Recently, Blavity published an article titled, One Maryland Doctor Wrote The Prescription For Surviving Police Encounters. Really? Immediately, I was intrigued. A doctor with a prescription for police brutality. With the onslaught of Black people being murdered by the police, I was very interested in the article and what Dr. Geoffrey Mount Varner had to say. In the article, Dr. Varner states, “that his book isn’t intended to be a cure-all or policy prescription to reduce the number of people killed at the hands of police each year. Rather he calls it a way to bridge the gap.” His tips are common sense tips that most Black people have had drilled into them since they were born- be humble, don’t make any sudden moves, ask permission before reaching for anything, etc.
It is not lost on me that the responsibility for an African- American driver not to be killed by the police falls not on the officer but the Black person operating the vehicle. A Black person driving is at the whim of the officer that initiates the traffic stop, never knowing if the officer is racially biased, is having a bad day or just doesn’t give a damn about Black life.
Understand that many Black people never grew up with the myth of Officer Friendly. In my family, no one ever told me to distrust the police. Truthfully, it was something I inherently knew. I grew up seeing enough that I could understand that the police were not on my side to serve and protect my family and me. My first encounter with the police was them storming in my house when I was just 11 years old, eyes trained on my father as my mother ran by me as I was sitting on the stairs and up to her room to get her things. She was leaving my dad. Leaving like a thief in the night, only coming back to get her clothes but leave her children. All while the police watched daring my father to make a move. I do not remember if my mother ever said goodbye as she left the house but I do remember the police officers leaving with her. It was at that point I resolved never to call the police for any issue in my life and thankfully in 40 years, I have never called or asked the police to assist me with one thing, and I pray I never have to. I have even told my daughter if, by chance, something happens to me and I appear as if I am losing my mind, do not call the police to assist you in dealing with me. Call your aunt, call your uncle, call on Jesus but do not call the police.
It is not because I believe that all police are inherently evil, racist and corrupt. I believe the system they work in is evil, racist and corrupt. While many people mocked Colin Kaepernick when he posted a meme comparing the current police system to slave patrols, indeed, Colin was correct. As stated in Wikipedia, “slave patrols called patrollers, patterrollers, pattyrollers or paddy rollers by the slaves, were organized groups of white men who monitored and enforced discipline upon black slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states. The slave patrols’ function was to police slaves, especially runaways and defiant slaves. They also formed river patrols to prevent escape by boat. Slave patrols were first established in South Carolina in 1704, and the idea spread throughout the colonies.” In over 300 years, the system has not changed. So, the current system is fruit from a poisonous tree that was rooted in slavery.
Knowing this, many Black parents understand that for their child to survive an encounter with the police, it is imperative that they have “the talk” with their children. I wrote a poem about “the talk” titled 10 & 2. While many White parents look at their child earning a driver’s license as a rite of passage and something that will make their lives easier, the minute that small piece of laminated paper is placed in our child’s hands, we understand that our lives have not gotten any easier, but have gotten a million times harder. We understand that there will be many sleepless nights as our kids make a trip to a party or the mall. We understand waiting to hear the phone ring so they can tell us they made it to their destination safely. We understand that we will not truly sleep until our child is back underneath our roof. We understand that every time they drive, they are taking a gamble with life and death.
While most parents can celebrate their child receiving their driver’s license, we remind our children that a trip to the store for Skittles and tea could be their death sentence, that playing their music too loudly could lead to us picking out caskets, that driving while Black could be criminalistic, that walking will Black could be deadly, that breathing while Black some have found to be lethal, that running while Black can be costly, that wearing a hoodie could have life or death consequences, that being Black in this world meant staying on guard…being smart.
Driving is not merely driving for Black people. Driving is an art of survival, navigating the streets, highways, and byways so that they do not become the next hashtag. There is no room for error. Have your license. Your registration. Your insurance card. Wear your seatbelt at all times. Don’t play your music too loudly. Make sure your brake lights are working. Always signal. Make a full stop at all stop signs. Don’t race through yellow lights. Do… not…make… any… mistakes. While these are normal things that most good drivers should do, we understand that failing to do any of these things may not result in a minor ticket but can lead to their death.
And when, not if, but when the police pull our children over, we have given them tips to survive the encounter because we want to believe that maybe, just maybe, if we have told our children what to do we will not be getting a phone call that our child has been murdered. We want to believe that if our child is respectful enough, calm enough, kind enough, dressed well enough, complies, has all their paperwork in order, no lights out on their car, that they will not be the next trending name on Twitter. We want to believe that maybe, just maybe, our child will be cut a break and not vilified and criminalized because they are Black. So, we have “the talk,” trying to ignore the shouts in the back of our minds that nothing we say will ever matter.
We remember Jordan Davis, just 17, killed for playing his music too loudly. We remember Philando Castille, 32, killed while saying, “I wasn’t reaching for it.” We watched in horror as he bled out on Facebook Live in front of his girlfriend and daughter. We remember Sandra Bland, 28, who died on a jailhouse floor, after a traffic stop for failing to signal. We remember Samuel DuBose, 43, murdered during a traffic stop for a missing front license plate. We remember Sean Bell, 23, shot at 50 times in his car. We remember Jordan Edwards, 15, murdered by the police as he left a party in a car and his brothers said they could see smoke coming from his head.
We remember all their names, and we know that “the talk” really doesn’t matter. We know that every time our child places the key into the ignition, they are playing Russian roulette. We know that no matter how many “talks” we have with our children, that there is no guarantee that our children will make it home safely. No matter how many talks we have we are at the whim of those that can say, “He was reaching for something.” “I felt threatened.” “I pulled him over because he ‘fit the description.’” “I thought his wallet was a gun.” “She seemed aggressive.” “I didn’t like her attitude.” Any excuse seems to work when it comes to the police murdering Black people that are driving while Black.
My question is if we are doing our part of having “the talk” with our children, who is having “the talk” with the police? Who informs the police that Black people behind the wheel of a car, do not need to be feared? That Black people driving, want to get to their destination just like anyone else. That slave days are over, and Black people have the right to traverse across the country freely and should do so without fear of death. Who sits the police down to have “the talk” with them letting them know that driving while Black is not a crime?