A Tale of Two Joints: What a lot of White Folks Don’t Understand about Stop and Frisk

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Combat ignorance. Read.

It is Saturday night in a college town. Two kids go out with their friends to party. One kid is white.  One kid is black. Each brings along a joint. At 2 AM, each finds himself hanging out in a diner parking lot or a street corner near where the party was.

A police car drives by.

The police pass the white kid without stopping.

The black kid “fits the description” of something or other, so they stop him. Search him. Find the joint. Arrest him.

He calls his parents. Misses an exam for a court date. Pays a fine. Now he has a record. 

White kid goes home. Smokes joint with friends. Sleeps in late Sunday morning, and is up late Sunday night finishing his economics paper.

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Five years later, each young man is driving a car with a broken tail light.

White guy gets pulled over for a broken tail light. Cops give him a warning. Maybe even a ticket. White guy goes home.

Black guy gets pulled over for his broken tail light. Police run his license, and see that he has a prior arrest for that joint in college. He is a criminal. He also “fits the description” for another crime. A black male (20’s – 30’s) in a silver car, robbed a convenience store three weeks ago, 10 miles from here. He’s a black male in a grey car. Could be him.

Police draw their guns and order him out of the car. One cop is yelling for him to drop his phone. The other is yelling for him to put his hands up against the car. He doesn’t want to drop his new phone and crack it. He knows he can’t put his hands in his pockets. He hesitates. Just for a second. But he fails to comply with police instructions. They knock him to the ground. Face on the asphalt. He hears his phone crack. The cops are shouting “don’t resist!” He chants the mantra “I’m not resisting. I’m not resisting.” One cop puts his foot on the young man’s back. They call for backup. Search his car.

It could go either way at this point. They could take him in and charge him with resisting arrest. Or, since they didn’t find anything really worth charging
him with, they could take off his handcuffs, let him pick up his broken phone, give him a ticket for the tail light, and send him on his way. He is probably not going to die tonight. Even though that fear is running through him. Only hundreds of black people die in police custody each year. Only hundreds. Let that sink in. Millions of black men and women go through stops like this one every year. Car stops. Stop and frisks. And it will happen to him again. 

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Please check out these important books on race, incarceration, and white privilege.

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Another five years go by. Each man is driving his kid home from soccer practice. Each man fails to come to a full stop at a stop sign.

White guy apologizes. Cop is polite. But he issues a ticket. White guy pulls traffic_stop_on_gregson_staway and swears out loud. Points on his license. His insurance is going to go up. Then he realizes his son is in the car, and heard him swear. He doesn’t like for his son to hear words like that. He feels even worse. He is having a rotten day.

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Black guy breaks into a sweat when he hears the sirens. His son is in the car. His post-traumatic stress is real. He remembers being shoved to the ground. Handcuffed. He doesn’t want his son to see anything like that. The man’s ears fill with white noise. He starts reaching for his registration and insurance papers in the glove compartment, but then stops himself. The cop is at the window. He lowers the window. The officer is polite. But he notices how nervous the man looks. He asks for license, insurance and registration. The man narrates each of his actions, slowly. His hand is shaking. He drops some of the papers on the passenger side floor. He asks permission to lean over and pick them up. The cop makes a mental note that the man is acting erratically. He suspects it might be drugs. The cop asks him to wait in the car. The man waits. He tells his son everything is going to be all right. He gives his phone to his son. Considers asking him to start recording, but decides against it. He is too young to have such a big responsibility. Instead, he shows the little boy how to dial mom if he needs to.

The cop comes back. He now knows that the driver has a prior drug arrest. And given that he is shaking and sweating now, looks like drugs are still in the picture. Also, he fits the description of someone wanted for something somewhere. The cop asks the man to get out of the car. Politely.

The man’s legs don’t move. He mind is flooded with images of that stop years before. And the other stops since then. He can handle the pain of his ear and his cheek scratched against the asphalt. The pain and indignity of the handcuffs. The foot on his back. But not in front of his son. His baby. His little boy who worships him.

The man hears himself asking “Is there a problem officer?”

The cop pulls out his weapon, points it at the man, and says “I said get out of the car.”

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A lot of white people don’t understand how this cycle works. We have been stopped by the police.  It has been unpleasant.  If we don’t have a record, (and most of us don’t) we move on.  One in three black men can expect to be arrested in his lifetime. Is this because whites are so much more law abiding?  Or is there something else at work here. 

 arrestStop and frisk certainly contributes to disproportionate arrests of people of color. That is because so many people of color are subjected to stop and frisks. According to the ACLU, in 2011 there were 685,724 stop and frisk events in NYC.  That is 685,724 times, in one year, in one American city, that human beings who were walking home, or sitting on their front stoops, or hanging around outside the corner store, were stopped by police. Pushed against a wall, usually.  Sometimes bent over a police car.  Sometimes pushed to the ground. Their backpacks or purses or pockets were emptied. Their bodies were touched in places that should only be touched by lovers or doctors. Their identification was run. If they were old enough to have identification. Many were children in middle school or high school. Onlookers watched. Some sympathetically. Some suspiciously. These folks were detained. Humiliated. Made late for appointments. And in 88% of the cases, they were found to have nothing illegal in their possession. No outstanding warrants. They “cooperated” with the search. And they were then sent on their way. 

That year 53% of those stopped were black and 9% were white. This is in a city in which there are more white people than black people. 34% of those stopped were Latino. Do you see something wrong with this picture? 295,902, or 49%, were between the ages of 14-24. Children. Many of them children, being touched in a way that no child should be touched. 

Only 22% were found guilty of ANYTHING.  And sometimes that something was failure to cooperate with the search. And that leads to resisting arrest. So it is not really a good use of police time and energy in terms of fighting crime. But sometimes the cops found stuff.  Pot. A lot of pot. Other drugs. Fake ID that an underage kid used to get into a club. Untaxed cigarettes.  Sometimes they found stuff that was more serious. But not often enough to justify the policy. 

Hundreds of black people die in police custody each year. And that outrageous. But MILLIONS of black people and brown people are subjected to life altering indignities that most of us white folks can’t even comprehend. Often multiple times each year. The same people over and over again.  

In 2014, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that aggressive police tactics, such as stop and frisk, result in lasting trauma. There is post-traumatic stress.  And this impacts on future interactions with the police.  

And if they are found with something illegal, or if they do something illegal during the search, (such as fail to follow police instructions), their lives are changed forever. 

Like the college kid who had a joint in his pocket on a Saturday night. 

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#BlackLivesMatter

Please also read:  https://justnomore.com/news/my-white-privilege/

 

 

Please check out these important books on race, incarceration, and white privilege.