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Survive the Moment

This is what I do whenever I see flashing lights in my rearview mirror:  put on my hazard lights and pull over as soon as safely possible.  Then, I put the car in park, roll down both front windows fully, turn off the engine, take the keys out of the ignition and dangle them high in the air out the driver’s side window before placing them on the roof of the car.  Next, I cross my arms at the wrist, spread my fingers, and display my empty hands out of the window and wait for the officer to come to the door to give me instructions.  When the officer asks for my license and registration, I explain that they are in my pocket and my glove compartment, and I ask if it’s alright to move my hands in order to retrieve them.  I don’t make any movement without first getting the officer’s blessing to do so. 

The last time I was pulled over, in the summer of 2012, the officer told me it was to “make sure I had insurance.”  I was sure that wasn’t a legitimate reason for stopping me.  I was furious.  I wanted to curse.  I wanted to get belligerent.  I wanted to hurl accusations at the officer about his motivation for stopping me.  I had done absolutely nothing wrong, and I knew it.  But during that stop, the officer had no idea about the fury inside me.  I behaved as a model citizen.  I was cooperative and answered him with only “yes sir” and “no sir,” followed his every instruction, and extended him every courtesy.

I wonder what would have happened had I acted on my emotions.  If I had gotten loud, or animated.  How much could that scene have escalated?  How far could it have gone?  How would that officer have reacted?

Immediately after the stop, I reached out to friends including a couple of attorneys, one of them a black attorney from Birmingham.  I was still fuming when I called him and detailed what had just happened.  Instead of being sympathetic, he calmly responded: “be glad you made it home.”  He was almost dismissive of my experience and my frustration.  He was sincere in telling me that I should be grateful with the ultimate outcome of my police interaction:  I wasn’t dead.

A subsequent investigation by the officer’s department determined that he officer had no right to stop me.  The department retrained him and other officers on traffic stops.  So I won, right?

I am now pleading with young brothers to abandon the idea of winning, fairness, vindication, or satisfaction.  It won’t come.  The number one goal has to be survival.  Survive the situation.  Just live.

The reason I go through such painstaking efforts when I deal with police is because I learned from my parents and through experience that you want that officer to feel as calm, comfortable, and safe as possible.  You don’t want him on edge, nervous, or agitated.  Stay calm.  Breathe.  Don’t get animated.  Don’t get loud.  Don’t be a smartass.  Don’t even move.  Don’t do anything.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 100% innocent.  You have to try to disarm an armed officer by giving him no excuse to act on what he might already preconceive as a threat:  a black man.  At that moment, your pride or even your rights can not be the priority.  Your life is.  We will send Rev. Al later to fight on your behalf.  But if you are up against a police officer who has the law on his side and a gun on his hip, you are going to lose.  It’s just not worth it.

We don’t know all the circumstances surrounding Mike Brown’s interaction with police that ended in his death.  I’m not suggesting that he did anything wrong, and he certainly didn’t do anything that warranted being gunned down in the street.  The case does, however, painfully illustrate the fragility of the black community’s relationship with police, and apparently, raising your hands to surrender isn’t even a guarantee of survival.

Every cop out there is not your enemy.  But how are we supposed to convince the community of that when we keep compiling stories of young, unarmed black men being gunned down by police?  We are at a point where black men understandably feel that their lives are on the line with each police interaction.  I can’t argue otherwise.  And while we rightly teach our kids to respect authority, in the case of police, do we have to teach them to fear it as well?

To my young brothas, I know what I’m saying is not what you want to hear right now.  You’re outraged.  You should be.  And despite what it may seem at times, I assure you there actually are people out there who give a damn about whether you live or die.  So please, just survive the moment.  I know it’s hard to be so deferential in a situation where you’re the one being harassed, profiled, or targeted.  I’ve been there.  It’s demoralizing, dehumanizing, and emasculating.  It’s wrong.  But I just want you to live.

What I’m asking you to do doesn’t solve our bigger problems.  It doesn’t solve anything.  It’s not meant to.  It’s just meant to get you home.



FWIW: I am a middle-aged white guy and I do something very similar. Cops have dangerous and stressful jobs; several CHP officers, for example, have been killed during routine traffic stops in the area where I live over the last year or two. It doesn’t harm me to take the extra steps to make abundantly clear that I’m not a threat.

B. Withers

Several years ago my Son was stopped for speeding at 6:00 a.m. trying to make an 8:00 class. He was returning from a week-end at home. His Dad called me at work to let me know. He also told me that the Officer was extremely rude to my Son and threatened to take his car and put him in jail. As a Mama Bear I wanted to go find the officer who messed with my baby. My Husband cautioned me against it by telling me that our son drove through that remote area alone almost every week-end and that I would put him at risk whether he was doing anything or not.
When I spoke with my Son and asked him about the incident he said, ‘Mom I just kept on Siring’. Confused, I asked him what that meant and he said, ‘You answer yes sir, no sir’. Thank God he had been through a ‘Driving While Black’ Workshop.

Jamin Allgood

This is vital information. A lot young guys may not be aware of really want to believe the how serious of a matter such a situation is until, God forbids, they find themselves in it however, in any event surviving the moment is most important.

Jamin Allgood

This is vital information. A lot young guys may not be aware of really want to believe the how serious of a matter such a situation is until, God forbids, they find themselves in it however, in any event surviving the moment is most important.

Thee Afro Canadian

We act out, they shoot us. We put our hands up the shoot us. I’m sorry T.J. but I’m tired of our people acting like a bunch of house slaves to pardon the wrath of “Massa”. Why the hell should we bow down, fear the overseer, and have manners? Because some dirt bag can wield his White privilege in my face whenever he pleases? It’s a damn shame we have workshops to avoid being murdered by the people who are suppose to represent security.

Renee Norris

I totally agree with T J . Teach your children to respect the law even if it means siring. Getting beat up , arrested, or killed isn’t going to solve anything, They always win. Have your I.D. and insurance insight and pray.

Beverly Woods

Thank you TJ for writing this article. I agree with you. I have a 8 year old grandson, and I certainly want him to understand, the most important thing is to live, to come home to live another day. Being a smartass will not prove anything. I hope all of our children get a chance to go to a “Driving while Black workshop. I will mention this to the Minister and Deacons at Church.
Glad you are on World News Now, keep up the good wor

Marilynn Miller

I’m so sorry you have to behave in this way. It’s an outrage. It makes me sick every time I hear of it.

I’m a white woman, 81 years old, and I have experienced it first hand. My boss and I went out to lunch, and were followed by a cop. My brother in law was on the dept, so I inquired why. He said the cop ‘thought she was being kidnapped’. He was my BOSS! And a friend.

A Haitian American I worked with when at Sears in Hoffman Extates, Il,
was routinely stopped by Hoffman E\states cops and asked what he was doing in their neighborhood! Outragious.

And I won’t even go into the experiences when out with a Black boyfriend.

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