Christian Living

One Black Man’s Complicated Relationship with the Police

Jemar Tisby

In theory police officers should be one of the most welcome presences in our communities. Their job is to protect the neighborhood and serve its citizens. We should be eager to engage our law enforcement officials if there are problems where we live, and we should also celebrate their work. I can’t speak for all black men but my individual relationship with the police is…complicated.

A Complicated Relationship

I’ve never been arrested or charged with a crime, but in many ways I constantly feel like a suspect. I remember one incident in particular when I was in high school.

There was the time when a white cop assumed that me and my best friend (also black and male) had a girl with us in the car against her will. This girl happened to be white and she also happened to be my girlfriend at the time. He even went so far as to question us about our ages and ask the young lady point-blank if she was with us voluntarily. Who knew a quick stop at the 7-Eleven could cast doubts on your morality and make you feel like a victim of your own skin?

Another time I got pulled over, ostensibly for speeding, and searched. The cop gives me the standard, “Do you know how fast you were going?” and “License and registration” small talk, but then he asks me if I have any drugs in the car. He tells me to pop the trunk and he finds nothing. Then he tells me to get out of the car and empty my pockets. Nothing. Then he starts searching the car. He finds the cheap gas station cigars I use on long drives and asks, “Is there pot in these?” I guess that’s something drug users do, replace the tobacco with weed. I didn’t know that and I didn’t do that. He gives me a ticket for speeding and drives off.

And of course there are the countless times when I gather with my other black, male friends and we are acutely aware of how quickly an innocuous encounter can turn ominous. I remember going out to a restaurant with a group of four other black men. One of us happened to own a sleek, black Land Rover into which we all piled. After we were all in it occurred to us that a group of young black men in a nice, late-model SUV were prime targets for unwanted attention from the police. We joked about it all the way to our destination, but the driver stayed right at the speed limit the whole time. We all knew without saying it that where two or three Black men are gathered, it seems, there will be cops, or at least an overly attentive store clerk.

Yes, But

I know these men and women, by and large, are just doing their jobs. More than that, they truly want to serve and make their communities a better place. I can’t begin to fathom what goes through an officer’s mind in certain situations. I’m sure many of them have been in circumstances that have necessitated violent, even lethal force. It’s tough to shut down that instinct on a moment’s notice. And, similar to cops in a high-stress situation, we’ve all had to make a critical decision very quickly in the midst of uncertain circumstances. We may have made the wrong decision in that moment, and we and others spend a lifetime analyzing what should have happened differently.

Others may object, “That’s not a race thing. I’ve had negative encounters with the cops, too.” Or, “It’s not only white cops that stop black people. Black cops do it, too.” And yet others may say, “You just have to use common sense. Don’t put yourself in situations that beg for an altercation.”

More Complications

All of these objections hold varying degrees of validity. But they fail to factor in the history of the disproportionate number of arrests of blacks by the police. In addition, there is a pattern of lethal violence and miscarried justice perpetuated toward blacks by those in authority (for instance here , here , and here). Under that weight of fear and unrighteousness, I wrestle to see the police as allies and protectors. Eric Garner, the man who died after police put him in an illegal chokehold, sums it up well. Just before he was physically detained by several officers he says, “Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it!”

I suspect that many who read this post will criticize my perspective. They will think that none of this history or the current events justify mob action as in the case of Ferguson, Missouri. I would agree if the point is that violence is not an appropriate response. I would, however, ask that we pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers. Anger is a reasonable response to the death of an unarmed teen, especially in light of so many similar incidents. Should we be so quick to condemn the emotions and legal protests involved in these situations?

When I see Michael Brown or the countless other young black men who get in life-threatening or life-ending altercations with the police I see myself. I see my son. And I know I may not be safe. The multiple graduate degrees I’m pursuing won’t protect me. My Standard English-speaking won’t protect me. Not even, apparently, will the universal sign of surrender, two hands up in the air, protect me. And when those who are supposed to protect you are the ones you need protection from, to whom will you turn?

Real Justice Has Come and Will Come Again

I echo the sentiment “I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (Ecc. 3:16). Yet the Lord promises restoration. He promises a re-creation. One is coming and will come again. And “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Is. 42:3-4).

Jesus Christ, the true Authority, quotes these very passages from Isaiah in Matthew 12. But He not only speaks about justice, He brings it about. In the very next verses he heals a man who has a withered hand and many others who follow Him. But Christ’s greatest act of justice was on the cross. There He suffered the most cosmic injustice—that of the only truly innocent man who ever lived dying the criminal’s death that we deserve. Yet Christ’s resurrection from the dead assures us that justice is coming to the world. If Jesus could suffer injustice but conquer it through love, then we can do the same.

So while my own relationship with the police is complicated, my relationship with Christ moves me beyond complexity into the simplicity and the sacrifice of love. We fight for justice now because we know that is what Jesus wants. Yet we can also endure injustice because we know that is what Jesus did for us.

9 thoughts on “One Black Man’s Complicated Relationship with the Police

  1. Lindsay

    So thankful to have a black Jesus loving brother like you to listen to and help us understand the depths of these injustices. We see you and stand with you Jamar. Keep speaking out. Keep standing tall.

  2. bikebubba

    I’d be careful about referring to a disproportionate number of arrests. There is a huge difference between arrests/number of people in a group and arrests/crimes committed. Yes, it’s interesting that the Ferguson ratio is different from the rest of St. Louis County–and for that reason, all the more reason to frame the numbers correctly. It’s not arrests/population, but rather arrests/convictions & pleas.

    If we neglect this principle, we endanger ourselves. For example, it’s said (DOJ and FBI data) that blacks are about 12% of the population and commit (plus or minus) half the murders. So the arrest rate, if the police are doing their job, ought to be entirely disproportionate in terms of population, but entirely proportionate if one measures arrests/crime committed or arrests/convictions. And since most people murdered by blacks happen to be black themselves, that’s exactly what I’d want if I were black myself.

  3. Antecho

    “Apparently,” it should rather be noted that if you display that universal sign of surrender, having your hands up while aggressing a cop after: busting up his face, disobeying him, obstructing traffic, and violently robbing a convenience store that won’t protect you either. And such shouldn’t protect, not even for another fellow cop of virtually the same ancestral lineage. Civil authorities as God’s ministers of wrath that avenge evil against those that practice evil do not bear the sword nothing, even when they are opposed/resisted (Ro 13:1-4). Let us exhort each other to be in subjection (Ro 13:5) to cops and other civil authorities so long as they are not causing us to commit evil/sin as shown by the example of the apostles and other disciples of Christ’s generation.

  4. Amy

    I see your point and I agree with you. I’m white and I’ve watched black friends get followed in stores where I’m ignored. It happens no denying it.

    What I hear though online is that blacks have to coach their kids about cops, to be careful of them unlike whites who don’t have to do that. Let me just say: Wrong!!!

    As a kid and especially as a teen my dad (78 yr old white guy now) would hound me about cops. He would say:
    “Do you have your I.D. on you? Cause’ if you don’t a cop can arrest you for vagrancy?”
    “If you get pulled over keep you hands on the wheel, don’t look in the mirror and don’t back talk.”
    “Don’t tell the cop everything, just give short straight answers.”
    “Don’t make sudden moves, cops are jittery and have ego issues so stay calm.”

    I would roll my eyes and sigh but the lessons stuck and the one time I didn’t listen I had a cop draw his weapon on me. Late at night got pulled over and decided to get out of the car…big mistake. Scared the crap out of me and frankly I haven’t trusted the police since.

    Not to mention the time that I had an unmarked car pull me over and made me go through the stuff in my trunk. I had short hair, drove a clunker and he thought I was a young guy with no insurance and drugs in the back….yes to the insurance and no to the drugs and being a guy.

    The reason my Dad would say this is because in the 50’s he would get
    hassled by cops because he drove muscle cars. They assumed a formula:
    young guy + muscle car = speeding and reckless driving. So he had to
    get used to being pulled over every week and he learned how to behave.

    I think cops do stereotype, they did it to me, my dad and no doubt black people. It sucks but don’t think it happens to you alone. Rural cops do it to city folks or people driving out of state plates, city cops do it to minorities, folks who drive muscle cars or people like me who drive clunkers.

    They are looking to make a big bust, to bring money into the department and they will use every way they can. I don’t like it and I think we have made the mistake of making the cops an army now but rioting is never a good response.

  5. Christopher Lee

    Jemar, I can only imagine the frustration you face in your encounters with the police.

    With that being said, may I challenge you on the overall context of your blog post?
    It goes without saying that while your experiences are legitimate with run-ins with the police etc.., I would caution you by saying that your experiences and context are NOT the same thing that Brown experienced in Missouri or the Travyon Martin case.
    For instance, let’s look at the facts of the Trayvon Martin case:
    -The local police found no reason to prosecute Zimmerman (who is not white, BTW). The only reason that this case even went to trial was due to the influence of the federal govt.
    -CBS news was caught with their pants down by editing the 911 tape to try to show that Zimmerman was going to go after Martin because he was black, when in fact, the unedited tape reveals nothing of the sort. The 911 operator told him to wave off, which he did. It was Martin who ended up confronting Zimmerman.
    -The arguments in the actual court case never used the issue of race (on either side).
    -The jury determined that race was NOT actually a factor in the case.
    -Trayvon Martin was found to have THC (drug from pot) in his system when he was shot.
    -Martin was a very muscular 18 yr old who loved to flip the bird on his FB page. Notice how the only pictures that were shown were when he was a kid.
    -He was ground pounding Zimmerman MMA style and said “You will die tonight”.
    -Recently before the incident, there were reports of young teens breaking into houses in Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
    The Trayvon Martin case was really more of a case in which Zimmerman wanted to be a cop and was patrolling the streets.
    Let’s look at the facts so far in the Brown case:
    -The victim was caught on camera stealing $50 worth of cigars from the store. This is caught on video yet due to pressure from the federal govt, this is not being shown.
    -The victim is 290 lbs, yet you don’t see any recent pictures of him.
    -When the police officer finally reached the victim after he robbed the store, Brown ended up punching the officer in the face and broke his eye socket. Brown also attempted to reach for the officer’s gun.
    -Somehow the officer was able to keep his gun, and when Brown walked away, the officer drew his gun (with his broken eye socket) and told Brown to turn around.
    -Brown turned around and said “What, youre going to arrest me?” and then subsequently charged at the officer.
    -What would you do in a case in which you had a 290 lb man running at you and you had a broken eye socket and could barely even stand properly because your depth perception was screwed up?
    It seems odd to me that you would really want to compare yourself and say that your experiences are the same as Martin who was high when he got shot and was going to kill Zimmerman, and with Brown, who likes to punch officers in the eye socket and break it.
    I would venture to say that your experiences are nothing like theirs. And if they were, then you have a larger problem with the state than you realize, and it would go far beyond mere racism.
    So, again, I would strongly admonish you to really understand what actually happened and the proper context of each case in which the (liberal) media is saying that somehow we have a war of white police officers killing young black teens. Don’t be hoodwinked.
    Did you hear about the case 9 mos ago in which a black mother was shot by DC police officers? Did you hear about how the DOJ has refused to even investigate? Why is the federal govt involved in something in MO when it wont even investigate something in their back yard?
    Did you hear about all of these black mobs who prey on white people?
    Have you considered these cases?
    I would encourage you to continue to investigate news sources that give you a different perspective from what you are being exposed to, and to really reconsider your thoughts regarding what is going on in our country.,,

  6. Aaron Vriesman

    Thank you for the graciousness and helpful insight into Ferguson while viewing injustice through the cross of Christ, by which all injustice and evil is defeated. Much appreciated!

  7. Cyril Chavis

    Thanks for sharing with us! Your honest and insight is refreshing

  8. Jemar

    Thanks, Kara. I appreciate your response because this was tough to share. Please share with others who you think may benefit. Grace & Peace

  9. Kara C

    Thank you for sharing an honest and nuanced response to current events. White people like me need to hear the truth about what it’s like to be Black in America. May God’s kingdom come, his will be done, in America, as it is in heaven.

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