One of the realities of life that attends being a Black male in these United States is the risk of unpleasant encounters with law enforcement personnel. Indeed, the pattern of harassment that I have endured for the past two decades has included a number of such incidents. Thankfully, they have all turned out well. For good reason, I mentally rehearse how to respond to such potential encounters as part of my preparation for the day. I remind myself to stay calm and to carefully measure my responses to such encounters in a way that stays well within the boundaries of civility and respect. My life depends on it.
My ability to do that has been sorely tested at times. Perhaps, no more so than during the three years I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. I moved to Phoenix during a time when I was infatuated with all things Southwestern. Moving here allowed me to explore all of the natural attractions of Arizona at my leisure, something I always look back upon fondly. It also meant enduring a period of intensified harassment by uniformed police officers in the city proper whenever I was in my vehicle.
No one walks in Phoenix. Perhaps due to the notoriously intense summer heat and city planning that is not pedestrian friendly, it is a city where few souls are ever seen on public streets. You drive everywhere. Likely, it is for this reason that my harassment here was predominated by uniformed officers in marked police cars.
Not a week would pass here without my being stopped by police in traffic for what seemed to me to be contrived and trivial reasons. Oddly, I was never ticketed, yet on a weekly basis, I would be pulled over while driving. So much so, that I would do a walk-around of my car daily before leaving home, checking that all the lights were working and everything was up to par. Also, I was very conscious of strictly obeying traffic laws. Yet, week after week, the traffic stops by uniformed officers continued.
Once, on a Sunday morning, while driving to my place of worship, I was stopped and detained for supposedly making a lane change without using a turn signal. I was required to stand by my vehicle for a half hour in the 106-degree summer heat while officers from two police cars with flashing lights held my license and registration. They were laughing and chatting in their vehicle as I stood outside my car. Many of my fellow congregants drove by during that time, no doubt wondering why I was being detained. In hindsight, as I was new to the area, this may have been done to damage my reputation with my congregation. I prayed intensely for the strength to remain calm. I knew that any improper response on my part would turn out badly. Finally, the officers returned my ID and left. My stomach was churning in frustration. Yet, I had ‘conquered the evil with the good’ by exercising restraint once again. That was not easy.
Now, here is why I call this a cautionary tale. On one occasion, my frustration did get the better of me. One of the forms of harassment I experienced while driving in Phoenix were police vehicles with sirens and flashing lights continually speeding up behind me. I would pull over, expecting to be detained once again. Once I did so, the officer would simply drive by, never stopping. This was no coincidence. It would take place three to five time per week, sometimes twice in a day.
Frustration was building within me. Unwisely, I was allowing my inner peace to be chipped away. On this one day, blinded by emotion, I decided to confront one of the officers who engaged in this harassment. I drove up next to his police cruiser and motioned that I wanted to speak to him. “Have the courage to tell me why you are doing this.” I thought to myself. I simply wanted a face to face conversation. Why? Why am I being treated this way?
He pretended not to see me. That only added to my frustration. I started honking my horn and gesturing all the more. He ignored me. It seems that this went on for at least three miles as we drove side by side. I had no thought of malice toward this officer. I just want to know why you are doing this? Who is behind it? Talk to me! Persistently, I followed his vehicle.
Finally, the officer slows down and turns into a side street. This is a two-way street in a residential area that dead-ended in a cul-de-sac. The officer drives into the cul-de-sac and stops, getting out of his car. I park behind him and get out of my car.
Consider my frame of mind at that moment. I just wanted an answer to one question. Why? In my determination to ask that question, I had thrown all caution to the wind. Emotion was controlling my actions, not reason.
The officer stood alone. I explained why I wanted to speak to him. I told him about the pattern of harassment I was enduring, and that I believed that his actions were part of that pattern. “Why are police officers doing this? What do you have against me?”
I stood about eight feet away from the officer. He was a white male, in his late thirties it seemed, of average build and height. His posture was relaxed and non-threatening. However, in a low tone of voice, he begins a very strange response. He never addresses me personally, but refers only to ‘people like me.’ As he does so, he describes these ‘people like me’ by using a string of highly derogatory racial slurs. There was nothing subtle about his words. They were meant to be inflammatory. I was being provoked!*
“Before the quarrel has burst forth, take your leave.” – Proverbs 17:14
In that moment, his corrosive words cleared my head like a strong slap to the face. Suddenly, I realized that my unreasoning emotions had led me to a very dangerous place. His stream of vile speech continued, but I was no longer listening. I was assessing my surroundings as quickly as I could think. Nothing positive would be gained by continuing this conversation. Just leave, I thought to myself . . . You are in danger . . . Say nothing, do not even make a single gesture that could be interpreted as hostile . . . Get in your car and leave. Now! Clear, rational thoughts were replacing blind emotion in my mind. Those thoughts guided my next response.
“A man of knowledge restrains his words, And a discerning man will remain calm.” – Proverbs 17:27
“Have a good day Officer.” With those words, I interrupted his provocative tirade. I made no further reply. I turned away, being careful to smile and use a pleasant tone of voice. As I walked to my car, I was careful not to make any gestures that could be interpreted as hostile. I never glanced behind me as I drove away. My heart was pounding, and I was shaking. It seemed to take forever to leave that street.
Now, as the effects of my frustration wore off, I began to take stock of what had just happened. First, it was pure foolishness on my part that had brought me here. I had allowed my emotions to guide me, and they put my life in danger. One by one, I began to review the actions taken by this officer.
Why did he turn into this street, one ending in a cul-de-sac? No doubt, it ensured that I was trapped should things spin out of control. While I did not see any other police vehicles, the officer certainly had time to set up a dragnet surrounding that cul-de-sac. I am convinced that they were waiting out of sight. That street was chosen because there was only one way out.
Also, while that officer’s speech was laced with derogatory racial epithets, his visual demeanor appeared unusually calm and relaxed, clearly at odds with his provocative choice of words. Why? Could it be that this encounter was being video recorded? Since I was being provoked, the recorded visual impression (as well as the impression given to any potential onlookers) would make it appear that I was the instigator of any potential hostility. Clearly, he wanted to provoke a negative, angered response from me while making himself appear benign. That would give him an excuse to do me further harm.
Thirdly, why didn’t he address me directly? The pattern of harassment I was enduring was covert in nature. None of the participants ever admits their role or why I am targeted. Certainly, this officer was not going to do so either.
I was deeply shaken by how badly things could have gone. Thankfully, I had regained my senses just in time.
I learned a powerful lesson that day. I had allowed frustration and anger to taint my thinking and actions. I did not think before responding. My emotions took over and could have made things go very badly for me. “Do not be quick to take offense, for the taking of offense lodges in the bosom of fools.” – Ecclesiastes 7:9
As is so often the case in these encounters, what can do the greatest harm is not the actions of my harassers but my response to their provocation. What is more, a single bad decision, made in frustration, could have led to disastrous life-changing consequences. I was now more determined than ever to cultivate and maintain self-control, never allowing frustration to reach the boiling point. Although the harassment continued in the days that followed, I kept my emotions in check. That encounter forced me to reflect deeply on the importance of always thinking before responding. By doing so, it better prepared me to cope successfully with the years of harassment and provocation that have followed.
Think, Don’t Act on Emotion!
*In this encounter, it would have been quite easy to react emotionally to the extreme prejudice expressed in the Officer’s words. The officer’s vitriolic comments were, in fact, a psychological bait, designed to lure me into making an angered, negative response. My past experience with provocation harassment schemes helped me to identify his tactics.
The officer attacked what he assumed to be a likely anger trigger, my sensitivity as a Black male to racism. The campaign of mistreatment by police officers up to that point was intended to fuel my frustration. It was all done with the expectation that I would react predictably, in outrage. They had a well-planned strategy in place if I did so. Any negative reaction to his provocation would give him an excuse to take control of me or cause me harm.
Here is where my exercise of insight was essential. The officer’s words were an act of instrumental aggression, not hostile aggression. This was not simply an expression of personal hostility by the officer. Rather, it was instrumental, in that, it was carried out to achieve a specific goal or result.
“Hostile aggression is intentional with the purpose to inflict pain. Hostile aggression is often motivated by anger. In contrast, instrumental aggression is not motivated by anger or the intention to cause pain. Instrumental aggression serves as a means to reach a goal.” – Herkimer College / SUNY Introductory Psychology
Discerning the motive behind the officer’s aggression helped me to properly assess my situation and respond appropriately. I choose to remain silent, rather than escalating or extending the conflict by arguing. By doing so, I controlled the outcome of this encounter and protected my interests. My freedom, my very life, depended on using sound thinking ability to neutralize a dangerous situation. Thankfully, in the closing moments of this scheme, I was able to do so.
“In fact . . . Christ suffered for you, leaving a model for you to follow his steps closely . . . When he was being insulted, he did not insult in return. When he was suffering, he did not threaten, but he entrusted himself to the One who judges righteously . . .” – 1 Peter 2:21-23
The question remains, however, why did I come so close to allowing frustration and anger to guide my actions in the first place? Looking back, I realized that over time, I had allowed my thinking to focus on the problem, not the solution. Focusing on frustrations and fears weakens the mind. I had begun to think too much about the actions of my harassers, not on what I needed to do to handle matters successfully. I had handled past encounters with self-control. Yet, over time, I began to take the mental preparation needed for such encounters for granted.
Failure to prepare mentally in advance makes it much more likely that your reactions will be based on emotion, not sound reasoning. You cannot wait until a situation occurs to decide how you will respond. You need to have well in mind the principles that will guide your actions before a stressful encounter occurs. In my case, Bible principles such as the ones featured in this post had to be reviewed and pondered over on a regular basis. This reinforces those principles in my mind, making it much more likely that I will act in accord with them when under psychological attack. This is a war for my mind. My mind’s defenses must be at their strongest if they are to guide my actions and reactions reliably.
“Safeguard practical wisdom and thinking ability, and they will prove to be life to your soul.”—Prov. 3:21, 22.
I am thoroughly convinced that Bible principles saved my life that day.