I was with a few friends watching an episode of a show called Just For Laughs: Gags. It’s something similar to ‘Candid Camera’, where random passers-by are placed in comical situations, caught on hidden camera. The humour of the show is watching people try to react appropriately to an implausible situation: a man’s car is ‘stolen’ after he has asked someone to watch it for him; a woman dressed as a lion tamer runs in fear past some unsuspecting person, pursued closely by a confederate dressed in a lion costume. The payoff of the show comes at the end of each segment, when the unwitting participant is shown the cameras, and everyone has a good laugh.
The recent episode I was watching presented a pair of men dressed as police officers with a WANTED poster of a thief dressed as a clown. They approach the unwitting ‘target’, who has just agreed to hold a garbage bag for a confederate as they go into a store. The police open the bag, find clown garb (including a big red nose and a rainbow wig) inside, and begin interrogating the ‘target’, dressing hir in the attire and remarking on the resemblance. Ignoring the ‘targets’ protestations of innocence, the faux police produce handcuffs and announce that the person is under arrest.
Of course, the police then point out the hidden cameras, and the ‘accused’ people share a relieved laugh with the actors. I turned to one of my friends and remarked “notice how they didn’t show any of the black people laughing”. She shot me a wry smile as we reflected on the fact that being stopped by the police and threatened with arrest for a crime you haven’t committed is no laughing matter when you live in a community where the colour of your skin makes you suspect. Indeed, I would imagine that if I had been one of the ‘targets’ on the show, this kind of thing would be very much at the front of my mind:
During Memorial Day weekend, [Tremaine] McMillian was rough-housing with another teenager on the sand. Police approached the teen on an ATV and told him that wasn’t acceptable behavior. They asked him where his parents were, but MicMillian attempted to walk away. The officer jumped off the ATV, and tried to physically restrain the teen. According to CBS Miami, police say the 14-year-old kid gave them “‘dehumanizing stares,’ clenched his fists and appeared threatening.”
McMillian says he was carrying a six-week old puppy at the time and couldn’t have been clenching his fists because he was feeding the dog with a bottle. He claims that during the confrontation the dog’s front left paw was injured while officer forcibly separated him from the dog.
The officer then forced McMillian to the ground and put him in a choke hold.
My deepest sympathies, of course, go out to the officers who were so traumatized by the withering gaze of a 14 year-old kid that they felt they had no other choice but to physically assault him. It’s a wonder the poor dears weren’t permanently traumatized. I am taking up a collection to cover their psychologists bills. There’s nothing worse than being “dehumanized” by someone’s eyes – except, maybe, being dehumanized by two adult police officers as they choke you on the ground for the crime of standing there.
Of course, the comments following the post* are full of people rationalizing the arrest and brutality by blaming McMillian for failing to be ‘respectful’ to the police officers. If he had just answered their questions and been sufficiently deferential, they wouldn’t have choked and arrested him. It’s his own fault, really. Never mind that there was no crime committed until the police put their hands on the kid, at which point his failure to collapse into a quivering pile of compliant goo was “resisting arrest” and “disorderly conduct” (yes, these are actual felony charges being leveled against him).
Of course we’ve talked about this a couple of times before on this blog: there are serious consequences to failing to appear subservient before white men in perceived positions of authority – consequences that fall disproportionately and violently on black bodies (and probably female bodies too, although that violence manifests itself differently). McMillian undoubtedly knew this, and had perhaps experienced it first-hand before. Black kids are trained about how to bow and scrape when interrogated by white authorities, lest they suffer exactly this kind of treatment (that usually results in zero consequences to the offending police officers), just as their forebears learned that the ‘proper place’ of a Negro was as inferior to the white majority.
I know that if I was harassed by police officers, I would resent it. If I had a close friend or family member who had been similarly victimized by police, I’d be pretty hostile to their questioning me for the offence of being black in public. Knowing what I know about Florida, I’d probably be particularly incensed that two yokels who managed to stumble their way into uniforms were treating me the way black folks have been treated in the South for generations – holding themselves exalted by virtue of the fact that their skin is lighter than mine. Who knows, I might have the impulse to look at the assembled forces of the armed wing of a white supremacist civil society as, perhaps, something other than human.
In other words, I don’t see anything unusual or exceptional about the anger that McMillian felt when he was accosted by the officers. What I do find extreme (but, after all, not surprising) is the fact that his anger, when filtered through the prism of a black male body, is ‘threatening’ enough to warrant violent restraint. And what I find perverse about this is the fact that while blackness is not threatening, the burden is placed on black bodies – both in public opinion and in the minds of the police – to somehow make themselves more ‘acceptable’, at the risk of becoming the victims of physical violence.
Not exactly a laughing matter.
*Yeah yeah, I know, but I can’t help myself sometimes.