The kind of tragic violence the world witnessed last week in Louisiana and Minnesota is not new. The fact that it was filmed by privately owned hand held devices and broadcast across the world minutes after it happened is.
In the aftermath of the tragic killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, country music singer Coffey Anderson produced this instructional video describing how to handle yourself when you’re pulled over. Millions have watched. The comments on the video’s YouTube page mostly thank Anderson. Some commenters even go so far as to indignantly claim that this is stuff that they were taught in their high school Driver’s Education class, and if it isn’t being taught these days, it should be.
Anderson describes in earnest — and with painstaking detail — the intricacies one should undertake in order ensure an uneventful encounter with the police.
It’s all sound, common sense advice. After being pulled over, placing your hands high on the steering wheel (fingers pointing up!!!) will “lower the cop’s adrenaline” as he approaches, because he will see your empty hands. Having your license on the dash or the side pocket of the door, will prevent you from ever appearing as if you’re reaching for a gun. And of course, describing all of one’s own actions before performing them — for example, “I am now reaching for my wallet” — should further diffuse tensions.
So are there any problems with this? Isn’t this precisely the kind of advice that should circulate in the wake of such tragedies? After all, even though Philando Castile was reaching for his wallet when he was shot, didn’t he die because he mistakenly said he had a gun while reaching for his back pocket? If he was better versed in the curbside etiquette described by Coffey Anderson, wouldn’t he still be alive? That seems to be at least one of the implications in Anderson’s video.
Having grown up in the 1970s, having lived in several low income neighborhoods in Philadelphia from the 1980s – 2000s, and living in the American South since 2010, we here at Today’s Noise cannot help but feel a creeping lack of ease with Coffey Anderson’s well-intended video.
Let’s unpack the implications in Anderson’s video by considering for comparison this Richard Pryor stand-up bit from 1974.
The content of both is uncannily similar. Without having a pair of national tragedies to prompt him, Richard Pryor was able to zero in on the white tendency to blame African Americans for police brutality by claiming they are resisting arrest. He probably did not need two tragedies for inspiration because this sort of thing was a regular occurrence. His description of curbside etiquette — “I am reaching into my pocket for my license!!!” — is chillingly identical to Anderson’s survival guide. And the next line predicts the Castile murder perfectly: “…because I don’t want to BE no motherfuckin’ accident.” The gales of laughter and applause Pryor’s bit received in the early 70s — not to mention the fact that Pryor wrote it at all — proves that African Americans knew all too well the drill that Anderson prescribes in his new video. Thus, it calls into question the video’s implication that its instructions will save lives. After all, wasn’t Castile basically trying to follow some form of this code of behavior? Isn’t he dead now because a hair-trigger policeman saw him reach for his pocket, heard him say he had a gun, and assumed that if he didn’t fire first, there was absolutely no way that Castile wasn’t going to fire at him?
That Pryor’s and Anderson’s contexts and intentions differ does not render their content incomparable. It is the point. Violence against African Americans in what should be routine curbside encounters has been happening for at least 40 years, probably longer.
The difference between the two only suggests what has changed. Anderson’s insistence on a hyperbolic level of obedience, a margin for error so slim that one of America’s greatest comedians saw fit to mock it forty years ago, implicates the victim while pandering to the police; if you’re not following Anderson’s guide to the letter, you may not survive a routine encounter with a policeman, even if you have done nothing wrong, the slightest failure to adhere to these behaviors will get you killed, and that’s the way it is, Anderson’s video suggests. He makes this especially clear when he says his video “is all about getting [viewers] home.” Anderson also transfers blame to the potential victim by quoting from Thessalonians (5:22), urging his viewers to “abstain from the appearance of all evil.”
Do African Americans pulled over for broken tail lights appear evil if they slip up in any way that transgresses the supplicant robotics Anderson describes? Probably not. But what else does Anderson’s video allow us to conclude?
His video also implies that all police who pull over African Americans are likely to behave in a rash, hair-trigger fashion at the slightest provocation. While that was the case in the Castile shooting, it’s certainly not the case in every instance. More importantly, it’s a horrible working assumption because it promotes status quo conditions.
Even conservative media outlets have been waking up to the fact that police brutality is systemic, not anecdotal. And as DeRay McKesson’s recent arrest proves, even a peaceful protester can be arrested for doing very little that seems incriminating or dangerous at the moment, if his skin is black and he has a history of refusing to bow down to mainstream rhetoric on the issue of police brutality.
We just hope that last years news that police are receiving training that will turn them into “calming warriors” begins to take root. Hundreds of shootings of African American men later, there’s very little evidence to suggest that it has.
Anderson’s intentions are good. But they do very little to change the status quo. Meanwhile, cell phones continue to raise consciousness.
Here at Today’s Noise, we wish you peace and safety.