“Yes, I Mind!”
So, here’s a story, one of my favorite from my young adult years. My sister went to visit her husband’s constitutional law class. The class is full of first year law students at a prestigious law school. Big bombastic law professor (this is the way I remember it.) Anyway, the professor leads the class in a call-and-response. He says, “When the police knock on your door and ask, ‘Mind if we look around?’, you say?”
And the entire class shouts back, “Yes! I! Mind!”
It so tickled me, this professor and his preppy law students. All of these wet-behind-the-ears men and women learning to become big fancy lawyers, and he’s re-training them like kindergarteners (“Please.” “Thank you.” “May I be excused?”) about their constitutional rights.
That’s the story, and here’s the question: you think he’s still doing it? Do you think the professor today leads his class in the call-and-response, “When the police pull you over and ask, “Mind putting out your cigarette?’, you say?”
Do you think the class still gleefully responds “Yes! I! Mind!”?
If the professor has kept up his rights training, do you think maybe one day the Dean of the law school pays him a visit? “Now, George, (or Garret or Gerald or whoever he was),” the Dean says, “do you think this talk about constitutional rights is a good idea? I mean, we all know theoretically it’s correct. But what if some of these students actually put these ideas into action? What if they start asserting their rights, and the police turn them around, slap them down, and arrest them? If that happens, we’ll be deluged with calls from angry parents, tuition-paying parents—we’ll be sued! Would you mind laying off that kind of talk?”
And the professor says, “Yes, I mind. It’s their right to know their rights.”
At which point the Dean turns him around, smacks him down, and fires him, because he’s one of those wild-ass, bad-apple Deans.
Did I mention the professor was Black? Okay, I just made him Black because he stood up for his rights, and it seems to me Black folks are the only ones standing up for their rights. Whether it’s through words or actions, Black folk are like, “What the hell are you talking about? I know my rights,” while white folks are like, “It’s cool, it’s cool. I ain’t got no rights. Just let me go, and I won’t complain.” I’m reading all over the internet this “just keep your mouth shut” advice from white folks to Black folks. Rational? Or simply unwilling to go Bob Marley and stand up for your rights?
Please don’t think I’m being flip about this. I understand that traffic stops are highly unpredictable and at any one of them the officer might encounter some sovereign citizen crazy person who pulls out a shotgun; I remember the police officers killed right across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas. What I’m trying to talk about is when police don’t do the job they are supposedly trained to do and infringe on constitutional rights left and, well, right.
Total aside: do you know your rights? Do you have faith that the policeman who stops you knows your rights? Do you wonder how many billions of dollars we pay out in lawsuit settlements because cops don’t respect your rights? If you don’t know your rights, and you don’t exercise them, the Supreme Court one day will say, look, no one’s exercising their rights—guess they don’t care about them; let’s just give the police all the rights. True story; or at least a prediction.
And, by the way, what’s going on with this rogue Dean of the law school? What happened to the accreditation agencies that are supposed to make sure Deans don’t act like nut-jobs? Why are the oversight agencies saying, well, that’s just how some Deans are?
What I’m asking is, how did we get to this place where police are viewed, even by their defenders, as a crap shoot? Where you don’t know which officer you might encounter, the amazing one that goes over and beyond in doing his or her job, or the one that will arrest your ass because your attitude sucks? We should respect our police officers, we’re told, but when did “respect” become a euphemism for fear?
I don’t know about you, but I’m figuring we need better training—rogue Deans can’t be slapping down beloved professors, willy-nilly. I’m not saying this only because I’ve had some great law professors—my grandfather was the Dean of the University of North Carolina Law School. I grew up full of admiration for Deans—you could achieve no higher pinnacle in my estimation. Deans hold a special place in my heart, and I admire those who defend them. I care about too many great Deans to see them defined by those who don’t know what the crap they’re doing.
For the sake of the good Deans, we have to better train our Deans to eliminate the disparity in Dean competence. We gotta insist on better review of our Deans so we don’t tolerate incompetence. We gotta better discipline our Deans so we don’t retain Deans who simply don’t have what it takes to be a Dean. We must institute civilian review boards and support their efforts to oversee our Deans.
The last thing I want is for a wonderful Dean—or policeman—to be doing an excellent job, bettering the future of America, only to have all hell rain down on his or her head because nobody trusts them anymore.
American racism, anti-racism, criminal justice system, ending racism, mid-south peace and justice, police review boards, race issues, what are your rights when stopped by the police
The only weird police encounter I have ever had was at the Port Authority bus terminal in NYC. I got off the bus to find a plain-clothes police officer talking to my young teen daughter. He was looking for a runaway who was supposed to be on the bus with a woman who was accompanying her back to the city. My daughter didn’t have an ID and he asked for mine. I had the presence of mind to ask for his ID, but, just then, he spotted the girl and woman for whom he was searching and hurried off. I admit it was unsettling. If would have been scarier now with the current tensions, even though I am not a person of color.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
It is a very unsettling time–a police officer in Memphis was killed yesterday during a traffic stop in the same area where a young man was killed by police two weeks ago during a traffic stop. I don’t know what the answer is but something sure needs to change.
It’s so hard, but I think that talking about it brings recognition and awareness about the still pervasive problems. I know that a group in Binghamton NY is working on a study of policing and race here that would not have happened were it not for the high profile cases elsewhere. I hope our area can make changes before someone gets killed at a traffic stop.
Ellen Morris Prewitt
That is encouraging. Let me know how it goes, and I’ll be thinking about y’all.