The killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas Police officers once again left me with that sinking, sick reminder that only fate and timing have kept me from the pain, anger, rage, and grief that comes in moments like this.
“That could’ve been me” is a feeling I’ve gotten to know far too well in my 36 years.
Last week’s trifecta of tragedy — the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile followed by the senseless massacre of five Dallas Police officers — once again left me with that sinking, sick reminder that only fate and timing have kept me from the pain, anger, rage, and grief that comes in moments like this.
I say this not just because I’m a black man. I’m also the son of a police officer.
I have every reason to be angry and distrustful of police. I also intimately know the sacrifices a good cop makes in his life.
I’ve not known a day in my life when that fear of loss — of my father being killed in the line of duty, of me being killed by a cop — hasn’t chased me.
‘That could’ve been me’
I’ve sat in my car with lights flashing in the rearview, feverishly trying to figure out what I did to get pulled over, cautiously preparing my license and registration before the officer reaches my door. I’ve been pulled over for going 40 mph in a 45 mph zone. I’ve been followed around my college campus by police late at night after stopping at a Burger King.
Once, when I was a teenager in Detroit, I was sitting on a friend’s porch when a cop pulled up in front of his house. He stormed out of the car, hand on his gun, demanding to know why we were there and asking for our IDs. If not for my friend’s mother — who was also a police officer — stepping outside and shooing the cop away, it could’ve been worse.
I am always on guard around cops. That’s something that those who blithely scream “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” don’t seem to, or want to, get. People of color, specifically black and Latino men, are operating with a set of societal norms far different from that of most white people.
In the last five years, a multitude of incidents of excessive police force, resulting in the deaths of black men and women across the country, have been captured by cell phone cameras. Without that watchful technology, would we know that Eric Garner couldn’t breathe? That Walter Scott did not make a move on an officer’s weapon before being shot eight times in the back?
The deaths of Sterling and Castile, less than 24 hours and nearly 1,200 miles apart, were two more jarring reminders of many black men’s worst fears. In a flash, two Baton Rouge police officers pinned Sterling to the ground. One officer screamed “gun!” then both opened fire on him. HIs final moments were caught on several cameras.
Castile was driving home from the grocery store with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter, when he was stopped by police, supposedly for a broken taillight. Seared into my mind is the scene that followed: the panicked, erratic officer pointing his smoking gun at Castile, screaming at Reynolds; Castile bleeding out, breathing his last.
The sight of that gun makes me think of every time a cop has stopped me. What if I made a “wrong move” while reaching for my license? What if I “fit the description,” and a cop killed me then blamed me for my own death? Those nightmares have formed the basis of rap album skits, movie scenes, and black comedians’ jokes for decades.
The late Richard Pryor famously joked in 1974: “I’m reaching in my pocket for my license. Because I don’t want there to be no motherf—ing accident!” to uproarious laughter.
Nobody was laughing last week.
‘I just wanted to get home and listen to my music.’
My dad retired from the Detroit Police Department 11 years ago, but the years he gave to the police are all over his man’s room in my parents’ basement. On the walls are certificates of commendation for community service, pictures of my dad sporting an afro — and later a Jheri curl — standing outside of his squad car, and a plaque commemorating his retirement.
Two other items stand out. The first is a framed poster of a fallen black police officer and the words “Would you trade places with him for $10,000 a year?”
The second: a pair of framed photos of officers Matthew Bowens and Jennifer Fettig, who were gunned down during a traffic stop on Feb. 16, 2004. Both officers worked in the same precinct with my father.
It’s a reminder of how real this gets on both sides.
Every morning, from when I was in pre-school in 1983 to the day before I left for Michigan State University in 1997, I saw my dad in his uniform walking out that door. I was never sure if he’d walk back in that evening.
He worked the 4th Precinct in southwest Detroit not far from Delray, the neighborhood where he grew up. After a few years working the streets, he settled into patrolling Southwestern High School — the school he graduated from in 1968.
He joined a police force in 1973 that was still rife with racism, while patrolling a city that held deep resentment toward cops. Just six years earlier, a violent riot broke out after a police raid on an afterhours “blind pig.” It was the final straw after 25 years of brewing tensions between the city’s nearly all-white police force and its majority black residents. As a result, the city finally made real efforts to integrate the police.
The transition was ugly. My father and other black officers had to put up with racial slurs from white officers while black citizens called them “sellouts.”
As years passed, and the makeup of that department slowly changed, the tide turned. At Southwestern, he became well known and respected by the students, many of whom to this day still call him “Smitty” instead of Officer Smith.
I saw how friendly he was with people, especially many of the black teenage boys he interacted with and how he legitimately cared about the community that he worked. It helps that he grew up there.
That was my initial impression of police.
The job was dangerous. He has a small scar on his neck from a knife wound sustained while making an arrest in the 1970s. But thankfully he never had to face the possibility of killing someone in the defense of his life.
As he always says: “I just wanted to do my job, come home, and listen to my music.”
Shades of gray
I know that this current climate wants us to “pick a side.” You must either be pro-police or pro-Black Lives, as if the two are mutually exclusive. However, for most of us, there are varying shades of gray.
I see Dallas shooter Micah Johnson as being no different from Charleston shooter Dylan Roof. He was a deranged, cowardly, hateful individual who used Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths as an excuse to unleash hell. He is neither a hero, nor a martyr, nor a sympathetic figure. He is an American terrorist, as was Roof, Omar Mateen, and Timothy McVeigh.
However, as offensive as it is to some, it’s easy for people of color to dismiss all cops as “racists, killers, and cowards.”
Frankly, that’s what many of us have been exposed to. I can’t say for certain that, if my father weren’t a police officer, my outlook would be much different from theirs.
I say to the men in blue, the ones who truly want to protect us — and I know you’re out there — that it would be nice to see more of you react as swiftly to condemn your fellow officers for recklessly harassing, beating, and killing black citizens as you are to condemn a crooked cop who stole money or sold drugs.
It would be great to see high-ranking police officials — particularly prominent African-American police chiefs — be much more vocal and public about condemning officers who kill citizens.
(In fairness, on Monday one of those chiefs, Detroit’s James Craig, demoted a detective who made a Facebook post calling Black Lives Matter supporters “terrorists.”)
Speaking of which, in the aftermath of shootings, if your unions, fellow officers, and elected officials who love to speak on your behalf wouldn’t foolishly compare Black Lives Matter and other protesters to ISIS and the Ku Klux Klan, that would be awesome.
Also, could you be a doll and stop lecturing black citizens about “complying with orders” after incidents like this? It sounds like when a man blames a woman for getting raped.
It would also be cool if some of the protesters, including a few in Philadelphia this past weekend, weren’t screaming death threats and throwing objects at police officers. That helps no one.
It is also counterproductive to phone in bomb threats to police precincts.
Last week was a brutal reminder of how much work is left to be done. I feel a kinship with Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, though I can’t imagine what their families must be experiencing. To lose your life in an instant to someone who is supposed to protect you is a hell I’d wish on no surviving family.
However, I also know that, if not for fate, I could have also been the son of a slain officer trying to make sense of the sudden loss.