When the crime is ‘being black,’ police routinely respond with guns drawn

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Thomas has schooled his son, Robert, in the delicate art of avoiding overreactions by jumpy police attempting an arrest.

Thomas has schooled his son, Robert, in the delicate art of defusing overreactions by jumpy police.

We’re in the second year of the second term of the first black president of the United States. And so it might seem that as Americans, as a nation, we have come a long way. And perhaps we have. But the recent killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., left me angry and sad. Here we go again, I thought.

The feelings were personal. I was buffeted by bitter memories of my own encounters with gun-wielding cops. Pundits waxed wroth about the foolish barbarity of the militarized Ferguson police, but I couldn’t help wondering if most Americans — the white majority — really has a clue about what’s going on.

I am driving through a predominantly white, well-to-do neighborhood in Gretna. To supplement my income as a real estate broker, I do drive-by property appraisals for various mortgage lenders.

As I pull up to the property I’ve been asked to review, I notice a middle-aged white woman talking on her cell phone as she walks along the opposite side of the street. I am completing my inspection by taking a few photographs when I overhear her: “There’s is a strange black man out here taking pictures of houses,” she says into the cell phone. I have enough experience to know it would be best to leave the area at once.

Moments later, I am approaching the expressway back to New Orleans. At the intersection of Gretna Boulevard and Stumpf, eight police cars rush at me from four directions, blocking my path. About a dozen police officers jump out of their cars, guns aimed at me. Not for the first time I am a hair’s breadth from death at the hands of a jumpy or trigger-happy cop. I have done nothing wrong, nothing other than my job as a real estate professional, and I am in danger of being shot by local police.

I was one of the lucky ones. Mine was a near-death encounter. I didn’t die. But I have come to see these ceaseless acts of sanctioned violence as a latterday extension of America’s long and inglorious history of lynching, whether at the hands of the general public or its uniformed agents:

Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, James Chaney, Eleanor Bumpurs, Amadou Diallo, Darius Simmons, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, Henry Glover, James Brissette, Ronald Madison, Adolph Archie, Jonathan Ferrell, Jordan Davis, James Byrd Jr., Keith Atkinson, Michael Brown. The name of Ezell Ford can be added to that list.

Two days after the Michael Brown killing, Ford, a mentally challenged, unarmed 25-year-old, was shot to death by Los Angeles police while lying on the ground, as ordered. The date was Aug. 11. On that same day here in New Orleans, Armond Bennett, an unarmed 26-year-old, was shot in the head by police during a traffic stop. The police, perhaps fearing the kind of reaction in Ferguson, failed to report the incident for two days.

Miraculously, Bennett lived. But there are common threads that bind his fate — and mine — to the litany of the dead, the victims of extra-judicial execution in the United States.

Whether lynched or eliminated by overzealous cops, they were killed based on some perceived crime, threat and/or fear of bodily harm.  Most of the killings were at the hands of whites. All of the victims were unarmed. There was no determination of guilt or innocence by a jury of their peers. Most of the killings occurred within the black community, creating outrage and distrust. Media joined police in searching for the biographical details — a prior arrest, perhaps — that would criminalize and dehumanize the victim. That’s supposed to justify the killing while validating the racial stereotypes to which the white majority clings.

If charged at all, many perpetrators are found not guilty based on legal technicalities — just as in the decades when lynchings were claiming thousands of lives, especially in the South.

The near-death experiences — as opposed to the killings — are countless and they are endured on a daily basis by many blacks. The most infamous example is Rodney King. The video-taped assault on King triggered riots across South Central Los Angeles after the police officers who kicked and beat him were acquitted of all charges. Near-death encounters generally start with a police “investigative stop,” be it a “DWB – Driving While Black” traffic stop or a “stop and frisk” moment visited upon a black pedestrian. Mere suspicion is the accepted motive for police intervention; no “probable cause” is required. Racial profiling is almost invariably a factor.

The deaths draw comment from mainstream media. The near-death encounters are too frequent to be newsworthy. They are everyday occurrences in the lives of black Americans. Tens of thousands of such incidents occur every year, the overwhelming majority of them unreported — until the incident crosses a line and someone dies. Only then, it seems, does white America take note, maybe even raise a brief fuss. Meanwhile, the “investigative stops” continue. Black and brown men continue to be picked up without “probable cause” or even “reasonable suspicion.”

A few months after my return from deployment in Operation Desert Storm as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, I’m sitting in my car with a good friend, catching up on old times. We are parked — legally — in front of his cousin’s home, directly across the street from what was then known as the Saint Bernard public housing project. A typical New Orleans summer night — hot, sticky. We’re drinking beer. People mill about; others are chatting on their porches. Music pulses.

That calm is suddenly broken by the shriek of several police cars rounding the corner a few blocks away, rubber burning, sirens howling, lights flashing. We pay them no mind, continue our conversation.

Seconds later, one of the cars comes to a screeching halt beside us and my friend and I are blinded by a searchlight trained through the passenger-side window. Meanwhile, an officer slips around the back of the car to the driver’s side and suddenly there is a hard object against my head and my face is slammed forward toward the steering wheel.

The hard object is a gun, and the officer is now bellowing: “Show me your fucking hands!!…Show me your fucking hands!”

Before I can fully oblige him, another officer has opened the driver’s-side door, yanked me out of the car, handcuffed me and slammed me face first onto the car’s hood.  I look up and my friend is standing on the other side with his hands up, guns pointing at him.

I attempt to ask what’s going on and am told to “shut the fuck up!”  Now another officer chimes in:  “Oh, you’re a smart-ass nigger, huh? You must really want to go for a ride!”

Going for a ride is code for being taken somewhere and beaten. The officer is grinning.  One wrong move or a nervous twitch on the cop’s part and boom, I’m dead!  Just like that. The thanks I get for my military service to America in a time of war.

I am arrested for resisting arrest, brought to Orleans Parish Prison, released after about 30 hours, I file a complaint with the Police Integrity Division and never hear anything from them.

Brutality like that deepens distrust, costing police the cooperation they need from the communities most at risk of crime and violence. We black folk are reduced to teaching our children a bitter and demoralizing lesson: how to get arrested, how to respond if stopped by the police, how to decrease the possibility of being shot and killed for the crime of being black. I was taught what to do, and I have taught my son the same lessons. I suspect this father-to-son inheritance is all but unfathomable to most white Americans.

Eugene Thomas is a self-employed real estate broker, an attorney, a Sunday night DJ on WWOZ and an ordained Babalawo priest in the Ifa tradition of the Yoruba people.  

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