Chad Goller-Sojourner knows the value of at least one white privilege.
In preparation for my upcoming one man show, Riding in Cars with Black People & Other Newly Dangerous Acts: A Memoir in Vanishing Whiteness, I did a significant amount of research, most of it unpleasant—like the weeks I spent combing the internet for stories about unarmed black men shot down by the police. Talk about depressing, and not your pop a Prozac depressing—more like Sarah McLachlan, Humane Society Ad—times one thousand depressing.
Seems today, to be young, black, and innocent is to live in a world full of folks who will always see you differently than you see yourself; it’s to live in a world where folklore, statistics and conjecture deem you dangerous until proven otherwise.
And so, as I combed through story after story, “depressing” was joined by “disturbing.” Contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t just happening in the big cities. It was happening everywhere: big cities, small cities, north, south, east, west … it seems wherever there were unarmed black men, there were police shooting them.
Which begs the question, when it comes to unarmed black men: just what does it take, to be proven otherwise? To have your keys, wallets, cell phones and candy bars be seen as keys, wallets, cell phones and candy bars, rather than as guns?
Consider twenty two year old Amadou Diallo, shot dead in his Bronx doorway by four plain clothed police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun and opened fire, unleashing 41 bullets, nineteen of which struck his body. He had just returned from a late meal and was resting on his stoop—a rest interrupted by four white men in street clothes, getting out of an unmarked car bearing guns. And so he fled to his apartment, reaching at some point for his wallet, perhaps for a key—we’ll never know—because, all they saw was a gun.
It was only later at trial, a trial in which they were all acquitted, did they admit that at no time did they consider the situation from Diallo’s point of view: that of an innocent and unarmed black man minding his business on his own stoop, who suddenly finds himself confronted by four white men bearing guns, wear street clothes, getting out of an unmarked car.
Of course, in the majority of cases, they didn’t even need to report seeing anything resembling a weapon, only that they saw the victim reaching for his waistband. This was the case with Aaron Campbell, of Portland Oregon, distraught over his brother’s death, and to whom the police had been sent to do a welfare check.
At some point Campbell emerged from the Northeast Portland apartments with his back toward officers and his hands behind his head. But the officers wanted more: they want his hands in the air and so they fire six beanbag rounds at him, because nothing gets your hands in the air quicker than being shot in the back.
Campbell ran toward a parked car, where he was shot in the back with an AR-15 rifle. Later, officers will claim they saw him reaching towards his pants for a gun. Police brass testified that Campbell had not posed an immediate threat. Additionally, officer’s actions were inconsistent with their training, as they failed to consider, that one, he may have been unarmed, and two, that he may have been reaching for a part of the body just struck by beanbag rounds. Yet the Grand Jury would return a finding of no criminal wrongdoing.
All of this made me wonder what the public’s response would be if the victim’s parents were white. Not if the victims were white—I think we all know that answer—but if the victim’s parents were white. Like mine.
Would an officer, police department, city—or even a nation, be okay with telling my parents, “We’re sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Goller, but your son, Chad, was killed by an officer tonight. No ma’am, he wasn’t armed, though it appears the officer saw him reach towards his waistband. Again, we’re so very sorry.”
One of the first things I learned about having white parents was that when it came to dealing with people in authority, they got listened to. In sixth grade after yet another racially charged incident, Mom threatened to go to the papers, and for the rest of the year things actually got better. In junior high, the Black Parents Association would enlist Mom’s help and suddenly it got a whole lot harder to write them all off as hysterical, over-reactive black parents.
And by high school, it was clear that at least in the eyes of the authorities, having white parents wasn’t exactly a bad thing. With white parents came: white neighbors, friends, classmates, relatives, privileges, and experiences.
And with that, came witnesses—white witnesses—more than willing to vouch for me, go to bat for me, stand in the gap for me. And should the police have killed me, it would be they who spoke for me. Have you any idea what that’s worth?
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