Neighbors or Nothing (Pt. 1)

As an undergraduate, I interned with several youth groups in local churches. When I started my first internship after my freshman year of college, I was 19. On the first day, the youth minister overseeing me and the other intern informed us he took a job in another state. He’d be gone in a week.

Most 19-year-olds are not given the responsibility of 50 teenagers on summer break (and rightly so), but there I was, learning the ropes of youth ministry with the other intern who also had little experience with leading youth before this.

I look back on that summer and laugh often, how many mistakes I made, how much I got right by chance. I still call most of those teens (now adults) friends. I’m in graduate school with one. Another is my girlfriend’s best friend. One leads worship at the church I just started attending.

Lately, though, my mind wanders to one night that summer that could have gone wrong. Before the reader (aka my mom) worries, this story has nothing to do with the teens, and more with the aftermath of poor logistical planning on my end. Toy Story 3 released that summer, and many of the teens wanted to attend the midnight premiere. Most of their parents would not allow them to go to the movies that late without an adult, and somehow 19 years on earth qualified me for the role.

In the process of planning this midnight premiere, I informed the teens and their parents that they would need to provide their own transportation to and from the theater. Of course, parents were willing to drop their kids off at 10 p.m., but a lot less willing to show up at 2 a.m. As teens arrived at the theater, parent after parent after parent rolled down the window and asked, cheerily, “You mind dropping them off later?”

I was a rookie when it came to dealing with kids, and an absolute amateur when it came to telling parents no. I said yes to all of them. At the time, I had an 8-passenger Suburban (I don’t know why, honestly). At 2 a.m., I began the tedious process of dropping seven teenagers off at their city-spanning abodes. I was wise enough to practice the highly flawed rule of dropping girls off before boys, and everyone was home by 3 a.m.

Everyone, of course, except me.

After dropping the last teen off, I started the short route home. To say I was exhausted is to put it mildly. I had hung out with a large group of teenagers well after I typically go to sleep (for reference, I never once pulled an all-nighter in college). I am also an introvert, which does not always go over well when working with loud groups of young people. In short, I needed my bed about five hours prior to this drive home.

Because of this exhaustion, coupled with carelessness, I missed a stop sign on the way out of the teen’s neighborhood. Luckily, no one was on the road at 3 a.m., so I did not cause an accident. I carried on my way, oblivious to the sign.

About two minutes later, flashing lights appeared in my rearview mirror. I may not have caused a wreck by driving through a stop sign, but a police officer took note.

After pulling over and rolling my window down, he asked, “Did you not see that stop sign back there, son?”

Having only been pulled over once for an expired inspection sticker, I had little interaction with police officers leading up to this. I also had nothing in the way of a “how-to-talk-to-police” lesson in my life, aside from generic warnings to “respect them”. At this hour of night, in my tired state, I also had little in the way of patience.

I tersely replied, “No, I genuinely did not.” I used the same tone that gets me in trouble often, with everyone from my mother to customer service hotlines.

“Well, you may have forgotten already,” the officer snapped back, “since it took me so long to catch up with you, considering you were going 40 mph.” I had no reference for the speed limit here, nor did I understand how it could take someone “so long” to catch up with someone going 40 mph. I could tell we would be at odds with each other. I said nothing back.

“What have you been doing tonight?” he asked, accusingly. “I was at the midnight premiere of Toy Story 3,” I retorted, resenting the implications in his tone.

“Well,” he paused, having nothing to say to the immediate specificity of my reply. “I’m going to need your license and registration.” After handing him my license, I placed my wallet between my legs while I searched for my registration in the middle console. He shined his light between my legs, and barked, “What did you just put between your legs?”

My wallet,” I said, condescendingly, like he was a child in uniform. I continued looking for my registration, turned away from him, digging through the console. When I obtained it, he walked away, leaving me to steam. A few minutes later, he returned, shoved my license and registration into my hand, and said, “You’re lucky I didn’t cite you for speeding as well, but watch for stop signs next time.” I sat silently, intentionally not making eye contact, and waited for him to leave.

Looking back on this incident, I was disrespectful to this officer. Listen: I am confessing to you how disrespectful I was. I was 19, and smarting off to a cop at 3 a.m. There is no justification for my action, nor was there any reason for him to only ticket me for one offense.

And yet, when I recounted this story to peers and older people later, they took my side. I didn’t blur the details. I didn’t paint myself as a saint. In fact, I told it in such a way that made it sound humorous how our interaction played out. In the story of Police Officer vs. Ben, who had the best diss? This story would not be funny if told through different eyes to a different group.

Every time I told this story, others told me that the police officer acted rudely and I should not have received a ticket, even though I only received a ticket for one of my two offenses. Many people within the church told me I should have mentioned I was a youth minister, and I would not have received any reprimand. No one said, “You are lucky to be alive.”

I am not haunted by this traffic violation today. People do not bring it up to question my character. Most people tell me I’m kind, that I’m a good person. I can confidently predict that even in telling this story on my blog, it will never be used against me.

But the key element in this story is that I am alive to tell it. I had no fear for my life the night it happened, and no one who has ever heard me tell this story feared for my life either. I have been pulled over several times after this, and not once have I worried about how I move, speak, act, or breathe. I act as I always do, under the belief that I should not be stopped for speeding, for this, for that. That above all, this stop inconveniences me.

I hesitate to connect what I think are obvious pieces here, but there is a deadly narrative that kills black people and leaves me to write and live as I please. I want to state that bluntly because for years on this blog I have danced around these topics in a careful way so as to not offend anyone and protect my position, but I have to surrender that in order to earn the privilege to speak in a public forum.

This narrative says that minor traffic violations offer insight into the miscreant character of African-Americans killed by police. This narrative reads, literally, “They had this coming.”

If I died that night, or died while writing this sentence, would you use the traffic violation described against me? Say it showed what I was about? Revealed my true colors? Who would you say I am?

This narrative says that the key to staying alive in interactions with police officers is to give them absolute and unquestionable respect. This reads, literally, as, “If only they had…”

If I died that night, would people tell my mom and dad that if I hadn’t disrespected the officer, I would be alive? That if I had complied, I would have made it home? Would anyone, not having seen it happen, speculate about my role in my own killing? Or would they mourn with my family, and share in their tears? Not offer an explanation, but just sit with them in that grief? Work with them to find peace through justice?

What must be emphasized in these hypotheticals is that I did not die, and I likely will not die at the hands of police, because although I disrespected that officer that night, I didn’t pose a threat to him. There are no negative media stereotypes about me. America writ-large does not dehumanize my existence on a daily basis: not when white males murder schoolchildren; not when white males commit terror acts on black people worshiping in their churches; not when white males rape females and “serve” 3 months in prison; not ever. The Constitution was written for people who looked like me, and continues to serve the same people over and above others. (When a black man is killed for “waving” a gun, but a white man goes on a killing spree with a gun and is taken alive, the Second Amendment is not applied with equal freedom.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose narrative has been whitewashed and revised to make us forget that he was a radical, confrontational revolutionary, once said, “[W]e have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”

He was speaking of technological advances in America, which can be read in today’s lens as these online forums that have given us the unique opportunity to come together. King warned that, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” We don’t talk to or with each other in these spaces; we talk at each other until we throw our hands up and log off for the evening. Some families aren’t able to log off when they go to sleep and someone is missing.

When a person is shot and killed and it is broadcast across America and the globe, do you get upset? Do you wonder if someone in your life might die in the same way? Are these people your neighbors or brothers, or neither? Another way of asking this is, whom do you side with in narratives of death? And what affords you the ability to side with that particular person or group? If we don’t wrestle with these questions, we won’t make progress. More people will die.

King went on in his speech to say, “For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” There are too many ought-to-bes, and not enough becomings. Our brothers and sisters are dying. Will we mourn with those who mourn, or all perish together?

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968. Congressional Record, 9 April 1968.

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