When I was 21, a police officer at the scene of a fire cursed me out.
It didn’t matter that I was there with a camera crew and working for a TV station in St. Louis. It didn’t matter that I was absolutely nowhere near the fire (I was standing across the street). He thought I, wearing a suit and carrying a reporter’s notepad, badge and pen, was some punk, teenage lookie loo.
The cameraman spoke up for me, explaining that I had a right to be there. The officer just yelled more and became belligerent. Realizing that I had no interest in being arrested, I agreed to go back to the news van. The cameraman, who went on to film the fire, said to me, quite succinctly, “What an a—hole.” But I knew the real crime.
I was “existing while black”!
Existing while black shouldn’t be a crime, but it sort of is. The bust-up over a black teenage girl in a bikini being thrown to the ground by a police officer in McKinney, Texas, is reflective of this. The fact that some on social media pointed out that “at least” the “police didn’t shoot anyone” as a result of the police-officer-pulls-gun-on-kids-at-pool mishap is a testament to the sad state of “existing while black.”
Below are 10 things black people can’t do if they run into the wrong police officer, busybody stranger or racist sociopath on any given day.
1. Laugh and Drink Wine on a Wine Tour
You want to get together with your book club, get on the Napa Valley Wine Train and have a good time? Oh no, you don’t. Black people don’t get to go on the wine train to laugh and kee kee and have a good time. Do that (even though everyone is doing that on the wine train) and you will get kicked off the wine train, just as these 11 book club women did. The wine train is a “no black people having fun” zone.
2. Be Loud
Some people are loud. Some of those loud people are black people. But while loud people, in general, are typically seen as just mild annoyances, loud black people are routinely seen as threatening or sinister. This can be confusing for the black people being targeted for being loud because if they, or you, are anything like me and have a voice that carries, you don’t even know that you’re being loud until someone tells you. If you’re lucky, they’ll tap you on the shoulder. If you’re unlucky, they will call the cops on you for praying too loudly or issue warrants for your arrest for cheering at a high school graduation. But, hey, maybe they’ll find a middle ground and just post a rude note in your apartment building. The worst thing that can happen, of course, is that you will get killed for it. Which is what tragically happened to Florida teen Jordan Davis, murdered by Michael Dunn over loud music.
3. Drive a Nice Car
Chris Rock has a story he’d like to tell you about this.
4. Ride a Bike
You may ride a bike to get from point A to point B, but the Tampa Bay Times found that riding a bike in Florida while also being black can lead to a lot of police harassment and expensive fines.
Walking—a lot of people do this! We walk from one place to another, even more than we ride bikes. Which means there are ever more chances of getting harassed for doing it. There was the black man in Beverly Hills, Calif., handcuffed for rushing to put more money in the meter. A 70-year-old arrested for walking with a golf club. Ninety-five percent of all jaywalking citations were for black people in Ferguson, Mo. And then there’s a man arrested for walking on the wrong side of the road in Florida.
6. Go to the Mall
Probably second to the “party got broken up by police” narrative for black teens is the “I got arrested-fined-kicked out of the mall” story. Often the crime they are accused of in the mall is loitering or breaking curfew. Mall rules almost entirely exist to combat teen behavior—from dress codes to curfews—which is probably why nonteen, Real Housewives of Atlanta star Claudia Jordan got thrown out of a mall for wearing sunglasses indoors.
7. Wait for a Bus
Three teen basketball players were arrested for disorderly conduct as they waited with their teammates for a bus to pick them up. As they were handcuffed, their coach arrived and tried to defend them, but he too was threatened with arrest.
“He goes on to say, ‘If you don’t disperse, you’re going to get booked as well,’” coach Jacob Scott said of the officer. “I said, ‘Sir, I’m the adult. I’m their varsity basketball coach. How can you book me? What am I doing wrong? Matter of fact, what are these guys doing wrong?’”
Nothing. Just existing while black.
8. Get in a Car Accident and Ask for Help
The tragedies of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell are compounded by the fact that they came at points when both were most vulnerable—they’d been in car accidents and were seeking help. McBride was murdered by a homeowner who thought he was in the right for killing a disoriented black woman seeking help. For Ferrell, who was also in a car accident, he had the police called on him for knocking on a door seeking help. He was subsequently killed by those police who arrived.
9. Throw a Party
As noted earlier, “And then the police broke up the party” is probably one of the oldest phrases in black teen history, for every generation of black teenager knows this tale. Now the ones in McKinney, Texas, do, too. You’re at a party, and whether it is wild or mild, you are under threat of having your party upended by the police if “too many” black teens gather in one spot, loudly communicating with one another.
People don’t like teenagers and especially loathe black teenagers, whom the police almost never see as 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds but, rather, as grown men and women who should be roughed up, thrown to the ground, arrested and/or shot at. Studies show that people often perceive black children to be much older (and guiltier) than they are. You may see a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun. They see a “threat who must be eliminated.” Which leads us to our next thing black people can’t do.
10. Play With Fake Guns
Both a child and a man met their ends because of a fake gun. A fake gun should not get you killed unless you’re using it in the commission of a real crime. Then you could almost understand the confusion on the behalf of police. But if you’re black while also holding the air rifle you picked up off a Wal-Mart shelf, or you’re a child fooling around with an airsoft gun on the playground, you are a threat and you will get the police called out on you. And, in both these tragic cases of John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio, respectively, you will get killed.
This will not happen, though, if you are white, male and an open-carry fanatic, proudly carrying live ammo into Target, terrifying strangers. But it will happen if you are black and the gun is a toy. Complicating this is the fact that children, especially young boys, love toy guns. Even if you refuse to buy them toy guns, children will make guns out of twigs or their fingers. You would think that maybe this is a better alternative, but if you judge by the absurdist, zero-tolerance policies in American schools, finger gun equals real gun, equals black people can’t do anything.