Late last week, a black man named Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by police officers in Staten Island, New York. He was suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes. The arresting officers claim he resisted arrest.
If you are a glutton for punishment, you might browse the comment sections of any number of web articles, blogs or Facebook posts about either of these incidents and you will hear many, many, many white people saying the same thing.
"Well why didn't he/she just cooperate with the officer?"
"Even if the officer is wrong, you only make things worse for yourself if you resist!"
"Why ask questions and demand explanations? Just follow the officer's orders!"
You see . . . we don't get it.
In our world, the cops are the good guys. They come sort out the neighbors when the music is too loud and give anti-drug talks at middle schools. The most unpleasant interaction most of us have with them is when we get pulled over for speeding. In that situation, we all know that sappy sweet friendliness is the best play. It's the only approach that has any hope of avoiding a ticket, which is the worst outcome the majority of us ever experience with police.
That said, if by some odd chance any of us ever had a police officer ask us to produce identification, or, God forbid, place our hands behind our back, we would do so immediately with the full confidence that this whole misunderstanding would soon be rectified. Heck, in a few minutes we'll probably all get a good laugh out of how the well intentioned cop got the wrong idea! No hard feelings Officer, have a great night!
That's what makes stories like the aforementioned so frustrating to white people. Sure we feel bad for Mr. Garner and his family, and sure we feel bad for Professor Ore, but gosh darn it, why didn't they just cooperate?
You see, what white people like me don't understand, is that black people - young black males in particular - have a fundamentally different perspective on interaction with the police. For young black men, police are not a problem solving resource to be called upon for help, they are something to fear. No matter how far back you go in U.S. history, be it 'Reconstruction era' South or modern day New York City, you will find stories of black men and boys suffering assault, battery and even death at the hands of law enforcement.
As a white dude, the prospect of police interaction represents little more than an inconvenience in the worst case: maybe traffic school if I'm really unlucky. But if I were black, I'd have a whole lifetime of frightening anecdotes to inform my fear. Not to mention the stories of all my friends and male family members reinforcing the idea that contact with cops, legitimately founded or otherwise, leads to physical pain, incarceration and death for people who look like me.
Cooperation as the best play is not automatic when you consider the prospect of being brutally arrested, interrogated (including being sodomized with a broomstick) and falsely convicted for hard time or death. If these are the prospects than run through your mind when you see the flashing lights, you will fearfully seek to avoid that contact. You will not want to answer questions, you will not want to identify yourself and you will not put your hands behind your back and wait to be rendered defenseless.
You will not!
Instead, you might want the officers to explain themselves. You might stall and plead your case. You might become visibly anxious and feel threatened when 'backup' arrives and positions himself behind you. These may be your last moments as a free person after all. Should you go quietly and have faith in due process, or should you try to escape? I know what I'd do.
I'm not saying that resisting arrest is the best play. I'm saying it's a rational, historically validated act of desperation, motivated by well-founded fear. One need not be guilty to feel that fear.
Young and black is enough.