The day after a black school-cafeteria manager, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer during a traffic stop, Coffey Anderson decided he needed to do something to prevent more deaths.
The only problem, the country musician and inspirational speaker told The Washington Post, was figuring out where to begin.
“So many feelings, so many words were flowing from everybody at the same time,” Anderson said. “In the age that we live in, you can do a status update every day or send a tweet at any moment, but we still have problems communicating with each other.”
He decided to split the difference by making a social-media video, “Stop the Violence Safety Video for When You Get Pulled Over by the Police.” The video has gone viral and sparked a heated debate about police interactions and compliance.
Getting people talking is something Anderson has always been good at, he said, mostly because he’s spent his own life straddling disparate worlds with unusual grace. He grew up in a multiracial family in the tiny town of Bangs, Tex., with a black mother and a white father who worked as a corrections officer.
In high school, Anderson said, he was the guy who would break up fistfights and force adversaries to shake hands.
These days, he wears a cowboy hat, drops Bible verses and belts out soulful ballads about wounded warriors. But he doesn’t shy away from discussing topics that aren’t typically associated with the country music world: race, policing and discrimination.
In Anderson, it seems, almost anyone can see a bit of themselves reflected.
“I just love all people,” he said. “And I never liked people not getting along.”
It was that same distaste for discord that inspired Anderson’s idea for reducing violent interactions during traffic stops. His solution: posting a video that walks viewers through a series of steps designed to defuse tension between police and African American drivers.
The video has been viewed more than 30 million times on Facebook. But it has also provoked strong reactions that range from fervent praise to furious criticism.
Supporters see the 3½-minute clip as a no-nonsense guide to staying safe by using old-fashioned common sense and politeness. Critics, however, maintain that the video encourages black drivers to passively endure whatever treatment potentially aggressive law enforcement officers mete out to them.
At the heart of Anderson’s message is a larger debate about compliance — a debate that has been intensified by Castile’s death after he was pulled over in Falcon Heights, Minn., for driving with a broken taillight.
The 32-year-old Montessori school-cafeteria supervisor had a valid permit to carry a gun, his family said, when he was shot and killed by a St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, on Wednesday night. Relatives also claim that Castile was killed despite following an officer’s orders.
“I always told him, ‘Whatever you do, when you get stopped by the police, comply, comply, comply, comply,’ ” his mother, Valerie Castile, told CNN on Thursday, the morning after the fatal encounter. “Comply — that’s the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police.”
She added: “My son was a law-abiding citizen and he did nothing wrong. I think he was just black in the wrong place.”
Still, New York Police Det. Yuseff Hamm, who serves as president of a fraternal organization of black officers in the city, underscored the importance of her main point when he told the Daily News that “we need to teach our children how to interact with police. I tell my 22-year-old son: Be compliant.”
During an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton echoed the message about strictly following orders.
“Whether white or black, when a police officer confronts you, compliance is the best way to deal with that situation,” Bratton said. “The shared responsibility, the officer enforcing the law, the citizen responding to the officer in appropriate fashion.”
Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor, said during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “if I were a black father, and I was concerned with the safety of my child, really concerned about it and not in a politically activist sense, I would say, ‘Be very respectful of the police. Most of them are good. Some can be very bad. And just be very careful.’ ”
Anderson’s traffic-stop safety video began circulating as demonstrators across the country were calling for an end to police brutality and for sweeping police reform. During a protest on Thursday night in Dallas, a black gunman opened fire on police, killing five officers and injuring seven others.
Some of the largest protests over the weekend took place in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, Minn., where tensions remain raw after the deaths of Alton Sterling in the Louisiana city and Castile in Falcon Heights, a St. Paul suburb.
At the same time as protesters were confronting police, Anderson’s viral video was urging African Americans to do the opposite when encountering law enforcement.
As he explains on camera, his approach to compliance involves four steps for minimizing misunderstandings. Anderson said they are the same rules his father taught him growing up, and they’re the ones he intends to teach his own children.
To be sure his video would be endorsed by police, he said, he checked with a Texas sheriff before posting it.
“A sheriff that I know said, ‘This is absolutely correct,’ ” Anderson told The Post. “I wanted to give out the right information.”
The steps, according to Anderson, are as follows:
- Turn off the car.
- Put your ID on dash.
- Place both hands on steering wheel.
- Keep the radio volume low.
“At the end of the day, the policeman wants to go home safely. We want to get home safely,” he says on camera. “Even if the cop is having a bad day, you have to go home. You gotta make it home. You’re needed. This is a big deal.”
That message was praised by countless viewers. But it angered others.
For many, it’s an approach to policing that puts the onus of proper behavior on the powerless novice instead of the trained professional.
“Man, please!” Tyshawn Gardner wrote on Anderson’s Facebook page. “So people have to do all this to ‘make’ an officer ‘feel’ safe? When they ask you for your ID and you reach for it, and they shoot you anyway, then what? Why are we acting like the drivers are the problem? Why don’t you get a video training officers how to treat and encounter black people. Let’s do this both ways.”
Anderson responded, writing to Gardner that he was “absolutely right.”
“My little video was made to help ease tension when pulled over, make the process streamlined, and show drivers how to get home,” he wrote. “Sad part is that if a cop doesn’t respect you, we have to take it. I pray the bad apples are being removed from the force everyday.”
“But until then, I wanted to have something that we could follow to just maybe save somebody,” he added. “It’s just a drop of water on a larger fire but I’m going to keep trying.”
Anderson told The Post that he doesn’t mind the angry responses to his video. He said the clip is encouraging healthy communication about a complicated topic.
“I want my page and my video to be a safe place for people who are hurting and who need to voice that pain,” he said. “Healthy communication is not all sunbeams and ice cream. It involves tears and frustrations and screaming.”
For many Americans, getting pulled over by a police officer is not just an annoying experience — it’s a terrifying one.
To prepare their children to survive these interactions, many black Americans have a blunt conversation about the matter informally known among parents as “the talk.”
Marq Claxton, director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance, told the New York Daily News that the exchange has become standard practice in black families.
“It is as much of a conversation as you’d give warnings about hanging with the wrong type of people or the dangers of drugs,” Claxton said, adding: “White people don’t give it to their children because there’s not a necessity for it. There’s no expectation that their kids will have a deadly or dangerous encounter with the good ol’ police.”
After Castile’s death, “the talk” no longer feels like enough to some African Americans: On Anderson’s Facebook page, some commenters argued that politeness isn’t enough to keep a black driver safe if he or she is pulled over by the wrong cop.
Gregory Carr Sr., a professor at Harris Stowe State University, is one of those people. He told St. Louis Public Radio last week that he’s been stopped three times in the past 13 years in his subdivision — and that on two of those occasions, he feared for his life.
His father, he said, used to tell him, “If the man stops you, you say ‘yes, sir,’ you say ‘no, sir,’ you do whatever he asks you to do.”
But now that Carr’s own son is nearing driving age, he told St. Louis Public Radio that he’s approaching “the talk” differently.
“Now, I tell my son: You need to know what your rights are, too,” he told the station. “We’ve discussed rights and what you can say. For example, last night, I was sharing with my son I was being tailed by a police officer and I turned off into a lighted area and the police officer drove past. I told him that there are things you can do within the law to get yourself to a safe area. A lot of these things happen in dark, isolated areas. If things happen in more populated areas, people can take pictures.”
Gregory Carr Jr., 14, told the station his father’s advice is helpful — but only to a point.
“These two shootings that have taken place were both caught on cameras that were nearby,” the teen said. “Me driving or walking into a place with cameras, I don’t think that would change the situation.”
On Saturday, as his traffic-stop video was spreading across social media, Anderson released another clip on Facebook.
This one, though, wasn’t about race, police or compliance.
Instead, it was an acoustic song about love and healing.