On Friday I watched, as in front row seats, a police officer pull over a car on Route 3 in Upper Darby. Big deal, right? Well, I couldn’t see what happened before they cars turned the corner and the salt covered black Dodge pulled over to the side of the road, but I saw what happened from there. The car could have pulled into the bank parking lot, but instead blocked the driveway and was just on the edge of the driving lane. “First mistake,” I thought to myself, expecting the police car to ask him to move through his radio. Instead, the driver opened his door. “Second mistake,” I said out loud. From there, the driver bolted. The policeman, a middle aged white guy had opened his door simultaneously, holding his hand over the gun in his holster, maybe as a display of authority, I don’t know. It happened so quickly. The driver of the salt covered black car was a young black man, maybe 27. He started running as the race started. The intersection was busy, two lanes of traffic each way, but he ran right into it.
Both men, the young black driver and the middle aged white police officer had looks of absolute fear and desperation on their faces. For the black man, I perceived a desperation of “oh my god, I cannot get caught” even though he must have known that his attempt was futile. For the police officer, his look was more like, “Why are you doing this, kid? What are you going to do? Please stop."
I wanted nothing more than to know the story as I watched them scamper through the intersection in a sad race. The pavement was still icy between the lanes in the paths that the salt covered cars hadn’t cleared. I wanted to know what had transpired before they turned the corner. Did it roll through a stop sign? Was the car reported stolen, or was it just a salt-covered Dodge driven by a black man?
The chase ultimately ended with the black man sliding on a patch of ice. It gave the police officer enough time to gain one step on him. The running man lost his balance and fell into the hood of an SUV as the officer lunged on top of him. Even grounded, with his arms pinned behind his back, the kid squirmed and fought as though his life depended on it. Maybe it did. I don’t know. I will never know.
The traffic light turned green and I proceeded. Should I have grabbed my cell phone off the passenger seat and recorded it? Should I have stopped and offered myself as a witness? Could I have really done anything at all? Besides, I wanted to be on the person of color’s side, but he was the one who started running.
As I drove past the parked car with its driver side door still open, I noticed that a twenty-something white girl had come out of the passenger seat and was looking around with the ultimate “What the hell, what do I do now?” face. Tell you what, if I were her I would have run and then casually walked my way out of the area. But maybe she was still standing there because she knew her friend hadn’t done anything wrong. Maybe she had never been in this situation before and was in shock. Maybe she wanted the police officer to come back so she could calmly explain the situation. Maybe she was just scared. He ran, she froze. I just drove by.
The truth is, I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man getting pulled over by a white cop. I have no idea.
I'm only slightly closer to understanding what it's like to be a white male police officer, but not really.
I wondered whether he ran out of guilt or fear, but I don’t know if it even matters. I mean, me, as a white woman, would have sat in that car with my license and registration in one hand and my other on the steering wheel whether I was guilty or not. I could sit there and play nice and pretty even if I’d just finished an armed robbery and there’s a possibility I’d even get to drive away from it. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man.
When I made it to my destination just a couple blocks up, I pulled into the parking lot and noticed a police car pulled over against the curb. When I walked past, I peered in and saw a black female officer in the driver seat. What would have happened if this police officer was the one who pulled over the young man? Would he have looked into the rearview mirror and taken a sigh of relief? Would he have run all the same?
Why did you run?
I have no idea what it’s like.
I could stand on my soapbox and yell for equal rights, and I should. I could get mad about the black man feeling the need to flee the white police officer. I could feel rage, grief, confusion, etc, but none of that is mine. I have the privilege of ignorance. I have the privilege of never knowing what it’s like to be a young colored person pulled over by a white police officer. For me to pretend that my anger is equivalent would take away from the pain suffered by that man and so many others living lives I'll never experience. It doesn’t even matter if he was guilty of something, running a red light or stealing that Dodge, I have no idea what it’s like.
I have no idea.