I saw a movie once called The Deer Hunter. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken starred as childhood friends who end up as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Russian roulette was one of the forms of torture used by their captors.
In the film, the Viet Cong forced their prisoners to play the game against one another, making them spin the barrel of a pistol, hold it to their temples, and pull the trigger. Their captors gambled as the prisoners played until, finally, a “bang” replaced the “click” of the empty chamber. Walken’s character is so traumatized by playing Russian roulette over and over that he continues playing once he’s out of the military and back home in the states.
With the juxtaposition of the Derek Chauvin trial and Daunte Wright’s death at the hands of police 10 miles away, something occurred to me. When Black folks have an encounter with the police, we may as well be playing Russian roulette. Each interaction with law enforcement is like a proverbial gun to our heads, an event that could end as uneventfully as the “click” of an empty pistol or the destructive “bang” that signals a bullet in the chamber.
When dealing with the police, Black people never know what to expect. And that uncertainty, the not knowing whether you’ll live or die, presents a kind of trauma only a non-White person can understand.
The only difference between Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and me is that I’ve managed to survive each of my encounters with the police — so far.
For example, one evening a few summers ago, my family drove home on Father’s Day after a long day on the beach. We had yet to move to the island we currently call home, so the 20-mile drive to the beach was part of our weekend routine. About halfway home, we had a flat tire. As I rummaged through the trunk of our 2013 Passat searching for the jack, a North Carolina state trooper eased along the shoulder of the highway, stopping a few feet behind our vehicle.
I felt a pang of fear in the pit of my stomach, not because I’d broken the law but because I knew any encounter between a Black man and the police could go wrong, often for no apparent reason. And this particular summer, it seemed every other week there was an incident of police killing an unarmed Black man. A few days earlier, Minnesota police shot and killed Philando Castile as he reached for his license. Before that, Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in front of a convenience store where he sold CDs.
I walked from the trunk to the front of my vehicle. When my wife handed me our registration and my wallet, I saw the concern, both in her eyes and the eyes of our two children sitting in the back seat of the car.
Unlike Castile and Sterling, we were lucky that evening. Our encounter with the state trooper that evening did not end in death. To my surprise, the officer, a thirty-ish White man, greeted me with respect. He helped loosen the stubborn lug nuts on my tire, then changed it himself. Then the trooper was on his way. He never even asked for my license and registration. We drove the rest of the way home in silent relief.
One evening after work, I was sitting at a stop sign a few blocks from home when a police car drove up behind me, lights flashing and siren chirping. When the police officer came to my window, he seemed angry. “I’ve been following you for over a mile, boy,” was the first thing he said when I rolled down my window. After shining his flashlight in my face as if trying to determine if I was high on drugs, he said, “You need to watch yourself.” Then he drove away.
To this day, I have no idea why the policeman followed me for a mile, why he stopped me, or why he was so pissed off.
Not long after that, a different policeman stopped me at 2 a.m., again a few blocks from my home. I’d just made a right turn at a red light, and the sirens went off. The officer said he thought I “made the right turn to avoid him” because I was driving a stolen car. When I informed the officer that the car I drove was indeed mine and not stolen, he took me at my word, not even asking for my license and registration.
Before I recovered from the shock of being accused of stealing my own car, the police officer hopped into his vehicle and drove away.
White people I know are surprised when I tell them about the numerous times the police have stopped me. They generally fail to understand that, for Black people, any random encounter with law enforcement, no matter how mundane, can end like Daunte Wright’s, Eric Garner’s, or Philando Castile’s. But despite all evidence to the contrary, many White folks believe that some Black people have nothing to fear from the police. They think this way because of what I call the “Good Black Theory.”
The “Good Black Theory” is based on an inside joke in my family. Years ago, one of my brothers and I were officers on the PTA at our kid’s elementary school. At the time, we were the only two Black parents in the school’s PTA. One day, one of the White parents on the PTA board approached the two of us and said the PTA needed more “good Blacks” like the two of us.
As best as I can tell, a “good Black” is a Black person who White people consider unthreatening either because they’ve interacted with the person socially or in the workplace. In some cases, the good Black is someone they don’t even know personally. For example, when he played in the NBA, Micheal Jordan was considered a “good Black” by White people, most of whom never met him in person.
That time in PTA was when I realized that many White people think that because they know or like a particular Black individual, that person is imbued with invisible protection from the police that other Blacks — especially Black people they perceive to be dangerous — do not possess. Their mistaken belief is that a “good Black” does not get stopped by the police and therefore has nothing to fear from law enforcement.
Unarmed Black people may soon have better odds of surviving a round of Russian roulette than living through a traffic stop.
White people who think like this do not understand is that the police do not subscribe to the theory of the good Black. How do I know this? Because the police have stopped me many times for no apparent reason, although the White people who know me probably consider me to be a good Black. The only difference between Daunte Wright, Philando Castile, and me is that I’ve managed to survive each of my encounters with the police — so far.
Every Black man I know understands that regardless of our station in life, where we live, how much money we make, or how much our White friends may consider us to be good Blacks, it doesn’t matter. We can even be an officer in the U.S. Army in uniform, like Lt. Caron Nazario, and it doesn’t mean a thing to the police.
That’s why, for Black Americans, being stopped by the police can feel like Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, forced to fire a gun with a bullet in the chamber at our collective temples. Each of us is just one bad policeman away from death. We constantly wonder if the next police stop will end with an officer helping to change a tire, with a warning to “watch yourself,” or with a death sentence.
Considering the variety of justifications police find for their use of excessive force, unarmed Black people may soon have better odds of surviving a round of Russian roulette than living through a traffic stop. It’s all a game of odds.