Has anyone ever pointed a gun at you?
In my last year of college, my fraternity brother Devin (not his real name) and I were putting flyers on the cars of a parking lot outside a homecoming party. A police officer came over and asked us what we were doing. Devin said “We’re putting flyers in people’s car windows.” My body tensed up when the officer told us to put our hands where he could see them.
Devin took his hands out of his pockets really quickly. I didn’t. There’s a long list of things police mistake for guns when in black hands, and since I was holding small black flyers, I didn’t want anything black to peek out of my pocket. The only thing in my head was to appear calm, despite the weapon aimed at me (I’ve been anxious around guns since I was a child). I told the officer “I’m taking my hands out slowly,” and he yelled “Show me your hands now!” pointing both his flashlight in my eyes and his gun at my head.
After he saw the flyers, he asked us again what we were doing. Devin gave the same reply, and the officer said “Oh,” putting his gun anyway. He claimed that he received “reports of people trying to break into cars” then walked away unceremoniously from the conversation. We stood there shocked, processing what had happened before going back to our car.
Every now and then I talk about that incident with Devin, friends, or family. It’s a bit surreal to think that I could have been a hashtag, a household name. With the wrong movement—an anxious twitch, maybe even a sneeze—my name could have been on the list of Black people killed by police. I would have been a “good” victim for some—an unarmed Black male with no record and a bright future from a prestigious university. Fox News would have scrubbed my Facebook page, searching for a profile picture or a status that could effectively demonize me and assure their viewers that I was a horror looming in the shade. The officer would have had a perfect out, too, since he did get “reports of someone trying to break into cars,” after all.
Having survived that encounter, I’m grateful that I had the presence of mind to stay poised. Yet I can’t help but think how absurd it was that Devin and I were the ones who needed to maintain composure in a completely imbalanced life-or-death situation.
In our national social and political debates, every murder of an African American by police gets adjudicated in great part by debating whether the officer was reasonably scared. Each of us would admit that fear is a reasonable response to having a gun pointed at you. Officers who use deadly force are routinely exonerated because they claim to have feared a suspect was armed (though, ironically, often the only person who has a gun in these encounters is the officer). We hear a lot about their fear and we legitimate it reflexively.
One thing we seem to rarely talk about, led alone legitimate, is Black fear. Black fear of police is understood—and in some ways codified (through things like use-of-force policies and qualified immunity)—as illegitimate. This means that, essentially, the entire burden to assess and de-escalate a situation falls on the backs of Black people. When stopped by the police, Black folk are expected to ignore all our human instincts; ignore the adrenaline or cortisol oozing through our veins, the fear emanating from our hearts and coiling around our bodies. Yet we don’t expect such self-suppression from police— especially if the officer is white and the suspect is Black.
To a large swath of America, it is irrational for police not to be scared of Black people. There’s deep rooted anti-blackness to all of this—to borrow from Saidiya Hartman, “a racial calculus and a political arithmetic” that devalues Black lives. But the most unyielding defenders of law enforcement often see these instances through the lens of “racial realism”: the idea that racial disparities simply reflect real cultural and biological differences between races. When Black people get killed by police, some commentators brandish “black-on-black crime” statistics to justify excessive, even fatal, force.
Yet, for the same people, the long history of law enforcement killing Black folk in virtually every kind of situation will never provide enough data to legitimate fear of police, led alone show systemic discrimination. To admit that Black people’s fear of police is rational would be an indictment of our justice system and illuminate the troubling roots of policing in America. At the same time, “I was afraid for my life” are the magic words for law enforcement. Reciting that incantation, sticking to that script, is enough to get you home free.
But was George Floyd allowed to be afraid? What was Floyd supposed to do under Chauvin’s knee, knowing that if he resisted death, then he would die? If Floyd tried to defend his life, he still would have lost it. Why do Black folk have to be automatons to make sure police don’t read our “flight” responses as “fight” responses?
Chester Himes wrote, “Racism introduces absurdism into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, it generates absurdity in the victims.” I don’t think most Americans really grasp how absurd it is for so many of these encounters between white police and Black civilians to end in someone getting killed, and that’s even without comparing them to the times police subdued white suspects—from mass murderers to white men wrestling with officers or even pointing guns at them—without killing them.
Fear can be a rational response. It also can be a mind-killer. But good or bad, fear is a very human reaction. In extending officers the right to be afraid, we affirm their humanity. When we delegitimize Black fear, we assert the idea that you have to be the right color to be afraid. And what Black folk are left with is a choice between being superhuman and inhuman.
We are neither.