The most telling detail about this weekend’s viral video from McKinney, Texas, is the part you can’t see: the race of the man behind the camera, the one who’s holding the phone.
Brandon Brooks, the man who took the video, casually walks around from place to place filming Officer Eric Casebolt performing a tuck-and-roll, as though dodging imaginary gunfire, before grabbing a 15-year-old girl in a bikini, shoving her face into the dirt, and pulling a gun on bystanders.
None of that too-forceful police work—like being forced to sit on his hands, being shoved to the grass on his face, having a gun brandished at him—happened to the guy holding the camera. Brooks says Casebolt “didn’t even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible.”
That’s one of the definitions of “privilege.” Sometimes it means being visible when it’s time to hand out awards or make the movie. And sometimes it means suddenly becoming invisible when the shit hits the fan.
The “bystanders” at a protest I attended in Cleveland two weeks ago seemed perfectly calm and certain they weren’t about to suddenly be targeted by cops, forced face-down onto the ground and be taken to jail to wait 48 hours before hearing from a lawyer. But that’s exactly what happened to 71 protesters marching in objection to the acquittal of Officer Michael Brelo, who is a free man after firing 49 shots at two unarmed people.
One of the bystanders in Cleveland even called out “Thank you, officers!” as men in riot gear marched past him. It mirrors the people who are now putting up signs at the pool in McKinney thanking police officers. The ever-ethical journalists at Breitbart wasted no time smearing the victims by pointing out they used black slang on their social media accounts, which apparently is evidence they were acting unlawfully.
Privilege means being invisible when the police sense trouble. It means feeling like the bullets and batons will never be used against you. It means feeling safe.
It means that when disruptive harassment from uninvited guests at a planned event leads to fights breaking out, the white harassers will be ignored while the black guests will be the ones assaulted. Regardless of who initiated the dustup, being black and belligerent makes you, in Casebolt’s words, “part of the mob.”
Dave Chappelle once joked that the worst part of being black and wealthy was that if he were robbed, he couldn’t even call the cops. When they saw him in his house, he said, they’d instantly assume he was the burglar and shoot him. It was painful to laugh at then; it’s even harder to laugh at now, after we’ve witnessed the ridiculous spectacle of a Harvard professor arrested for trying to open his own front door.
Privilege means, basically, that if I go to someone else’s party, insult the guests, call them racial slurs, and start a brawl—I can then call the cops and get them arrested.
Police apologists often make the argument that cops have to make decisions in the “heat of the moment”—that when called to an incident in progress, they have to make split-second judgments to protect people, and we should hesitate to second-guess them. One veteran cop and Ph.D. even posted a scary op-ed in The Washington Post saying police have the right to do anything they want to us—especially if we don’t instantly comply with any police officer’s demands.
In other words, we all have to accept that we are living in a climate of fear. In this line of thinking, when some cop decides to abuse his power, we all must trust that the system will eventually take care of it. After all, in the actual moment a police officer pulls out a gun and threatens you, that Ph.D. veteran cop has a point—you have no rights. (This is exactly what we use the pejorative “police state” for—to prove we live in a “free country” that would never share traits with one.)
OK, but how universal is that rule, really? We’ve seen story after story of certain people who are able to get away with brandishing weapons at police officers and not get killed. We’ve seen stories of certain people who can create organizations dedicated to armed resistance against government authority and not get killed. We’ve seen stories of people who committed actual mass murders and were still taken into custody peacefully and with dignity.
In the “heat of the moment,” when cops come to assess a potentially dangerous situation, they’ll target whomever seems disruptive or out of place. And when you’re the privileged race, you’re never the one who’s out of place.
Privilege means getting arrested is a matter of choice.
You can get arrested if you stand up and confront cops who are arresting the protesters—or the 14-year-old partygoers—next to you. But, otherwise, you can wander around as you please, observing events as a “bystander” at your leisure.
Privilege means being presumed not dangerous until proven harmful, not innocent until proven guilty, and not shoved down to the ground and restrained, in Casebolt’s words, “until we get this figured out.”
We like to give speeches full of high rhetoric about our nation being one of freedom and equality, a place where everyone is judged only on the content of their character, a place where the vicious racial caste system has long been defeated and buried.
In the heat of the moment, we know that this is a fiction. In the heat of the moment, the truth comes out.