The shooting of unarmed teenager Mike Brown rekindled a debate about why police seem to target African Americans. Cell phone video posted this week suggests that clashes between unarmed black men and police can happen over little more than sitting on a chair.
Chris Lollie, 28, says he was waiting to pick up his children in a skyway in St. Paul, Minnesota, after working the night shift in a nearby restaurant. A security guard told him the seemingly public area he was sitting in was reserved for employees. Lollie, suspecting he’s being singled out for his race, responded that there was no sign saying so. The guard called the police, who confronted Lollie.
The video begins while a female officer is questioning Lollie as the two of them walk down the skyway. In the video, Lollie calmly but firmly explains that he’s waiting for his children that he knows his rights. The conflict quickly escalates when a second, male officer arrives. “I’ve got to go get my kids,” Lollie tells the second officer, asking him not to touch him. “You’re going to go to jail, then,” the second officer says. “Put your hands behind your back or things are going to get ugly.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Lollie says over and over again, before the officer screams, “Put your hands behind your back!” and uses his taser on him.
Police said Lollie was acting aggressively, and filed charges for trespassing, disorderly conduct, and obstructing the legal process, according to the Pioneer Press. All three charges were dropped last month after surveillance video and witness statements were shown in court. Lollie told the Pioneer Press that throughout the ordeal, he was “trying my hardest to maintain my calm demeanor just because I know if I do anything outside of these bounds, they could really do some damage to me.”
Shortly after the Brown shooting, many African Americans used the Twitter hashtag #IGotTheTalk to explain that their parents had to instruct them on how to interact with police to minimize the likelihood of antagonizing an officer. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder told the NAACP that he had to give this talk to his own son because “as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy.”
In the video, however, Lollie seems to be doing everything he can to keep the encounter from escalating prior to his arrest. He defends his legal rights but stays calm and measured throughout. And then he gets tased. “I’m a working man and I take care of my kids, and I get this?” he asks incredulously in the recording. “You tase me? For what?”
“The problem is, I’m black,” he says at one point in the video, again insisting he’s doing nothing wrong.
As a practical matter, however, the definition of what constitutes “doing wrong” can change with each individual officer. During the outrage over the shooting in Ferguson, one veteran police officer warned in the Washington Post, “If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me.”
Other pundits have advised black men to change their clothes if they want to be safe from police. After the death of Trayvon Martin, several pundits suggested that the teenager would still be alive if he had not been wearing a hoodie.
In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the aggressive police tactics deployed shortly thereafter in Ferguson, Missouri, President Obama touted his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative as a means to improve the opportunities available to black men. The program, inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin, focuses on mentoring young men of color, but doesn’t address police discrimination or racial profiling. Critics of Obama’s speech bristled at the implication that the mentorship program would have saved Mike Brown.
At least on the surface, Lollie doesn’t appear to need a mentorship program. He’s got a job, albeit a low-income and temporary one, and an intact family (another goal of Obama’s programs focusing on black men). The thing that stood between him and that family on the day that he was arrested wasn’t his own choices, it was the police.