Police Antagonism and Walking While Black

The latest viral police profiling confrontation is a black man, Brandon McKean, getting stopped by a Michigan cop for walking with his hands in his pockets in freezing cold weather. McKean’s video adds another example to the multitude of stories that are coming to white people’s attention about how police profile, harass, and brutalize people of color. What’s different in this case is that the police department defended itself with a counter-video on Facebook, demonstrating that McKean edited his version to make himself appear in a good light.The introduction of new media technology, which started changing the game with videos and Rodney King in 1992, has escalated with social media today.

The police department’s Facebook post states that social media and videos go both ways. The post says that a suspected robber was casing a store so that “just walking around” was an issue. It also claims that the video vindicates the officer because it shows him politely explaining why he stopped McKean, and it shows McKean acting aggressively.

Videos, edited or otherwise, don’t prove anything. They are equally open to interpretation as an eye witness’s verbal story. Kurosawa’s masterpiece film Rashomon illustrates this issue of perspective, and so we have the phrase “Rashomon effect” to prove the point that perspective is partial, and even a film can’t make something objective. People who talk about the Rashomon effect miss the point that the film is not a neutral God’s-eye view of the story. If two people look at a random selfie on Facebook, they will see two different stories and likely make entirely different attributions – and that’s a still image, not a moving one.

In McKean’s case, regardless of how someone’s personal biases might frame the interpretation, the video proves nothing. It’s obvious to me what happened, but anyone who knows I’m a left-wing nutcase can dismiss my interpretation with a wave of the hand simply because they perceive I’m biased. So, then what do you do with it….

Perspective comes into play long before the video. Releasing videos only confirms what everyone wants to see. What I see is a bad script unfolding.

When a police officer stops a black man, it’s a meeting point in which two people act out an ugly institutionalized drama. The moment is not about the cop and the man. Those two people are often irrelevant. Regardless of how political lenses might frame the causes for this ugliness, no one can dispute the ugliness itself after the state of “race relations” from Ferguson. The script has got to be rewritten. While the nation works out the whys and wherefores, the script can be stopped easily at the point of confrontation, but that’s not happening. The ACLU and other rights organizations have attempted to rewrite the script. They have aggressively publicized what citizens “should” say when they are stopped by police. “Am I being detained?” If the answer is no, then citizens should leave politely. This part of the script is slowly taking hold due to protest training in Ferguson. People of color, black men in particular, learn this new script out of survival, even though the “politics of respectability” is no guarantee.

But what of the police? Right now, no one can dispute that emotions are high, from people of color and police alike, and no police officer stopping a black person should ignore that. But we permit them to. Walking away from the scene is an easy change that doesn’t require an Obama task force to put new policies into place. In McKean’s situation, this is all the officer had to do. If the officer was really “just doing his job,” then he should have continued to “just do his job.” He should simply have said, “Thank you,” or whatever it is officers say to someone they are not detaining. If there indeed was a suspected robber in the vicinity, the officer should have gone about the business of pursuing that criminal instead of justifying his actions to McKean. He protested too much. This defensiveness further offended McKean, increased tensions, and escalated the situation. And, to be clear, even if McKean had criminal intent and multiple counts of theft on his record, it still doesn’t matter. If McKean had asked, “Am I being detained?” and the officer had no knowledge of intent or no reason to arrest him then and there, then the officer had no business being there. So, my point is that this downward spiral occurs in enough other cases that the script itself is the problem.

Here’s the rub: White people have a double standard. We expect black people not to be offended, indignant, or aggressive when they are repeatedly and unjustifiably stopped. We expect them to be polite, back down, and walk away – again. In the multitude of videos, the aggressiveness we see is the rude language, the confrontational body posture, the thuggish behavior, the hoodie. We never look at the cop’s version of the hoodie, which is the uniform. It’s just their job. We never look at the cop’s version of the gang signs that they flash, which is in their radios, the way they communicate to each other, their language choices. We never look at their aggressive posture, which is how they lean forward, increase their height, and impose into another’s body space. Their aggressiveness is militaristic, subtle, and all subtly white. Then, when they’re given ground and permission to overt aggression and hostility by what we perceive as criminal thuggishness, we say it’s justified.

Next time, if you’re white, and you’re pulled over for a ticket, and your heart is racing, try to watch the officer’s behavior instead of just cowering down nervously. Then think of a random black man being questioned for walking down the street, for no reason, for the third time this year, with the very real possibility that the stop will end in jail time or death, for no reason other than making direct eye contact and asking a question.

Every college teacher knows that it’s easy to silence classroom chatter or manage a problem student simply by standing in front of the student’s desk. Nonverbal behavior is just that powerful and that controlling. Something as mild as looming can have that much impact.

If officers are supposed to protect and serve, to be role models for respectable behavior, and to be “better than those thugs” (whoops, there go my politics), then they should defuse and deescalate and be responsible instead of defensive when they don’t. The fact that many can’t and don’t, and that we as a white public don’t expect them to, and that we never talk about their aggressiveness, simply proves the degree to which racial prejudice is institutionalized in the very bodily behaviors of policing.

As I said up front in the beginning, this is not about any individual, good or bad. It is not about good cops just doing their jobs, or bad cops who ruin it for everyone. It is a statement about the way that bodies express institutions even without thinking about it. When body movements trigger brutality, the dance has to be re-choreographed.

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