Written By: Anton Sawyer
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First off, I'm just going to put this out there: as someone who is white and is (somewhat) self-aware, I do not want anyone to think I am coming from any kind of perspective that I know what racism really feels like.
Having been raised in a mostly white (and completely red) state, I have never had to suffer the slings and arrows thrown to many minority groups. I can't imagine what kind of visceral reaction it is to those who are its target. With that being said, there have been two very personal experiences I've been involved with since the turn of the century that has impacted me immensely that involves racism; including one that shifted my entire being politically.
The first involved witnessing racism first-hand when dealing with the police.
In 2008 I was nearing the end of a 10-year stint doing call center phone work for one of the nation's largest satellite TV providers. Not having a car at the time—due to divorce—I was getting a ride home from one of my co-workers who was a black guy named Tevin.
I loved the guy to death. He was hilarious, and his attempts at certain American idioms were always entertaining. Once, when he meant to say he wanted to "go lay down" for a nap, he uttered that he wanted to "go get laid." He also wanted to fit in, so he tried to get rid of his French accent, but it ended up turning into something that initially made me think he was Jamaican. I had been working on the same team with him for about a year and a half when the incident occurred.
He had only been living in America for two years as he had been raised in France, and his parents wanted him to complete his higher education in the states. His father was a doctor, his mother was a lawyer, and the only reason he had the job was to prevent boredom while not in class. In fact, he was wealthy. He was easily more well-off than anyone who worked in our call center—including upper management. He was never arrogant or flashed his money, and oftentimes would change the topic if it were brought up. Because he didn't like the attention, he also drove a used, but modest, four-door sedan.
One night while taking me towards my apartment, which was about a 15-minute drive from our office, I got to see racism first-hand.
We got about four blocks from my humble abode when, after making a perfectly legal turn onto the road where I lived, the lights of the local law enforcement turned on behind us.
At this time I was incredibly naive as to the police and race relations. Yes, I had seen the Rodney King trial and its fallout. I had read and heard reports about "bad apples" everywhere, in every city. But with the limited amount of interactions I had with the police by this point, I thought these things happened in huge metropolises like Los Angeles or New York. The interactions I'd had with police before was because of something stupid I had done. Like once, when I was a teenager, I got busted with my step-brother and girlfriend with beer in a park after hours. We got cited, but nothing was out of the ordinary with the experience. This naiveté is important to keep in mind.
Tevin turned on his signal and pulled the car over onto the shoulder. The officer stopped directly behind us and proceeded to walk to our car. Both of us were incredibly confused as to what was going on, as we had just left work 10 minutes prior—in fact, we were both still wearing our badges and clothes—and Tevin wasn't speeding or doing anything illegal.
He asked for the license and registration. Tevin handed it over and began to ask what the problem was. Before he could complete the question, the officer barked at him to shut up and wait in the car. He flashed his light into my eyes and went back to his cruiser. Out of sheer terror, we didn't move a muscle. After 15 minutes or so, the officer returned and told us to put our hands up and get out of the car ... slowly. He ordered me to keep my hands up, and to go sit down on the sidewalk curb he was motioning towards with his flashlight. I began walking slowly to where I had been directed. As I did so, I watched as the police officer told Tevin to put his hands behind his back. As Tevin put his hands down, the cop grabbed him by the wrists, slapped on a pair of cuffs, grabbed him by his shirt shoulder, and tossed him down to the curb next to where I was already seated (uncuffed).
During this next exchange, Tevin never uttered a sound while the officer was around.
I asked our captor what was going on. He explained to us that there had been a robbery near the area we were coming from, and the driver (Tevin) matched the description of the perpetrator. I kind of chuckled, which irritated the cop, pointed to our badges and explained that we had just literally gotten off of an eight-hour shift. There was no way either one of us, particularly Tevin, could have been there. The PO began getting incredibly irritated with me the more I spoke. I never raised my voice above a plea, but whenever I asked something, I was met with escalating anger.
The tipping point came when I went to stand up and the cop pulled out his taser and took a bead on me. I'll never forget the terror I felt when he said "Give me a reason." I slowly sat back down with my hands up. The tension was broken when a call came in for him and he had to return to his cruiser.
Tevin didn't look at me when he said to let it go. He had experiences like this back when he was in France. He had been stopped before in Europe and had gotten similar harassment. I was stunned.
"Even with your parents being rich and successful?" I asked.
He laughed. "Yeah, because racism cares where you work."
A few moments later, the officer returned. He was taking my friend to jail. I started to protest but quickly stopped when I saw Tevin shake his head no and the cop go for the taser. He ordered me to complete my journey home. I did. I wouldn't find out until the end of my shift the next night to find out what happened.
I had other means to get to work, but when I arrived, Tevin never showed. I tried calling his cell phone, but it would go right to voicemail. I was incredibly concerned and kept trying to reach out all day. I secured a ride home from someone else, but the curiosity was killing me. As soon as shift ended, I clocked out and as I reached the edge of the parking lot, I saw Tevin come running towards me. Though he was still wearing the same clothes as the night before, he was sporting a new goose-egg on his forehead. As soon as we got in his car, he told me everything that happened.
Spoiler alert: it wasn't good.
He knew better than to talk back to the cop as they went to book him downtown. Once he arrived there, he said he only gave the two white cops booking him the most basic of information they asked for. As soon as he opened his mouth, they started to verbally attack him because of his accent. They asked him if he was mentally retarded, or have him spend literally 10 minutes re-spelling the same word over and over. After being ridiculed for an hour, they put him in a cell—tripping him as he walked towards the tiny room, causing the goose egg on his head when he fell. He asked them when he would be going home because he had been at work and could not have been the culprit. He was told they had "more investigating to do," and would let him know as soon as something came up. They kept him there for 20 hours before they admitted that they had the wrong person, but then kept him for an extra two, "just to make sure."
I was stunned. As he told me of the other horrible experiences he had had with the police in Europe as a teenager, I stopped listening.
I know. It's actually embarrassing to even have to write that it took an experience like this to shake me enough to see reality. I don't know where my problem stemmed from. I had read enough, seen enough videos, and wasn't willfully obtuse to the warnings I had seen throughout my life, but something didn't fully connect until that night.
I'm not sure if my story is going to change much as it's nothing more than a personal anecdote. One experience out of millions. But I am hoping that if there is someone out there who is like I once was, that knows racism is happening but still has some insulation from accepting that everything you have read is probably true and not hyperbolic, that it is.
The second event took place a few years before and was the catalyst to completely reform my outlook on politics: voting ID rights ...
(Continued in Part II)
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