Leonard Pitts: What does independence mean in age of Trump?
Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 4, 2019
By Leonard Pitts
I had no intention of telling this story here.
Independence Day is today, and I thought I might talk about the meaning of freedom in the age of Trump. Refugees are imprisoned in squalor on our southern border, the government balking at providing them toothpaste and soap, and I thought I might talk about the diminution of compassion in the age of Trump.
But the story of how I ended up in handcuffs on my front lawn in the dark hours of Sunday morning had, I felt, been well and truly told by multiple media outlets and needed no further explanation from me. Then I thought of all the times panicky, out-of-control police officers have left unarmed black people traumatized, wounded and dead in the last few years. And I thought of something people keep reminding me: My story easily could have had a much different ending.
So I guess there is something I need to say. First, though, a recap for those who are feeling as if they came in on the middle of a movie:
Sunday morning at 4:48, I was awakened by a call from the police department in Bowie, the D.C. suburb where I live. It seems a 911 caller told them I had murdered my wife and vowed to kill police when they responded.
My “murdered” wife sat up in confusion as the caller ordered me to stay on the phone and exit the house. I opened my front door into blinding spotlights and an amplified voice instructing me to drop my phone and walk forward, hands away from my body, then go down on my knees, whereupon I was cuffed and taken to stand behind a police cruiser.
It took maybe half an hour for them to clear the rest of my family from the house and satisfy themselves there was no crime here.
No, the only crime was the fake 911 call itself, the latest in a trend called “swatting” — as in a police Special Weapons and Tactics or SWAT team — where officers are sent to the door of some unsuspecting person. It’s happened to Rihanna, Simon Cowell and Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg. Now it’s happened to me. People ask if I was scared. It surprises them — heck, it surprises me — when I say that I was not. Was it stressful? Definitely. Did it feel surreal? You bet.
But once I understood what was going on, I felt reasonably confident everything would be fine if I remained calm and allowed police to figure things out. It helped me, I think, that they themselves were calm. Nobody yelled or cursed at me. I wasn’t manhandled, and when it was over, I received an apology.
Compare that to Cleveland, where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed playing with a toy gun in an open carry state, within two seconds of police arriving. Compare it to Columbia, South Carolina and to suburban St. Paul, where Levar Jones and Philando Castile were shot — Castile died — while complying with police who had asked for their driver’s licenses.
And by all means, compare it to Phoenix where officers with guns drawn cursed and threatened a black woman and her children last month over an alleged shoplifting incident.
I wasn’t treated like that, and I was supposedly a wife killer.
I don’t know if the police in Bowie are better trained or if I just got lucky. I do know that too many unarmed black people are wounded and killed by frightened and adrenalized cops. And that I could have become one of them and didn’t. The fact that so many people regard that as a minor miracle is telling and sad. Sunday morning in a tense situation, police conducted themselves coolly and professionally. People should not have to be surprised by that.
It should tell you something that they are.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.