T Namaya: Driving while black in America


Two friends from Cameroon were guests of ours for a few days. Both are well educated and well spoken, and have lived in the United States for a few years. They indicated they were traveling by car in Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut. I reluctantly gave them my perspective on Driving While Black, a phenomena that is well known to all blacks, and in particular, black men. I gave them "the speech" about DWB and what to do and not do when stopped by a cop in Vermont.

Unfortunately, they may not be seen as good and decent men by some untrained law enforcement officers, instead seen as, "black men with an accent, who might be terrorists." This racism/cultural bias permeates all levels of society, and in particular in the interaction between white police officers and blacks and people of color. The thin blue line police culture and "us."

Though both of my friends are fluent in English and very polite men, they would still be viewed suspiciously. This is unfortunately the norm between police and people of color. Also, in this post-9/11 world, police culture has become a culture of neo-militarism, intolerance, rudeness, and with the bizarre belief that one's civil rights ends when confronted by the police.

Some years ago, an African American friend of mine was waiting to meet his wife on the downtown street of Brattleboro. We were all going out to dinner. A police officer from Brattleboro said to my friend, "I want to see some ID."

My friend, wearing a suit and tie, said, "Excuse me officer? Is there a problem?" "Yeah, I want to see some ID right now!" "Officer, I am going to reach in my pocket and get some ID. Is that OK?" and my friend produced a badge saying that he was from the Hartford Police Department. The cop seemed shocked and mumbled something like, "Thanks." "Excuse me officer. Do you treat all guests in town like this?" The cop walked away.

I had been long involved in creating dialogues between police and civilians, and for an ostensible liberal town, the number of adverse incidents between white police officers and people of color was not the exception, but frequent. Students of color, African and Latino at the School for International Training reported on-going issues. One student from West Africa said, "I was downtown meeting a friend and a police cruiser was following me up the street."

We need a police force trained in community policing, cross cultural communication and de-escalation of conflict. In short, we do not need more Rambo-style cops, we need cops who can talk to people, and intervene without reaching for a Taser or a gun.

To the Brattleboro police credit, I had observed where local officers have handled difficult cases of people who are mentally ill or in crisis, and I have written to commend them. We do have a Police Civilian Communications Board in Brattleboro, that is the first step in creating a positive dialogue between police and community. In light of the on-going national crises with Police Departments and the unnecessary use of force, most often directed at people of color, it is vital for the health and fabric of a community to create police departments that have the tools, experience, and means that is respectful, lawful, and reflects the values of America. The values of America is respecting the Constitutional rights of citizens and non-citizens, and despite the Unpatriotic Act, no one has repealed the 4th Amendment.

So, to my friends from Cameroon, from Hartford, or other countries around the world, please remember, not all cops are racists nor biased; however, if you are Driving While Being a Person of Color in Vermont, you may be stopped and questioned. At all times, keep your hands on the wheel, get the officer's name and badge number, and if you can, record the conversation on your cell phone. In the majority of the cases, the interaction will be cordial. Where it is not cordial, simply agree, and comply with the officer. In some cases you may be able to de-escalate the cop, reassure him you are not a terrorist, not an anarchist from Fergusson (as some may believe), and arrive at your destination safely.

I am embarrassed to say this. Despite Martin Luther King's hope that he and his children can one day be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, we are still plagued with a culture of racism that permeates police departments. Despite a president who is black, and prominent African Americans who are prominent, ultimately, it is this cop, who may or may not be racist/uneducated/ill-informed if it is a problem for you to be driving while black.

I hope that our officers at the Brattleboro Police Department and the Vermont State Police do not stand behind the thin blue line, but step forward to examine, consider, and change the culture of intolerance. For those officers who do consistently rise to meet that challenge, bravo. It is the responsibility of citizens to demand and act to ensure that the police departments do reflect the values of their community. In Brattleboro, I want the values of respect and courtesy to be part of each public service employee.

T Namaya lives in Brattleboro.


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