The controversial street arrest in Fort Worth a week ago — a middle-aged mother thrown to the ground, threatened with a stun-gun and handcuffed, two of her children handcuffed, one of them threatened with the stun gun — is a good window on an important question:
Is there any such thing in our society as race-neutral? Can our behavior be race-neutral? Can a moment be race-neutral?
For the first several days after the event in Fort Worth, the online world saw only the moment of the arrest itself, grainy and wobbly in a minute-long clip from a much longer cell phone video. Over the long holiday weekend, however, the rest of the 30-minute video was released.
The short edited video of the arrest had already gone viral on Youtube. A spirited dispute about it — whether a white officer had used too much force on black females — was already the latest chapter in our raucous national conversation about race and police.
Jacqueline Craig, 49, was thrown violently to the ground by the officer. A daughter, Brea Hymond, 19, who video-recorded the events on her cell phone, was arrested. A second 15-year-old daughter whose name has not been released also was thrown to the ground, and the officer pointed a stun gun at her.
As of this writing, the officer’s name has not been released.
The longer video shows a period of more than 11 minutes after Craig, the mother, has called police but before police arrive, as well as a period after the arrest when Craig and her daughters are handcuffed inside the police car.
Craig has called police because her children reported to her that a neighbor, who is white, put his hands on her 7-year-old boy’s throat to choke him. Her children told her that her son had thrown trash on the ground while walking by the neighbor, who was on the sidewalk painting the outside of his privacy fence with an electric sprayer. According to the children, the man demanded that the boy pick up the trash. When the boy defied him, the witnesses said the man grabbed the boy by the throat and choked him.
In the video, Craig, her two daughters and a shifting cast of onlookers await the arrival of police. We hear a chorus of goofy teenagers, sometimes giggling with excitement, at other moments clearly afraid.
“We are not Trayvon Martin,” one young female voice says several times.
I think it’s Hymond speaking. She’s the one doing the video-recording. Her meaning is unclear.
Does she mean that she, her siblings and friends gathered on the street waiting for police to arrive should not be mistaken for Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old shot to death by a white vigilante in Florida four years ago? Does she mean they don’t want to become Trayvon Martin, that is, don’t want to be shot and killed?
A garbled conversation takes place about who in the situation is white and who is black. Voices discuss a person who must be white with a black wife. The neighbor? Unclear.
At one point a grown man, who is black and apparently an acquaintance of the family, pulls to the curb in a white car, gets out and marches aggressively toward the accused neighbor. The neighbor continues serenely spray-painting his fence as if nothing is going on.
One of the children asks the man in the white car if he is going to hit the neighbor. The response, indecipherable on the recording, appears to be yes. The kids are excited. A voice says, “We got action.”
The man from the white car says something to the still-painting neighbor about choking. His intent is obvious: He is going to avenge the wrong he believes has been visited upon the Craig family.
But Craig, the mother, intervenes, rushing forward to put her body between the would-be attacker and the accused neighbor. It’s a classy moment. If this were the age of King Arthur and if the family friend were a knight on a white horse, then this lady has just relieved the knight of his obligation to seek satisfaction on her behalf.
He doesn’t need much relieving. In a split-second he’s back on his white steed and gone. You can feel a shudder of relief in the voices as the moment passes. One young person says she hopes no one eggs the man on to return to the scene:
“Don’t send him around the corner so he can punch this man and go to jail,” she says.
The young people and the middle-aged mother know what the stakes are here. Mishandled, tipped just barely the wrong way, this whole series of events can go badly for them. One of them might go to jail instead of the white man impassively painting his fence without speaking a word a few yards away.
By now there appear to be four to six people gathered at the curb. They are excited. There’s a lot of cursing, not at the neighbor, I don’t think – more like ambient cursing. One kid says to someone else, “I hope all the cussin’ makes you feel better. You need to go in the house.”
At about the 11-minute mark in the full video, a police car approaches. Hymond, who is recording, again says, “We got action.” Her voice rings with excitement, tension and fear.
Someone out of view of the cell phone camera — I think it’s Craig, the mother — goes forward to hail the police to the scene.
“Look at her,” Hymond says. “She wants them to treat her like a nigger. She wants to be treated like a goddamn nigger.” When Hymond sees that the lone police officer is white, she says, “He’s gonna act like an asshole.”
Craig, who has been civil with the police dispatcher on her own phone, also is civil at first with the police officer who shows up, explaining why she called: “I want to press charges,” she says. “This is a grown man. [He] grabbed a 7-year-old kid and choked him.”
Craig is clearly nervous, but she still has two distinct tones of voice — one, an excited angry tone when speaking to her family, the second a controlled respectful tone when speaking to the police.
All of that is the short prequel to the arrest. It’s the only side of the immediate events we can know, because we don’t know what the cop was thinking on his way to the scene or what he heard from his dispatcher. Hymond, who is recording, has not approached or tried to speak to the neighbor, who is painting.
But what is the longer prequel? The children and young people on the scene know all about Trayvon Martin. They invoke his name and death as they await the arrival of police. Their antennae are twitching, searching, on high alert for racism. They expect and fear that this lone white cop will be a racist and that things will go badly for their mother or for them. The white police officer, in other words, gets out of his car and steps straight into a densely woven fabric of expectation and fear, and that fabric is all about race.
There is a lot that you and I don’t know about his situation, based on a shaky YouTube video made by one of the parties to the dispute. But I do know — and you know, and we all know — what racism looks like, how it operates if it’s there.
Racism may shout, curse, use ugly words, or it may be stoic, rigid and terse. However it may express itself, racism always comes from the same moral center — a center that lacks basic fundamental human respect for another person based solely on that person’s race. Racism already knows a stranger before a word is spoken, because racism knows all it needs to know by race alone.
Do I step into this situation and see a mother who reminds me a little of my own mother? Do I hear her words — “… grabbed a 7-year-old kid and choked him” — as I would hear them about my own child?
You and I don’t know, by the way, if the choking ever took place. Untested and unverified, the word of the kids is of finite value.
But we do have every reason to believe that the mother was told by her own children that an adult male had choked her 7-year-old child. You and I know what a parent’s reaction to that must be. As the mother tells the police officer, it doesn’t really matter what preceded the choking, litter or not, defiance or not. All that counts is the choking of a child.
Choking is not gripping the shoulder. Choking is not grabbing the belt and marching the boy home to face his mother. Choking is not about control. Choking is for killing. An adult who chokes a child only does it because he has lost control over himself.
If I see my own mother in this woman, or if I see the mother of my own child in this scene, then I know immediately that she is going to be in full angry she-bear protective mode. That’s how nature and civilization intend for her to react. Her purpose for being on earth is to protect that child’s life.
She’s a woman, and the neighbor is a man. She may not have the strength or fighting ability to beat the crap out of the man herself. Or, like her daughter who hoped that the man in the white car would not return, she may not want to contribute to behavior that might get her and others sent to jail.
But she wants help. She desperately needs help. If the neighbor really did choke her child, then he’s a person who cannot control himself and might do it again.
The man in the white car offered help, but she interposed herself physically to stop him. With that act, she said, “Not you.”
She wants help from the police. With his badge and gun as shield and sword, she hopes the officer will provide her child with the protection she cannot provide. He will be the knight on a great steed who saves the day.
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So what do the young people expect when they see that the cop is white and predict that he will act “like an asshole?” In the heart-wrenching prediction that her mother will be treated “like a nigger,” what does Hymond mean precisely?
She means the cop won’t see her mother. The cop won’t see his own mother in her mother, won’t see his own wife protecting his own child. The cop will go to the white man, put his face in the white man’s face and talk. But he will stand rigid and apart from the black mother, keeping his eyes just beyond hers, never coming into her face so he can look straight into her eyes with his own eyes, hear her heart with his own heart. This mother will be less important, less fully human than the white man painting a fence. Not a real mother.
I’m not going to offer an opinion on what follows. Sure, I have one. But I also know from decades covering just this type of encounter that it’s a mistake to form hard and fast opinions on legal questions based on partial evidence.
But I know this much, and I think you do, too. Even before it happens, every single incident, every instant involving white people and non-white people in this country is racial. The term, race-neutral, is an oxymoron. There simply is no such thing as race-neutral. Unless you live in a world of one race only, life is racial.