This is not legal advice, but if you are a male of color between ages 10 and 30 (or know one) you may want to keep reading. The ongoing news reports of young Black men who are being targeted, harassed and killed is keeping me from sleeping and has prompted me to respond. I feel obligated to offer a few tips for managing such confrontations with hopes that they prevent someone from an unthinkable fate. I practiced law for 13 years, including juvenile and criminal defense, as well as civil rights. As a result of this experience I have heard more than my share of incidents, allegations, versions of events, and complaints. And although nothing I can share should be construed to be legal advice, I hope that the few “pearls of wisdom” (as my grandmother would have called them) can serve to prevent at least a few people from unnecessary harm.
I can imagine how exhausting it is to have to prove to the world every day that you are worthy of respect; to feel accused with every raised eyebrow and clutched purse just for walking down the street or getting into an elevator. I can understand how draining it is to be considered a suspect as a result of the generic “Male-Black” description (no height, no weight, no age, no specificity required). This description that seems to authorize every police officer within ear shot to target the nearest male of color and stop them for questioning (or something more). I can appreciate how scary it is not knowing whether the person approaching you, or stopping you in your car may have a nervous glitch or be trigger-happy and likely to cause you harm.
I consider these harsh realities facing young men of color . . . and my heart aches for you! But more than that, I want you to stay safe, to survive, and to thrive. And to do that you have to stay alive! So these “pearls of wisdom” as simple as they may seem are what I have to offer and I pray that they somehow will help.
If you believe you are facing a criminal charge (or a civil action) you should consult an attorney who knows the laws of the state in which you live. With that disclaimer, I want young people to wake up and realize (if they haven’t already) that currently while walking around doing average things that others do – you are in harm’s way! But, I have a few ideas (again, not legal advice) that you may want to consider as . . . well, let’s just call them “prevention techniques.”
Let’s be clear though – these guidelines are not kryptonite; if someone is set out to hurt you, there is little you can do. In the event, however, that a situation can benefit from various interpretations it may help for you to be pro-active and do what you can to avoid unnecessary escalation. I’m warning you in advance, these tactics may not be easy to do, especially when you feel that you are being unfairly singled out, but keep in mind that the result you are seeking is to walk away from the situation safely, and ideally without being handcuffed or arrested.
- Stay calm
No matter what type of tone or harsh words someone uses against you, do your best to remain calm. Do not raise your voice or appear agitated. It is important to give the impression that you have self-control, rather than seeming hot-headed and reactionary. Often when an officer responds with force, they assert that it was necessary to bring order to a chaotic situation. Remaining calm can help avoid such an escalation. Don’t give them an easy excuse.
- Show your hands
Although this didn’t seem to work for Michael Brown, making it clear to someone approaching you that your hands are free of weapons that may injure them usually is enough to at least get them to pause. It is considered to be a universal signal that you mean no harm. Even I, as a (let’s say mature) woman of color when stopped while I am driving make it a point to place my hands on the steering wheel in clear view. I also ask the officer for permission before attempting to reach for my purse to get my license or registration (“officer my license is in my purse on the seat, is it okay if I get it?”). It may sound silly, but if it puts them at ease, and helps me get through the traffic stop with less headache, to me it’s worth it.
- Be polite (even when you are offended)
Although it’s hard when an officer (or in Trayvon Martin’s case a civilian) approaches you with negative assumptions and accusations, I encourage you to remain level-headed. People like this are usually expecting a gruff response – so it can disarm them when instead you respond with the opposite. Since I was raised by Southern parents I was always taught to say “Sir and Ma’am” and have found that to serve me well in many situations. A well placed “sir” or “ma’am” signals to the recipient that you are disciplined and well-mannered and may prevent an ugly confrontation. If that sounds like a stretch, at least be polite in whatever way you can.
- Show ID when asked
I have heard so many misinterpretations of whether or not a person is required to show identification or answer simple questions when approached by law enforcement. My rule of thumb – in general, when asked, if you have one go ahead and show it. It’s just ID. I actually don’t feel the same when asked to consent to a higher level of intrusion such as a search. But, when asked for basic information such as your name, or where you live, it’s often less eventful to respond with basic information rather than challenge their right to inquire (especially if you are informed that there was a report of suspicious activity — whether you believe it or not). After all, who wants to be placed in handcuffs, or taken down to a police station unnecessarily when simply responding to a few questions could avoid it?
- Don’t run
Another sore subject is how fast or how slow to walk to avoid suspicion, and for that I have no bright ideas. But, if you believe an officer is trying to get your attention, running away is more likely to stimulate their anxiety than not. And you know if they have to chase you, when they apprehend you, it won’t be pretty.
When I practiced civil rights law, I had the opportunity to visit a police academy to learn how young recruits were being trained. We were investigating stop and frisk practices known to be prevalent in communities of color. One clear message that I left with was that police officers are trained to protect themselves – first and foremost! And it is with that in mind that I implore our young people to stay calm, show your hands, be polite, show identification if you have it, and don’t run. Don’t give them a reason to fear for their safety – or to claim it.
I in no way mean to condone improper actions by law enforcement or to disparage the good ones. Clearly I have not attempted to provide an exhaustive list of suggestions or presented the various sides of the issue, but rather just a few thoughts that I hope will come in handy, and may serve to keep everyone safe. I also know that many may disagree with me, preferring civil disobedience or other protest strategy when confronted without just cause. For those, I understand that point of view in the context of an informed action plan, but not for our youth to act upon alone.
In the end, if you believe that your constitutional or civil rights are being violated, or that you have been unfairly stopped, it’s better to get through the situation without being handcuffed, arrested or hurt and then consult an attorney, rather than trying to raise that argument in the moment.
Your bright future depends on you staying safe, staying healthy and staying strong!
Please share your thoughts and comments and let’s have a healthy dialogue.
Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com