On Sunday night, the blacker sides of Tumblr and Twitter began posting upsetting screengrabs from a disturbing video taken from a June 7th pool party in McKinnley, Texas. The video - taken after a poolside argument between neighbors escalated from a shouting match into a physical fight — depicted a white police officer chasing and berating groups of black teenagers before grabbing a bikini-clad African-American girl, slamming her to the ground, and sitting on top of her.
The images of brutality toward the mostly peaceful crowd of teens would disturb anyone in possession of a working moral compass. But the real punch to the gut was a different video that outlined what sparked the confrontation in the first place:
The video is a testimony from the host of the pool party, 19-year-old Tatiana Rhodes, in which she describes being smacked in the face by a neighbor named Kate. Watching the video left a sour taste in my mouth. One, it is difficult to watch as the young Rhodes learns she doesn’t have the right to use the facilities in her own neighborhood without being subjected to cruelty, racial slurs, and physical violence. Two, the video echoed an experience I went through almost twenty years ago.
It was the summer of 1995, and I was watching my two babysitting charges at our neighborhood pool in Silver Spring, MD. It was a small community - most of the kids at the pool knew one another, as did the lifeguards charged with keeping us safe. We spent almost every summer day at the pool, doing cannonballs and silly tricks, all of us growing tanner by the day. One midsummer afternoon, one of my charges, who was about six years old, got into a verbal altercation with an older boy at the pool, who appeared to be about thirteen. The older boy, who was white, pulled out a knife (the type of wooden-handled steak knife found in kitchens across America) and threatened the child. The six-year-old burst into tears. Though the lifeguard (who was black) saw the commotion and banished the older kid from the pool, my charge was still afraid and asked us to call the police. So we did, and took him home.
When the cops arrived at the boy’s house, they were alternately angry and bored; in their view, no crime had been committed, and they telegraphed their displeasure and impatience with the situation with short, barking questions directed at the boy’s mother, who spoke fluent but limited English. They then walked the few yards between the pool and the boy's house to ask the lifeguard what he saw. He repeated the knife story, explaining that he threw the teen out of the pool. After a few tense minutes, it was agreed that since I knew the teen, I should get in the police car and ride with them to the kid’s house.
I got in the squad car. There was no talking, other than my verbal driving directions. After we arrived, the officer told me to stay in the car. I watched as he approached the teen’s grandmother. And then, he did something that changed my relationship with the police forever:
He took off his hat.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he began.
This gesture of respect and deference was not at all similar to the behavior the cop had displayed previously: He hadn’t removed his cap when speaking to the mother of the threatened boy; in fact, he hadn’t shown her or her home much respect at all.
After being told that the knife-wielding teen boy was not at home, the officer wished the grandmother a good evening. No follow-up, no acknowledgement that the kid had a knife…nothing. I don’t remember if the police officer said anything else to me in the car after that: I was too stunned by his behavior to remember much beyond the speed and politeness of the interaction. But I remember the disappointment on the faces of my charges after I returned to their house informed them that the officer had done nothing.
I still think about that day. Later, as I got older and my friends began to be harassed by the police for things they didn’t do, I hardly batted an eyelash: I had learned the harsh reality police were not there for my protection.
This isn’t to say there aren’t good police officers, kind-hearted police officers, people who join law enforcement agencies to make streets safer or neighborhood betters. But as evidenced by that day in summer 1995, many officers find criminal whiteness more deserving of respect than innocent blackness. This was true of the situation in McKinney, Texas: Video taken at the scene shows police officers blow past white bystanders, even though the altercation broke out between white adults and black teens. It shows a group of black teens, ready for a day of fun in the sun, get screamed at, handcuffed, and bullied.
It’s this painful paradox that black youth are forced to face each day: Not just the automatic assumption of guilt, but the knowledge that there are few people they can call for protection, few they can trust. It shouldn’t take the presence of a video camera to ensure black teens are treated as full citizens. But as 19-year-old Tatiana Rhodes learned, if the police are called for assistance, they will automatically assume she's the aggressor.
We don’t know the names of the women who instigated the altercation - they were able to escape scrutiny by calling on the law to mask their actions. The news cycle will move on, and we will not know what happened to the children who were targeted that day, their carefree summer tarnished with this memory. Maybe the assaulting officer will be disciplined, maybe he won’t. Maybe his coworkers will speak up next time, maybe they won’t. We can wish this won’t happen again, but it probably will.
Unfortunately, it will be just another day in America.