A Difference of Experience.
In 2006, in early May, I was arrested for drunk driving. When I used to drink, I drove drunk a great deal. I believed I was “good at it”. And, compared to merely occasional drinkers, maybe I was. After all, I never had an accident and I frequently drove with blood alcohol levels that were dangerously high. The day I was arrested, my BAC was 0.19%. More on that later.
I have to say, my experience being arrested for drunk driving wasn’t terrible, as such things go. I had had two bottles of wine and some bourbon. I don’t know how much. Over the course of several hours. I hadn’t been intending to go anywhere that evening, but my then-girlfriend called me and asked me to come over. So I hopped in my car and off I went. That’s not to place any blame on her: it was 100% my decision and my error. If I had told her I couldn’t come over because I was drunk, there’d have been hell to pay, but she would have told me not to come over.
I made it almost all the way to her home, about 20 miles away. I had taken the highway exit near her home, about half a mile away, when the lights came on behind me. I quickly lit a cigarette to try to hide the smell. The cop, already in my window, said, “That won’t help.” Someone had called about my car weaving. The officer asked if I’d been drinking, and I said I’d had three drinks. He asked me out of the vehicle and told me to stand on one foot. I said, “I doubt I could do that if I hadn’t been drinking.”
I couldn’t. He told me, “I’m going to take you into custody for driving while intoxicated tonight.” I said, “That sounds about right.” The officer made an obvious point of sizing me up, and asking me if I was ok, and calm. I said I was. He told me to hold my hands out, and he cuffed me in front, rather than behind my back. Then he led me to the car, and asked me, “Are you ok? Not going to try anything on me?” I said something like, “Certainly not, sir.” He said, “I’m going to have you sit up front. I’ve got my dog in the back.” Indeed he did. A huge and frightening German Shepherd.
He emptied my pockets. Then he asked me, “Do you have any cash, your bail is going to be about $300.” I said I didn’t. He said, “I’ll drive you through an ATM so you can get some cash.” It occurred to me then, as now, that perhaps he was intimating at a bribe, but on the balance of things, I think not. I got the cash, and he tucked it into my wallet. Then, he took me to jail where I was processed. About two hours later, I was brought into a small room. I asked if I needed a lawyer, and the person there (a different officer) said, “You can have one if you want, but it’s late and they probably won’t get here until morning. If you want to wait…”
I didn’t. I was guilty and I knew it. I took the breathalyzer, more than two hours after I was arrested. A few hours after that I was given my things back and released on my own. My car was towed and I was informed I would not be allowed to pick it up for 24 hours. Overall, this was a reasonably pleasant experience as miserable experiences go. I paid several fines and fees. I attended a victim’s impact panel and 12 or 16 alcohol counseling sessions over the next six months. I didn’t quit drinking for almost two more years.
Does anyone believe that my experience would have been the same if I were black, or latino? Does anyone believe that I would have had the option to be cuffed in front, sit in front, be driven to an ATM? Have a pleasant conversation with the officer? Even have been given the opportunity to converse with the officer? Obviously, I don’t know anything about that particular cop. But I doubt that my experience is typical for non-white offenders.
Here’s what I think: Some cops are racist assholes, but lots of cops are simply scared shitless every time they put on the uniform and fire up the lights. They’re told their job is dangerous. And it certainly involves a lot of difficult and dangerous situations, though the numbers I’ve seen suggest it isn’t among the most dangerous careers. I generally respect the cops I’ve encountered, and appreciate that they do difficult work, and take risks. And that fear drives many to act rashly.
When that rashness and fear are combined with institutionalized racism, entrenched poverty, and societal fears about the supposed dangers presented by “threatening” black men, it makes for a cocktail that ends in death for many, many innocent people. And many people who may not be innocent, but still didn’t deserve to die. And the people that suffer the gravest consequences of that systemic and specific violence are disproportionately young black men.
While I truly wish we would see consequences meted upon the individual perpetrators of police violence, I don’t believe the systemic problem can be solved that way. We need to change our culture that confines generations of people of color in poverty. We need to demilitarize the police. We need to address the gun culture which makes police fear that every time they approach a suspect they’ll be faced with a deadly weapon.
But most of all. First and most of all, we need to listen to the voices of those within the communities so often beset by this violence and brutality. We need to recognize the truth of their experience. We need to accept that it will mean that we look very closely at ourselves and how we are complicit in the culture of dismissal, and degradation; in the perpetuation of a culture that devalues black lives. And we need to follow those who have been fighting this fight their whole lives, rather than trying to lead now that we’ve finally arrived on well-tread ground.