The Cincinnati authorities are steeling themselves for a Blacks Lives Matter protest in a year that has seen far too many of them. The most recent incident involved a white campus policeman killing an African-American male during a routine traffic stop. Body camera video appears to show that the officer Ray Tensing fired a bullet into Samuel DuBose’s head when DuBose reached for the ignition in his car. The Hamilton County district attorney made clear his thinking in obtaining a murder indictment against Officer Tensing, saying that even if DuBose was attempting to leave without accepting a ticket for a missing front license plate, the officer should have just let him go. Anything else and, particularly shooting DuBose, was “senseless.”
These cases have the type of twists and turns usually reserved to Hollywood thrillers. Pre-judging the facts is a dangerous enterprise that I avoid. But there is an obvious central point to all of the recent confrontations that ended in tragedy: black young men and women offering resistance to or fleeing from authority, in the form of white police officers. The spectrum for “resisting” ranges from polite challenges to the officer’s judgment to assaulting an officer in his car.
Depending on how the suspect reacted, I have been simultaneously dumbfounded by, but sympathetic to, the officers’ actions. My reaction flows from the idea that even when the police are wrong, the wise thing is to politely do whatever they say. If they abuse you, call your councilman and file a lawsuit. As a lawyer and someone with a keen interest in public policy, it seems pretty obvious.
Or does it? Thirty-two years ago this month, I was a recent college graduate stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, training to bring about the fall of communism as an Air Force Accounting and Finance Officer. Pretty much a model citizen, not to pat myself on the back. And please note, communism did fall. That summer, I paid a weekend visit to Waco to visit my college friends stuck on the 4 and 1/2-year plus summer school academic plan. These friends are now the superintendent of one of Texas’ best school districts (the improbably named Boofie); the executive vice-president of a bank (Darrell), a successful technology entrepreneur (another Steve) and another lawyer (Randy). If you know Baylor circa 1983, the next part is redundant, but for the purposes of the story–we were all white.
Maybe you have played Frisbee golf. Tossing a disk to baskets staked in open fields or a park is a peaceful enough past-time, but it does not hold a candle to the game played on the Baylor campus in the early ’80s. The unofficial course snaked through campus, with the majority of holes hugging the girls’ dormitories. Rather than baskets, we aimed at statues, bells, swings and other campus landmarks. The preferred 11:00 p.m. tee-time with a beer in one hand and your disk in the other was a great way to spend a few hours. Highly competitive and the font of many a story, Frisbee Golf was pretty harmless college fun.
The Baylor administration, however, noticed the “fun” part. Baylor had a strict no-fun policy in place at the time. Fun could lead to sex or even worse, dancing. Once the game had been explained to the powers-that-be and its fun implications fully examined, the edict came down: no Frisbee golf on the main campus. In its place, Baylor offered a lame alternative. For the officially-sanctioned version, we could throw at sticks in the wide-open intramural fields; far away from the girls’ dormitories and with Dr. Pepper replacing the beer. No fun and thank God for Art Briles, who had a fun-on-campus clause inserted into his contract when he came to Baylor.
Anyway, on a warm Saturday night in July, I found myself standing with my buddies on the steps of Waco Hall, the now forbidden fourth tee of the “Old Course.” The Waco Hall steps happen to be the most lighted area of the Old Course and that is where we found John Q. Law, a Baylor cop, patrolling to do his dead-level best to prevent fun from happening. John Q. used his P.A. system to instruct us to stay where we were. Of course we did the exact opposite, sprinting in five directions. John Q. gave chase to Darrell, the future banker. Darrell failed to recognize the on-going irrigation work in front of Armstrong-Browning Library. At full speed and in the pitch black, Darrell hit an open trench and went down in a heap with ankle injuries and a chest contusion. John Q. flew by, not noticing the man down.
John Q. called in reinforcements and soon the campus was on lock down. Fun and beer had been spotted, Code Red! (I am not kidding). Four of us made our way back to the house, but Darrell eventually was nabbed. It was hard for him to explain away the glo-in-the-dark disk. Luckily for the Darrell, he was now coughing up blood, which was enough to convince John Q. that a trip to the emergency room before booking was in order. While at the emergency room, a sympathetic Waco policeman stepped in to “take custody” of the suspect, returning Darrell to the house in the wee hours of the morning. I still wonder whether, absent intervention by the Waco cop, Darrell would have cut a deal, implicating the rest of us in exchange for a lighter sentence. He swears not, but I have seen plenty of bankers fold under pressure.
Anyway, the great Frisbee golf caper was born; we re-create it at homecoming. To us, the idea that Baylor would care about throwing Frisbees on campus was ridiculous and that the campus police would aggressively enforce the edict was laughable. And we were right. Just as right as Andrew DuBose was in thinking that a cop should not be hassling him about a front license plate or maybe just like Sandra Bland wondering why she was being rousted for failing to signal a lane change. Our episode ended in a college war story re-told through the years; Andrew’s and Sandra’s episodes ended in funerals.
It is still true, maybe more than ever, that politely obeying an obnoxious police officer doing something stupid is the right call. It is not true that disobeying an obnoxious police officer doing something stupid is unique to African-Americans. Deciphering who was “right” and who was “wrong” in the Black Lives Matter cases is not easy, with room for argument on all sides. What I can say is that none of us should cast the first stone.