I wouldn’t be exaggerating I estimated the number of times I’ve slept in my vehicle at over 100 times. Most of my interactions with law enforcement come from that very bad habit due to my pushing myself too far until my body just needed to rest. Of those 100+ naps (or in some cases, full fledged sleeps), at least 20 of those were interrupted by a law enforcement official. At 26 — just one year younger than Rayshard Brooks, the man who was murdered by police (yes, murdered) in Atlanta on June 12th (the day before my 44th birthday) — my workaholic ways earned me an opportunity to travel the country working for a retailer as a trainer. Working 6 days a week for 10 hours a day in new cities left little time to see the sights but that wasn’t going to stop me so I slept where I could. In San Diego, the first time an officer knocked on my window to rouse me awake, it was at Pacific Beach. I was in a parking lot. Within sight was a sign that said “NO SLEEPING ON THE BEACH” which was actually my plan when I pulled into the parking area. The officer was concerned for my safety. Despite the usual incoherence one has when awoken suddenly from a deep sleep, the officer never asked me to get out of the car. He didn’t even ask me if I had been drinking despite the fact that it was close to 2am. (I wasn’t drinking but that’s irrelevant.) After a brief chat, the officer told me he was relieved I was ok and that I might want to get back to my hotel rather than sleeping there. According to him, that while the “NO SLEEPING ON THE BEACH” had chased most of the homeless away, there were still a few in the area and at this time of day they were usually desperate. That was the last time I had an encounter with an officer in San Diego but not the last time during my journey despite the fact in San Diego I slept a few minutes to a few hours in my car at least a half dozen times.
My next stop was Charleston, South Carolina. If you’re familiar with the drive from Charleston to Myrtle Beach, you know it’s boring. In 2002, it was teeming with speed traps and cops patrolling the area. Somewhere around the halfway point, there was a Bojangles Chicken. There wasn’t a drive I didn’t stop there. I frequently overindulged in chicken fingers, fries, mashed potatoes and biscuits. Often, it was late. On numerous occasions, the overindulgence led to a nap in the parking lot. Again, this led to interactions with the local law enforcement. Memories of these interactions are vivid despite the fact they took place over 15 years ago. The first time, the officer chastised me due to my Georgia plates. “Y’all Georgia boys aren’t too bright, are ya?” When I explained to him I had a rental car and I was from Pennsylvania, it was even less cordial. “I guess you think since you’re from up North these people won’t mess with you, huh?” When I asked him what people, pretty sure I knew what he meant, he said, “They’ll be doing more than licking their fingers when they see a white boy like you sitting here. You need to get your ass out of here now before I find a reason to give you a citation.” Again, there was never any doubt of my sobriety or any accusations of wrong doing other than the fact that I was a too trusting, dumb Yankee. It didn’t stop me though. Two weeks later, same Bojangles, same overindulgence, same result… same cop. Even less respectful this time, I was put on notice to never be caught sleeping in the parking lot again. When I asked as politely as possible what exactly I did wrong. His response was, “Boy, when an officer tells you what to do, you do it. Or is that not how it works up there in Pennsylvania?” I assured him it wouldn’t happen again and went along my way.
My next stop was Houston, Texas. Near the end of my time there, I decided to drive from Houston to Lake Charles, Louisiana to a casino in the middle of the night. It was after my 6th day and I wanted to play poker. This was in the time of phones with limited Internet access so all I had was the GPS in my car and the hope they had a poker room. Disappointingly, there wasn’t one. I dropped $20 in a slot machine, won $25 and left around 4am. After driving a little, I realized there was no way I get back to Houston without a rest. I found a rest area and dozed off in the parking lot of the gas station there. After about an hour, there was a knock on the window. Again, it was an police officer. Apparently, the cashier at the gas station was concerned that I hadn’t moved and he was there to check on me. Again, the interaction was pretty smooth. There were no issues though this time, the officer had back up lingering behind him. Admittedly, his presence and his fidgety nature did not put me at ease. But the officer left after suggesting I sleep in the more common area of the rest stop rather than spook the cashier at the gas station.
These incidents and interactions weren’t new to me. Going to school over 45 minutes away from home and driving while working long hours as a manager at a retailer and often mixing in trips to Atlantic City led to multiple occasions where I grabbed a few moments of rest in my vehicle. I wasn’t always smart about where I picked to sleep, either. There were also a few interactions with local law enforcement due to this, too. One took place at a Wendy’s very similar in look to the one Rayshard Brooks was shot two times in the back. Again, despite the later hour and the awkward responses one gives when just getting roused to consciousness, no officer asked me to get out of the car. My sobriety was never questioned. Granted, I never fell asleep in the line of the drive thru (Well, to be fair, I have but the beeping of another customer’s horn brought me back to being awake.) but while I’ve experienced the initial part of what Rayshard Brooks experienced.
What I didn’t experience though is watching George Floyd be murdered on video while a cop kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and him and the other officers stood with their hands in their pockets. I know if I had and I was a Black man, those interactions I had would have had me more concerned from the start. I being a White male armed with all the cockiness of a few Criminal Justice classes and White privilege never worried about the cops. Having had more than my handful of interactions due to this terrible habit of sleeping in my car combined with being a magnet for every speed trap on the East Coast, I had more than enough first-hand experience to disarm me of any fears of a badge and a gun.
Rayshard Brooks’ experience was indeed different. Not only did the 27-year-old surely see the murdering of George Floyd. He surely has seen multiple other videos of routine traffic stops of Black men end in death. So, as his well documented incident shows us, he did his best to keep his composure as the officers looked for a reason to arrest him. Despite the fact he followed every direction they gave him and offering to walk to a family member’s house instead of getting back in the car, Officer Rolfe was intent on criminalizing Brooks who obviously had one too many that night and had no business being the wheel of a vehicle. However, the cops had already done their job. Brooks was off the road. The rest of us were safe. They got him out of the car. But in a system that rewards officers for the number of tickets they write and arrests they make, it seemed like Officer Rolfe was intent on adding another tick mark to his file and Brooks was obviously intoxicated and while neither officer ever saw Brooks driving while intoxicated, his car had to get to that drive thru somehow, right?
Now, before you explain away Brooks’ murder as an unfortunate accident that didn’t have to happen if Brooks wouldn’t have just not resisted arrest, think for a second. If you watched all of the video of George Floyd’s arrest and subsequent murder and saw how Mr. Floyd did everything right including allowing the officers to cuff him and bring him to the car only to end up on the ground and ultimately have a knee placed on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, can you see why Brooks’ reaction might have turned to survival rather than cooperation? Systemically, we don’t ask seemingly coherent and cooperative law breakers to continue their cooperation by getting in the police car. Rather than do something as humane as that for a non-violent “crime” (I saw “crime” due to the fact that neither officer witnessed Brooks driving while intoxicated and even allowed him to move his car despite the fact he appeared to be drunk), Officer Rolfe immediately went from a rational discussion to attempting to cuff Mr. Brooks. When Brooks fought the officers, rather than just letting him go and run away (They had his information. They had his car.), the officers systemically aren’t well trained in the art of de-escalation but they sue as hell know how to use a Taser. So, the next step was to attempt to tase Brooks. Anyone not living under a rock has likely seen news reports over the last few years of how incidents involving Tasers with police have ended in fatality. Even still, Brooks (nor any of us) want to be tased and as mentioned previously, he’s likely now thinking he’s in a fight for his life considering he’s one knee and 8 minutes and 46 seconds away from death. But even still, once he gets the Taser away from the officer, both officers still have an opportunity to just let him go. Not forever. Officers aren’t given that directive, though. Instead, they immediately move to use the 48 hours of firearms training they are given. That’s when Brooks, fleeing from the two officers, is shot in the back. Not once but twice. What happens if they let Mr. Brooks flee and grab him later? But that’s not how this process works.
It needs to be fixed. If you can’t see the problems here. Whether it be the systemic racism that makes myself, a White male, one the officer is overly concerned about my safety time and time again and Brooks, a Black male, a threat to the safety of others and the officers. If you’re explaining that away by the alcohol and the slight nuances between my own experiences and Mr. Brooks then there’s the numerous times the officers could have de-escalated the situation rather than escalating it. This happened less than 3 weeks since George Floyd’s murder, too. They could have let Rayshard walk home. They could have asked him to get in the police car rather than immediately going to handcuffs. They could have let him run once he resisted. They could have let him run once he got the Taser. There were so many decision points that could have led to an outcome where Rayshard Brooks didn’t die. Instead, he was murdered. Murdered by a cop that most who wear the uniform will say was justified but an unfortunate side effect of their job. Murdered though there’s nowhere near the outrage here that there was for George Floyd’s and likely many more who want to put the blame on Brooks and not a system that is a catastrophic failure in so many ways.
Change needs to happen. Don’t dismiss Rayshard Brooks’ death by trying to explain it away. He needs justice. We need a better system. Call it whatever you want. Defund the police. Reform the police. Fix the police. It doesn’t matter. What needs to matter is Black lives. And until they do, all lives can’t matter because murders at the hands of the police continue to happen. Don’t explain this one away.