Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.
Just a few miles and months from Philando Castile’s fatal shooting by a police officer during a routine traffic stop, I steered my car toward a restaurant in St. Paul, Minn. Not to sound all Twilight Zone about it, but my unintended destination was the parallel racial universe of encounters between civilians and cops.
It was a Friday night in September, and my wife and I had just had drinks while hearing an after-work show by a favorite bar band. Now we had a dinner reservation in the tony Cathedral Hill neighborhood and were looking for a parking spot.
I drove past one vacant space, trying to get closer to the restaurant, and finding nothing, pulled a New York-expat move by rolling back fast a block in reverse to claim the still-open spot.
Then, as my wife and I started walking to dinner, a police officer rushed out from another nearby eatery and confronted me. Didn’t I know I’d smacked into the car parked behind mine? Was I just going to pretend nothing had happened?
Flummoxed, I replied that I had not even touched the other car. The cop insisted that I walk over to the cars to admit to the damage. Instead, we found a foot of open asphalt between my rear bumper and the other vehicle’s front bumper, and not a scratch on either one. And that, I assumed, would be the end of that, an honest mistake on the officer’s part.
My wife and I started out a second time for the restaurant, and the officer blocked our path to inform me that if I left the scene of this “hit and run,” he would file charges against me for leaving the scene of an accident.
Searching for witnesses, the officer went back into his restaurant and then across the street to a few elderly ladies sitting in folding chairs. No one had seen anything because there had been nothing to see. The officer’s partner came out to join him, and I was pretty sure I saw on the partner’s face a flicker of eye-rolling disbelief.
Again, I hoped we were done. No such luck. The first officer issued an edict. I had to leave a note on the windshield of the other car admitting to an accident that had never happened and providing my contact information. Otherwise, I’d be charged with leaving the scene.
At about this point, I began to think about Philando Castile. Here I was being intimidated into confessing to something I had not done. Here I was in the control of a young, presumably inexperienced, perhaps enraged or perhaps just anxious police officer, who was escalating a nonexistent fender-bender into a potential arrest — or something worse.
What if I had been African American and 32 years old like Castile instead of 60 and white? Would I have been thrown up against a wall and frisked and cuffed, charged with resisting arrest? And what if a black version of me had objected?
Because I had capitulated by writing out a false confession, the officer said he would settle for giving me a ticket for reckless driving. All this time, in the 20 minutes or so we had been on the sidewalk, he had not even bothered to ask for my license and registration. That sure would have seemed like the logical first step.
So I pulled out my New York state driver’s license and handed it to the officer. Then I said, “If you want to verify that’s who I really am, here are a couple more things.” From my wallet, I slid out my ID cards from the New York Times (where I was then a columnist) and the University of Minnesota (where I was a visiting professor for a semester). My wife demanded reciprocal identification from both officers.
After a few minutes in his squad car running my information, the officer returned. He had decided not even to ticket me. Of course, we both knew exactly what had happened. I had pulled my white-skin, professional, establishment privilege. I had implicitly dared him to make trouble for someone with the capacity to make trouble back, maybe by filing a civilian complaint to the police department.
The dinner plans were ruined. My wife and I drove back across to Minneapolis, doing 15 miles an hour in a 30 zone and relentlessly checking the rearview mirror, just to make sure that the law-enforcement portion of our evening was done.
Along with my IDs and driver’s license, my wallet now also contained the second police officer’s business card, on which he’d written down his offending partner’s name. I still have that card. I’d been half-expecting to find the officer implicated in some case of harassment or brutality against someone with a lot less social power than I possess.
I never did see any such report. But Friday’s acquittal of Castile’s killer on manslaughter charges brings my own experience fiercely to mind. The jurors in that case clearly carried an assumption that Castile must have done something to legitimately scare Officer Jeronimo Yanez into firing.
Even though Castile had told Yanez he had a licensed firearm and that he was reaching only for his wallet, even though Castile had his girlfriend and her little daughter in the car with him, even though Castile had a provable work record in the St. Paul school system, surely the benefit of the doubt had to accrue to the cop. Something was different during my encounter with the police. It’s not hard to see what it was.
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