Morning all, and happy Black History Month. It’s chugging along, isn’t it? As I sit here, half in wonder of the reactions to Beyonce’s insta-hit “Formation” and some old man named Romanowski who called the Panthers’ Cam Newton a “boy,” something much more personal weighs on me.
It didn’t happen to me. But it could have. Instead, it happened to a friend and peer, a roommate from college, a mother and professor, author and activist. She was not allowed a phone call, was taken to a police station, and handcuffed to a table…for a parking ticket. I urge you to read her story, presented to you without edits, and share it. When they ask us why we “get to have” Black History Month, it’s because of stories like these. Because this still happens. Because I blinked and woke up in a police state.
MY ENCOUNTER WITH PRINCETON POLICE & THE AFTERMATH
YESTERDAY, I sent out a few tweets over an encounter with police in Princeton New Jersey. It generated quite a bit of attention. The details are there. Though I have received many queries, I have declined speaking to press thus far. I found a way to share on social media that satisfied my need to speak.
The short version of the story is that I was pulled over and then arrested for a three year old parking ticket. The point I want to make, by writing, is bigger than that.
The response I have received since sharing my story has been overwhelmingly caring and thoughtful. Many people are vigilant and impassioned these days regarding policing. This is a direct result of the social movement that has emerged over the last several years. That is good. And it personally feels wonderful to be so supported. However, there are quite a few people who seem upset that I received support. Mostly they are suggesting that I am playing “innocent” when I am “guilty.” What they fail to understand is that I did not purport to be without fault. Now, make no mistake, I do not believe I did anything wrong. But even if I did, my position holds. The police treated me inappropriately and disproportionately. The fact of my blackness is not incidental to this matter.
In every profession, as in every life endeavor, people exercise discretion according to who they favor and who they disfavor, who they believe matters and who they consider inconsequential. And, as my own work and that of many colleagues has established, in this society abundant evidence exists that discretion is exercised, in general, in racially discriminatory fashion in virtually every arena studied from elementary school suspensions, to car purchases, to teachers recommending students for gifted and talented programs, to how often waiters visit your table in restaurants, to mortgages, to police stops and arrests. All things being equal, people in this society consistently disadvantage Black people compared to others. (And all things are rarely equal, but that is another matter.)
Some critics have said that I should have expected what I received. But if it is the standard protocol in an affluent suburb to disallow a member of the community to make a call before an arrest (simply to inform someone of her arrest) and if it is the protocol to have male officers to pat down the bodies of women, and if it is the norm to handcuff someone to a table for failing to pay a parking ticket, we have a serious problem with policing in the society.
If it is not the case that this is the general practice, then I hope everyone reading will consider the possibility that the way I was treated had something to do with my race, and that we have a serious problem with policing in this society particularly with respect to Black people.
We already know it IS the standard protocol for people in poor Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities to experience disproportionate police surveillance, harassment, violence, and punishment. That is the graver injustice. I’m asking you to understand that my experience, and my feelings, are directly and intimately tied to that larger truth. We unquestionably have a serious problem with policing in this society.
This was my first time in handcuffs. They were very cold on my arthritic wrists. I have been thinking about how vulnerable they make you feel. And how some people, often my people, from childhood on experience that naked vulnerability over and over again because they happen to live in places deemed “bad.”
There are a number of commentators online who have repeated to me an all too common formulation: “Well, if you hadn’t done anything wrong this wouldn’t have happened.” But this demand for behavioral perfection from Black people in response to disproportionate policing and punishment is a terrible red herring.
I have lived in predominantly White communities for much of my life, and in those spaces I literally witnessed thousands of illegal acts that went unpunished. Lenience is the rule rather than the exception. I have also seen in those places and spaces that the Blacker and poorer you are, the harsher the penalties you face. Lenience is not the rule for them when they are in the minority or the majority. I can show you this by anecdote as well as statistical data.
Punishment in this society simply does not exist in a direct correlation to illegal activity. What it IS correlated to is race and class. And if perfection is not required for white citizenship, it should not be required of mine. Fairness requires something better.
Moreover my quarrel is not with paying a fine, or getting a ticket (even though we know such punishments are also disproportionately meted upon black people who often don’t have the resources to pay them.) I could afford to pay the fine, and I paid it without hesitation. No, my quarrel is with how I was treated. I cannot ever say definitively that this specific mistreatment was a result of race. But I can say that what I experienced was far more likely because my skin is a deep brown, my nose is round, and my hair is coily. And given the accumulation of police violence against Black people in this society, my fear at being stopped and arrested as a Black woman was warranted and even reasonable.
The day that I shared my story, others came pouring into my inbox and text messages. Undergraduates, grad students, and residents of the town, shared stories of experiencing treatment they found unjust from the local police. However, I do not want to isolate Princeton Police, although I would love for them to respond to this moment with care not simply towards me but for the entire community they are charged with serving. But in truth, this is not just a local problem. It is a systemic one, one that is also national and international.
Nor do I want to catastrophize what I experienced. It was humiliating and frightening, but I am not Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, or Tanisha Anderson. I was not murdered. I was not screamed at, roughed up, or held over the weekend, or for weeks, or years. I was not forced into a plea deal that will take me away from my children, or prevent me from working or maintaining my home. I am here. My life has not been ruined or destroyed. And I must admit I am somewhat ashamed that my story will get more attention than those of others who have experienced things far worse that merit our response. But I hope against hope that the attention my story has received, and the fact that many people will give me the benefit of the doubt because of my profession, my small build, my attachment to elite universities, and because prominent people will vouch for my integrity and responsibility, can be converted into something more important. I hope that this circle of attention will be part of a deeper reckoning with how and why police officers behave the way they do, especially towards those of us whose flesh is dark.