Racism, Stress, and Black Death
My heart began racing. I had done nothing wrong. I had nothing to worry about. Right? But the sight of an officer approaching me as I stepped out of my car left me consumed with a particular sort of anxiety—the sort that stems from having watched and heard about innumerable examples of police encounters that begin peacefully but do not end as such. Do I stand still? Do I keep walking toward him? Do I pull out my phone just in case? Will he think I’m reaching for something else? Is his hand on his holster? Do I look nervous? I was.
The officer asked for my I.D. I gave it to him. I did not pull out my phone. I told him that this was where my aunt lives. That this was her car. That I was just borrowing it. That I didn’t know why the alarm was going off in the house. I do not know if he believed me. He looked at my I.D. Then back at me. Then back at the I.D. He went to his car to run my name. He found nothing. After I called my aunt, who was not far down the road, she returned to the house and explained to the police officer what had happened. The alarm was going off because when she left the house, a few minutes before, she had accidentally put in the wrong code, so the system alerted the police, who came to the house. She apologized profusely. I asked the officer to please hand back my I.D. He handed it back, then pulled off and away from the house. In this instance, the officer was doing what he was supposed to do. And so was I. And still, even after an encounter in which no violence ensued, the fear that something might transpire left my chest tight. What would have happened if my aunt hadn’t picked up the phone?
Most police encounters do not end in people getting killed. But far too many do. Every two days, a black person is shot by the police. It can be easy for some to say that espousing a sense of fear for a routine police encounter is hyperbolic and counterproductive. But one can only say such a thing when those who look like them have not been deemed disposable by the state. In the past several years, we have been witness to more and more black men and women dying on the other side of the camera lens, and earlier this month we saw two more.
Only a few days after my encounter with the police, two patrolmen tackled Alton Sterling onto a car, then pinned him down on the ground and shot him in the chest while he was selling CDs in front of a convenience store, seventy-five miles up the road in Baton Rouge. A day after that, Philando Castile was shot in his car during a police traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, as his girlfriend recorded the aftermath via Facebook Live.