Safe and Alive: Running The Blue Gauntlet

“It looked as if the officer was trying to kill a deer running through the woods.”

–Walter Scott Sr. (father of the deceased)

My Dear Readers,

My editor, upon seeing this blog entry, will no doubt go through a host of facial expressions, shake her head and give a deep sigh.  She may even whisper to herself “Damn, here we go again.”  Yep, let’s go.

I am speaking once more to the consequences of living in a society that has given the police free-ranging powers when it comes to policing African-American men.

I call this “The Running of the Blue Gauntlet.” I use the term “blue gauntlet” to describe what it’s like to pass through an intimidating or dangerous crowd, place or experience in order to reach a goal.  For many of us, that goal is to simply get home safely, without being inhibited or constrained by law enforcement.

As my editor would say, “Damn, Dr. Kane, you’ve already written 9  blogs about the police, what else is left to say?”  She would also point out that my latest police-related blog regarding black parents preparing their sons for police interactions (2.29.15), received a fairly low readership.   She suggested that this may be a result of the readership being either tired or simply overwhelmed by all the news about the police.

Given good advice, (my editor takes her role seriously and is heavy handed in marking out stuff she feels will dilute the message of the blog), I decided to simply stop writing about the police for a while.  Clearly, I do not consider myself to be a “friend of the police,” or FOP, which would mean that I see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil when it comes to whatever actions they take in the name of “protect & serve”.

At the same time, I am not a “police hater.”  There are many fine young men and women who put on the uniform every day to do an honest day’s work of enforcing the law and showing fairness to all. I am quite familiar with the police culture; with my father and brother both retired from law enforcement and corrections, I understand the black and white mentality and the “circle the wagons” approach to their work.  The attitude is clear: you are either a supporter of us or acting against us.  There is no gray area.

By now, the video footage of the death of North Charleston, South Carolina man Walter Scott after a traffic stop has been seen by millions around the world.  For decades, the white majority and the world at large have heard the countless stories of excessive force, atrocities, and abuses by police officers towards black men told by members of the black community.  The usual response to these stories have been doubt, suspicion and the feeling that the complainants are “overly sensitive”, and that the police were merely doing their jobs.

In this case, however, the video says otherwise. No words, no listening to stories, just the sheer evidence in front of our own eyes.  Regardless of race, ethnicity, social and economic background, what we have seen is chilling, disturbing, and traumatizing.

I won’t further the trauma by recounting what is on that video, but the ensuing outcry and protest in North Charleston is reminiscent of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri following the police shooting and death of Michael Brown.

  • Both cites have extremely large black populations: 67% of Ferguson’s population is black, compared to 47% of North Charleston’s population.
  • Both populations have high numbers of white police officers and low numbers of black officers. Ferguson has 53 police officers, of which only 3 are black.  North Charleston has 324 police officers, of which 60 (18%) are black, and 8 (3%) are Hispanic.
  • Both cities have white police chiefs, white mayors and city governments that are overwhelming white.

In light of the similarities between the two cities, one must question why the outcomes in these two cities differ so much.  Why isn’t North Charleston being set aflame?  Why are there not riots in the streets?

Several factors are involved:

  • In Ferguson, the outcome was dependent on eyewitness testimony: that of the white police officer involved in the shooting, and the testimony of others who were black like the victim Michael Brown. The grand jury decided to go with the testimony of the white officer.
  • In North Charleston, the videotape is providing eyewitness testimony.
  • In Ferguson, the police chief and mayor immediately sought to defend the actions of the police officer as well as to protect him by not releasing his name for several days.
  • In North Charleston, both the police chief and mayor, following review of the videotape immediately condemned the actions of Officer Slager and released his name for public scrutiny.
  • In Ferguson, the investigation was led by the district attorney, who was known to have close ties with the police and family members in both judicial and police professions. There was the clear lack of transparency, with the district attorney purposely holding back the release of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer involved in the shooting of Michael Brown.
  • In North Charleston, the investigation was quickly taken over by the state of South Carolina, leading to a timely arrest and indictment for murder for the actions taken by Officer Slager.
  • In Ferguson, Michael Brown and his family were vilified in the media with allegations of gang involvement and past history of criminal proceedings.
  • In North Charleston, Mr. Scott is a veteran of the armed forces, has no history of violent or felonious behaviors. His involvement in the legal system is one of being jailed for contempt of court for failure to pay child support.

So what is the difference? In the North Charleston case, the public is not holding to stereotypes and fears about black men or value- based beliefs about the intentions of police officers. Instead, the public, for the first time, is receiving a close up, uncut view of police misconduct, neglect and a cover up that resulted in the needless death of a citizen and veteran who served his country during a time of war.

The difference is that given the clear evidence shown on the video, the black community is willing to “give the system” one more opportunity to show it can and will do the right thing and work in service to protect the community from the rogue actions of bad cops.

The black community has been screaming about bad cops for decades.  These screams, and the accompanying fears, have been transmitted intergenerationally.  It is no doubt that every black family has a story of police abuse or mistreatment to tell.  And yet, no one really listened before. Now, the whole world is not only listening, they are watching to see what will be done.

Does this mean that all cops are bad? No, of course not. Mr. Scott’s brother, who stated during the press conference that “not all cops are bad, but there are bad cops,” echoes this.  How do we tell the difference?  Bad cops don’t wear a poster sign that states, “Watch out for me, I am a bad cop.”  So what do we do?

Two clinical psychologists and friends of mine, one who was previously a middle school teacher and the other, a former supervising deputy police chief of the sheriff’s department of St. Louis County MO, tell me that trust has to start somewhere, and they believe that the black community must work towards trusting the police.

I love my friends.  We went to school together.  They truly are good men.  I know that they have my back.  If I called for their help,  I know that both would be knocking at the door before I hung up.

However, as white men, though they mean well, it is evident by their statements that we live in two worlds that are far apart.  As a black man, I have experienced racial trauma at the hands of the police.  As white men, they have the privilege of only being able to speak on this issue through “intellectualizing” racial trauma—because they have never had to endure it.

In most cases, this is a recipe for misunderstanding and minimization, but for some of my friends, this is the way that that they actually “get it.”

Here in Seattle, the Seattle Police Department has started a program in which anyone completing a transaction through Craigslist can come to a police station and do so instead of risking having a stranger come to one’s home.  On its face, this program sounds good right?  However given the concerns that black people have about the police, would one REALLY expect a black person to waltz into the police station seeking protection?

And for those who would have been inclined to do so, how would watching Officer Slager calmly fire five bullets into the back of Mr. Scott as he was running away change their opinion?

The newly appointed Chief of Police for the Seattle Police Department has made it her mandate to reform the department following years of abuse reports concerning ethnic minority communities.

Chief O’Toole has replaced her executive team with outsiders: younger officers with fresh new ideas.  For the first time, SPD has a black female deputy chief who serves as second in command.  In addition, she has elevated a chief technologist and information specialist who is a non-commissioned police officer to the level of assistant chief.

Chief O’Toole recently shared concern that the killing of Mr. Scott was going to have an adverse affect in policing in Seattle and her attempt to rebuild trust with the community.

She is right. Trust is out the window. Realistically speaking, trusting the institution of policing may be a reality for the majority and yet for those of us with darker complexion, it is a luxury that we, for our safety and the safety of our loved ones, are unwilling to risk.

At best, a more appropriate goal would be to re-establish respect for the institution of policing in the community, particularly between ethnic minority communities and the police.  Respect must be a given from both sides.

However, trust is something that must be earned.  Trust is a one-to-one interaction that occurs through the experience of a relationship between two individuals.  Police officers are taught to trust a fellow officer and to be suspicious of others who don’t wear the uniform.  How can they expect the community to trust them in return?

Just as the police officer is suspicious and cautious when being involved in a traffic stop, the same officer, regardless of their color or gender, must be willing to accept that many African-Americans have the same level of suspicion and anxiety, if not more, when it comes to being involved in a traffic stop, so it makes sense that we are vigilant (and not paranoid) about our safety.

The incident in North Charleston affirms for many of us that it is open season when it comes to killing black men.  I hope that by explaining how running the “blue gauntlet” impacts African-American families, I can help others become more aware of the impact this trauma causes.

Unlike Michael Brown and Walter Scott, I have never been arrested or jailed for a crime.  However, like Walter Scott, I served in the armed forces of my country. Like the two men who are now dead as a result of traffic stops, I am a black man who is vulnerable and exposed to elements that are not within my control.

When I leave the office late at night to go home, I psychologically prepare myself to run the “blue gauntlet.”  I call home, telling my loved ones that I’m leaving, about any possible stops I may take, and my estimated time of arrival.

I always have my license, registration and insurance card open and available.  I have checked my front and rear lights for faulty equipment.  Before I drive, I pray.  As I drive, I am vigilant about my speed, surroundings and other cars in close proximity to me.

When my beloved Linda was alive, she would not even consider closing her eyes until hearing my key in the door lock. She would greet me with a prayer, thanking God for my deliverance.  Now that she has passed away, my daughter has now assumed her mother’s role.

This brings me so much sadness. Am I living with fear or living in fear? That depends on the day and the events associated with it.  I doubt that Mr. Scott knew that his life would end when he was stopped for his faulty taillights

Beginning in May 2015, Loving Me More will be issuing a brochure entitled African American Males and The Police. My hope is that it will help to reduce the chances that more incidents such as the one in North Charleston, South Carolina will occur.  However, there will always be the possibility that some will continue to view the relationship as the “hunter and the hunted.”

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues.

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