WASHINGTON -- Interviewing a source can be an eye-opening and harrowing experience, especially when speaking to someone who has been victimized -- or someone who feels her people have been wronged.
The Huffington Post published a story last week giving an account of the now-famous McKinney, Texas, pool party police debacle, based in part on an interview with one of the partygoers who had a gun pulled on him. But the real shock came when a resident who wasn't even at the party emailed me to say that I had it all wrong.
“The story you just posted where you interviewed [the partygoer] is ridiculously inaccurate. I live in the community and know people that witnessed the incident first hand. I am also on a neighborhood Facebook group and was getting information before anything even escalated," the woman, who called herself Jen, said. "If you'd like to talk to one of the adults in the video who was a first hand witness to the whole situation, and not responsible for trespassing, I can put you in contact."
Jen rescinded the offer when asked about contact info for two women who can be seen attacking 19-year-old Tatiana Rhodes in a video. McKinney police were called sometime after the altercation. Rhodes, one of the party hosts, said the women were hurling racial slurs at the black teens -- Rhodes herself was allegedly called a “black fucker” -- and telling them to go back to their "Section 8 homes."
Instead, Jen replied with a lengthy screed that gave insight into how some people can defend McKinney police officer Eric Casebolt’s handling of the situation. Her email hinted at the deep-seated mindset among white Americans who dismiss black humanity in order to preserve an unwavering deference to authority -- so I called her.
As the phone rang, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from our conversation. But our chat turned out to be meaningful and worth dissecting. It illustrated how white fear and misperceptions can be used to justify actions that traumatize or sometimes even end black lives. It showed the troubling ease with which some people can explain away this trauma as an inevitable -- and, worse, acceptable -- outcome of black behavior.
Before ending our chat, Jen, whose last name I'm withholding, told me she didn’t want to be quoted -- and I let her know that requests to talk off the record need to be made prior to an interview with a reporter, not after.
She required him to use force. Had he grabbed her arm and had she followed him willfully, it wouldn’t have looked the way it looked. But she required the force.
Jen’s take on the majority of the day’s events differ from testimonies given by teens who were actually at the party, though everyone agrees the chaos began with an end-of-the-school-year cookout. Jen said that teens were trading off a key to get into a pool area and that when the security guard started denying them access, the situation began to escalate. She accused the teens of rebelling -- she said they started “taking over,” “jumping the fence” and “being aggressively sexually active.”
Her analysis of what happened says something about why this incident sparked a national conversation that has further exposed racial divides. Jen didn't see this as an incident involving implicit racial biases. (Based on her Gmail account photo, I guessed that she is white, and I also assumed she knew I'm black based on my Gmail account photo.) She refused to consider Casebolt’s actions -- particularly his treatment of 15-year-old Dajerria Becton -- as part of a widespread practice of police brutalizing black people. She didn’t seem to see any problem with the way he acted.
The emphasis in the following block quotes was added by HuffPost.
So basically once the cops were called, nobody would leave. Nobody would listen to authority. Nobody was doing what they were supposed to be doing. ... The cop? Was he out of line? That’s for the police department to decide. It sure seems like he was kind of a loose cannon. But at the same time, when it came down to arresting this girl, he asked her multiple times, "Get away, get away, get away, get away." She kept coming back. She kept coming back, yelling racial slurs. Finally, he had enough with her. And here’s the deal, if you’re trying to maintain control in like a mob-like situation -- because that’s what it felt like. It felt like a mob. I had moms posting on Facebook "What’s going on," leaving the pool because they didn’t feel safe. And not because the kids were black. It had nothing to do with that. It had to do with the energy of the situation.
While Jen tried to discount the role that race played in her description, the racial undertones can’t be ignored. Black people are regularly associated with “mobs.” It’s a common media theme -- whether we’re protesting or just turning up at a party -- primarily because blackness is associated with unruliness, violence and trouble. A group of black folks, or even rowdy kids, can't just be hanging out. We have to be doing, ya know, “mob" stuff. Or, as Jen put it, displaying a “blatant” disregard for authority and order -- pretty much asking to be kept in check.
As Casebolt ordered the black kids to the ground, white teens were walking around freely, including 15-year-old Brandon Brooks, who filmed the incident. Brandon offered a poignant perspective to BuzzFeed:
“Everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic,” he said. “[The cop] didn’t even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible.”
In her remarks to me, Jen disregarded this aspect of the situation and, instead, placed most of the onus for what went wrong on those kids. I wish I could say I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
And I don’t know if that’s how they’re raised. I don’t know if there’s maybe -- it was just a general sense of entitlement that they didn’t have to follow the rules.
Jen sounded so caught up in the vision of black rambunctiousness that the age of these kids -- some as young as 14 -- didn't seem to matter. And perhaps it didn’t. Black children, especially boys, are often seen as older and less innocent than their white peers.
Jen also sounded relieved to get her sentiments off her chest. I’m not sure if she was just frustrated that the prevailing narrative was different than the one she believed or if she had been harboring these thoughts for too long. But something was coloring her perspective:
As far as the little girl goes, that was brutally taken down, it appeared that way. It absolutely appeared that way. See, that’s exactly what she wanted you to think. She was running her mouth, running her mouth. It’s cancerous in a situation like that. In like a mob mentality like that, people like her are cancer. And it spreads. So all of a sudden she gets control, guess what’s gonna happen. Everybody else is, "Oh, well, she gets to do this, she gets to do this." And it spreads. The officer, I believe -- and this is just my opinion, I cannot speak to what he was thinking -- I feel like she was threatening the situation. He asked several times; still she wouldn’t leave. [He asked her] several times; still she wouldn’t leave. She kept running her mouth ... like she was calling him racial slurs. It was just ugly and nasty. So finally, he decided to detain her.
At that point, you’re detained, sweetie. You have to follow the rules. Whether or not you think you should be detained or not, he’s made that choice because that’s what he feels he needs to do to maintain control. What did she do? She slithered up. Yeah, she pulled. She’s fighting him. She required him to use force. Had he grabbed her arm and had she followed him willfully, it wouldn’t have looked the way it looked.
I thanked Jen for sharing her perspective. Then I asked if she felt as though Casebolt could have handled the situation better -- especially considering how small Dajerria is -- but she still couldn’t bring herself to place any blame on the officer. She repeatedly said she didn't know how cops are trained and emphasized what the teenage girl could have done better, saying she “was absolutely out of control.” Jen was firm in her stance that when an officer “arrives to do his job, you do what he tells you to do.”
White Americans as a whole tend to trust their local police more than black Americans do -- 67 percent compared to 36 percent, according to a recent HuffPost/YouGov survey. Jen did admit that Casebolt’s handling of the situation didn’t look good a few times during our conversation. She also continuously pulled away from that observation and returned to the idea that the true culprits were the black kids -- and that Casebolt was only responding appropriately to their threats:
She absolutely was breaking the law. By simply resisting what he was telling her to do, that’s breaking the law. And when you’re a criminal, you get treated like a criminal. Do I think he could have handled it better? I really don’t know. I don’t know what his training is. ... Do I feel like she deserved to be taken down? Yes. In my opinion, she was obstructing justice. She absolutely deserved what she got. But what that looks like -- I mean getting down to the details, do I think it could have been better? I honestly don’t know. It looks very cringy. ... She’s not doing what she’s told. She’s absolutely interfering with [Casebolt’s efforts]. That’s a threat. And I know that they are trained to deal with those threats. Whether or not he did as he was trained, I don’t know. I don’t know what that looks like because I haven’t been trained. I don’t what that looks like. You want to look at it and say, "Oh, she should never be thrown to the ground." But at the same time, what other choice did he have?
Casebolt could have acted like other officers on the scene, opting for a softer, more patient approach to the so-called mayhem. He didn’t have to yank Dajerria by her arm, push her head into the ground, pull her by her hair and complete his abuse with a knee in the back. He could have not let his emotions take over. He could have been a "guardian" instead of a "warrior." This was a pool party.
Essentially, Casebolt could have done his damn job. After I spoke with Jen, Casebolt resigned from the force following the McKinney Police Department's decision to launch an investigation into his questionable conduct.
Anyway, yeah, it looks brutal. It makes your gut reaction -- your initial reaction is to just "Get off that baby girl." That was my reaction, too. Hearing those wails, your momma bear instinct comes out. ... And as far as drawing his gun, if you watch the video slow, and I think it’s at 3 minutes 13 seconds, you can see a kid coming up on his left with his hands near his pockets like he’s gonna pull something. Did the cop feel threatened that he felt like he needed to pull his gun? Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe not. Your gut reaction is to say, "Oh, you don’t pull a gun on teens." But I don’t know. I have no idea.
I was shocked that she tried to justify Casebolt pulling his gun on two people at a pool party, but then it hit me: Jen is a victim of a larger systemic issue. Racism ruins everything it touches, even those privileged by the power dynamic. It probably hasn't even crossed some folks' minds that their views are hurtful and damaging.
This one woman’s comments on Dajerria and the other black kids struck a nerve with me. They reminded me of the first time I was called a “nigger” by a white guy who saw no value in me. They reminded me of when my great-grandmother explained to an 8-year-old me that I was black and that meant I was different. I couldn’t be a kid. I didn’t have any wiggle room to make average, youthful mistakes and grow from them, because blunders can get black people killed. Perceived defiance, like Dajerria’s, has been the catalyst for other controversial police shootings. Who’s to say things couldn’t have escalated this time?
The reality is that black people are all too quickly seen as criminals, aren’t afforded the benefit of doubt and are held to incredibly high standards of personal responsibility that we’ll never attain because as long as our skin is black, we will never meet white standards. We're expected to be a reflection of them, yet flawed white perception is never assuaged. Instead, black behavior is endlessly attacked.
It was a painful conversation. I took a break after getting off the phone with Jen because the rage that consumed me was too much. See, I encounter racism frequently, but Jen’s obliviousness to how her racially biased opinion would make me feel caught me off guard. It was almost like she expected me to understand where she was coming from -- like this was how everyone, including black people, feels about black people. It was so nonchalant and normal for her.
Like I said, Jen is a victim. But what differentiates us is that she's primarily a victim of her own ignorance. She can defeat her prejudice through education, greater awareness and stepping outside of her white comfort. Black people, on the other hand, can’t directly control or change the ignorance that fuels these systems of racial oppression.
Dajerria, the other black teens at the party and black folks in general are in a Catch-22 -- and I don’t know if there’s a way out.