Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Walking Alone with White Privilege

Driving home from work one evening about thirty years ago, I noticed an unmarked police car parked in front of a gas station. As I passed by, the car pulled out behind me. With no reason to think his timing was anything other than coincidence, I checked my speed, made sure I stayed in my lane, and thought nothing more of it.

When, a mile down the road, I made a turn and the car followed me, I thought nothing of that, either. The route I was taking was a common one. It was routine for several cars in a row to make that same turn. Again, I checked my speed and made certain I was staying in my lane.

A couple miles later, as I neared my next turn onto a large, divided state highway, I noticed the car behind me flash his high beams, just as I might do to an oncoming car if there was a hazard ahead of them, but we had passed no such hazard.

In response to the signal, a police cruiser, blue lights blazing, pulled out from a side street, turning in between me and the unmarked car behind me. A second cruiser in full display pulled out behind the unmarked car, bringing up the rear of what was now a four car parade.

I turned left through the intersection, then immediately right into a convenience store parking lot where I parked my old Ford truck and turned off the engine.

From behind me, an amplified voice issued a command—something about getting out of the truck. I was so confused by the whole scene, I wasn’t sure exactly what was said, but I opened the door, slid off the seat and onto the pavement. It was a chilly evening, and as I stepped out, I put my hands in my pockets for warmth.

“Put your hands in the air!”

As I pulled my hands out of my pockets, I looked to my left and down the barrels of four handguns aimed by officers who were using their cars as both shields, and supports for their firearms. The driver of the unmarked car stood behind his white Crown Victoria, and spoke into a handheld microphone.

“Turn around! Put your hands on your head!”

Needless to say, I did as I was told, and no sooner had my hands touched the top of my head, I was pushed into the side of my truck and felt a gun pressed into my back.

“Don’t breathe.”

I didn’t.

I was searched and handcuffed. My pocket knife was confiscated. The cab of my truck was emptied. The contents of a toolbox behind the seat was dumped onto the asphalt. Papers were pulled from the glovebox and scattered on the seat of the truck.

As I stood there, handcuffed, watching all of this and trying not to breathe, the plainclothes officer approached me and introduced himself as Sheriff Bowman. I knew that name. The Catoosa County Sheriffs department was legendary in those days. Under the previous sheriff, deputies were given mid-seventies Pontiac Trans Ams with nothing short of racing-tuned big block V8 engines and four speed transmissions. They were straight out of a Walking Tall movie. Though their days of muscle cars were over, their reputation remained. They were not to be messed with.

Yet, even knowing the reputation of the department, I was still not afraid. Even with a gun in my back, all I kept thinking was “somebody made a mistake, and we will get to the bottom if it.” I didn’t know what they thought I did, but I knew whatever it was, I didn’t do it.

I could hear an officer back in one of the cars, talking on the radio.

“Yeah, we got him… Yeah, the sheriff wants to bring him over himself.”

Mustering some courage, I turned to Sheriff Bowman, “Can I ask what this is all about?”

“Sure. You can ask.”

His tone suggested saying anything more would be pointless, so I went back to trying not to breathe and being confused.

Eventually, I was put in the back of Sheriff Bowman’s car, and he and I took off, retracing the route we had taken to get there. Along the way, he decided to tell me what was going on.

According to him, I perfectly fit the description of a man who had just robbed a convenience store at gunpoint. I assured the sheriff that there was a big mistake and that the sooner he released me, the sooner he could get busy trying to find the man he was looking for.

Needless to say, my words fell on deaf ears.

“In thirty-eight years of police work, I have never had a description as perfect as yours,” he said. He went on to tell me he was looking for a man with a reddish beard, wearing a red and white sweatshirt, jeans, and black work boots, driving an old gray Ford Truck. The description was spot on with the exception of the footwear. I was wearing Birkenstock sandals—not the stereotypical footwear of choice for armed robbers in Georgia—but my black work boots were in the passenger floorboard of my truck. I was a ringer.

Again, I assured him that I was not his man, to which he responded that if that turned out to be the case he would “be the first to apologize, but in thirty-eight years of police work…”

When we reached the scene of the crime, I was surrounded by smiling, nodding deputies, all of whom were clearly pleased to have their guy so quickly.

The convenience store clerk was brought outside to face me and asked if I was the guy. He did not hesitate in saying “That’s not him.” It was an assertion Sheriff Bowman was not ready to accept.

“What’s different about him? He has the beard, the clothes, the truck…”

“It’s not him.”

“What’s not him about him?”

“Well… for one thing, his beard isn’t as thick.”

“His beard looks thick to me. What else is different?”

“He’s not as big. The guy was bigger than him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Think long and hard about that answer. In thirty-eight years of police work…”

“He’s not the guy.”

Sheriff Bowman walked back into the store with the clerk, presumably trying to talk him into fingering me for the crime, as the cadre of deputies encircled me, looking at me as if I were on exhibit in a zoo.

A few minutes later, the sheriff reemerged and walked me to his car, where he took the handcuffs off, and put me, this time, in the front seat.

As we sped back to my truck, he questioned me at length. Did I know the clerk? Did I frequent that store? Did I have any enemies who would want to set me up?

I answered “No Sir” to all his questions, and true to his word, when we got back to my truck, he apologized, then gave me my knife back.

Thirty years ago, in rural Northwest Georgia, every fifth car was an old Ford truck, and a not insignificant percentage of them were primer gray. In that blue collar world, a lot of men wore jeans and work boots, and beards were the norm. even so, adding the red and white sweat shirt as an x-factor in the equation certainly made me a more than an obvious suspect.

I told him that given the circumstances, I would have arrested me, too, and that no apology was necessary.

“I gave you my word,” he responded. “I think you were being set you up,” he continued, “and that guy chickened out. You know, in thirty-eight years…”

Before he let me go, he gave me his card, and told me to call him if any of my answers changed. I assured him my answers would not change, but if I thought of anything that might help him, I would let him know.

I got back in my truck amidst all the tools and documents that were strewn about the seat and floorboard, and pulled onto the highway. Sheriff Bowman followed me home.

It would be easy to argue that the officer who cuffed me was unnecessarily rough, but truth be told, he didn’t do anything that hurt me. I weathered being slammed into the side of my truck without as much as a bruise, no triggers were pulled, I was not choked or thrown to the ground, even though, based on all the available intel, they had every reason to believe I was armed and dangerous.

OF course I didn’t realize it then, but what I experienced was white privilege. I can only imagine what might have happened had I been of darker skin, and “fit the description.”

Think about that for a moment. The fact that I was not thrown to the ground, choked, or taken to jail was white privilege. The fact that I was apologized to was white privilege. The fact that was not murdered by the side of the road, was white privilege.

My dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people”

“A special right.” Let that sink in. By virtue of my lack of pigment, I have “a special right” to not be choked or thrown to the ground. By virtue of my skin color, I have “a special right” to be given an apology when wrongly accused. Due to an ethnicity I had no say in, I have “a special right” to not be murdered for being suspected of armed robbery. Because I am not black or brown, I have “a special right” to not be adjudicated and punished by an arresting officer without having access to the legal system.

Think about that. My white privilege means I have the “special right” to be treated with a modicum of fairness and respect. If it takes special privilege to get that, think about what “normal” is for those who are not so “privileged.”

2 Comments

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You hit the nail on the proverbial head, Jim. Thanks for clarifying the issue. Now how do we fix it?
Roger Davis

another great post. thanks for sharing the perspective. i’ve recently been thinking about so many instances of what I might have previously called good “luck” was really just white privilege at it’s finest.

@roger, i agree jim nailed it, but don’t think there is “fixing” this. there is a lot of change, failure, introspection, and learning. once we’ve done that, we will start to know what “changing” it might look like.

What do you think?