At first glance, the viral video in which a white police officer takes a black teenager from a North Philly bus stop and puts him in a police cruiser seemed rather innocuous to me.
After all, police stop people all the time. If the person who is stopped is a young black man and the police release him without physical injury, I normally count that as a win. Still, there are injuries more insidious than the ones that cause physical scars, and I fear that this interaction may have injured this young man in ways we can’t see.
The incident took place around 3:25 p.m. on Sept. 12 at 23rd and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, and in watching the video quickly, I didn’t see anything that seemed out of order.
The officer who detained the young man did not harm the teen physically. He never drew his gun or deployed his Taser, and while he pushed the young man’s leg when the teen hesitated to get into the police vehicle, the officer never struck him with a fist or an open hand. Instead the officer poked his head into the back of the police vehicle and uttered the words “Why are you shaking?”
It was only after I replayed the video and heard this seemingly minor statement that it struck me. Perhaps the young man was shaking because he understood, just as most black people do, that the officer had the power to take his life. Maybe he quickly grasped that this moment in the back of a police vehicle could be his last. Perhaps he was recalling the videotaped deaths of Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald, both young black males who died needlessly in police interactions.
In that moment, as the officer seemed to mock the young man’s fear, I thought of the emotional trauma black people have endured at the hands of police. It was then I understood why this video, which has been viewed more than 1.6 million times on Twitter, has drawn such a visceral reaction from the African American community.
Many black folks see ourselves in that young man.
I know this because I asked my radio audience on WURD to share the emotional scars they’ve suffered as a result of their own interactions with police. When I did, the floodgates opened. Black men, in particular, called in to talk.
One caller said that when he was a teenager, he saw an officer jump out of a police car and punch another black teen in the face before getting back in the car and driving away. Another caller said that when he and his brother were 10 and 9 years old, respectively, police picked them up and took them to be identified by a white woman whose purse had been snatched. When the woman said the boys weren’t the perpetrators, the officers took the boys to an area deep in Fishtown — then a poor white neighborhood — and left them there to find their way home during an era when doing so was dangerous.
Another caller said that he was falsely accused of raping a white woman in the 1990s and that police in suburban Philadelphia refused to look at evidence that would have proved the witness was lying. His voice cracking as he choked back tears, he said he was eventually cleared of the charges, but that the incident nearly destroyed him.
That’s why this video of a young black man being mocked by a white police officer is so impactful. It brings memories flooding back for black men who have buried their own emotional scars.
Perhaps for the unidentified teenager in the video, there will be justice. Or maybe we will learn that the stop was justified after police complete the internal affairs investigation they’ve begun in connection with the incident.