I'm Not Afraid Of Cops

I'm Not Afraid Of Cops

A cop’s flashlight shined in my wincing eyes as I was questioned about my sobriety, about guns and drugs in the car. A police dog sniffed around the passenger door of my Mercury Sable. Chatter on the police radio was the night’s only sound. It was two in the morning. I was not afraid.

I was 20 and on my way home from my girlfriend’s house. It was a fifteen-mile drive, mostly through a wooded area with treacherous curves and – in the wee hours of the morning – flashing red lights at every intersection. I had failed to stop at one such light, breezing through it after a glance at the dead empty oncoming intersection. Not three seconds passed before red and blue police lights lit up the night and my legs turned to jelly at the prospect of a costly ticket. But I was not afraid.

The cop, a lean white man with an angular face, grilled me while checking my pupils for signs of drunkenness. I had had nothing to drink, had consumed no drugs, and had no weapons in my 2001 Sable. Again and again, the cop asked me how much I had had to drink that night. I told him I was sober, which wasn’t the answer he sought. His big ugly dog roamed around my car.

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“If you have drugs in the vehicle, you have to tell me,” the cop said. No more than five years my senior, the officer referred to me as “son.”

“I don’t have drugs, officer,” I said, my voice breaking not because I was scared, but because the stakes had been raised. Questions swirled in my head: What if the previous owner of my Sable had stashed a bunch of cocaine under the seats or in the trunk in some secret compartment? What if this car had been involved in a drug bust?

“This will be much easier for you if you tell me where the drugs are,” the cop said, finally pulling the flashlight away from my face. “Show me where you’re hiding the drugs and things will be much better for you in the long run. I promise.”

Again, I said I didn’t have any drugs and I did not use drugs (which, between you and me, was true). The cop opened up a new line of questioning. “Do you have weapons under the seat, son?” he said. I looked down as if to say, look for yourself. No, I don’t have weapons. This made the cop nervous; his hand moved toward the gun on his hip. I let go of the steering wheel and raised my hands to show I meant no harm, that I was utterly harmless. “Get your hands back on the wheel,” the officer snapped.

A long silence followed.

The cop sighed and tossed a ticket on my lap. Him and his dog went back to his cruiser and I drove home at a turtle’s pace. I was not afraid.

Six months had passed and I again found myself on the side of the road, shortly after midnight on a Saturday. I had gone bowling with my friends and watched a horror movie (maybe The Ring) before heading home on the empty streets of the Montgomery County, Maryland suburbs. I was doing 58 in a 35 MPH zone when a cop came out of nowhere and aggressively tailed me until I pulled over.

A chubby white kid no more than six months out of the academy, my man was jacked up. He talked a mile a minute, clearly agitated that he had to make this midnight stop. “Who the fuck are you, the motherfucking mayor or something?” he barked. I smirked, unsure of whether the red-cheeked, baby faced cop was making a joke. “What’s so funny, Mr. Mayor?” he said. My face straightened. “You on your way to city fucking hall for an emergency fucking meeting?”

He continued riffing about me being the fucking mayor and asking if I wanted him to call the fucking city council for the fucking late-night meeting. Fuck, fuck, fuck – the kid droned on and on. I didn’t get it. I looked straight ahead and let the armed little boy finish his standup routine. The cop went back to his cruiser, and after some interminable amount of time, came back with a $400 speeding ticket that would add two points to my license. Making $30 per article at a local newspaper, I would have preferred a sledgehammer to the face.

“I’m gonna tell you this one time,” he said. “Do not show up to court. Do not challenge this ticket or you will be sorry. If I see you in court, you’re not going to like what comes next.”

Ninety days later, I showed up in court to beg a judge for leniency. The round-faced cop stared holes through my head with his beady little rat eyes. The judge reduced the fine to $200 and one point and that pug-nosed cop did not beat the shit out of me in the parking lot. I was not afraid.

We were on our way home from a week-long beach trip – me, my wife, and my two kids – when a Virginia state cop picked me out of a group of speeders zooming through a construction zone at 80 MPH. It was hotter than hell, the van’s air conditioning was faltering, the kids were tired and hungry and had to pee. I was slightly hungover and highly agitated.

The officer, a young Latina woman, asked me the usual questions: Did I know how fast I was going? Did I know fines doubled in a construction zone? Where was I headed? I curtly answered each question and asked for my ticket so I could get the children to the next rest stop. I was not afraid.

I removed my hands from the steering wheel to adjust my hat and wipe the sweat on my face when the officer gripped her gun and motioned to remove it from its holster. My wife shrieked. I gasped. In the back of the van, my son asked what was going on, sounding more panicked with every passing second. “Hands on the wheel sir! Hands on the wheel!” the cop shouted.

For a fleeting, terribly revealing moment, we made eye contact: I saw the terror in her, the fear that she was about to engage in a conflict that would end with me or her lying dead on the hot asphalt below. I saw what she saw: A battle of Us vs. Them. She saw this encounter with a man and his family coming home from vacation as a life-or-death situation. For her, the stakes could not be higher. I was a deadly threat.

Who are you to even think about pointing a gun at me, I thought. You’re no one. You’re a pathetic cosplay mercenary with a good pension, nothing more. I was annoyed more than scared, more irritated than terrified. A cop, I thought, would not shoot me. She had no reason. They have to have a reason. This was all alpha-cop nonsense, just some police officer who thinks she’s the Punisher or some shit.

Do it, I dare you, I thought. I was not afraid.

I haven’t watched the video of Tyre Nichols’ murder at the hands of a Memphis police squad menacingly known as SCORPION. I’ve seen snippets of Nichols’ execution: Cops raining blow after blow upon a defenseless man, pepper spraying him, one cop limping around after kicking Nichols a few times. I can’t bring myself to seek out the video of a man being tortured to the point of crying out for his mother. I can’t bear it. Maybe that makes me weak. Or worse, complicit. I don’t know.

Videos of extrajudicial executions by police officers are part of the blood-soaked fabric of 21st century American life, as normalized as the postal worker delivering your mail. Clips of cops killing black and brown folks for no reason pop up on our various social media timelines, we watch it, and we move on, our hearts sick, our brains poisoned, our souls hardened, desperate to compartmentalize what we've witnessed between ads for sports gambling and a new weight loss formula.

We learn to live with it because there is no other option. The law is on the cops’ side. The judicial system has made it clear to any officer with a murderous impulse: We’re on your side. Legal concepts like qualified immunity mean you can wield lethal force for any reason at all. Just don’t fuck it up and draw too much media scrutiny. And, as we saw with the swift justice brought against Tyre Nichols’ murderers, don’t be black.

That Nichols was killed by a group of black officers opened a veritable floodgate of right-wing bad faith. Conservative columnists and pundits who make a living defending killer white cops as upholders of law and order suddenly sang a different tune, one about the Memphis police operating like a gang, out of control, delivering street justice instead of trusting in the legal system. The same folks who in 2020 played defense for George Floyd’s killers were aghast at the Memphis cops’ abuse of power. These black cops made all cops look bad. How dare they. Right-wing media had finally found the bad apples, and they all happened to be black men.

Far-right media grifters like Tucker Carlson were practically giddy to find out the Memphis police officers who murdered Tyre Nichols were black. This proves it, the right wing cried out with one voice. This shows police violence has nothing to do with race. Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis cop who executed George Floyd, had no racist intent. Neither did the countless other white officers who had been caught on camera ending the lives of brown and black folks, usually in low-income areas regarded by authorities as undeserving of legal protection or basic decency.

That black men killed Nichols – a father, a skateboarder, a FedEx worker – was regarded by conservative media as a gift from on high. Finally, we can put to rest the left’s myth about white supremacist violence being the root cause of police executions. This disproves it all. Checkmate, libs. Good game.

They are exactly wrong, of course. Black police officers committing a heinous crime like the one wrought against Tyre Nichols only proves the systemic nature of police brutality and violence. Officers of color are not insulated from a police culture steeped in disregard for the lives of brown and black people. They absorb it and act accordingly, as we saw in Nichols’ execution video.

The Reverend Dante Stewart, an award-winning author and speaker who does not mince words about police violence, put it simply in an interview with NPR: “Just because Black people are present doesn't mean anti-Blackness is absent.”

History tells the story that it doesn't matter who has the badge. The badge has power that whiteness has given it in the world, whether one is able to stop a person because they believe that they are criminal or they believe they're in the wrong place, or they believe that they shouldn't be doing what they're doing. That is a power that has been given to them, that has been inherited from the inception of this nation. As a Black person, when I get the badge, or when I get the ball, my race is in some sense under the shadow and the covering of it. So it doesn't matter who it is. It is about what policing has meant and has done to us and continues to do to us. So, yes, the historical record shows that no matter who they are or where they come from, policing does something to people in this country. We know it and we better deal with it.

The killing of black folks by cops at routine traffic stops is not an individual problem, and never has been. The American right desperately wants this to be about the individual, the bad apple, because widespread belief that cop murders are the product of corrupt people protects the system, the law-and-order status quo designed to protect those with white skin and those with wealth. The right wing needs this to be an individual problem, so they will do their damndest to make it so. This is the essence of bad-faith politics.

Stewart – and anyone with even a vague sense of U.S. history – rejects this completely. Police violence is not a matter of finding and extracting the bad apples. All the apples – black, white, brown, women, men – are the same. It’s the systemic forces that must be addressed if our timelines are ever to be free of extrajudicial murders of motorists, and it’s those systemic forces that have the darkest origins imaginable.

“That was more than police brutality. That was a lynching,” Stewart said. “They wanted to kill him because, in some sense, lynching is about the spectacle. It's about what someone with power does to another human being to rid them of every ounce of their dignity and put it in the public to show this is what we think about this person. When those in the past put Black people up on noose, it was a message to them: This is our estimation of your life, and much more, this is our hatred of your life. And when Tyre Nichols was beaten and the just immense disregard for him, it showed us in public once again the estimation of black life, white racism, and white supremacy.”

The Nichols murder reminded me of my time as a reporter during the early days of the Trump administration’s illegal imprisonment of migrants and its raids on immigrant communities living in the US. The collective nausea over the administration putting migrant babies in prison had taken hold when I covered a protest at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., where hundreds gathered to condemn the brutal treatment of migrants fleeing violence and crushing poverty in South and Central America.

Outside the hulking ICE building stood ICE officers of every skin color. There were black men and brown women. There was a white woman. They looked like representatives from the United Nations as they stood outside the headquarters of an agency tasked with carrying out an explicitly white supremacist agenda. This multicultural ICE force was executing the orders of Stephen Miller and other Trump officials who were using talking points ripped straight from neo-nazi corners of the internet.

On a surface level, it made no sense. I felt disoriented as I watched these ICE officers sneer at protesters calling them fascists and nazis. It was only when I considered the systemic nature of white supremacist power that I understood diversity among the ranks of the enforcers did not matter.

There’s beauty in multiculturalism, but there’s also an underlying hideousness in our dystopian moment. Multiculturalism – diversity, if you’d like – is a convenient mask for those determined to unleash hellish, white supremacist policies on a public that largely believes the days of white power are over, the stuff of history books. The American right has for decades used diversity in bad faith, as a shield against charges of discrimination and racial animus. That was never clearer to me than on that scorching-hot July afternoon at ICE headquarters.

As Reverend Stewart said, it doesn’t matter who has the badge.

My earliest memory of a police interaction is my dad being pulled over in his black Chevy Suburban after blowing through a stop sign without so much as tapping the brakes. A county police officer happened to be on the other side of the intersection and whipped around his cruiser like he was chasing Vin Diesel in a classic Mustang.

I recall feeling anxious, almost panicky at the prospect of a cop coming for my dad. What would happen to me if the officer arrested my dad? Isn’t that what cops do – arrest people, throw them behind bars? Isn't that their job? My dad was calm to the point of absurd; he made a joke and leaned back with a deep sigh. “It’ll be OK,” he assured me. I forced a nervous smile.

The officer was my dad’s age – early 40s, mustache, big belly, the whole bit – and after an explanation from my dad that made little sense, the officer stood up straight and told my dad to be careful at that intersection. He had seen some gnarly accidents there over the years. The whole interaction was that of two old poker buddies chatting it up. They could have been sitting at the bar on a Friday night, or on the ninth tee on a sunny Saturday afternoon. There was an unspoken understanding: We’re on the same team. Wink wink, nod nod.

My dad got off with a warning and never discussed it again. He was not afraid.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.