The Perils of Looking 'Suspicious' While Black and Interpreting While White

Sometime around 5:30 a.m., on March 1, 2012, an off-duty policeman working for a private neighborhood security force stopped two young black men driving in a predominantly white neighborhood in New Orleans. The officer called for back up. The incident tragically ended in the shooting death of Justin Sipp, the 20-year-old passenger of the car, who was African-American, as well as non-fatal injuries to two of the officers and to Justin's brother Earl who was the driver of the car. 

Some of the circumstances around Sipp's death sound eerily too similar to the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black teen killed in Florida for looking "suspicious," this time not by law enforcement, but by a neighborhood watch member. 

In the Sipp case in New Orleans, I've been listening to various reactions to this tragedy in community meetings, and reading about it on neighborhood association listserve posts. I've been ruminating about the chasm that exists between the two “worlds” in which I have lived.  I am white and before I moved to New Orleans, I lived and worked in predominantly white communities. Now many of my friends and coworkers are black folks and other persons of color, and the focus of my work is racial justice. It is from this perspective that I will try to make sense of what happened to the Sipp brothers.   

Making sense of what happened requires interpretation because beyond the basic facts about the police stop described above, there's a lot of uncertainty. When each one of us interprets facts, especially limited facts, we must rely on knowledge from our past experiences, as well as the assumptions and values that have grown out of those experiences. Having traversed a chasm between two very different worlds, I know something about the information gap that handicaps white people living in racially segregated worlds, where even if people know or work with people of color, they typically lack deep personal connections to help them understand everyday realities in communities of color. Without this understanding, the shootout with the police and the criminal records of Earl and Justin Sipp reported by the media seem to validate that these brothers were “criminals” who the police needed to stop to ensure the safety and protection of neighborhood residents.  

So I wasn't surprised when I read posts on neighborhood association listservs praising the officers' actions and supporting a blood drive organized in their support: 

One listserv message read:

"As an advocate of a proactive role for our security district, I have asked for traffic stops or other stops to ask fair questions about people in our neighborhood, ON A NON DISCRIMATION  (sic) approach. I was glad to here (sic) that our guy from MCSD [Mid City Security District, the private security force] was doing that work yesterday morning. Getting guns and drugs off the street is a hard job but MSCD and NOPD [New Orleans Police Department] stops will make the free transport of drugs and weapons in cars too risky for criminals." 

Note that there have been no reports that the brothers were in possession of drugs at the time of their shooting, and even their past arrests weren't drug-related. But to mention that there seems to make sense to the poster because black folks with criminal charges, guns, drugs and shoot-outs with police all go together in the perspective from mostly-white commnities, even as they view the facts of this case.  

This individual's post stood out to me because of his professed support for “non-discrimination.” I have no reason to doubt that he sincerely wants to avoid race-motivated stops, but in reality, pervasive assumptions of black criminality such as the one the poster demonstrates makes it impossible for proactive stops in majority white neighborhoods to be non-discriminatory.  

What does it mean to look or act "suspicious"?  The Sipp brothers -- and others like Trayvon Martin -- are much too easily seen as perpetrators who are transporting guns and drugs through the neighborhood rather than as normal citizens, or workers trying to get to their job on time.  In reality, Earl Sipp was driving his younger brother Justin to work at a nearby Burger King. As their uncle told the media, they "were on their way to work trying to make an honest living." 

The police story is that Earl and Justin Sipp were stopped because their license plate light was out. Because of the realities they have lived, black folks know how often they are stopped just for “driving while black,” and so they are justifiably suspicious of police officers.

A Department of Justice investigation of the NOPD, released just last year found patterns of unwarranted stops and searches, as well as “reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of ... discriminatory policing (p ix)”  based on race, as well as gender and sexual orientation.  

Quoting from the Justice Department report:

“Our review of officer-involved shootings within just the last two years revealed many instances in which NOPD officers used deadly force contrary to NOPD policy or law. Despite the clear policy violations we observed, NOPD has not found that an officer-involved shooting violated policy in at least six years, and NOPD officials we spoke with could recall only one out-of-policy finding even before that time.... Even the most serious uses of force, such as officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, are investigated inadequately or not at all.  NOPD’s mishandling of officer-involved shooting investigations was so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects. (p. vi - vii).”

 I should note that while the NOPD are a particularly egregious example, it is not unique among police departments, many of which manifest similar problems.

The Justice Department report also noted that the vast majority of cases involving use of force and all of the incidents resulting in death involved African Americans. Within less than a week of Justin Sipp's death, another NOPD officer shot and killed another black man, 20-year-old Wendell Allen during a drug raid; Allen was unarmed at the time.   

In addition to the dismal collective record of the NOPD, Jason Giroir, the officer who stopped the Sipps and who was one of two officers who fired shots during the stop, also has an individual past history that raises even more suspicions in the black community about what may have occurred that fatal day.  In April 2006, Giroir yanked a woman out of her car by her hair, pepper-sprayed and punched her after a similar “routine traffic stop."

Given the harassment and brutality that black communites routinely experience at the hands of police, any signs of anxiety exhibited by black persons during police stops are as likely to be the result of negative expectations as they are to suggest a guilty conscience. But this anxiety can add to the already existing stereotypes about black criminality in increasing the likelihood that black folks will be interpreted as acting “suspicious.”  

If the police report that Justin Sipp pulled out a gun and began firing on police is true, one can only guess at the experiences that led him to conclude that a shoot out with police officers was preferable to whatever was happening or whatever he expected to happen as the result of the police stop.

The “record” of the police department as a whole or of individual officers is not, however, what gets emphasized in the media or in conversations about the incident in white communities.  Within hours of the shooting, the arrest records of Earl and Justin Sipp were released to the public, reinforcing stereotypes that they were “criminals” and “felons.”  Interpreting arrest records also looks different depending upon one's past experiences.

 All but one of the arrests of the Sipp brothers failed to result in convictions and the one that did involved a plea to a reduced offense (unauthorized use of a credit card). In the TV cop shows that populate our psyches, arrests that fail to lead to convictions are often the result of technicalities, mistakes on the part of police or judges or juries that allow guilty people to “walk.”  In black communities, racial profiling and police harassment are an everyday reality, and that's exactly what arrest records (especially arrests without convictions and arrests that result in pleas) indicate.  

The way I interpret guilty pleas and reduced sentences has been forever altered by an incident that occurred just months after my move to New Orleans. A young black friend and co-worker of mine who was riding as a passenger in my car was asked to produce identification to an officer who had stopped us for a so-called traffic offense. I was cited for “impeding the flow of traffic” for apparently driving too slowly as we searched for a side street, late at night, with no other cars on the street. When my friend calmly asked the officer why he had to show ID since he was not driving, the officer called him an “a-hole,” ordered him out of the car, and charged him with battery of an officer and resisting arrest.

My friend was eventually found innocent of these completely fabricated charges but only after he bravely resisted repeated and coercive offers that he plead guilty to lesser offenses.  He insisted he was innocent and wouldn't plead guilty for something he hadn't done. His father and friends who were worried for him reasoned with him that he had so much to lose if the judge didn't believe our story, which was quite possible given that to believe us, the judge had to also accept the fact that the police officer was lying.  

If I weren't a white, middle-aged woman working for a religiously affiliated organization  there to support his story, would an innocent verdict have been within the realm of possiblity for him?  I doubt it. What happened to him is not an isolated incident and is repeated daily in traffic stops and courtrooms across this country. You can read more about our justice system's reliance on pleas (which are too often coerced) in this recent and excellent opinion piece by Michelle Alexander in the New York Times editorial, and while you're at it, read Alexander's book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which is a great source of awakened consciousness for those with limited awareness of the devastating destruction that our criminal justice system causes in black communities. 

Views of the police – whether they are seen as trusted authorities and a source of safety or as a source of threat and destruction -- is one of the pervasive and drastic racial divides that persist. Is there a way to bridge this chasm? Can listening to stories open our hearts to new realities? That is my hope and my plea to my white brothers and sisters. There is much  to learn about the perils of "driving while black" and "interpreting while white" if we are ever going to be able to stand in true solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color. 

Pam Nath works for Mennonite Central Committee Central States as a community organizer in New Orleans where she is connected with a number of community groups which are addressing issues of systemic injustice.