– By Brandon Wallace
Brandon is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The news article probably would’ve been written something like this.
“On Thursday, 23-year-old College Park resident Brandon Wallace was fatally shot by local police officers after entering the police station armed with a deadly weapon. According to authorities, Wallace rushed into the police station wielding a 10-inch knife with intent to kill. A local police officer, who has asked to remain anonymous at this time, saw the knife in Wallace’s hands immediately after Wallace entered the station. The officer shot Wallace 11 times, killing him on the spot. The officer claims that he feared for his life and the lives of his fellow officers. The police administration has stated that the officer’s actions followed protocol and were justified. An investigation into the incident is pending…”
In his 1903 American classic The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. DuBois writes about the “double consciousness” of African-Americans, referring the sense of always having to reconcile two conflicting identities. One of these identities matches our common conceptualization; basically, how one perceives themselves in relation to their world. However, DuBois argued that African-Americans must harbor a second identity that is based upon a constant awareness of how others perceive their everyday actions and behaviors. Essentially, the African-American must constantly see him/herself through the eyes of those who have ideological and material power over the fate of their bodies (Coates, 2015). DuBois wrote about this in the heart of Jim Crow, an era of racial segregation, state-sanctioned and extrajudicial lynching, and ubiquitous second-class citizenship for African-Americans. Despite incremental gains from civil rights movements, double consciousness is still a reality for many African-Americans in what Michelle Alexander (2011) and others call ‘the New Jim Crow’ of the 21st century: mass incarceration and the racially-inequitable criminal justice system.
I could spend the rest of this essay listing facts and statistics about the racial discrepancies in the criminal justice system. However, I believe percentages, ratios, and bar graphs do not always accurately portray the magnitude of the issue. Sometimes, it takes a personal experience, like one I recently had, to evoke even close to the level of emotions that this issue evokes in its victims – and remind the 21st century African-American of their double consciousness in the “age of colorblindness” (Bonilla-Silva, 2014).
Every week, I am in charge of a group of local 5th-8th graders for a ‘Sports and Fitness’ class in which we go outside, do a short fitness workout, and play some sort of physically-active game. On the way to the field where the class is held, we walk in front of the local police station. Last week, when walking to our field, a few of my students called out to me, “Mr. Wallace, we found something weird!” I walked over to see them huddled around a large knife in the front lawn of the police station. It was about 10 inches with a dirty blade from who-knows-what. The immediate proximity to the police station was suspicious, and the fact that my students almost stepped on it on our way to the park made it an object of danger. It obviously needed to be removed. I knew the responsible thing to do was to give the knife to the police officers and let them know that I found it in the front lawn of the station. Whether or not the knife would be of interest to the police, I needed to at least set a good example for my students.
I told my students continue on to the field and begin their warmup, and that I would be there shortly. I picked up the knife with a nearby leaf (wherever this knife had been or whatever it had done, I knew I did not want my fingerprints on it). With an eye on my students, my hood over my head to block the chilly wind, and a sense of civic pride, I marched to the police station with the knife.
I nonchalantly walked through the doors of the police station. It was not until I saw the eyes of the front desk clerk locked on the knife and the sheer terror on her face that I realized the situation. “What the hell am I doing?” I thought to myself, “I’m a 23-year-old black man bringing a huge knife into a police station. Literally with my hood up!”
My heart began to race while adrenaline and worry rushed through my body. The clerk grabbed intercom and called some sort of code throughout the police station speakers. I quickly took my hood off, raised my hand above my head, and tried to hold the knife as non-threateningly as I could with my other hand. “No no no!” I screamed, “I found this outside!” I put the knife on the desk and raised that hand above my head as well. Luckily, the clerk believed me. She gave an “All clear” through the intercom. Still, I expected some officers to come around the corner with guns drawn at me. Instead, one officer calmly came to the front desk to assess the situation. Somewhat deliriously, I explained to the officer and clerk that my students had found the knife on the front lawn and I just wanted to turn it in. I frantically apologized for the optics of the situation. They thanked me, asked me a few more questions about the knife, and sent me on my way. As I joined my students at the field, I made sure to put on my most stoic and emotionless performance for the rest of the class.
Had a few variables of my situation been different, or if I had just been unlucky, the above news article may have been written about me. I was the wrong person trying to do the right thing at the wrong place at the wrong time. If an officer had seen me entering and was a little too trigger-happy, this story could have been told from their point of view. I could have been considered armed and dangerous. My physical appearance could have been described as menacing. They could have speculated freely about my intent. They could have discovered my various social media posts about #BlackLivesMatter and labelled me as a domestic terrorist. A national debate could have arisen about my past, my future, and whether I was deserving or undeserving of my fate. My mother could have lost her son, my fiancé could have lost her future husband, and my body could have been taken as a justified sacrifice to protect a body whose possession of a badge delineates it as more valuable.
Had my case even gone to a trial, the circumstances of it probably would have made it relatively ‘open-and-shut’ in favor of the officer when considering other recent police brutality trials. So many black lives have been taken for so much less than the circumstances of my situation. Even for those whose killing at the hands of police officers have been deemed ‘justified’ by the legal system or the court public opinion, who knows the extent to which their stories would have been different if they had lived to tell it. Thankfully, Brandon Wallace was not added to the long list of victims of the New Jim Crow. But as this situation has reminded me, the unfortunate reality of double consciousness is just as necessary in 2018 as it has been throughout our bloody history.
Alexander, M. (2011). The new jim crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (Revised edition / ed.). New York: New Press.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in america (Fourth ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Du Bois, W. (2013). The souls of black folk. Oakland, Calif.: Eucalyptus Press.