Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m a Black man who has never personally had a nasty run-in with the police. I should have no trouble with them. But I fear them, and I know they fear me.
Caron Nazario, an Army officer, was pepper-sprayed in the face during a traffic stop in Virginia; Daunte Wright was shot by a cop in Minnesota who allegedly mistakenly reached for the wrong weapon; George Floyd died in handcuffs while a police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
I’ve met young Black men so terrified of police in their neighborhood they stopped telling anyone about the times cops would harass them or rough them up. Heck, they didn’t even trust me despite all we had in common. A kind of helplessness had set in among them, as well as an anger just underneath the surface always ready to boil over.
We’ve bathed our culture in so many guns that it is reasonable to wonder who is carrying one and what they plan to do with it. It’s not crazy for cops to assume a gun is present in every vehicle they stop, just as it’s not crazy for Black men to think they might become the next hashtag during a traffic stop because a cop was having a bad day or can’t tell the difference between a Taser and Glock.
We’ve sprung a trap on ourselves and can’t see our way out. Or maybe we don’t want to. But each side isn’t equally at fault. Any death is a tragedy, but police officers are rarely harmed or killed in traffic stops. Yet they have been told time and again to always be on guard, to always be afraid because they might – might – be a split second away from an event that will mean they won’t make it home that night. Never mind what Washington Post criminal justice reporter Radley Balko recently pointed out, that maybe 5 to 10 traffic stops end in an officer being killed – out of about 30 million annually.
While I understand a cop’s fear, it’s not the same as wondering if your kid might be killed after a cop decides to pull him over or because he was selling loose cigarettes on a street corner. Random violence is the scariest crime because there’s nothing you can do to avoid it, because you can’t anticipate it. We understand that when a young man shoots up a school or mall or movie theater. That’s what police violence has done to me. It’s why even though I’ve never been harmed by police, I can’t help but wonder if that’s gonna change by tomorrow.
The view from a squad car
I don’t have a criminal record of any kind. I went 20 years between speeding tickets. I’ve been in the back seat of a squad car exactly twice. I felt that hard-uncomfortable seat once during a ride-along with police while I was in the middle of conducting a journalistic investigation into police stops in the area.
I felt it again years later when an officer caught me and a photojournalist colleague sneaking into a community that city officials had cordoned off after a wildfire that nearly leveled an entire housing development. We were trying to do our jobs and thought city officials had been heavy-handed. The officer politely asked us to get into his car, drove us out of the area and let us go.
During my ride-along with police, a couple of Black cops told me straightforwardly that they indeed used racial profiling every day. They also used any minor traffic infraction – a “rolling” stop at a stop signal, for instance – to initiate a stop of vehicles they believed looked suspicious.
“Suspicious” in their view even meant a young Black man driving a nice car trying to studiously adhere to every traffic law. In the minds of those cops, a Black man adhering to traffic laws was considered an attempt to avoid detection to get away with illegal behavior, not a sign of good citizenship. They called me days later after speaking to their White supervisor to tell me to disregard all they had told me. They didn’t want the department to look bad.
Things could have gone very differently for me years later, when a police officer stopped me as I was jogging along a sidewalk a few summers ago. But he wasn’t hostile; he chatted me up almost apologetically for interrupting my daily run. He was responding to an erroneous 911 call by someone who falsely claimed I had urinated in a public parking lot. I still don’t know who made that call, though I suspect if I was being racially profiled, it was that unknown caller doing the profiling, not the officer. Even when I was in my early 20s and was caught driving so fast above the speed limit I could have been immediately arrested, the White cop just chided me like a father disappointed in his son and gave me a break on the ticket before letting me drive on.
‘A threat in the form of a dangerous cop is existential’
In print, I’ve even defended a White police officer, a friend, who had shot a Black suspect after an intense chase. I believed then she was justified in that shooting. I still do. And as hard as it has been to admit, I’ve explained why me and the rest of my family sometimes breathed a sigh of relief when my youngest brothers were put behind bars.
Their participation in the deadly drug game despite all our attempts to redirect them had gotten so egregious we knew without doubt the town was safer when they weren’t around. After drug rivals, aiming for my brothers, mistakenly shot into a truck driven by one of my cousins with a few of my elementary- and middle-school-aged nephews, we knew we’d be safer if they were in prison, too.
Not only that, I know that though Black men are disproportionately harmed and killed by police officers during a variety of encounters, the overwhelming majority of Black man-cop interactions don’t include violence of any kind, from either side. It’s simply fact that most Black men are not wantonly committing violent crime in a way that should lead to them being perceived as a threat sight-unseen, and that most cops aren’t hunting Black men down like dogs.
Given all of that, you’d think I’d be singing hosannas about policing in this country and would have no problem calling upon them when my family and I needed help.
That’s not the case. Why? Because killers and dangerous drug dealers go to prison when they get caught. Dangerous cops often aren’t even charged for their bad acts. That makes them more powerful, and scarier. Dangerous drug dealers and street criminals are real threats. But a threat in the form of a dangerous cop is existential.
‘I can’t rationally let my guard down’
After the drive-by shooting that killed my niece’s mother, I was determined to get my youngest brother Jordan to talk to police. I knew, without knowing, that those bullets had likely been intended for him but found his girlfriend instead. I knew, without knowing, that if no one intervened, it would lead to a cycle of bloody violence. I wanted to do whatever possible to prevent that from happening and could think of no other way than turning to the police, even if it meant putting Jordan’s freedom in jeopardy.
I took him to the police station myself and told him to tell them everything he knew. That’s the part of the story I’ve found easy to tell. The part that’s always been harder, which is why I rarely discuss it, is that I hesitated before doing so. I didn’t trust the police. Not too long before that shooting, police had unleashed a K-9 unit on another of my brothers maybe because they were angry he had led them on a chase. They handcuffed him, put him in the back of the squad car and took him not to the hospital but to jail where he suffered in agony with significant injuries until my mother forced them to release him for medical treatment.
That’s why though I’m not in favor of defunding police, I have great empathy for those who’ve come to the conclusion it’s our only way out of this mess.
And it’s not just because of what I’ve seen in my personal life. As a journalist, I’ve reported on police officers shading the truth after officers paralyzed a Black man for life by firing dozens of bullets at him in his apartment. They were there over two alleged minor marijuana transactions and told investigators that they fired only after being shot at – despite tests revealing the victim’s gun was never fired. All while most local officials barely made a stink about it, even after having to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement.
I’ve seen too much to pretend not to know. I don’t like being led by or giving in to my fear, no matter how rational. That’s why I struggle against it. I don’t want to encounter a cop and always assume he’s a threat rather than a protector. It wouldn’t feel right. But because of what I know, what I’ve seen, I know that his fear comes with the full backing of the criminal justice system, which makes his blue fear more important than my Black life. Until that changes, I can’t rationally let my guard down.