I have lived long enough to know encounters with the police, for someone who looks like me can suddenly go off the rails regardless of my standing in the community. Living where I did, being pulled over by the local police, was inevitable. Fortunately, most encounters were noneventful.
However, I do remember one I found puzzling. It occurred at a police station in the town of Berlin adjacent to where I lived. I needed a copy of an accident report from them since the accident happened in their jurisdiction.
The woman officer behind the desk was cordial, but her fellow officer projected a far different demeanor. His gaze and overall posture took on the immediacy of authority and confrontational readiness.
The woman officer gave me a copy of the accident report. I thanked her and left. As I sat in my car reading over the information, my thoughts suddenly focused on the male police officer and the look of puzzlement on the female officer when he approached the desk.
I envisioned a thought bubble over her head something like this, “what is your problem? He’s just here for an accident report. Why are you getting agitated?” Don’t know if she was thinking along those lines or not. But, her confused look suggested it.
I have had my encounters with the police, primarily due to my heavy foot on the gas pedal. But none in comparison to what I felt at the Berlin police station. The vibes coming from the male officer were clearly signaling he was looking for some reason to invoke his authority for my temerity of coming to his station and ask for a document I needed for insurance purposes.
Current events caused me to recall this particular incident. The look on the male and female police officers came to mind as I wonder what is it with police when they encounter someone looking like me? My encounter was mild compared to those of George Floyd, Adam Toledo, and Dante Wright. These three died at the hands of those
For some strange reason, police invoke some unwritten rule whenever they encounter a Black man or Woman. The circumstance of the encounter is immaterial. It is as if those who are Black, Brown are instantly dismissed as less-than. Or what I call negation of the concept of being created in the image of God. You know that verse in Gen 1:27 where it says the following:
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God, he created them; male and female, he created them.
It doesn’t say, God created white men and women in his own image. It states he created male and female in his image. So, if God created male and female in his image, it is not logical he viewed his creation of humankind with pride? The look the Berlin police officer gave me definitely was not one of being made in God’s image but clearly something else. I now realize it was the look of denunciation. Which meant he had every right to see me as “less than.”
For this police officer and others like him, it didn’t matter if I was a tax-paying law-abiding citizen; my blackness in his mind made me “suspect” even when I came in for an innocuous accident report. From my perspective, I present no threat. From his, however, my very presence was threatening. Meaning an automatic defensive posture.
I suspect had I been stopped by this officer outside of the police station, he would have felt justified in treating me as a non-human. I further imagine if something as simple as inquiring why I was being stopped would have given him reason to escalate the situation. If our encounter had risen to the level pulling his service weapon, his justification would have been he was doing his duty.
It seems Black people encounters with police officers – saying they’re doing their duty – are disparately different compare to whites. What is this “duty” police officers often see as justification for the abhorrent treatment of Black men and women, which often leads to them losing their lives? Especially since Kant said the following about duty:
In fact, it is absolutely impossible to make out by experience with complete certainty a single case in which the maxim of an action, however right in itself, rested simply on moral grounds and on the conception of duty.
So when George Floyd was lying face down in the street with Chauvin’s knee on the back of his neck, ignoring Floyd’s cries, “I can’t breathe,” him doing his duty or his not seeing Floyd as a being made in the image of God? Was his maxim of action based on the concept of duty or his contempt for Floyd because what Winthrop Jordan wrote about Blacks,
“The Negro’s color attained greatest significance not as a scientific problem but as a social fact.” – The White Man’s Burden, Winthrop Jordan
Was the maxim of action required by the Windsor police when they stopped Army Lt. Caron Nazario pepper-spraying, drawing their weapons threatening him deadly force. For not having tags on his newly purchased car, even though a temporary license plate was clearly visible? Or were these actions by the police the result of their failure to see Lt. Nazario as created in God’s image, which justified their treatment of him?
I could continue to cite case after case where encounters between Black and Brown people with police ending in tragedy, but doing so is not necessary. However, what is relevant is our need to address this question when police officers stop individuals who look like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Lt. Caron Nazari. Do they see men who were created in the image of God? Or do they see men who, Judge Taney in the infamous Dred Scott Decision, said such men were;
“a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race … remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them?”
The 13th, 14th, 15th amendments nullified Taney’s decision. But the substance and intent of his words seem to manifest actions taken toward Black and Brown people, who police officers don’t see a created in the image of God.
I recognize not all police officers react the way described earlier. Also, it can be said Chauvin and the police officers of Windsor are an outlier. Along with most traffic stops by police are noneventful situations.
But as the old saying goes, it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the entire barrel. It only takes one who sees someone who believes individuals who are Black or Brown are to be dealt with differently can do significant damage to a town or city reputation along with major financial liabilities and lawsuits.
Encounters with the police should be infrequent. But, at some point, they will happen. The majority of them end without incident. Meaning rarely is there any doubt the police officer sees the individual they stop like them made in God’s image.
For those who look like me, well, it depends if the officer who stops me believes I am subject to their authority, and I have no rights or privileges but such as those who they might choose to grant me. For the simple reason, in their eyes, God did not create me in his image.