A few weeks ago a Seattle-area woman by the name of Charleena Lyles was shot and killed by police in her own home. She was Black, a mother of three, pregnant with a fourth, and struggled with mental illness. She called in a burglary, and two police officers who were already aware of her mental illness responded to the call. They claim Lyles pulled a knife on them, and then they fatally shot her in her own home in the presence of her three children. This shooting caused shock and outrage for obvious reasons. Here is yet another example of a racially motivated shooting by police and a failure to de-escalate a situation involving a mentally ill individual without resorting to violent and fatal means. The shooting of this woman raises a whole bunch of questions. Where was the taser? If police were aware of her mental illness why did they resort to lethal force? Would this shooting have taken place if she were white?
No. It absolutely would not have. I understand the desire that white people have to trust the police. We were raised to believe that the police are there to serve the community and keep us safe–and in our experience that has been true. To us police officers are the friendly guys in uniform that show up at school assemblies and teach us about gun safety. They pass out stickers to kids and stop traffic during parades and marathons. None of us would hesitate to call the police if we came home to find that our house had been broken into or felt otherwise threatened by a situation while out and about. We like to believe that the police are the good guys–and that is because for us they always have been. But people within the Black community and other communities of color in this country have a very different experience with those very same police.
A few Saturdays ago a coworker posted a link to this interview with Ijeoma Oluo and Eula Scott Bynoe titled The Seattle moms whose children don’t get to be children. I listened to all twenty minutes of it while laying in bed and I encourage all of you reading this right now to go listen to it as well. They detail their experiences dealing with police–how they hesitate to call police officers when their white neighbors do not, how she watched police officers care for a white woman, clearly mentally ill who was waving a sword around. They gently escorted her into her home and even gave her back her sword. That outcome likely would have ended very differently had the woman been Black.
Now that Saturday I listened to the interview, thanked my coworker for posting it and went about my day. I had a friend visiting from Portland and we had a day at the lake planned as it was too hot to be indoors without air conditioning. We stopped at the store for food and supplies–I put a pair of sunglasses on my head that I intended to buy–but completely forgot they were there. I purchased my food and walked out of the store setting off the alarm. “Oh! I forgot to pay for these!” I exclaimed–ran back in and bought them. Nobody gave me a hard time at all. Now had I not listened to that interview that morning I may not have even thought about it–but that was an excellent example I realized of my own white privilege at play. No one doubted that I’d unintentionally walked out of the store without paying for that pair of sunglasses. My best friend of Hawaiian and Filipino descent however? He and his sister have been stopped by store security and even had the police called on them because they were convinced that they must have stolen the cell phone case they were looking at earlier.
So, we went to the lake, had a picnic, swam for a bit, hid under an umbrella to avoid being fried to a crisp and then proceeded to make our way home. I’m not the one who normally drives, and I wasn’t paying attention to my speed. I didn’t even realize I was driving too fast until I noticed flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I pulled over–but I wasn’t even scared that I’d get a ticket. In fact I clearly remember thinking “They’re not going to ticket me.” Why? Because whenever my white, female friends get pulled over for speeding they get away with a warning. I apologized, explained I didn’t even know what the speed limit was, he seemed annoyed, but I continued to maintain that I hadn’t intended to speed, etc. etc. When the police officer asked to see my drivers license I hauled my huge beach bag out of the backseat began rummaging around in it for my tiny wallet, finally found it and handed it over. By that point he didn’t seem to want to wait for me to find my insurance information–told me to drive safe and waved me on. No ticket. Now I was just annoyed that I had to drive 35 when I had been going 50 and everyone behind me was tailgating me because it is one of those roads where no one actually follows the speed limit. But my friend–the one from above–he had just had a much different experience. He’d wanted to help me find my wallet–but he had been scared to reach his hand into a bag in case the police officer thought he was reaching for a weapon–so he sat still, said nothing and kept his hands visible. Now it didn’t even occur to me that me looking for my drivers license might look like I was going for a weapon–that very same encounter where I got off with nothing but a warning may have ended differently if my skin was a different color. White privilege moment number two.
My white privilege meant I didn’t get harassed at the store and I didn’t get a speeding ticket for going almost 20 miles over the speed limit while I know Black men that have been pulled over and ticketed for driving too slow. It means mentally-ill white women get tucked into bed while mentally-ill Black women get killed in front of their children. So please, to the white people I hope are reading this–we have to listen and honor those experiences even though they are different from ours and often painful to admit to. Now I’m not saying that all police are the bad guys or that it is okay to kill police officers–but I am saying that for many people in this country police definitely aren’t the good guys. So we need to ask ourselves why and listen to what we are being told. Instead of getting angry when Black athletes don’t put their hand on their heart during the national anthem, or when Black artists write lyrics like “Fuck tha Police” let’s get angry that our Black friends and neighbors, American citizens are not only being harassed but killed in their own homes for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin.