I walked into the foyer of the jail and sat down on what appeared to be a seasoned church bench. The musty chestnut-brown seat offered creaking rather than comfort as I rested on its wooden perch. A few pictures of officers on the wall of the sheriff’s department served as my only company. I waited. My spirit felt sterile, like the white walls that surrounded me but my thoughts took flight like startled birds. I wondered:
Why did they arrest her?
Will this go on her record?
Can she lose her job?
Can we fight this with a lawyer?
What are we fighting?
I’ve already paid bail, how long does it take for them to let her out?
How do you keep your sanity when you are waiting for a loved one to be released from jail? I got my phone out, opened the Bible app and started reading Psalm 91 over and over again. As I sought refuge under the wings under the Almighty, I prayed that his faithfulness would be a shield for my wife, a teacher with a master’s degree and no criminal record, who was arrested for reasons I still didn’t understand. I put my phone away.
Only a few hours earlier, my wife was out picking up our eleven-year-old daughter and her friend from church; it was almost ten o’clock. The phone rang. It was my daughter. I answered the phone to a barrage of hysterical weeping combined with failed attempts at speech. My daughter was trying to communicate to me through her tears that something had happened to her mom. She finally managed to get out, “Mom is being arrested.” At this point, the officer took the phone, “Sir, this is officer __________ of the sheriff’s department. Your wife is going to jail because she doesn’t listen.”
There were so many things I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the words out. I just managed to repeat what he said, “Because she doesn’t listen?” He informed me where he and half of my family were located so I could pick up my (still hysterical) daughter. They were at the entrance to our neighborhood, two hundred yards away.
For a moment, my emotions reeled. “Is my wife okay? How long will she be in jail? I think I can bail her out? How much will that cost? What if I can’t get her out tonight? Does she have to see a judge first? Was the officer aggressive with my daughter? How aggressive was he with my wife? How can ‘not listening’ be a crime? What will she be charged with? What happened?”
I knew my wife had been frustrated lately about her interaction with the sheriff’s department. She had been pulled over for what seemed to be frivolous reasons on a couple of occasions. During one of these stops she was asked, “Where are you going?” and “Where do you live?” I have been asked by a police officer where I lived on one occasion—when I was skipping school and got caught. It’s a question you ask someone when you suspect they are where they don’t belong. I can only imagine how it made my wife feel to be treated as if she had invaded a white space and didn’t belong in her own neighborhood.
My wife said she had been pulled over for a “DWB” or “Driving While Black” in a predominantly white neighborhood. While this was meant to be a witticism, its implications were serious. So were the emotions my wife was dealing with. Emotions that, as a white man, I was limited in my ability to relate to or understand, because anytime I was pulled over it was for actual infractions—speeding, expired registration, or running a stop sign. Even if I was pulled over by an officer of color, I never once wondered, “Did this officer pull me over because I’m white?”
I had been taught since I was a child and witnessed through my white American experience that the police were there to protect people and impartially enforce the law. As a child, I began to question the truth of this assumption when I watched Rodney King being beaten on television and witnessed the officers that beat him be acquitted or released. However, while these events made me reflect question the infallibility of the police, they were ultimately an abstraction. I didn’t know Rodney King. I didn’t experience the riots. They were images on a screen that were enough to elicit sympathy, but not action.
Obviously, the historical experience of Black America with the police has been significantly different. This diverse experience of two Americas had now crashed through the doors of my home like a man punched in a drunken brawl, and everything felt broken. My privilege had been exposed to me in a way I had not experienced before. I shared the irritation of my wife about being pulled over without cause, but I didn’t know what to do about it other than acknowledge that her angst was justified and that my ability to understand was limited. The frustration of my wife boiled over on the night she was arrested.
At this point, it escalated.
My wife grew up in the projects of South Dallas and had a diverse experience with police officers. Some were kind and fair, some were not. Regardless, her experience with some officers had caused her to distrust police that she did not know, especially in the context of a traffic stop at night. When she was a young driver, if she was ever pulled over, she got in the habit of lowering her window just enough to converse with the officer. This had never been a problem before.
When she was pulled over on the night she was arrested she continued with this habit.. The officer that pulled her over did not appreciate this and requested she lower her window completely as he asked, “Do you live in this neighborhood?” My wife, trying to ignore the implication that she was in a place where she did not belong, asked why she had been pulled over. She said the officer paused, looked unsure for a moment and then pointed to her inspection sticker, saying it was expired. Unconvinced of his explanation because of his hesitation and the fact that it was dark, making it difficult to see a little sticker, she accused him of racial profiling. My wife explained to him that she had “done nothing wrong” and “did not know him” and that the extent to which the window was rolled down was “sufficient” for whatever necessary transaction. At this point, it escalated. The officer demanded she get out of the car. Again, my wife pleaded her innocence of any crime and did not comply. Determined to show her who’s boss and teach her a lesson on listening, he promptly opened her door and after a brief physical struggle, yanked her out and handcuffed her to the soundtrack of my daughter’s wailing (who was commanded several times to “stop crying”).
After getting off the phone with the police officer I sat in my house for a second in silence trying to process what just happened and what might come next. This was all so foreign. I then moved quickly through my house trying to remain calm and steady my palpitating heart. I got my two-year-old son out of bed, carefully putting him in his car seat so as not to wake him and drove down the street to a scene of flashing lights. There were two sheriff’s cars. I saw my wife in the back of one with a combined look of sadness and fury. My daughter’s face, still wet with tears had slowed her crying to sniffles with occasional quick deep breaths.
I had a brief, blurred exchange with the officer, I don’t remember exactly what was said. I asked him something about the time it took to be processed and who I should call to get my wife out of jail. What I do remember is the short ride home with my daughter after we watched her mother, my wife, get taken away in a squad car for reasons that seemed unjustified. She started crying again. This time, they were tears of anger. Amidst this were her repeated declarations of, “I hate the police! I hate them!” She had just witnessed the woman who gave birth to her, raised her, fought for her, would sacrifice anything for her, and who loved her beyond measure be handled roughly and handcuffed like a criminal. I couldn’t blame her.
The painful realization of my privilege rendered me speechless. It’s not that I didn’t care about her or want to comfort her, I just knew that anything I could have said would’ve been cheap and hollow because her experience was foreign to mine even though we lived in the same house and were a part of the same family. Her tears were for her mother, but they also marked the end of her innocence. Gone were the days of cardboard children’s books where all policemen are friendly and there to help and protect you. Reverent trust was now replaced with suspicion. She felt the fallibility of all things considered safe and noble—that any institution, regardless of its inherent goodness, could cause pain, was susceptible to corruption and abuse of power.
When we got home, I put my son back to bed, hugged my daughter and told her we would talk later. I began calling the jail every ten minutes for the next hour and a half to see if my wife had been processed.
You Might Be Thinking
You might be thinking, “Well, if your wife had just done what the officer asked, none of this would’ve happened.” That’s true. If she had simply complied with the officer, the outcome on that night probably would have been different. But at what cost to her dignity? She believed she was being treated unfairly (for the third time) because of the color of her skin. What would you have done? What if it was your wife? Your daughter? How much does your human dignity matter to you? Would you resist if it was threatened?
Is it possible that race had nothing to do with what happened? Sure. However, at this juncture, the experience of two Americas becomes most pronounced. Unless racism overtly raises its head, people’s actions—including those of the police—are open to interpretation. Whether we admit it or not, we are conditioned by our experience to interpret various experiences through a certain lens. The historical narrative involving the police and white people has been pretty straight forward and fair. White America did not experience police-abuse in the Jim Crow South, they never needed a civil rights movement (during which police were often the oppressor) to be guaranteed basic civil liberties, and don’t need to have “the talk” with their children about the dangers of being pulled over and how to survive the encounter. Therefore, it makes sense for white people to preach unconditional compliance and have difficulty understanding why anyone would hesitate to acquiesce with the demands of the police. The problem arises when you expect someone who has had a vastly different experience to have the same perspective you do.
It then makes matters worse when “progress” is mistaken for “mission accomplished.” There’s no denying this nation has made herculean strides towards racial equality. To deny this would be silly. However, it would be equally laughable for a person who has never been Black a day in their life to assert that we live in a post-racist society, that racial issues are fabricated by the media or that Black people who cry foul are being “too sensitive.” Now I am well aware that there are Black folks like Candace Owens, David Clarke, Jimmie Walker, and Ben Carson who also say these very things about racial issues in America. It is certainly their right to do so. However, I think these people and others like them are outliers to a general Black American Experience. Just as there are instances of white people being oppressed by the police—it happens, but very infrequently. In addition, there are thousands of Black police officers (and quite a few police chiefs as well). However, these things do not ameliorate the fruits of systemic discrimination such as disparities in education, health care, income, and incarceration for people of color (feel free to click the hyperlinks if you would like to know more about these issues).
We owe it to each other.
As she was being removed from the car when they arrived at the jail, the officer that arrested her, touched her on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry.” He said he was sorry several times for numerous things that had occurred in the previous sixty minutes. As she was taken from the car to be processed, strip searched, given an orange jumpsuit to wear and placed in a cell by herself, she did not accept the apology. She would later receive an apology letter from the chief of the sheriff’s department. Apologies are necessary for reconciliation and appreciated. But at what point do you grow weary of the apology and long for things to stop happening that make apologies necessary? I am not talking about creating a perfect world, but continuing to work toward a better one. It feels like a large segment of our country looks at where we are socially and collectively says, “that’s good enough.” All while attempting to hush those who say otherwise. Allard Lowenstein, a Civil Rights era congressman from New York said, “The question should be, ‘Is it worth trying to do?’ not, ‘Can it be done?'”
That night I realized that there was much I might never understand about what it meant to be Black in America. I could read all there was to read about Black history and the current cultural landscape, but would remain limited in my perception because I am white. Even after educating myself, to love my neighbors that have walked different paths, I must maintain a perpetual posture of listening. I wanted to understand; I wanted to help; I wanted . . . I suddenly heard an emphatic clanking of metal as I looked and saw a steel door swing open to reveal my wife standing there. It was after 2:00 a.m. After hugging her and being dumb enough to ask if she was okay?”, we walked in silence to the car and drove home quietly trying to process what happened.
Educating yourself and listening are the first steps to empathy, the next step is to take real steps—one’s that are lived. To be present with people as they suffer through an experience that is not your own. It’s not always possible to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes,” but you can walk with them and get your own shoes messy in the muddy path of their struggle.
In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail he said:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
We owe each other our loyalty. Loyalty that is actionable and expressed through lived experiences as we work for the good of each other. However, cultivating loyalty, especially among a people as diverse as those that live in the United States could be distressing. It requires you to associate with, listen to, live with, and care for the lives of others that are profoundly different than yours. This is often uncomfortable, but we owe it to each other, because all our tomorrows are inextricably linked with what we do today.
Cover image by Jon Tyson.
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