I listened to a podcast recently by Dead Reckoning Radio which discussed the recent police shootings which I am sure my readers (all two of you) will have at least caught wind of if you’re not already sloshing around in the coverage of weekly shootings like the rest of us. The discussion of the shooting begins somewhere around the 50th minute, but after about 9 minutes, Dr. Mattson makes a comment on the Philando Castile shooting during the cast that I wrestled with before finally disagreeing with:
I am a white male. What are the odds that I get shot six times in that scenario? The Black Lives Matter crowd, as extreme as they can be, painting a picture of “cops are all racist and out to kill black people,” but that’s the element of truth here (that Dr. Mattson wouldn’t be shot at a traffic stop because he’s white and not black) and that’s the cultural problem we have to face. There is zero chance that a cop shoots me six times when I inform him that I’m carrying concealed when he pulls me over in the car. Zero chance. This guy’s dead. It really did happen. What is going on here?
I enjoy Dead Reckoning’s podcast and recommend it, so I do not want for this post to come off as an angry rant against what was said or Dr. Mattson in particular, especially since I agreed with so much that was said to which the above block quote doesn’t do justice. I, with the hosts of the podcast, do not believe there needs be racial divisions, but I am not so oblivious as to deny that there are some going on.
To address my issue with what Dr. Mattson said and speak into the racial tension and cop-killing and national unrest, I have an anecdote regarding my race and a run-in with an officer of the law. I know you may be thinking, “An anecdote isn’t an argument, man.” To which I respond with a reminder to see the title of this post. You also might be thinking, “you can’t compare your experience to that of a black person because you’re white, and may I add, you despicable slime.” To which I offer a hearty, “screw your exclusivity of victimization” and also “you’ve kind of hit on the point.”
By “you’ve kind of hit on the point,” I mean that, if the narrative framework of “racial inequity in treatment at traffic stops” is true, then my whiteness should be a considerable edge when it comes to police interactions. However, I found that to not be true in the case of my first traffic citation and I believe it had very much to do with my appearance. There is some build up, so I’ll ask you to bear with me.
Last year on Halloween night, I was driving back home at dusk through a bad side of town that I do not usually frequent. I came to a red light immediately behind a sheriff’s car and thought that was not a good place to be on such a night so busy for the police. Thinking he might get a call to go anywhere at anytime, I moved over to the lane to his right after crossing the intersection and, because I was not familiar with that side of town, failed to see the sign that said the “right lane must turn right.” For reasons that cause me to still blame urban planning for some of the episode, the lane does not actually terminate at the point of the first right turn but continues on to a second right turn several tens of yards ahead before finally terminating. I was too worried about my behavior around the police officer beside me to notice such things and, in a cruelly ironic turn of events, my defensive driving almost wrecked me and earned me a ticket.
By the time I noticed that the lane ended, I was a few tens of feet from a three parked cars and a telephone pole close to the roadside. In an effort to avoid running off the road and (perhaps fatally) into these things, I checked my mirrors and made the decision that, since I might not be able to stop in time and I had nearly passed the right turn and might fishtail into the parked vehicles if I tried, I would brake as much as possible and then try to get back over into the left land behind the police officer’s car. It was a tight maneuver that got me somewhat close to the back of the police officer’s car, but not close enough that I would hit him if he decided to brake. I know this for a fact because within two seconds of completing the maneuver, the officer did slam on his brakes and I was able to do the same without ever hitting the officer’s car and without causing a collision with the car that was approaching behind me. The officer got over into the turn lane and then got behind me so he could pull me over.
I had never been pulled over before, but was not super concerned. I had heard that people are often let off for their first offense with a warning and that my situation might just be the cop wanting to make sure I was sober (I was), that our cars were okay (not a scratch), and that I was okay (shaken up but perfectly fine). That is why I was caught off guard when the officer came to my car and with an obviously angry and condescending tone asked, “Now, which of the things you just did do you think I should give you a ticket for?” I was unprepared and only stuttered out that I was unsure of what he should or could give me a ticket for because I didn’t know what he was referring to specifically. He then proceeded to tell me what I was thinking and what I had tried to do. He told me that I had thought that I could get in the turn lane, outrun him, and then get over in front of him at the last second to cut him off. Now, being that I didn’t know it was a terminating turn lane I had gotten into, that characterization was untrue. What’s more, I found it rather insulting to my own intelligence that he thought I was stupid enough to try such a thing in full knowledge that the person I was trying it on WAS A POLICE OFFICER.
Anyway, all this to say, I got a ticket for following too closely (though I can only be considered to have been doing so for about three seconds at most). I plead not guilty and then later changed my plea on the belief that the situation would ultimately be a bench trial with the word of a trained cop against some punk kid’s testimony because there was no rear dash-cam with which the officer could have taped the actual event, only the part where I was pulled over and issued the citation. Though, for months I was defiant, believing that I was unjustly accused because the written citation completely glazed over the fact that the conditions were brought on by my trying to prevent another (potentially fatal) collision and that my decision successfully avoided all possible collisions, I rescinded my plea and entered a plea of guilty because I figured the trouble wasn’t worth the probable heartache. As the probate judge and my public representative both raised their eye brows with a laughing smile, saying “that’ll do it” upon reading that I had followed a cop too closely, I stood silent and bit my tongue from exclaiming, “well, to be fair, a jolly lot more happened than the citation explains!”
But, now that I have concluded the self-pitying and airing of my personal grievances which I thank you for sitting through, I would like to come to my point of how this relates to Dr. Mattson’s statement and the public outrage going around. The officer caught a glimpse of me when he maneuvered to get behind me and pull me over. He caught a glimpse of me in the mirror as he approached my car. His gruff declaration and mischaracterization of what I had tried to do makes me think that he had been watching my behavior the whole time up to the incident. And with all of this information, I remember him approaching my car cautiously, stopping behind my window at a negative angle to my person, near my blind spot as one might a person they were suspect of being unpredictable or potentially armed. I can only assume that he saw my sloppy dress of sweat pants and a hoodie, my (at that time) past-the-shoulder-length hair and long beard. I imagine he saw the dent in the side of my car as he approached as well as the exterior dirtiness of it. I am sure he thought I was some punk kid, possibly on drugs or a regular user given my appearance (it wouldn’t be the first time someone had thought so, though I have never used any such substance), wreckless and flippant. And after further accusations to my person not listed here which I tried to calmly rebut, and which was not calmly reciprocated but caused him to forget the cautious angle and move around closer to my person in the car, I saw a back-up car pull up to the scene and a second officer get out. This officer watched me from a distance the whole time the other officer was at his car writing me up.
I am just putting this all out there to say that my “whiteness,” accusedly coming to me in the form of a “privilege” was trumped by the weight of the rest of my appearance. On similar occasions, I have had cops do a double take when they saw me running for exercise around town and after dark. I had a bandanna wrapped around my head, a hoodie, and a long beard. The officer’s double take caused me to stop running at that hour for a while. Granted, the officer who pulled me over that Halloween night was angry and thought I had hit his car, that I was some punk kid who tried to cut-off a cop. Granted, the extra officer who showed up during our conversation might have been there due to traffic stop protocol and not for any reason of appearance. Granted, none of this is an argument, but let me ask you:
Do you think that the officer might have been more understanding if I had been a well dressed kid, clean cut, on a nicer side of town?
Do you think that my recreational-drug-user appearance helped things or hurt things?
I can tell you that I could have easily escalated the situation into a confrontation if I had been careless and as flippant as he suspected me of being at first. The officer was that cautious and quickly ratcheted up to very angry. One of the only reasons things went so well, I think, was because once I started reasonably and calmly responding to the officer’s accusations and condescension, he realized that I was too aware to be drugged and too calm to be purposefully antagonistic.
I do not know what purpose this anecdote actually serves except as evidence of why I think Dr. Mattson may have been wrong on this one. I am sure that my whiteness could have contributed somewhat in someway to the outcome, but I can say with great likelihood that my appearance — between my hair, the beard, and my car — gave the officer a negative opinion of me despite my skin color. I do not pretend to know the exact conditions of the recent shootings or think that my situation is perfectly comparable to theirs. I actually think that the Philando Castile shooting sounds very sketchy, but I want to hear the truth as much as anyone else regardless of whom it may convict. I just hope that my story, though it turned out comparable better, can in some way help to show how race doesn’t always have everything to do with it and that traffic stops with white people don’t necessarily end with the swirling of wine glasses and very English laughing intermittently broken up as we choke on grey poupon.
This is of course to go completely without mentioning the violent-crime statistic disparity between blacks and other ethnic groups, the fatherlessness factor, and all of the other comparable data between ethnic cultures, of which much has been said and little heeded. Are we all in this together without need for racial division? Yes. Are there still roadblocks in the way of us living like that? Of course, but they probably aren’t what we are currently labeling them and we aren’t currently in an environment where raising such a point is considered acceptable.