A few days ago, a Madison, Alabama police officer slammed 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel to the ground in the course of a stop. On its face, this seems to be yet another case of over-aggression by a policeman, like those that have peppered the news over the last several months. Madison Police Chief Larry Muncey has said that Officer Eric Parker was not justified in his use of force and will be fired. And, while that might seem like a departure from the story line we have grown accustomed to hearing, what disturbed me most was not the reaction of the officer, the video of which made my stomach turn, but the reaction of the concerned neighbor who called the authorities to begin with:
According to NBC News, “the caller identifies[sic] Patel as ‘a skinny black guy’ he had never seen before walking around the neighborhood. The caller also said that he was following Patel from a distance, and that he was afraid to leave for work and leave his wife alone at home.”
This description brought into focus an anecdote my mother once shared with me. A few years ago, my late father had taken her to the bank. She went inside to do her business and he remained outside to smoke a cigarette. He paced back and forth in front of his parked car, smoking his cigarette. As my mom entered the bank, she overheard the concerned employees talking. They were worried about my dad.
“What is he doing?” one woman asked.
“Should we call the police?” wondered another, quite alarmed at the perceived threat that my dark skinned, 65-year-old father posed to the bank.
“Please stop,” my mother said. “He’s my husband. I will deposit this check, and we will leave. There is nothing to be concerned about.”
My mother called me up later that day to share the story. She was appalled that the employees of the bank truly believed that my father, a man who looked older than his age and who was dressed well in Western attire, represented a potential threat simply because he was smoking a cigarette outside the door. She couldn’t help but wonder, had the roles been reversed, had she, the white woman with blue eyes, been doing the exact same thing as her darker skinned husband, what those women’s reaction would have been.
Probably nothing, we both concluded.
But had my mother not overheard the employees' concerns regarding my father’s presence, it seems quite likely that the police would have been called and that he would then have had to deal with them. And for what? Because a handful of white employees were uncomfortable with a brown man pacing and smoking a cigarette? What kind of freedom is that? It is a form of oppression.
The photo of Mr. Patel saddens me. In his stare from his hospital gurney and neck brace and tangle of IV tubes, I can see my father, my uncle, my friends’ parents – friendly, older men who are seconds away from having their fragile bodies slammed to the ground on the barest of pretexts.
That vision hurts, but it’s what gets us to that vision – a random white person’s fear of dark skin that precipitates an encounter – that scares me, and it has affected my own behavior. Once, during college in New Orleans, the police were called on me because I was taking photos of a picturesque bridge. Fortunately the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies who responded to the scene were cordial and non-aggressive, but my mother made a different point, upset at what had happened:
“Be thankful that some good ol’ boy didn’t pull out his gun and shoot you. At least that person called the police.”
So now, I do walk around thinking sometimes to myself, “am I doing anything which would scare a white person?” I must go far beyond acting within the law. I must actively avoid situations in which I, while carrying out some seemingly normal action, as Mr. Patel was doing when he took a walk in his son’s neighborhood, might make white people nervous.
This is an unacceptable state of affairs. I should not fear the fears of white people, and they should not fear me. And while the myopic narratives that surrounded George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin might be discouraging, Michael Dunn’s conviction for the shooting of Jordan Davis and Eric Parker’s imminent dismissal from the Madison Police Department reveal both the potential and the need for progress. They are formal reminders of the larger, unresolved problem of a racially-underpinned fear narrative that still shapes society today.