By now most of us have heard of Jonathan Ferrell, the 24-year-old former Florida A&M football player who was shot and killed by a Charlotte police officer. We have become almost desensitized to the killing of black men, so why did this particular death bother me so much?
The night he was shot, Ferrell was in a very bad car crash. His vehicle sustained so much damage that he was forced to knock out the back window to escape it. He left the accident, injured and most likely in shock, and made his way to a door of a nearby home.
Not able to recognize a distressed citizen, the home owner cried on the phone as she spoke to the 911 operator. "He is trying to kick down my door," she said. One of the responding police officers shared her perception and shot Ferrell 10 times, killing him.
The need for minorities to make themselves more palatable or less threatening to the mainstream is more than a coping mechanism — it is a survival skill. I am not suggesting that Ferrell contributed in any way to being shot, but, in the state of mind he was likely in, Ferrell forgot his filters.
Something else does not sit right with me about the situation. Maybe it's that Ferrell was so young when he died, maybe it was because he was a local brother, or maybe because I recently had an encounter with a Charlotte police officer that left me feeling profiled.
I will preface my story with this: My inspection sticker was expired, but I had already taken my vehicle in. My mechanic found that a part had to be replaced, which was going to take a few days since he had to order the part.
Around that time, I was running errands when I noticed a police car parked at the convenience store at the corner of Parkwood Avenue and The Plaza. He began to follow me, and I immediately got that uneasy feeling anyone gets when they know a police encounter is possible. The officer played a game of cat and mouse with me as I continued my errands. Finally, I passed a gas station on Central, only to see that the police car was posted up and obviously waiting for me. The officer merged onto Central behind me, so I pulled into my neighborhood cleaners, which is when he finally hit the lights.
I have a ritual whenever an officer pulls me over, which has happened in every state I've lived in, sometimes with their guns drawn. I roll my window down, turn down my radio and keep my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. The officer approached cautiously and asked, "Do you know why I pulled you over?" I refrained from saying what I was thinking: "No, but I think the more appropriate question is, 'Do I know why you have been following me?'" Because really, would he have so passionately tailed a Dilworth soccer mom with an expired sticker?
Instead, I went with a simple "no."
At the officer's request, I handed him my license but said that I would have to reach into my glove compartment for my registration. I turned toward the glove box, and that's when he asked, "Do you have a gun?"
Years of conditioning have taught me to keep my cool in situations like this, so I slowly turned back to the officer and said, "I am a teacher, sir, and no, I do not have a gun." Sharing my background was my way of putting his irrational fears to rest, but also a way to protect myself in case the situation escalated.
If you think this heightened sensitivity on the part of minorities is paranoia, look at signifiers in popular culture. The Geico pig commercial is a highly successful ad campaign. Why? Because the satirical comedy is steeped in truth. In one commercial, said pig experiences a classic case of DWB (driving while black) and he tells an officer, "You pulled me over because I'm a pig driving a convertible." Another commercial is more blatant. When the pig is offended by a flight attendant's insensitive remark, he turns for support to an African-American man sitting across from him. But unlike the mildly annoyed feeling the pig is left with, most folks in those situations feel angry and disenfranchised.
Ferrell's mother appeared on CNN and said there is no explanation for why police shot her son. I guess what bothers me so much is that there is an explanation.
I have to wonder: If Ferrell had not been in such a state of shock and panic, all very natural responses given that he was involved in a violent car crash, would the outcome have been different? Ferrell acted as anyone would in a similar situation, but the ugly truth is that he was not just anyone. He was a large, dark-skinned man.
Trayvon Martin was profiled by George Zimmerman because of the stereotype against this group. I was tailed and asked if I had a gun because of it.
The sad truth is that stereotype is so entrenched in our culture, I am not sure if it's going away anytime soon. Maybe when pigs fly.