White People: Time to consider the consequences before calling the police
The BART train was stalled at 19th street for 5 minutes with the doors wide open before three police officers stepped inside, poking there heads around in search of the person who’d called them.
A white woman spoke up, saying she was the one who called. According to her, there were three men who had caused a disturbance on the train.
But I noticed something altogether different: three black subway dancers had hopped on to the back part of the train, introduced themselves with a host of bravado, turned up the volume on their boombox, and started doing double jointed dance moves, pole twists and even extraordinarily smooth, stationary flips.
It was a surprise show for an unexpecting crowd. I’d heard about this type of show on BART rides around Oakland, and even seen videos of it, but I’d never seen it in person before. The people closest to the dancers reacted with smiles, applause and placed crumpled up dollars into the tip hat that made its way around as the show ended.
By the time the cops stepped on our train, the three dancers had divvied up their cash, and left, having either raised enough money for the day, or likely hopped off in search of the next performance. The police, realizing there was little reason to delay the train further, shuffled off the train and the doors finally closed. We were back on track to San Francisco.
A man next to me called out, “You called the cops because some kids were dancing? What did you hope to accomplish?”
The woman responded that it was illegal for them to take over the train like that and that it had bothered her.
The man asked another question, “Did you want to see them get arrested?”
I started talking with him about how ridiculous the situation was. How was calling the police the best solution to her problem? And what exactly was her problem?
We talked about how being uncomfortable in a public setting like this was far healthier and more positive than it could possibly be disturbing. We talked about how it’s alright to be around people who come from different places, do different things, and are different than you. Better yet, it’s important. If this woman wasn’t up for that kind of experience all she had to do was pop in her headphones or better yet, take an UBER. That is her privilege.
But the situation brought up a handful of more questions and my mind couldn’t let them go.
Questions like, what would an arrest do to the life of a young black man and his future? Why is it that the police are called over an everyday occurrence on the train? Was this an act of ignorance or was it implicit racism? And the one that really stuck with me: what is our responsibility as white people, to consider the real life consequences of dialing up the police?
At the time of this incident on the train, the murders of Philando Castle and Alton Sterling, and the shooting of Charles Kinsey, all at the hands of the police sworn to protect us, had been witnessed nationwide and were fresh in the minds of people riding BART that day.
Seven years ago, just a few screechy stops from where our train currently rested was Fruitvale station. On that very platform Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a policeman.
Despite the unforgettable recent and historic results of police interacting with black men, someone had decided that bringing them into a safe, nonviolent situation, was the single best way to resolve it. Someone had decided that a bit of discomfort in a public setting was worth the very real possibility of young black men having their life courses altered for good.
A few months ago I saw a policeman talking with a homeless man who had stolen a sandwich from Starbucks. When I offered to pay for the stolen sandwich, the officer said no, it was too late. I listened as he talked to the homeless man sitting at a bus stop, who continued to ask if he could leave. Despite not being under arrest and having already received his citation, the officer would physically push him back to his seat every time he tried to stand up, because the lecture hadn’t concluded. The officer was critical of the man’s life choices and was chastising his choice to pay for the vodka he had in his bag rather than food.
As minutes passed and he wasn’t allowed to get up, nor was he under arrest, the man rightfully became more agitated.
When I came home I was upset and talked with a friend, who spends her days as a social worker. She told me that police aren’t trained in proper conflict resolution, so when she’s called to a situation with police and one of her clients, it becomes her responsibility to mediate and problem solve in ways that police aren’t trained to react.
Is it our our responsibility to think twice before calling the police?
Simply put, the answer is yes.
Despite our president recently addressing the issue head-on, efforts made to release footage of police shootings sooner than before, and front page news coverage when another police shooting happens, police aren’t changing the way they react to black men overnight.
This isn’t an issue of disrespecting police or black lives versus blue lives, nor does this mean that police are inherently bad. This is an issue of understanding the weight of your decision. There are times and situations where calling police is your best choice, and there are times where there might be a better way to handle it.
I recently read an article that referenced Stop The Killing, an organization started by an ex-gang member to document police killings in America. The founder, Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, uses a police radio scanner to track nearby conflicts as they escalate. He raced to the scene of Alton Sterling’s shooting, to film it with his cellphone.
Black people in America live with a different reality than white people in America. The statistics behind this reality are that black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers.
That’s the reason why black children are taught how to act when they are pulled over and as heartbreaking as it is, it’s the reason why Ta-nehisi Coates explains to his son, “…the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.”
As a white teenager I was repeatedly told not to wear a hood while driving by my father. Though I couldn’t understand it at the time, I know now that he didn’t not want a police officer to confuse me with a person I was not–a black man. I realize that removing my hood when interacting with police is my white privilege. When regular and brilliant, young and old black men interact with police, they can’t simply just remove their hood. This implicitly affects how police react to them.
In 2016, when police are called, despite the context of the original reason, there is legitimate reason to fear for black lives. If Black Lives truly Matter, we owe it to the black men around us, those with families of their own, who have brothers, sisters, daughters, and sons–who all need them to stay alive, to consider what’s really at stake before dialing 911.