Sunday, September 09, 2018

My White Privilege

Race relations and racial inequality are all over the news today; in fact, it's rare when a newscast doesn't include at least one report of racial violence, especially in Chicago.  Right now, the city is tense awaiting the finished trial and verdict for white city police officer Jason Van Dyke, accused of murdering black teenager, Laquan McDonald in 2014.  Van Dyke has been indicted on 16 counts of aggravated battery (1 for every shot he fired), six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct.

Shortly before 10:00 p.m., police were called to investigate McDonald at 4100 South 
Pulaski Road (in the westside neighborhood of Archer Heights) responding to reports that he was carrying a knife and breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare Avenue. When officers confronted McDonald, he used a knife with a 3-inch blade to slice the tire on a patrol vehicle and damage its windshield. McDonald walked away from police after numerous verbal instructions from officers to drop the knife, at which point responding officers requested Taser backup.

Video of the shooting shows that Van Dyke was advancing on McDonald, while McDonald was walking away from Van Dyke when the first shot was fired. The first shot hit McDonald, who spun and fell to the ground. As McDonald lay on the ground, still holding the knife, Van Dyke fired more shots into him. In total, Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times in 14–15 seconds, expending the maximum capacity of his 9mm semi-automatic firearm. Van Dyke was on the scene for less than 30 seconds before opening fire and began shooting approximately six seconds after exiting his car. The first responding officer said that he did not see the need to use force, and none of the at least eight other officers on the scene fired their weapons.
The eventual verdict of this trial has the same measured intensity as the OJ Simpson verdict back in October 1995.  A return of "not-guilty" for Van Dyke will certainly put Chicago into chaos.  I would expect the National Guard, which has long been rumored to be coming to Chicago to assist with our gun crisis, will finally show up in anticipation of riots, looting and other violent activity.  However, a "guilty" verdict may be the atonement for a metropolitan police force that has largely gone unchecked on their behavior until now.  Chicago has a long history of white police officers targeting young black men who may/may not have committed crimes, but are murdered in the street by police before they can even make it to trial.  

It's as if Chicago is two different cities: the white northside, and the south and west sides made up of mostly people of color.

With this in mind, hear my story:

A few mornings ago, I was driving home from the gym.  It was about 7am and Western Avenue was particularly busy, which made turning left off of Western onto any street very tricky.  Just like in most towns and cities in American, Chicago drivers do not understand the concept of "don't block the box" - otherwise known as don't block the intersection. After waiting through 3 cycles of red-green-red-green-red-green, I took a chance and turned on a red light just to make the turn.  And right on cue, an undercover police car flips its lights on behind me.

My first thought was, "Well, shit!"

My second thought was "I haven't been pulled over since 1991."

My third thought was, "My driver's license is sitting on my desk at home."

To avoid going to the gym locker room and possibly forgetting them, I leave my license and credit cards at home in the morning when I go to the gym.  All I really need is the fob that allows me access to the parking lot and the gym itself.  My gym is 5 city blocks from the house.  It's definitely walkable, but not at 5am.  So I drive.

I pulled over and the two white officers approached my door: 

"Yeah", the one started, "that was a red light back there."  I apologized and tried to explain how I had sat through several light changes unable to turn due to traffic.  He asked for my license and I admitted that I did not have it on me.
"That's okay," he said, "what's your name?"  I answered.
"And this car will come back registered to you?" To me and my husband, I answered.
"Okay, do you have insurance on the car?" Yes but I can't find the ID card.
"That's okay, who do you have insurance with?"  Geico
"Okay, I'm just gonna let you off with a warning.  You have a good day."  
Then the officer walked back to his car.  He had taken me at my word that I was who I said I was and that the car was mine.  He didn't run a background check on me of any kind.  And I couldn't help but think to myself, "it's good to be white."

So there are lots of things at play here:
1)  I was driving without my license on me
2)  I could not provide proof of insurance
3)  The proof I did give was erroneous; our car insurance is with State Farm, not Geico.
4)  I outed myself to a police officer.
Believe me when I tell you that black people in Chicago have been killed by police for far less than this - in fact committing just one of these offenses can get you shot on the south and west sides.  African American males who get pulled over call it "driving while black".

In many respects, I count myself a fortunate person:  I'm healthy, educated, have a nice home, great friends, close family ties, and am married to my best friend - all things that I have had a hand in cultivating in my life. However that morning, the only thing I was grateful for was the one thing I had no control over: the color of my skin.  I could say I was lucky that morning.

But I shouldn't have to.