When the Edward Snowden revelations about the NSA came out, I was still active on Twitter. The reaction was instant, and the outrage came from a diverse group of people who ordinarily would not be in the same camp politically. It was a sight to behold. But, you know, I was skeptical.
People invariably asked why I was skeptical, and I gave a simple answer:
At the end of the day, I grew up with the sense that I was always being watched. That the slightest mistake or a wrong word spoken here or there could end in my being on the 11 o’clock news as another victim of state violence. That is why my father gave me the “both hands on the steering wheel and no quick movements” speech long before my legs could reach the gas pedal. It affects me to this day; whenever I see a Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Deputy or a Tuscaloosa police officer pull up behind my car, my anxiety flares up real bad. I am white-knuckling the steering wheel, cycling through my mind to make sure that I have everything taken care of on the car, breathing heavy, throat clenching and getting dry, and praying that nothing bad happens to me.
Something else I realized early on was that this all made me very different, that my white friends were never going to get this talk or have this experience. The cop is their friend who has always protected and served them. If you have nothing to hide, then what are you worried about?
Maybe that is why we saw white people marching through department stores and restaurants with assault rifles visible to anyone who walked by. They were never told that this was an absolutely insane thing to do; that it might provoke the police into a violent action that could cost them their lives. Then again, I was never told that carrying a toy gun could cost me mine, either. Perhaps I will have to add that to the talk I give my son or daughter one day.
I lived in Columbia, Missouri while I was earning my Master’s in Public Affairs at The University of Missouri, and there was a citywide referendum on the November 2010 ballot to ban taser use for the police. I voted for the ban, as did most of the predominantly Black Northside. But I was walking through Middlebush Hall (where the Truman School of Public Affairs is located), and I struck up a conversation with a few students about the ban. Most were going to vote no, and the city would follow their lead. One student, however gave an interesting, and telling, reason for voting no:
“If we take away their tasers, they’ll just use their guns.”
It set me back on my heels, mostly because I knew he was right.
Mike Brown was a teenager like any other. Ferguson, Missouri is an inner-ring suburb like any other. I wonder how his parents gave him the talk about how to deal with the police. Was it the kind of demonstrative talk that my father gave me? Was it more of a talk like, “Now listen, boy. Use your God-given common sense in dealing with the police.” You know, making the assumption that your children ain’t stupid, and that maybe they have seen things too. Maybe, in a city that is nearly 70 percent Black, the talk was not as forceful; they could feel safe in their surroundings knowing that the community had their back.
And then I wonder how they feel now, knowing that the state does not give one single damn about any talk they might have had with their son.