on the civil unrest of LA in the early 90s, refers to it as “the 1992 uprising.” While the word “riot” focuses on the criminal elements, he says, an uprising is defined as “the perceived failure of the criminal justice system to fairly serve all people.” We decry protesters’ violence while ignoring the systemic violence that spurred it. When American colonists, citizens of Brittain, willfully destroyed valuable private property during the nationally-revered Boston Tea Party, we called it a protest of unfair taxation, a rebellion against a tyrannical government. It also fits the definition of a riot.

A Sign of the Times

You don’t have to decide rioting, looting, participating in an uprising is bad or good. But no matter what we choose to call it, it is a sign that something is very wrong with our country and has been for a long time. In 2017, three years before George Floyd would have the knee of a police officer crush the life out of him, Armour said, “Ain’t nothing changed but the year it is.” And now, sadly, it would seem he is still right.

But maybe this is, at long last, the catalyst we need. Perhaps, with corporate giants like Twitter, Facebook and Nike taking a stand, and the greater public finally taking notice, we can cut out the core of racism in our country and fill that void with egalitarian systems that serve and protect ALL citizens. IF that is, those companies put their money and efforts where their mouths are, and IF we don’t forget George Floyd as soon as the next news cycle starts. Maybe we can finally begin to remedy our past transgressions as a nation. Maybe it is end of times. End of racist times. We can not only hope, we can help make it happen.