I think we’ve all had “driveway moments.” That’s when your favorite song comes on the car radio as you arrive home and you linger to listen. Or maybe it’s a National Public Radio story you have to finish.
So, I was appalled at the harrowing story told by Bryan Stevenson in his book (also made into a movie), “Just Mercy.” We’ve all been in the car, but we’ve not all had the same experience. And race can make a difference.
Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to representing the poor and the wrongly condemned. That’s the focus of his engaging book.
But he introduces us to the way race often plays out in our system when he, a Black man, recounts the night he pulled into a parking space close to his apartment on a residential street in Atlanta. He lingered to listen to a favorite Sly and the Family Stone recording.
Suddenly, everything changed. A police car veered down the street and a spotlight blinded him. Not comprehending that they were interested in him, he got out of the car to head inside.
Immediately, one of the policemen, clad in military attire, drew a weapon and pointed it at Stevenson.
“Move and I’ll blow your head off,” the officer yelled. The second officer came up behind Stevenson and pushed him against the car. They interrogated him. There had been a report of a burglary.
Bending him over the back of his vehicle, they demanded his license. New to the area, he had a license address that didn’t match his apartment. They conducted an illegal search of his vehicle, including what Stevenson describes as an “incredibly illegal” opening of his glove compartment.
Meanwhile, the spotlight remained on him as neighbors gathered. Finally, after a check called in on him showed nothing, the officer told him he should be “happy” they’d let him go.
We have so many great police in our country. They have tough jobs and they’re called into extremely difficult situations. The random killings of police officers we’ve seen are heart-wrenching. But the shots fired into the backs of Black men and the knee pressed into the neck of George Floyd are horrific too.
This is not an us versus them situation. We’re in this together. Good police departments want accountability, better training for new recruits and assistance with the many mental health calls with which they’re forced to deal.
Stevenson mentions that his first inclination was to run. No one had ever pointed a gun at him before, and he knew the statistics about Black encounters with police.
Fortunately, he suppressed this fleeting response and instead used soothing words and complete cooperation that possibly saved his life.
The fact that this educated lawyer even momentarily thought about running was an eye-opener to me. It tells me so much about the fear that Black people have of the police. Running makes no sense, until terror overcomes common sense.
As a white woman, I’d never feel afraid of the police. In my younger years, I’d been stopped for speeding a time or two. I’ve encountered friendly officers and one overbearing one. I’m sure I was nervous — those flashing lights can make anyone sweat — but I’ve never been afraid.
By introducing more officers into Black neighborhoods and educating young minorities on their rights, perhaps we can all move toward understanding we’re in this together.
And prayerfully reading and reflecting on “Just Mercy” might help to foster an understanding of the challenges Black Americans face in our criminal justice system.