How many white men watched the beating of Tyre Nichols and thought, “Man, that could have been me?”
Family experiences made that possibility feel very real to me.
My father had an encounter years ago where a rolling stop resulted in a trooper berating him and asking, “If I was beating your head in with this stick, would you want me to slow down or stop?”
My brother had an encounter as he was driving to college. A trooper stopped him and spoke very aggressively until he noticed my brother’s passenger, a white classmate who was going back to West Point with him.
My encounter came as I was leaving work at The Herald newspaper in Rock Hill. The radio in the newsroom had been crackling all night with what sounded like a broad-scale police operation. We all marveled at the level of police activity, even for a Saturday night.
A few weeks earlier I had run into a police officer working a part-time job at a convenience store who told me my brand-new 1994 Ford Probe was a known quantity to law enforcement.
“It’s not a GT,” I said. “It’s just the base model.”
I already knew its “Electric Red” color made it a target.
He replied, “That doesn’t matter. Everybody knows about Mustangs, but those little cars can go, too.”
So there I was, making my way toward Highway 5 in my sporty red Probe when a muscle car pulled up beside me at a stoplight. It had been on my bumper for a couple blocks already. I didn’t look over as it revved its engines, but like most twenty-somethings in a “car that can go,” I anticipated the challenge.
At first, I resisted the invitation of the other car’s rapid acceleration after the light turned green, but then it slowed as if it were asking, What are you waiting for?
I knew from experience the two lanes would quickly change to one after the next stoplight, and I made up my mind to beat the other car to the point the road narrowed. When the traffic light changed to green I stomped on the gas pedal and my car leapt in front. I burst out laughing and looked into my rearview mirror.
A flashing blue light was placed on the car’s dashboard. I pulled into an empty parking lot and jumped from my car.
“You’re not giving me a ticket!” I shouted at the silhouette of the man who stepped from the car. I couldn’t see his face behind all the light.
“Get your ass back in the car!” I saw a glint of a badge as he came closer. The voice was deep. Authoritative. He was Black.
“I know you’re all hopped up on adrenaline from your big sting tonight,” I said, “but I’m not a bad guy. I’m one of the good guys, too. I work at the newspaper.”
“I don’t give a damn where you work!” His hand moved to his holster.
Another car pulled up then, a standard police cruiser with lights and clear markings. A young Black officer got out. He walked straight to me and commanded, “Get back in the car!”
I tried to explain the circumstances, but he was resolute: “You can tell me whatever you want to tell me later, but first, you need to get back in your car.”
I settled into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut. I was angry at being goaded into a possible speeding ticket, frustrated about losing points on my license and the likely increase in my insurance premium, but worst of all was the prospect of having to explain to my parents – especially my father – that I had been pulled over.
The young officer went to the one who’d pulled me over, talked to him, and then walked back to my car. I tried again to explain, but he cut me off.
“We’re going to let you go, but let me tell you something. If you ever get pulled over again, don’t get out of your car like that. We’re trained to see that as a threat, and deadly force becomes an option.”
At that point, my bluster dissipated. I thanked him and left, shaking. Arrest was the worst thing I’d imagined happening, but … I could have been killed. Alone. On an empty street at night. I was just trying to get home.
Like Tyre Nichols.
My story is not unique in my immediate family, my larger family, nor among my group of friends and acquaintances who are Black. Too many Black Americans have had an experience with law enforcement or know someone who had experiences that could have turned tragic.
So I ask, how many white men saw the video of Nichols’ arrest and beating and thought to themselves, “That could have been me” or “That could have been my son?”
Not enough, apparently, because it keeps happening.
Terry E. Manning is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.