There’s no point pretending that when many black people encounter white police officers in the US, the general feeling is one of uncomfortable nervousness on the part of black people. The reasons are many, but let’s just say that there has been a long history of very unpleasant encounters. For me, the uneasy feeling is one to which I can relate, not only from encounters in the US, but also from several in the UK. I can also relate a similarly uneasy feeling from having encountered black policemen (I use men descriptively, as they have featured in my situations) in majority-black countries, like Barbados or Jamaica. In many ways, the police are more menacing to ordinary citizens than seem warranted by the general state of public behaviour. I can understand how tensions would rise if these encounters were in adversarial settings, but they often come from common place situations.
This feeling is often not changed if the person concerned is innocent, or if he or she holds a position or social standing that should make them feel more secure. Many black people have developed or heard of a list of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ when it comes to interaction with the police. The dos include various demonstrations of respect for the officer; a willingness to listen; a reluctance to challenge or argue; an emphasis on being truthful. The don’ts involve aggressive postures; unwillingness to comply; fleeing from the scene; abusive language. For many people, this means putting themselves into what they sense as submissive roles, but understand that it is for survival in a situation, not a life style choice.
But the behaviour and interactions are not taking place in a vacuum. For example, different people have different reactions to contact, based on culture and other social bases. So, the act of being touched by another person, for example–for whatever reason–can evoke a stronger reaction from some than it would from some others. I’m simplifying, but it’s a point worth noting. So, a touch on the shoulder and a “Move along” by a police officer can be a spark for some, and nothing for others. The jabbing finger may create a hostile reaction from anyone.
But, the encounters need not be grim. If they are not, however, that does not change the overall experience, but it can help put the grim encounters into context. Many black people have had quite positive encounters with the police, where they were treated well, even surprisingly so given that they had actually transgressed. That, somehow, does not change the general trepidation.
On Saturday, while getting my little daughter to her play date in northwest DC, the mother (who happens to be a black Jamaican) of the other child and I were talking on the street, when along came a police car from Montgomery County, Maryland. We both wondered why he was stopping in front of her house. I looked at my car, parked across the street, and immediately wondered if my Maryland licence plate had caused the officer to notice me as I tried to find my route from home and now serve me with some summons. The young white officer approached us. He asked the mother if she as Ms. X; she said she was. He then went on to explain that an officer had found a bag with documents from her firm in the bushes in a Maryland suburb. The bag and its contents were damp. She had been unaware that any of her colleagues had lost a bag and documents, and was immediately concerned that the colleague might have been robbed or his car broken into. The officer did not know, but merely wanted to hand over the bag. After inspecting the contents of the bag, my acquaintance was taken by the fact that the officer seemed to have gone an extra yard to resolve the issue, and asked if he had a card (a business reaction, I think), but noted the officer’s badge and his name there. She was very grateful.
The officer left, and like me, took a while to find his way around the neighbourhood and back out to the main road. So, there we had two black people–both of Jamaican origin–looking down at the bag left by the officer. What was there to say? Nothing really. But, in a quick conversation, we appreciated that we had been more concerned than indifferent when the officer had arrived.
I related the story to some black friends at church, and we all laughed when we agreed that they too would have been full of trepidation had they been in the same situation.
I would love to think that our chance encounters with law enforcement officers should not cause us to be fearful. So, I have to be concerned that I am part of a body of people who feel nervousness, even fear, rather than another emotion when such encounters occur. It’s pitiful but also pathetic that such a situation has developed.