Almost a decade ago after coming home from work late one night, I crossed the Lower Trenton Bridge affectionately known as the “Trenton Makes Bridge” into Morrisville, Pennsylvania to take the service road home and save a toll. An emergency road block forced me to take a detour by orders of the fire department.
Assuming that it was safe I turned onto a street that would ordinarily lead me back toward the US-1 Bypass. Unfortunately, the street that I turned onto was also blocked off with a fire policeman standing in front of me. He ordered me to back up as the street was still blocked off and I respectfully complied. Since the street that I turned from was a considerable distance I reversed my car and turned my steering wheel right in an attempt to make a 3-point turn to make the transition easier. Before I could complete the half-turn he violently yelled “BACK UP!!! BACK UP!!!” Dumbfounded by his command I naturally assumed that as a motorist he should have understood what I was doing. When I looked to my right I did not see any obstructions that would have prevented me from making the turn safely, but what was prominently disturbing to me was the blazing fury in his eyes when he made the demand. I have never known Pennsylvania fire police to carry guns but I didn’t put it past him to assume that he was not armed with one. In a raging fear that I carefully suppressed to avoid insubordinate conclusions he may have drawn and, perhaps, save my own life I backed up my car to the corner as I nervously glanced at him inching closer to me more than I looked in my own rear-view mirror. Since I looked over my shoulder while backing up the last time, in case I was aligned to be his next hashtag I kept my eyes on him, my foot on the petal, and my hand on my transmission in case I had to change course or reverse his narrative.
On October 27, 2020 circa 1:45am after picking up her nephew, home health aide Rickia Young was driving on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she encountered police and demonstrators that were protesting the Walter Wallace, Jr. murder by the police. Upon encountering the commotion officers ordered Ms. Young to back up and she complied. Familiarly, as she attempted to make a three-point turn, which is standard driving procedure that is taught in driving school officers violently swarmed her vehicle. In healthy fear she locked her doors as she was unsure what the fate would be for her and her family. Without explanation Philadelphia Police Officers smashed the glass on her car with their batons which was occupied by herself, her 2-year old son, and her 16-year old nephew. After they managed to open the car graphic video depicts the gruesome scene of her being senselessly dragged out of her vehicle and thrown to the ground, as she was savagely beaten while laying defenseless. Her nephew was also dragged from the car as the police also took custody of her infant child. The incident left her son with a bump on his head and her with critical injuries to her face and her body which caused internal bleeding in her urine. She was taken to the hospital for treatment before she was arrested. When her son was taken they failed to explain what was being done with him as she was held in custody. While in custody she was assigned a wristband that stated “Assault on Police” which clearly contradicts what we saw in the video. Although she was eventually released without charges, false reports from the National Fraternal Order of Police released a photo of a female police officer holding Ms. Young’s son who was misclassified as a rescued toddler “walking around barefoot” in the midst of the riots. The boy was later picked up by his grandmother as he was sitting in the back of a police cruiser. The FOP later deleted the post but issued no formal apologies for the fallacious text.
The parallels of these two incidents are disturbing as much as they are perplexing. I remember the brutal killings of Sean Bell and Danroy (DJ) Henry as both of those New York murders committed by police also happened to involve mistaken identities and motorist intentions. When Sean Bell was murdered at Club Kalua in Jamaica, Queens following an argument that one of his friends had with another patron at his bachelor party NYPD Detectives, who were initially there to investigate an alleged prostitution ring at the club, fatally shot him and wounded two of his friends in the vehicle that they were in. One of the officers claimed that after he showed his badge to the men in the vehicle he thought he saw a gun being drawn which prompted him and other officers to fire shots. After the melee the driver of the vehicle sped off and crashed into an unmarked police van. Some concluded that the driver acted as such under the assumption that he was a potential carjacking victim. Per witness accounts no one saw a gun drawn and no gun was found in the vehicle. The three officers involved were all charged for the murder, but all were acquitted by a trial judge.
Similarly, DJ Henry was among a group of friends who got into a shoving match at Finnegan’s bar in Thornwood with some other men. After being asked to leave, at the direction of Police Officer Aaron Hess, Danroy drove his vehicle to another location where he was allegedly ordered to stop his vehicle by another officer. When he did not stop the officer fired fatal shots which caused the shooting officer to land on the roof of the car. In contrast, witness accounts indicate that the officer fired the shot before falling onto the car. Following the arrest and acquittal of Officer Hess, another officer testified that he actually shot at his partner assuming that Hess was the aggressor. Years following the shooting Officer Hess confessed that he could have moved out of the way. Though both of these cases resulted in million dollar settlements, like most unjust Black assassinations by police no dollar amount exceeds the untimely losses.
Since I am not a police officer I cannot accurately judge their perception when they see us, or understand what puts many of them in auto-trigger mode when as Black people, we are simply doing what is normal to the average person. As a Black man I should normally be concerned about my own safety on a regular basis, especially where racism is normalized under the Trump administration. As a motorist, my worst experience living in Bucks County was a driver who spitefully delayed my journey by slowing down in front of me in the snow because I asked him to move over from the left lane, with the best being a third-finger salutation. Since my wife has told me about road rage stories where local White male motorists shouted racial obscenities at her as they bypassed her on the road, even though she drives an SUV that towers most of those cowards, my biggest concerns are for her safety. Titles are irrelevant but even though she holds an esteemed position as a Philadelphia Public School Principal who is dressed in professional attire, I fearfully question how she would be perceived if she encountered the same situation en route to work or on her way back home. Depending on the speed there’s always a healthy fear of an oncoming vehicle, especially if an officer orders one to stop it. But if asked under the same circumstances should she also be afraid to back up? Even at 5’3” with a Master’s degree and articulate communication skills is there a proper way for her or anyone else to reverse course without being perceived as a threat? If so, is are there special driving regulations for Black motorists? Should she just back up with limited vision and risk hitting someone and an insurance increase, or a license suspension?
As absurd as my latter question sounds the liability would have been much greater for Rickia, or myself, especially if either of us struck a law enforcement official. Be it personally, professionally, or Presidentially even when we adhere to the rules we’re held responsible for the refracted lens of racism that even LASIK cannot correct from within. As a Black husband I should not have to question if my wife will be next any more than she should have to worry about my safety after going for my evening power walks through my predominantly White neighborhood. Thus far, I have not experienced any overt racism and most of the people in my community are kind and polite.
Whenever my defensive driver instincts help me avoid safety hazards, in truthful jest I always stress that if it wasn’t for my driving instructor, Marty at Brooklyn’s defunct AAA Secure Driving School I wouldn’t be the man I am today. Without fail, my wife always rags on me for it. Yet despite his best intentions there are some things that an old White man cannot teach, because when I tune into the news, articles, or podcasts even in 2020 I am still reminded of my reality. Since my 25-year anniversary after obtaining my driver’s license in ’95, even with a stellar driving record and a GPS, sometimes I still question if it’s safe to turn.