The Good News? White Sorority Girls Learn First-hand What It’s Like to Be Black

The intertoobz are ablaze with the story of a group of University of Virginia coeds who were surrounded by police who mistook their bottled water for illegally purchases beer. The major media sources….not so much.

As it is being reported, the girls exited a grocery store with a carton of bottled water, which nearby Alcoholic Beverage Control agents mistook for a twelver. OK, it’s dark, mistakes happen, and presumably ABC agents were there because they suspected after hours sales were going on at the store. I can live with that.

But here’s how it went down, as confirmed by the local D.A., who classified the girls’ statement as “factually consistent.” The agents–it’s night, remember–ran towards her car, in plainclothes, weapons drawn, and one jumped up on the hood of her car. Oh, yeah, they also had their ID badges out; can’t imagine how the girls might have missed that. In the driver’s words:

“They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” she remembered Thursday in a written account of the April 11 incident. “I couldn’t put my windows down unless I started my car, and when I started my car they began yelling to not move the car, not to start the car. They began trying to break the windows. My roommates and I were … terrified,”

Like any sensible college student who has armed men in street clothes jumping on her hood and trying to break her windows, she drove off. Like any non-sensible police agency, they charged her with two counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer and one count of eluding police.

Come on, have the police really not learned by now that when they run at people in the dark out of uniform with their guns drawn, that any reasonable person is not going to assume it’s the police, but that they’re being assaulted. Wait, at this point perhaps any reasonable person ought to assume it’s just the police being fucking morons as usual.

Fortunately the local D.A. (technically, it being wacky ol’ Virginia, the Commonwealth’s Attorney), realized the police were just being fucking morons as usual and dropped the charges. Or maybe he just realized that white coeds who’d just returned from a Take Back the Night event and were buying bottled water for a sorority fundraiser might be pretty sympathetic defendants.

This paramilitary bullshit needs to stop, and it needs to stop yesterday. Assume the girls did illegally buy a carton of beer. Would a carton of beer justify that kind of response, instead of walking up to them quietly, with the badge held out more clearly than the gun, and asking to talk to them? The police seem to have developed this weird idea that they need to terrorize everybody into abject submission to prevent dangerous situations, and seem incapable of recognizing that this response tends to exacerbate danger, both to the suspects and themselves, by putting everyone–themselves as well as the suspects–into an emotionally frenzied state. When people are yelling and screaming, bad shit happens. When people are talking quietly, bad shit is less likely to happen.

I had a similarly stupid, although fortunately less dramatic, encounter with a policeman once in my hometown, a flyspeck farm town in Indiana. Being an insomniac, one night when I was back home visiting I got up and took a walk well after midnight, around 2 a.m. if I remember correctly. I passed a house where a guy was leaving his house and getting into his pickup truck, and he gave me a long look. It made me slightly uncomfortable, but, hey, it is weird to see a guy roaming those streets that late at night, so I didn’t make much of it. I turned down the next street and kept walking, and the pickup caught up with me and rolled slowly by, which was a bit creepy. Then it pulled into the parking lot of the Catholic school, dead center in the middle of the lot, where there was no illumination from the street lights, and as I walked by on the sidewalk, really nervous now, the guy opened his door and said, “Hey, come here.” I kept moving, not slowing down and trying not to give away my nervousness by speeding up. After I passed he drove out of the parking lot and pulled up to the curb right before me, which made me stop and made my fight or flight reflex go up to 11. Then he showed me his badge. As the adrenalin began to drain from my body, he said accusingly, “Why didn’t you come over when I called you back there?”

Seriously? A younger guy in street clothes, in a private vehicle, in the middle of the night, in an unlit parking lot, and he can’t understand why I didn’t obey his order? Fortunately I was too smart to give the response he deserved.

As lousy as this all is, you know why my headline is wrong? Because those girls and I are surprised when it happens to us. Or at least I used to be–it’s a lot harder to be surprised, these days.

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About James Hanley

James Hanley is Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of either organization.
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14 Responses to The Good News? White Sorority Girls Learn First-hand What It’s Like to Be Black

  1. Matty says:

    Out of interest how can you have a drinking age higher than the voting age? Surely once you’re an adult in the eyes of the law, that’s it – you’re an adult in the eyes of the law.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Well…I don’t suppport our drinking age, and I don’t think this is the reason it was passed, but I think I can make an argument for it. The frontal lobes, which heavilt influence decision-making and impulse control, don’t fully develop, as I understand things, until the early twenties. Voting is more likely to be a considered decision, while excessive drinking probably relates more to impulse control. I think cognitively we’re surely adults, and to be trusted with adult things, in some areas before in other areas.

    That’s the “adulthood” logic, anyway. Pragmatic logic suggests that trying to ban drinking by older adolescents actually exacerbates the problem of impulse control and overdrinking, in a sort of corollary to the iron law of prohibition.

  3. James Hanley says:

    The more direct answer to your question is a combination of moralism and good intended folks who fail to grasp the lessons of prohibition.

  4. Troublesome Frog says:

    The whole “jumping on the car” thing is amazing. When there’s a car invovled, don’t sensible law enforcment officers just pull a car up behind you to keep you from driving away? If you’re going to set up a bunch of armed guys to come bursting out of the darkness, you’d think that they’d plan for something like that.

    The other one that’s amazing to me is the SWAT teams entering and shooting dogs. I understand the rationale for doing it, but if they have proper intel, they should know that there’s a dog there. That means that they know with complete certainty that they’ll be going into a dark, occupied house and discharging firearms. Name a situation that could *possibly* be more dangerous than that. What kind of insanely dangerous situation are you hoping to avoid by making that your “safe fall back” confrontation?

  5. J@m3z Aitch says:

    if they have proper intel, they should know that there’s a dog there.

    Police informants notoriously provide bad intel. That’s why there’s so many of these SWAT teams serving drug warrants on the wrong houses. (Of course using SWAT teams to serve warrants is itself an egregiously stupid policy, one that came into being primarily to justify the expense of little utilized SWAT teams.)

  6. Dr X says:

    Power makes people stupid. Absolute power makes people absolutely stupid.

    True story.

  7. J@m3z Aitch says:

    Then giving power to the wise is a cruel trick to play on them, isn’t it?

  8. ppnl says:

    On the subject of power and stupid….

    http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/lawsuit-alleges-police-officer-tasered-10-old-school-152530178.html

    Sometimes it just takes your breath away.

  9. Troublesome Frog says:

    Sure, ending up at the wrong place is a major screwup, but if you’re going to hit the wrong house, you should at least hit the wrong house correctly. Do these guys really kick in doors with guns in hand without doing any surveillance to figure out who lives there and what they’re likely to run into?

    An uninsured tree service sends somebody by to take a look at the trees in your yard before sending a crew out. A SWAT team can’t be bothered to scope the house out before going in?

  10. Matty says:

    A few months ago I saw an interview with Hugh Orde who has been a police chief both in England, where police are not routinely armed and Northern Ireland where they are. He made an interesting point that militarising the police makes their job harder in a lot of ways by making them seem to be a hostile invasion force at war with local communities. In those circumstances investigating crimes becomes impossible because no one will speak to ‘the enemy’ and groups like the PIRA or criminal gangs gain support by presenting themselves as defending their community and their own guns as necessary for that.

  11. James K says:

    The other problem I think is that when the police go about armed, especially in communities where weapon are rare or heavily restricted, they can start to think of themselves at petit nobility.

  12. Matty says:

    Oh yes, the story ppnl links to is a perfect example. Even if we grant the cops only meant to scare the ten year old with an uncharged taser rather than actually taser him it’s clear that getting kids to wash your car is no part of policing, it does fit very well though with an attitude of being the local rulers entitled to obedience.

  13. Kazzy says:

    No no no…. if you’re black and you start a car when the police are approaching you, you die.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Bell_shooting_incident

  14. ppnl says:

    I’m guessing the cop was only playing around and it went off. More stupid than evil but there may be no functional difference.

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