A Black realtor was showing a home to a Black father and son. They were handcuffed by Michigan police.
Black real estate agent and Black clients handcuffed while touring a home speak out
06:46 - Source: CNN

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.

CNN  — 

What always gets me is how casual and routine it seems – the handcuffing, well-armed White men pointing guns at unarmed Black people. The banality. The commonplace-ness of it all.

A Friday statement from police officials in Wyoming, Michigan, declared that an internal review showed that “race played no role” in the decision by their officers on August 1 to handcuff two Black men and a Black teen – one a realtor showing the other two a home for sale. Of course, race played a role in the incident. It always does.

Issac Bailey

I suspect few policing experts in the US could study the police dashboard camera video of the incident and conclude the officers did anything untoward. They quickly got themselves into position surrounding the house and behind their squad cars before demanding the men come out with their hands up for what they had believed was a crime in progress.

They did not break through the front door with guns blazing, the kind of tactic that left Breonna Taylor dead in Louisville. There was no repeat of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 10 minutes. There was no death, no firing of any weapons, no police brutality. No one was called the n-word. The police officers simply responded to a neighbor’s call, claiming to have seen a person who had been arrested recently for breaking into the house (and their car), specifically identifying that person as Black. Once they determined there was no crime in progress, they let the men go and apologized for the inconvenience.

Case closed. Or it would be in a country without the United States’ racial history – or present – or the gulf of distrust between police and many of the Black residents they’ve sworn to protect.

Roy Thorne, left, is seen with his 15-year-old son Samuel, middle, and realtor Eric Brown. All three were handcuffed by Wyoming, Michigan, police officers while touring a home.

It’s easy to see this from the officers’ perspective, which is what the general public often does and what journalists, in my experience as a reporter, are often encouraged to do. Those officers’ actions seem at every level by-the-book, in service of what they believed would serve the public good. But that’s the rub. Their chosen everyday response to such situations undermines the public trust.

I don’t believe many police trainers and advocates understand the power of their badges, their batons, their uniforms. I’m not sure they fully understand what it means to be Black and have to stare into the barrel of a gun aimed at center mass – all for the sin of wearing Black skin while touring a house for sale. That can’t be undone by a handshake and a quick apology. It leaves a mark not easily wiped away, reopens unhealed, decades deep scars.

If the officers and those men and that teenager met again, a possibility that was mentioned during a CNN interview with the two men and teenager handcuffed, I’m sure those officers might want to explain that such tactics are designed for officer safety. They don’t know what to expect when they show up to the scene of a potential crime-in-progress. They have to ask themselves: Are the assailants armed? Do they have violent intentions? The barked commands and handcuffs are there for the protection of the suspect as much as the officers. That’s what they’ll say because that’s what they always say. I’ve heard it a thousand times during the past couple of decades of reporting on such issues.

But think about it from the perspective of the men and the teenage boy who, fortunately, spotted the officers slowly surrounding the house, giving them time to understand what was happening and do everything in their power to de-escalate a potentially deadly situation not of their making. What if they had not noticed, were startled by the presence of gun barrels and made rash moves generated by fear rather than defiance? Those rash, automatic moves would surely have been perceived as threats by officers who would then have been justified in the eyes of much of the public, and likely the criminal justice system as well.

We aren’t supposed to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision-making in tense moments, but we blame those on the other end of the officer’s barrel for the split-second decisions they make if the officer doesn’t perceive them as perfectly or sufficiently compliant. Given that, is it really too much to ask that officers find a better way to detain men in such circumstances? Did it really take viewing a man’s real estate license to determine they were no threat, to understand that unholstered guns and handcuffs were no longer necessary?

That this happened as these men were looking to buy a home shouldn’t go unnoticed. Real estate has been used as one of the primary tools to keep segregation alive in the US, as well as the echoes of Jim Crow. It is a top reason why the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites is so large, and why Black kids are more likely than White kids to be sent to underperforming schools. Some of those policies have been overt and sanctioned by every level of government, while other subtler policies are entrenched by societal pressure. That’s part of what those cops were stepping into even if they didn’t understand the implications.

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    Even when the story ends with a handshake and an apology, that distrust between police and the community deepens. It’s why even after nearly 34 years of driving and not once being pummeled by a cop on the side of the road late at night, I haven’t been able to shake the fear that it might happen the next time I jump into my truck. It’s as though I’m afraid of not being afraid.

    That familiar fear rose up again when I watched those unarmed Black men and teenager be casually handcuffed. On some level, it doesn’t make much sense, given I’ve yet to be forced into such a situation. But on so many other levels, it’s obvious why even an incident that might be described as comparatively benign could leave me with such sorrow.