Let's Breathe

When I saw the red and blue flashing lights in my rear view mirror, I thought, Okay, here we go. I have been stopped by the police many times in my life. Most of the time, I’ve been in the wrong — speeding or rolling through a stop sign — and the officers have been respectful and professional. This was not one of those times.

I was driving a friend home from a dinner party in Beverly Hills. We were rolling slowly through a residential street near the Four Seasons Hotel when I came to a stop sign. There was a police car stopped on my left. It was a hot night, so I had my window down. The officer had his right turn signal on. I continued straight. He made his turn, away from me. Then, in my rear view mirror, I saw him make a U-turn to follow me.

My stomach turned. I knew what was coming. Immediately, the lights started flashing.

At this point, many people in minority communities will understand my anxiety. I can also understand why others might think, Hey, if you weren’t doing anything wrong, then what’s the problem?  The fact is, people in some communities have been conditioned to instantly feel safe when they see a police car. Others see one and instantly feel anxiety.

When I pulled over to the side of the road and the police car stopped a few feet behind me, the doors opened on both sides. Yep, here we go. Two officers approached the car. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my nerves. I smiled.

“Good evening officer, what seems to be the problem?”

“License and registration, please.”

I handed him my information. After they looked it over, the officer explained why they had pulled me over.

“Your front window tint is too dark,” he said.

“What?!” my friend said.

Then my heart sank.

Growing up as an African American male in the U.S., I have been given many versions of The Talk by my parents, grandparents, and other family members. The Talk is usually given to you before you even start elementary school. The rules are simple: When it comes to law enforcement, do not act fidgety, do not back-talk, and answer every question with “yes sir, no sir.” Basically, just get it over with as quickly as possible without provocation. And if anything happens where you feel your rights have been infringed upon, the time for that isn’t in that moment. It’s down the road. You always have to assume that the police officer might just be having a bad day.

My friend, who happens to be white, never had The Talk. She was agitated and started back-talking right away. Everything she was saying was true. How could he see my window tint at night when my window was down completely and the passenger’s side window was half way down? He would have needed X-ray vision to see that through two bodies. I was being pulled over for a D.W.B.— I was Driving While Black.

This is how it starts. The feeling starts welling up inside you, and you know you have to suppress it. Why can’t you just leave me alone? This is how things get out of control. My friend didn’t understand.

“You’re stopping us for no reason,” she said to the officer.

I shot her a look and said, “Just stop. Don’t do this.”

After the lead officer finished writing the ticket, I couldn’t take it anymore. As he was leaving, I said something like, “Wow, you must’ve had good vision to see that.” I didn’t feel like I was crossing the line, but at the same time I definitely wanted him to know that I thought this was B.S.

“I could’ve given you another ticket because your rims are too big,” he said.

At that time, I had 26 inch rims on my SUV. I knew they were large, but I find it highly doubtful that they were illegal and violated any law. But again swallowed my pride and remembered The Talk. I knew it wasn’t the time or place to debate his interpretation of the law.

In many communities across the country, there is an Us vs. Them mentality that is tearing us apart. This needs to change. It’s healthy to have differing opinions in a democracy, but we have to respect each other and challenge ourselves to do better— to be better. I have met many members of law enforcement who are honorable, hard working individuals who put their life on the line for the safety of the general public; to those men and women I am eternally grateful for their service. But what happens when the actions of law enforcement do something to challenge that trust between the public and the people whose duty it is to protect and serve them?

I realize that many of us have incredibly strong feelings about the issue of race and power in America. Some would rather incite violence with their actions, or write hateful messages on social media. But those people aren’t the ones with the power to change the world. The needle only moves when the Silent Majority, a.k.a. the Moveable Middle, becomes inspired to demand change. The best way to reach them is through constant conversation, reasonable debate, and protesting the issue in a peaceful manner. Violence, like the unspeakable tragedy that claimed the lives of two N.Y.P.D. officers, is the enemy of progress.

When several NBA players recently wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in support of the memory of Eric Garner, the instinctive reaction for some fans was, “Just shut up and play basketball.” Sports are an escape, sure. But sports are not only an escape for the privileged. For many young people growing up in minority communities, there is a sense that their lives are disposable.

As athletes, we have a platform to let those kids know that their lives are important. That their lives matter to us. It’s true, the larger questions are much bigger than sports: Do we need to have a special prosecutor brought in during grand jury cases? Should police be required to wear body cameras? Do we need to take a hard look at the racial makeup of police forces serving minority communities?

These are all complex questions that deserve more thought than just this column, and certainly more thought than 140 characters.

However, I do know this for certain. When Derrick Rose put on the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt, it was a statement of solidarity for a human being whose life ended in broad daylight on a crowded street over (at worst) selling untaxed cigarettes. It was not an indictment of all police or an argument about the letter of the law. It was not an act of racial defiance. It was a simple plea for humanity.

This is nothing new. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics, they were labeled by many as traitors or worse. The respected broadcaster Brent Musburger wrote a column  for Chicago American comparing their act to the Nazi salute. I’m not picking on Musburger. He had plenty of company during that time in American history.

Through decades of work and compassion and non-violent protest, we have made much progress since 1968. That kind of change is always messy. It’s so much easier to want to just tune out the world and watch the damn game. If the actions of Derrick Rose or LeBron James wakes those people up and asks them to take a hard look at their world, then what’s so wrong with that?

Who should have a monopoly on talking about the future of our society? Our politicians — the ones in Congress with a 14 percent approval rating?

Eric Garner’s three tragic last words should not be the thing that tears us apart. It should be an echo that keeps asking us a very difficult question. “Is this the world we want our children to grow up in? Is this really the best we can do?”