He Looks Like a Bad Dude, Too
Dear Other White People,
I try not to watch videos of police shootings. It’s not that they traumatize me; it’s that I want to watch them. I’m curious. I’m horrified, yes, but I also feel righteous indignation, and righteous indignation feels good. The cops in many of these videos seem so stupid, so evil. There’s something exciting and satisfying about seeing someone who is not you do something so horrible. That doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t seem fair to the victims. Would Walter Scott want me watching his death like a movie? I don’t know.
So I try not to watch them, but I’ve seen three. I saw Michael Slager shoot Walter Scott in the back in 2015.
In July, I heard about Diamond Reynolds live streaming the death of Philando Castile. It sounded so extraordinary that I momentarily forgot my rule and clicked on the video. When I saw Castille’s face I felt ashamed and turned it off, but not before I heard the officer who shot him scream, “Fuck!” and “I told him not to reach for it! I told him to get his head up!” He sounded out of his mind with adrenaline. He almost sounded like he was crying.
Yesterday I watched Betty Shelby shoot Terence Crutcher. I forgot my rule again. Or maybe it was that I could tell the footage was from a helicopter, so I thought I wouldn’t see anything up close. I don’t know if it’s less invasive to watch someone being shot from a great distance, but it seemed so at the time.
I’m not saying anyone should or shouldn’t watch these videos. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. Either way, I’ve learned a little from seeing them, I think.
What stood out to me as I watched the Crutcher video was the comment made by a police officer in the helicopter overhead. As Crutcher walked away from the cops on the ground, arms high in the air, the guy in the helicopter said, “He looks like a bad dude, too.”
Of course, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. If you’re in a helicopter, no one on the ground looks like a “bad dude,” not even Hitler, unless he turns his face up to the sky so you can see his mustache.
What can the helicopter guy see? He can see that Crutcher is wearing a white shirt, that his hands are up in the air and empty, that he is walking away from police officers and toward his car, and that he is black.
I’ve had a lot of nice interactions with cops. When I was a kid, my dad let me call the cops about a bird I found dying on our driveway. An officer stopped by and suggested we let nature take its course. When I was 16 and had a brand new driver’s license, I hit a parked car and didn’t leave a note. When the cops came to my house to get me in trouble, I cried like a baby. The next day, one of them called to ask if I was okay. I think about him every time I hit a parked car and leave a note. (Three times. Shut up.)
I’ve had just as many bad interactions. One guy pulled me over for no reason and then screamed at me for no reason. He seemed insane. I was in the car with two friends, and we thought he was going to drag us into the woods and shoot us. A few years ago I watched a friend be sexually harassed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. It was infuriating, but what can you do? Accuse the guy to his face? He has a gun.
My experiences have little to do with the shooting of unarmed black people. I’m a white lady. Some cops are nice to me. Others prefer to scare me because I’m easy to scare, or sexually harass me because I’m easy to sexually harass. None of them want to shoot me. I’m only reminded of my dealings with the police because they’ve been so various. They make it impossible for me to say that cops are bad or cops are good. Cops are human. I want to think they’re a little better than human, but they’re not.
That guy in the helicopter thought Terence Crutcher looked like a bad dude because he was black. I don’t know anything about the guy except that. Maybe if he read this, he would laugh because he’s black himself. Or all his friends are black. Or his wife is black. Or his husband. Maybe he used to be a woman, and he could tell me a thing or two about what it’s like to be judged on your appearance. Unlikely, but I try to keep an open mind. Still, he thought Terence Crutcher looked like a bad dude because he was black. This I know.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this spring found that almost 50% of Trump supporters surveyed say that black people are more violent than whites. Everyone was passing that poll around last week. What disturbed me about it was that more than 30% of Clinton supporters said the same thing. They are willing to say out loud that they think black people are more violent than whites.
“He looks like a bad dude, too” doesn’t convince me that cops are racist. It reminds me that we’re all racist. It reminds me that we waste too much time being afraid of people who are not scary. It reminds me that a large portion of us think black people are bad, and that black people are getting murdered as a result. And, because I watch too many movies, it reminds me of Yoda. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The guy who thought Crutcher looked like a bad dude didn’t shoot Crutcher. The officer who shot him was on the ground. “Shots fired!” she shouted — or someone shouted — over the radio. Whoever it was sounded charged with adrenaline. She almost sounded like she was crying, but I don’t know.
We probably won’t talk about the guy in the helicopter too much in the coming weeks. We’ll talk about the white woman who shot Terence Crutcher, as we should. But what’s going to haunt me is that according to the rules, according to the system, the guy who thought Crutcher looked like a bad dude didn’t do anything wrong. He’ll probably have a long career, if he hasn’t had one already. He’s probably one of these cops that we’re calling the “good cops.” He may be a good person, overall, but is he a good cop? Are there good cops and bad cops? I don’t think it’s useful to categorize them that way. There are human cops, and humans are racist. I’m racist, too, although I try not to be. So are you.
I felt compelled to write you, other white people, because I want you to know that as long as I’m working on it, I’m okay with the fact that I’m racist. Once I started working on my racism — on my implicit biases, on my tendency to see black people’s problems as other people’s problems, on my habit of feeling defensive when something or someone I like is criticized for being racist—it was much easier to admit that I had it. It’s not the other way around.
I really don’t have any brilliant ideas, but I wanted to say that. We’re racist. If you don’t think you are, just start working on it. You’ll see it eventually. You won’t like it, but as long as you’re working on it, you’ll be okay with it. You’ll feel glad that you’re trying. You’ll be less scared, and you’ll be less dangerous.
Your Racist Friend,