Every four years America rallies behind their athletes as the best of us compete in the Olympic Games. The best of the best come back with Olympic medals. These athletes proudly wear the flag on their chest and represent their country. They come back home as heroes.
For the black man it is different.
They come back as…..a black man.
I was awakened by a phone call from a four time Olympic Medalist and World Champion. He is a young black man who has been afforded many opportunities often not shown to most people, especially black men.
He has traveled the world. Been on TV shows. Had movies made about him. Books written about him. Rang the stock exchange bell. Graced many magazine covers…just to name a few.
We will call him Rob.
Rob is now happily married to a woman and is a fantastic father to a young black boy. A young black boy who is happy, giggly, beautiful and amazing.
After reading and hearing more and more on George Floyd and his murder at the hands of police officers, tensions were high for many Americans.
As Rob was walking his dog in his high-end neighborhood, he saw a police officer whom he’d seen many times before. Rob and the police officer had never had a conversation, but they’d waived at each other in passing as many strangers do.
This night, Rob had barely made it out of his driveway when the police officer saw him. The officer drove past Rob and then made a U-turn at the very next intersection. Rob could sense the officer pulling up and immediately became, scared, nervous, tense, reflective and angry. The fact that this was all happening at night time and it was quite dark only heightened Rob’s emotions.
The officer rolled down the window and asked, “Is everything alright?” As Rob tried to process the question being asked of him, his main thought was…..don’t scare him.
Even though the officer was the one with the gun and targeted Rob while he was walking around his own neighborhood, Rob felt it was his responsibility to make sure the officer did not feel threatened.
Rob answered the officer, “Yes. “ At this point, all Rob could think was…how do I mentally and emotionally unarm this man?
The officer responded, “Okay great, what kind of puppy are you walking?’
Rob responded, “It’s a French bulldog, and he is six years old, this is as big as he will get.” How do I disarm him? How do I disarm him?
The officer responded, “Awesome. I have a yorkie.”
Rob replied uninterested, but feeling the need to disarm the officer, “Oh wow, that’s definitely a manageable sized dog, pretty easy to handle huh?” Make him comfortable. Is he comfortable? Don’t forget to smile…that makes them more comfortable.
The officer smiled. “Yup, totally manageable! Well…you have a good day.”
Rob smiled and replied, “You too officer.”
Before pulling off, the officer asks one more time, “Are you sure everything is okay?”
Rob walks away, “Yes, everything is fine.” Thank God this is over! What just happened?!
I Don’t See the Problem
While some may say, the officer was just being nice or trying to show that he is a good cop, or just wanted to talk…he didn’t understand there were two conversations happening.
What the officer did: He randomly stopped Rob while he was peacefully walking his dog in his own neighborhood at NIGHT. Why? Is it normal protocol to randomly stop someone casually taking a walk in his or her neighborhood? Do you understand the fear that you can cause by [not so] randomly selecting him?
What the officer said: “Is everything okay?” Why wouldn’t everything be okay officer? Was there any evidence of a wrongdoing or anything out of place? If there was something [or someone] out of place, what was your next step? How was Rob to know that he did not ‘fit the description’ of a crime in the area and these were to be his last minutes. He would never see his son grow up. He would never be able to kiss his wife again. How would he know if this walk/jog would be his last…Ahmaud Arbery.
Rob just wanted to make it home safely.
What Rob said: “Pretty easy to handle, huh?” Rob spent most of this conversation simply trying to make sure he made it home to his family. His recurring thoughts were, “how can I disarm this man with an emotional gun pointed at me?” He thought of everything he had ever learned and knew he had to find a way to relate to this man.
Rob knew that in America, being a 6’4 black man, his physicality is seen as a threat even when faced with a person holding an actual weapon. In reality, the act of asking a police officer a simple question could have ended with a bullet in the head……Randy Evans.
Rob just wanted to make it home safely.
Even though this interaction clearly affected Rob, this was not the first time he has had the ‘black experience’ with a police officer.
It is not a coincidence that Rob carries autographed cards with him displaying his Olympic medals in his car at all times.
Rob drives a very nice car and has lived in very nice neighborhoods much of his adult life and is often pulled over for DWB. Driving While Black.
The first time he was pulled over after becoming an Olympic athlete, the officer gave no explanation. The officer simply barked commands, demanding Rob remove himself from the vehicle and demanded a(n) [illegal] search of the vehicle.
Since Rob knew he carried his autographed cards at all times, he obliged. Upon opening the trunk, the officer saw Rob’s Olympic clothes and autographed cards and immediately realized who Rob was.
“Oh my goodness!!, You are Rob…The Olympian (not just a regular black man in a nice car)!”
Without further questioning, the officer closed the trunk, handed Rob his registration, told him he was free to go and wished him a nice day.
Ever since that day, Rob always carried autographed cards and/or Olympic paraphernalia.
What shaped Rob’s understanding of how to handle and disarm officers, like many black men, were his interactions with police as a youth.
Rob’s first memory of a police officer came after going to see a movie with friends at the age of 17.
Upon leaving the theater, Rob and his friends got into his car. Apparently, they took too long to pull out of their parking spot. The police arrived and without being given a reason, they were pulled out of the car.
While Rob and his friends were detained, the officers constantly called them “animals” and the n-word, among many other colorful terms. Eventually, they were let go and told to “Get the hell out of here you f-ing animals!”
From that moment, Rob realized that it was his job to disarm situations with officers and make them feel comfortable or he would continue to see this type of harassment.
But why? Why was it his job, even as a child, to disarm a grown up, nonetheless a grown up with specific training to disarm hostile situations.
Most police officers are good. The majority of police officers signed up to serve and protect. Most police officers do a good job, trust me I know, my dad is one of them.
In reality, this officer very well may have thought he was just striking up a conversation with a person he had seen in the neighborhood a few times. He may have wanted to bring a level of community and humanity to his badge, as he knows this is a turbulent time.
However, his privilege did not allow him to realize the fear that he struck in the heart of this young black man.
For those who do not have a television set, social media or a newspaper, there is a very simple answer to that question……..this is America. But here are a few more reasons that he might have been afraid.
…….and many more
In looking at the recent history of injustices to people who look like Rob, America tells him that he should not:
- Go jogging
- Relax at home
- Ask for help after a car crash
- Have a cell phone
- Leave a party
- Play loud music
- Sell CD’s
- Walk from the corner store
- Play cops and robbers
- Got to church
- Walk home with Skittles
- Hold a hair brush
- Get a traffic ticket
- Lawfully carry a weapon
- Breakdown with car problems
- Shop at Walmart
- Read a book in your car
- Be a 10 year old walking with a grandparent
- Ask a cop a question
- Take out a wallet
Some will say, “Well, what do you want officers to do? He was just being nice.” “He was was a dog enthusiast and wanted to talk about it. What’s the big deal?”
First of all, it was nighttime and dark. Did the offer see the tiny black French bull dog? Or did the officer see the owner? Which is more likely to have prompted him to turn around? Either way being approached by anyone at night can be stressful and scary.
If the officer was genuinely interested in having a conversation with a stranger, at night, about their dogs…he could have led with that question.
Second, understand that by leading with the more probing and possibly combative “Is everything alright here?”, coming from a police officer would put many people on edge.
If you are interested in the dog, lead with that.
The officer could have considered waiting until he saw Rob in the future, possibly in the light of day.
At the end of the day, literally and metaphorically, it is incumbent on the majority to realize there is a major problem, but also realize the way their actions can affect others.
Personally, and call me naive, I do think the officer thought he was trying to show he was one of the good ones. He failed to realized in the same way he had been inundated with the details of George Floyd and countless other black men, so too had this young black man. In the way that the details of George Floyd made this officer want to spread positivity; those same details would make many young black men fearful for their lives. The way the officer saw this as a conversation to prove something positive; this random conversation, in the dark, was threatening to Rob.
The two worlds that America occupies is complex when it should not be. There is no reason a young man should have to think of every little step or possible misstep for fear of being killed.
What would have happened if Rob’s justifiable fear caused him to run away from the officer? Would that have been probable cause enough for the officer to give chase? The officer likely would not have been able to catch him on foot because; after all he is an Olympic athlete.
Once the officer realized he couldn’t chase him on foot, would he use his taser? Maybe. Maybe not. Or would he do what many officers have done and shoot his gun?
What would the hashtag be this time? #WalkingWhileOlympic #RIPOlympicHero #BeingBlackAndOlympic or would we try to get more creative than that?
Would the news find pictures of the one night he had a drink at a party and looked less than prestigious? Would they find a picture from 10 years ago when he was dancing with a girl and paint a less than perfect picture of him?
At the end of the day….
He just wanted to make it home safely. But, what if?????
Until next time,