In life, there are very few guarantees. You will pay taxes, have to use the restroom, hear a bad rendition of a Stevie Wonder song, and die. If you are Black however, you will have an encounter with the police. It doesn’t matter your social status (Lawrence Otis Graham), your age (Tamir Rice), if you are a rich athlete (James Blake), sitting reading a book (Keith Lamont Scott), or just walking (Mike Brown), if you are Black, there will be a point in your life where you will interact with law enforcement, whether you want or not. Due to many of these encounters, African-American’s are often arrested, brutalized, and murdered. On Sunday, June 18th, 2017, Charleena Lyles of Seattle was killed by a Seattle Police officer. What was note-worthy about this shooting is not that Ms. Lyles had a knife, but that she called the police to her home for fear of burglary. Ms. Lyles requested that the Seattle Police come to investigate a possible break in, and she ends up dead. When I read about this, I thought, “Should we even call the police?”
When I started going over the details of the shooting: pregnant mother of three who has documented mental issues, the repeated visits by the Seattle Police Department in the past, and calling the police because she feared for the safety of her family, I had to ask myself, “How is it logical that Ms. Lyles ended up dead?” Then I realized that when it comes to the police and the lives of African-Americans, there is no logic to be had. There is literally nothing we can do to keep ourselves safe and alive when we come face to face with a cop. Black people cannot drive, have fun at a party, eat, or call for help without the possibility of death. What I am describing is not hopelessness, but a sick murder lottery waiting for a number to be called.
As far back as I could remember, calling the police was discouraged. I would hear older relatives talking about “keeping them out of our neighborhood”, “when the cops come, shit gets worse”, and “we can solve this ourselves.” My family and friends always believed that when the police entered the picture, it would cause a situation to escalate and people would either get arrested or worse. All throughout my neighborhood, rarely did anyone call 911 because either the cops never came, were incredibly late, or when they did arrive, the cops were not sympathetic to our concerns. In other words, they didn’t give a fuck. When many read this, they may think, “Oh this is the stop snitching thing. They don’t want the police to be called when crimes are committed.” I say no to that. Since the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, there has always been a very oppressive relationship between African Americans and law enforcement. From the slave patrols which the police originated from, cops enforcing the Black codes on freed slaves, countless African-Americans beaten and killed during the Civil Rights Movement by various law enforcement, corrupt police officers complicit in the distribution of drugs in the inner cities, numerous unlawful traffic stops, and the murder of unarmed Black people have permanently severed the relationship that exists between the two communities. I myself have never had the feeling that I could trust the police because out of all the times that I was stopped while driving, walking, or even a witness to a crime, there has almost always been a negative outcome. I ended up being the one searched, questioned harshly, or even accused of being involved in a dispute I witnessed. The only time I have had a positive experience with a police officer is when pulled over, I was with a female friend who happened to be white.
The police harming Black people who have called them for assistance is nothing new. In December 2016, Jacqueline Craig of Fort Worth, TX called the police after a neighbor choked her son. When the cops arrived on the scene, they began to question Craig. After an argument ensued, an officer then wrestled Craig to the ground. The confrontation was captured on video with the American Civil Liberties Union commenting, “This incident and countless others like them demonstrate that for people of color, showing anything less than absolute deference to police officers — regardless of the circumstances — can have unjust and often tragic consequences.”
Before the Charleena Lyles slaying, I had an incident that occurred recently that made me question if I should call the police. My partner Michelle and I were asleep one Saturday night. Around 1:30am, she and I woke up to hear an intoxicated male yelling out his sexual conquests. Now this is nothing new to us. She lives in the San Francisco neighborhood of Nob Hill, an area that has hotels and bars with intoxicated folks stumbling into the streets in the late night/early morning. This guy had been yelling for two Saturday nights straight, and Michelle and I were losing our patience. Our first thought was to call in a noise complaint, but I decided to go outside and confront the guy. As I walked outside, I prepared for a confrontation with a hostile drunk person but ended up seeing a frail young Black man that clearly had mental issues. I asked, “Hey man, what’s up? Why are you yelling?” He replied apologetically, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. We are getting ready to go to sleep.” When he said “we”, I saw an older man next to him lying on cardboard trying to sleep. All the anger I had went away. I went back upstairs to bed and thought about what happened. What if I would have called the police and an altercation occurred. What if I would have called the police and another Black man would have lost his life?
I have written many pieces about African Americans and our relationship with the police – What I fear as a Black man, How to stay alive while Black, and When Black People and The Police Collide. I think it is very important to continue this conversation and shine a light on the complexities that Black people face when we encounter law enforcement. This is an issue that will likely not go away. Some may say, “LeRon, if we don’t call the police, what can we do instead?” That is a great question. Truthout.org, a site that specializes in discussions about injustice, lists alternatives to calling the police such as having constructive conversations with one another and talking with neighbors on how to keep the community safe. There is also the Harm Reduction movement, which specializes in helping drug abusers and not jailing them. If you are a victim or potential victim of violence, then when all else fails, call the police. I just believe in having as many options as I can to solve a problem.
In today’s age, Black people have to be realistic about who and where we are. The police have never been our friend, protector, or hero. They are an oppressive force that has the ability to arrest, hurt, and kill us while being protected under the law. Calling the police may put us in unnecessary harm’s way. Some may say, “LeRon, you are painting all cops with the same brush.” To that, I say hell yes. Not all cops may be shooting Black people down like a video game, but there are too many that are staying silent and not rebuking these killings. To quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Until I see a mass exodus from the “blue wall of silence,” all y’all the same. To Charleena Lyles, we will never forget and will always speak your name.
Click an image below to RSVP to #StopRacism or learn How to Create Social Change on Tuesday nights!
Photo Credit: Getty Images