By Dennis Matanda
Anyone who knows me knows three things: first, that when I am caught red handed with my hand in the cookie jar, I come clean and accept my punishment. Second: I like to drive very, VERY fast. And thirdly; I ALWAYS have my seat belt on. Now, if you are reading this and follow American politics, you definitely know where I am going with this considering that, for the record, I am a Black Man.
In case you do not know what is happening, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the nation's pre-eminent African-American scholars, was arrested a few days ago at his home by Cambridge police investigating a possible break-in after a neighbor reported seeing two black men trying to force their way into a house. It turns out that the two black men were Professor Gates and his driver trying to get into his house through a door that had jammed. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist after the officer insisted on questioning him after he had showed his driver’s license and Harvard identification card and was later booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. I guess the question in the professor’s head at the time was: if he had been a white professor, would this kind of thing have happened to him?
But let me start like this: I have no doubt that all my Black friends will tell you their individual stories of police profiling woe. For my part, I got my first speeding ticket in Watertown – a town West of Boston, MA - known to have some of the strictest and most vigilant traffic officers on the entire East Coast. I had, over the course of my one year of driving in the United States, been cautioned by all and sundry about driving through this place since I live in Belmont, the next town. That morning – for it was 1:15 am – I had just left the club and was feeling a little buzzed because this girl I’d met the day before had called to find out if I wanted to do drinks with her and her girlfriends. And then, the new Mazda 6 I was driving responded beautifully to my foot nudges and soon, I was right in the middle of Watertown all the while overtaking drivers to my left and to my right.
When I passed the last driver, who gave me what I considered a dirty look, I realized, only too late and firstly, that the look had been one of pity; and secondly, that I had flown right into the hornets’ nest! A few seconds after I slowed down, I saw flashing lights in my rear view mirror, slowed down even more like I had seen in the movies, pulled off to the side of the road, stopped, turned the loud music on my radio off and rolled my window down. Sitting there not knowing what to do – and yet at the same time excited that something was happening to me AT LAST – the young looking officer came up to my window and asked for my license and car registration which I fumblingly gave to him. He then asked me if I knew why he had pulled me over; and I said that it was because I was overtaking some people who were driving recklessly. He told me that I had been doing over 40 miles in a 30 mile zone and speechlessly, I nodded. Then I, with zest, explained that I had not meant to drive that fast. It’s just that I was trying to overtake some slow drivers who were, in my opinion, driving dangerously.
The Young Man told me he understood and turned to take the documents I had handed him back to his car. As he was walking away, I asked his pardon and wondered in question if he was going to give me a ticket. He asked me to stay in the car and wait. I followed that up by saying that I was worried about my insurance being affected by a speeding ticket – and he, in that reassuring voice – told me to be patient and get what was coming to me.
He came back after what seemed like forever and presented me with my first ticket. On it was the fact that in his estimation, I had been driving at over 40 miles an hour and for this violation of the law, I was going to pay $ 25 dollars to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Massachusetts. Then I saw something else on the ticket. I was being accused of not wearing my seat belt. When I pointed this out to the Officer, he said he had done me a favor and only given me a $ 25 ticket that was not going to affect my insurance rating or anything of the sort. The not-wearing-a-seat-belt crime was, somehow, going to show that this was just a minor offense and that I was a good person after all.
Giddy with having ‘successfully’ negotiated myself out of a nasty ticket that would have doomed my future car insurance to Siberia, I drove home, sent a text to my now failed potential date apologizing and explaining the circumstances. She did not respond. I then called Thomas to tell him the story of my ticket. He did not think it was a big deal and so I went to sleep in a good mood believing that I had gotten charged only $ 25 for that irreplaceable feeling of nirvana!
Three months later – about two weeks ago in fact – you can imagine my shame and frustration when the insurance agent brought up the fact that he deemed me one of those careless ones that did not wear their seat belts! I was in shock. I could not believe that that White Police Bastard had stained my driving record with such a, excuse the pun, white lie! This is what went on inside my head while I sheepishly made grunts and rude gestures to the Insurance fellow who was making faces about my record. But to be fair to him, I had within those months received two other tickets – the $ 150 for driving at 88 miles in a 65 mile zone [it was 3:00 am and I was driving from Washington DC like a maniac because I was longing for my bed], and then the cool $ 240 one for driving at 53 miles on a 30 mile bridge!
But all this is not the point. I am just going to say that although I am still mad that the first traffic officer lied to me and accused me of a violation I would never commit, the other two tickets came from very professional officers who addressed me by name – even at those odd hours of the night – and who even offered words of advice like ‘pull into a rest area to take a nap’ or ‘Dennis, you need to slow down or you will die.’ And these officers were both, like the first one I am going to disparage later on in this article, white.
Did I feel like any one of them was racist to me or profiling me? Well – to some extent, I guess all officers were a little taken back that I was not intoxicated at that time of the night since I was driving carelessly; and probably pleasantly surprised that I spoke with an accent. I actually believe that the $ 150 ticket was a major consideration since I had actually been flying that Toyota Prius Hybrid thingy off the road!
That is why, I guess, I am not going to take all police personnel as pigs in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop. I will, however, say that the case of Sgt. James Crowley vs. Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr was, like President Obama said at the end of his July 22, 2009 evening, an act of sheer bloody stupidity. Yes – the President said the white police man acted stupidly in arresting the old black man with a cane in his own home; but I will reiterate the fact that this was just sheer bloody mindedness and downright stupidity.
Let me explain: first, if this Sgt. Crowley actually gave courses and talks on racial profiling, he should have known how Black Men feel about being accosted by the Police. He should have known better to de-escalate the situation and especially let the fact that there was an old man mouthing off at him. It did not matter that the man insulted his mother or even called him a racist and demanded to speak to the Officer’s Officer.
But at this juncture, I need to throw in a curve ball. Like the President, I do not have all the facts on this – but I believe that many Black people do blow a few things out of proportion and grow their sense of injustice. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court rendered one of the most important legal decisions in American history. With its first opinion in the Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that racial segregation should not be allowed even if Black and White schools had equal funding, equal opportunities, and were equivalent in all other resources. The eventual result of the
Brown decision was the complete breakdown of the legally mandated, or de jure segregation.
And Brown did change a great deal of the American fabric. Black people went to white people schools and somehow, neighborhoods begun to have a little brown sugar. However, you have to admit that with the progress made so far, Black people have probably not necessarily received what is their due. In this case, what, in my opinion, is their due? The honest truth is that I do not know. All I know is that many of my Black American friends say that they would never marry a white person because that person would not understand; many of my White friends do not understand what the Black people have gone through and ultimately, many people do not say what they honestly feel about other races because it is deemed politically incorrect.
Now, I live in the North East – in Massachusetts. According to the official 2005 demographics, Whites are 87.89% of the population while Blacks made up 7.58%. This has, since the 2000 official statistics, grown from the 89.23% to 6.97% ratio. That is why I understand that most of the billboards and advertising literature feature happy White folks without seeming regard for the minorities. Interestingly, these subliminal messages – through showing White families going on holiday, White families being the perfect American family and White families showed as happy present Black people as sports icons, musicians, people with HIV or even criminals living in the South End.
My neighborhood has very few Black people – but many other minorities. For instance, there are at least five Chinese families in the two miles on either side of my address. Combined with the Armenians, Latin Americans and others, being that these people are fair skinned, the only color that sticks out like a sore thumb is Black. I do get looks when I walk into an ice cream parlor. I do get looks when I sit down at my local Starbucks. I do get stared at when I walk into a barber shop to get a haircut [and I gave my neighborhood barber the experience of his life because he had never shaved a Black guy]. And lastly, I do, like everyone else, drive cautiously considering that the police patrol the streets 24 hours a day. I am proud to say that I feel safe in my neighborhood, proudly speak of my cool apartment and have, over the months, somehow forgotten that my housemates are both White, that most of the women I have been involved with in the past few months have been White and there is a chance that I am really not that racist.
But not so fast, I tell myself on a regular basis! That is not necessarily true. The fact that I notice the stares I get says something about me. The fact that I live in this neighborhood in the first place says something about me. The fact that I take cello lessons says something about me. On the other hand, there is also a chance that I am just an uppity nigger! My point here is that in thinking these thoughts while getting these looks of curiosity makes me racist to some point.
And that Sgt. Crowley guy mentioning that he gave a dying NBA star mouth to mouth in a bid to save his life is just as racially tragic as the young black man he failed to save on the basketball court. I was really incensed when the Officer taunted his being post racial by saying that he taught a course on racial profiling and could not have been racist to Professor Gates. But what made the cup boil over is when he talked about Reggie Lewis, RIP. As a campus police officer at Brandeis University, he in July 1993 tried to save the life of the former Boston Celtics player Reggie Lewis when Lewis, who was black, collapsed and died during an off-season workout. Crowley administered CPR, trying to resuscitate the dying Lewis.
How could this be brought up? Does this mean that this would not have been a story to talk about if Lewis had been White or even Chinese? Is that not what police is trained to do? Does this make him any racially motivated just because he tried and failed to save a dying person? This is just the epitome of silliness. And for this, I completely give up. And then, to conclude, this is why I accuse all of us of being racist: we have all taken a side in regard to President Obama’s comments. Everyone is basically giving their opinion based, not on the facts of the case, but on the colors that are being displayed. Yes – the fact is that a White Officer arrested a Black Scholar. If this had been a White Scholar, would he have been arrested in the first place? I think not. I do not even think that that impeachable woman who called the police would have taken note. She would have walked on and none of this would have happened.
I guess, under the circumstances, we are all none the wiser, have all acted stupidly – except the President and the White Cop who gave me my first ticket. The President is a combination of both Black and White – and so there is no way we can bring him down to our level. And that Young White Cop was such a conniving and lying person that I would not want to find in an alley deep in the night! Of course I cannot remember what he looks like since all White Cops, young or old, look the same to me.