Being Black in America

Today Professor Steve Locke at Massachusetts College of Art and Design posted an account of being stopped by police officers on his way to lunch.  It graphically illustrates a side of interacting with the agents of the state of which the privileged (middle class white people like me) are generally ignorant, and that makes the account moving and difficult to read.  There is something wrong with a system in which a law-abiding professional can conclude that he will probably be killed by the agents of the state to which he pays his taxes.  He was stopped because he “fit the description” of the perpetrator of a recently reported crime, but the description was stupidly broad: “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat.”  Gee, a thick jacket in Boston in December, with a head covering of the most common construction worn by Americans in winter?  How many other black Bostonians did they stop today with a description like that?

As a member of the privileged group, I recognize that my duty is to shut up and listen, and to attempt to understand situations which I will likely never encounter myself.  One aspect of the account continues to confuse me, however, and I post it here in the hopes that some kind soul might enlighten the ignorance of someone who would like to understand.

After being stopped and asked for identification, which he retrieved from his pocket only after asking for permission (don’t want to look like you might be drawing out a weapon), Prof. Locke indicated his profession as a teacher.  When the police officer returned with his ID, he said that the woman who reported the crime would have to take a look at him.  At this point, Prof. Locke concluded that he was likely to die.  Here is his description:

It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die.  I am not being dramatic when I say this.  I was not going to get into a police car.  I was not going to present myself to some victim.  I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery.  I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially.  I knew this in my heart.  I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal.  This meant that I was going to resist arrest.  This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.

If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.

I can understand not wanting to entrust one’s fate to the squinty eyes of a white person who might take the line that “all black people look alike,” or worse, that black people should be punished collectively for the crimes of one.  And given the spate of police shootings of unarmed black men in this country, it is perfectly natural that a black man stopped by police would conclude that he was likely next on the list.  If you go with the police, you may be falsely accused of a crime that you did not commit, and you may even be falsely convicted (although the defense attorney would have the opportunity to call character witnesses, of the kind that Prof. Locke was hoping would walk by).  But even a false conviction for an attempted burglary does not come with a death sentence, especially in Massachusetts, which has abolished the death penalty.  But resisting arrest seems to me the fastest way to guarantee that one’s name will occur on the list of fatalities.  It would almost certainly involve actions that could be interpreted by police as life-threatening, and therefore they would be more likely to respond with lethal force.  Prof. Locke noted that the first police officer unsnapped his gun holster as soon as he greeted him.  The agents of the state wield lethal power of coercion, and if they decide, rightly or wrongly, that a person will be brought into detention, I can’t imagine a scenario in which that person can forcefully resist that power and survive.

It therefore seems to me to be preferable, as flawed as the justice system in this country is, to cooperate with police and attempt to secure a release before charging, or an acquittal in a trial, or an appeal to a false conviction.  Resisting arrest seems to me the decision in this case most likely to lead to death.

But, as I said, I’m ignorant due to my privilege, so what am I missing?  I’m not asking out of hostility, or to invalidate the account, or in any way to blame Prof. Locke for the ordeal that he went through today; I am simply asking in the hope that someone who better understands this chain of reasoning can fill me in.  If you, like me, are clueless and privileged in this matter, I’d ask that you kindly refrain from commenting, but if you understand what this is, the comments are open below, and I will be very grateful for your patience with me!


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