Over the past two days, in response to the Eric Garner grand jury decision, White Twitter users took to the web to share stories about times where they were confronted by the police after breaking the law and came out of the incident with no punishment – basically, they admitted to crimes they got away with. Garner died after being choked to death by an officer during an encounter that began over him, allegedly, selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. Many of the confessions referenced teenage and college offenses, but many also confessed to crimes committed well into adulthood. Participants reported having contributed to the hashtag in order to acknowledge their White privilege in a racially biased criminal justice system. Some of the tweets are below (and you can find others by searching the hashtag on Twitter):
As a 21-year-old Black man, I would never imagine saying or doing to a police officer some of the things people have admitted to doing. I wouldn’t dare tell a cop to “f*ck off!” or blow weed smoke in his face (I don’t smoke) for fear of retaliation. Some people have gotten away with some pretty serious offenses, like drunk driving, and others have gotten away with or gotten off pretty easily on some not so serious offenses but, nonetheless, offenses for which Black people, particularly young Black people, are routinely locked up, such as possession of marijuana, fighting (on assault charges), and petty theft from a department store. But after reading dozens of tweets by White people acknowledging their privilege, I also came away with new insight into the minds of many of the people who won’t acknowledge any such privilege, and who eagerly and unapologetically give the police the benefit of the doubt in almost every situation. It occurred to me: of course most White people support the police! Of course they give them the benefit of the doubt! The cops they are used to dealing with drive their drunk kids home to make sure they get there safely after a night of partying. They call teenagers’ moms to come pick them up from the mall after they get caught stealing or fighting. They take young adults’ weed and tell them to go home, instead of charging them with a crime for which they could face years in prison. When White officers go into affluent White communities and catch kids stealing, fighting, drunk or high, they see kids with futures that they don’t want to ruin. White people, especially those with class privilege, have very different experiences with law enforcement than Black, Brown, and poor people, but they assume that police generally engage with everyone with the same level of respect and concern with which they engage with them. They can’t fathom other officers, even the very same ones that police their communities, going into other communities and engaging with people in the way that many Black people allege the police have engaged with us. The stories we present must sound preposterous to them. The cops they’re used to dealing with would never do the things we claim they have done to us without a good reason. And they almost certainly couldn’t be doing them so frequently and to so many people.
But when officers go into poor and minority communities and encounter Black and brown kids doing the same things, they don’t see kids with futures, they see potential criminals, potential threats – on drugs. There is a fundamental difference in how police perceive White middle-class youth and youth of color, and thus a difference in how they interpret their behavior, and that translates into major differences in how officers engage with them respectively. Ultimately, it culminates into major differences in legal outcomes for White people and Black people: 1 in 13 Black men will see prison in their lifetime; 1 in 117 White women will.
But police antagonism, brutality, and over-policing aren’t new to the Black community. This has been going on for decades, centuries even. But now we have cameras and social media with which to expose it. The #crimingwhilewhite trending topic and the numerous shootings of unarmed Black people in recent months paint images of two very different Americas – one for Black people and one for White people, both with different sets of laws. But as one person pointed out on Twitter, the way which officers engaged with all of the confessors is how officers should engage with people – with everyone: using compassion and discretion. When Black people begin to see a shift towards this kind of engagement from police, then we will see a change in the tide of distrust between Black American communities and the local police forces that are charged with protecting and serving them.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter and is an aspiring journalist.