Earlier this week at 1 PM, I stood outside my home in observance of the 4.5 minute tribute to Michael Brown. I wasn’t able to join my Northside neighbors a few miles up the street so I stood alone on my block in the freezing sleet. It was definitely uncomfortable, but not just because I was cold and wet.
It was uncomfortable because I had my hands in the air and that was probably the very first time ever I have ever assumed that position. Or thought about intentionally raising both my hands into the air other than in jest.
I’ve been pulled over for traffic violations more than a dozen times in the past 30 years. I’ve never once been asked to step outside of my car. I’ve never thought twice about reaching for my wallet or into my glove box for paperwork. I’ve never worried about anything beyond the fee on the tickets. I’ve been pulled over when I didn’t have my license or proof of insurance with me and no worries. I’ve never been asked to allow someone to inspect my car or the contents of my trunk. I’ve never had a passenger questioned or been asked to produce ID for any reason beyond a ticket.
I’ve never been questioned by the police. I’ve never been accused of a crime or suspected of shoplifting or asked to let my bags be inspected. I’ve never been followed by security or had to explain my presence in a retail space.
I’ve never worried about calling the police. I call, they come. Sometimes quickly and sometimes not so quickly. When they come, they treat me with basic respect and perhaps only a tad bit of condescension. I’m extra fortunate that my partner works with police officers every day so I am well versed in the nuances required to get my needs met, but I’m aware that most of those nuances stem from the facts that I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged cis-gender woman and also because my partner is often recognized by the responding officers.
I’ve never felt afraid of a police officer. Even when the FBI came to my apartment at 7 AM one morning to surprise me with an interview for hours about my limited contact with a man who was (unknown to me) suspected of ties to the IRA. I was not afraid even though I knew they opened a (slim) file on me – because I had done nothing wrong and assumed that was enough. I was confident enough later that day to swap stories with my grad school colleagues – apparently, a visit from the FBI trumps a visit from the Secret Service in lily-white LSU circles. Who knew? Me, I guess. We were so naive that these things were badges of honor.
I’ve attended protests, rallies, marches and all sorts of political events. I’ve never had to worry about being arrested or obeying a police officer or complying. I am aware that I am being observed AND protected in these situations. I exercise my privilege by demanding the police protect and serve the participants in the Pittsburgh Dyke Trans March and I’m damn well aware of that. And chagrined, even though I’d do it again. It may be an indignity and frustrating to deal with this red tape, but I never worry about the tape throttling me.
To be fair, I’ve never been in a situation where I should have been arrested or searched or pepper sprayed. Or shot. My worst crimes were underage drinking and speeding. But I shoplifted when I was a kid. I was only afraid of being caught by my parents, not shot by a cop. And young people of color doing these same things in the same circumstances have suffered whereas I simply would have been chastised and sent home.
I’ve never had a conversation with my parents about how to conduct myself if I was pulled over. I knew to be compliant, but that I had some wriggle room with being indignant and knowing my rights. I have always had the luxury of being on somewhat of an equal footing because the likelihood of an officer pulling a gun on me for a speeding violation is minimal even if I forgot my driver’s license at home or had a broken tail light. I’m more in danger of someone impersonating a police officer pulling me over (as a female) than I am of a police encounter going badly.
I haven’t earned the right to not put my hands up because I’m generally a law-abiding citizen. I haven’t earned the right to trust the police because I’m a good person who deserves protection. I haven’t earned anything.
I’m entitled to these things by virtue of being born white in the United States of America.
The difference now is that I recognize that while I personally am unlikely to experience violence at the hands of law enforcement, I am harmed by a society where my neighbors and friends are experiencing racially motivated violence. I am not safer, I am not more secure and I am not immune to the consequences of grand juries refusing to indict police officers whose actions kill people of color.
Hands up, Pittsburgh. We can’t breathe.
UPDATE: There is a lot of discussion about the use of the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite smothering voices of people of color whose experiences in response to the decision about the death of Eric Garner should be amplified. I am likely guilty of that with this post. I am unsure if I should remove the post or leave it up. So I’ll leave it up while I give it some thought. Is exploring my own learning curve silencing others? Am I actually able to reach people who might otherwise remain indifferent? I’m unsure.