Stay Alive, Black Men, Stay Alive

Abandon the idea of winning, fairness, vindication or satisfaction. The No. 1 goal has to be survival.

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Demonstrators protest the killing in Ferguson, Mo., of teenager Michael Brown Aug. 12, 2014.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

This is what I do whenever I see flashing lights in my rearview mirror: I put on my hazard lights and pull over as soon as safely possible. Then I put the car in park, roll down both front windows fully, turn off the engine, take the keys out of the ignition and dangle them high in the air out the driver’s side window before placing them on the roof of the car.

Next, I cross my arms at the wrist, spread my fingers and display my empty hands out of the window and wait for the officer to come to the door to give me instructions. When the officer asks for my license and registration, I explain that they are in my pocket and my glove compartment, and I ask if it’s all right to move my hands in order to retrieve them. I don’t make any movement without first getting the officer’s blessing to do so.

The last time I was pulled over, in the summer of 2012, the officer told me it was to make sure I “had insurance.” I was sure that wasn’t a legitimate reason for stopping me. I was furious. I wanted to curse. I wanted to get belligerent. I wanted to hurl accusations at the officer about his motivation for stopping me. I had done absolutely nothing wrong, and I knew it.

But during that stop, the officer had no idea about the fury inside me. I behaved as a model citizen.  I was cooperative and answered him with only “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” followed his every instruction and extended him every courtesy.

I wonder what would have happened had I acted on my emotions. If I had gotten loud or animated. How much could that scene have escalated? How far could it have gone? How would that officer have reacted?

Immediately after the stop, I reached out to friends, including a couple of attorneys, one of them a black attorney from Birmingham, Ala. I was still fuming when I called him and detailed what had just happened. Instead of being sympathetic, he calmly responded, “Be glad you made it home.” He was almost dismissive of my experience and my frustration. He was sincere in telling me that I should be grateful for the ultimate outcome of my police interaction: I wasn’t dead.

A subsequent investigation by the officer’s department determined that the officer had no right to stop me. The department retrained him and other officers on traffic stops. So I won, right?

I am now pleading with young brothers to abandon the idea of winning, fairness, vindication or satisfaction. It won’t come. The No. 1 goal has to be survival. Survive the situation. Just live.  

The reason I go through such painstaking efforts when I deal with police is because I learned from my parents and through experience that you want that officer to feel as calm, comfortable and safe as possible. You don’t want him on edge, nervous or agitated. Stay calm. Breathe. Don’t get animated. Don’t get loud. Don’t be a smart-ass. Don’t even move. Don’t do anything.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 100 percent innocent. You have to try to disarm an armed officer by giving him no excuse to act on what he might already preconceive as a threat: a black man. At that moment, your pride or even your rights cannot be the priority. Your life is. We will send the Rev. Al Sharpton later to fight on your behalf. But if you are up against a police officer who has the law on his side and a gun on his hip, you are going to lose. It’s just not worth it.  

We don’t know all the circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s interaction with police that ended in his death. I’m not suggesting that he did anything wrong, and he certainly didn’t do anything that warranted being gunned down in the street. The case does, however, painfully illustrate the fragility of the black community’s relationship with police, and apparently, raising your hands to surrender isn’t even a guarantee of survival.

Not every cop out there is the enemy. But how are we supposed to convince the community of that when we keep compiling stories of young, unarmed black men being gunned down by police? We are at a point where black men understandably feel that their lives are on the line with each police interaction. I can’t argue otherwise. And while we rightly teach our kids to respect authority, in the case of police, do we have to teach them to fear it as well?

To my young brothers, I know what I’m saying is not what you want to hear right now. You’re outraged. You should be. And despite what it may seem at times, I assure you that there actually are people out there who give a damn about whether you live or die. So please, just survive the moment.

I know it’s hard to be so deferential in a situation where you’re the one being harassed, profiled or targeted. I’ve been there. It’s demoralizing, dehumanizing and emasculating. It’s wrong. But I just want you to live.

What I’m asking you to do doesn’t solve our bigger problems. It doesn't solve anything. It’s not meant to. It’s just meant to get you home.

T.J. Holmes is a journalist and TV personality. Formerly of CNN, he can currently be found at MSNBC, and his commentary can be found online. Follow him on Twitter.

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