When Did He Become a Threat?

“When my son was little, he was so cute that you all wanted to hug him and give him treats. He was such a lovable little boy. Today he is a young man and he is still gentle and lovable. But your perception of him has changed. You see him differently. When did he become a threat?” Speaker at Black Lives Matter vigil in Tucson.

In July, after the shootings in Dallas, we went to a Black Lives Matter vigil in Tucson. I didn’t really want to go; the temperature at 6pm was still about 100 degrees and the desert fire ants are vicious. But my nephew Matt was driving in the next evening; I am white and he is African American. I felt I needed to hear what black people were saying and make a statement with my body by putting it in that vigil.

The woman who spoke about her son was speaking directly to me and her words stayed with me all during Matt’s visit and still resonate.

Philando Castile, the man who was shot during a traffic stop in Minneapolis in early July, had been stopped by the police at least 46 times in the 13 years he had been driving, and he had totaled more than $6000 in fines according to an NPR Report. “Another curious statistic: Of all of the stops, only six of them were things a police officer would notice from outside a car — things like speeding or having a broken muffler.”

So 40 of those stops were random checks that resulted in fines, suspension of license, “crimes of poverty” according to Public Defender Erik Sandvick who “vaguely remembers Castile, but his story is like that of many other clients he’s had. They get tickets they can’t pay, and then they are ticketed over and over for driving with a suspended license or not having insurance.”

And I can hear that mother at the vigil asking, “When did he become a threat?” Because Matt has been stopped by the police in his small town over and over for minor vehicle infractions. Each has resulted in a ticket that is hard for him to pay. Sometimes he had ignored them because he didn’t have the money. And he did not stop driving when he lost his driver’s license for non-payment of these tickets (broken tail light, not making a complete stop, parking violations) because he had to keep driving to get his children to school, go to work, take his mother to doctor’s appointments. Several years ago, his mother called me because she was afraid when he went to court the next day the judge would put him in prison for all of the unpaid tickets.

We dealt with that, and Matt did not go to prison. But I wanted to know about his driving record. What was that about?

Local police have followed Matt when he leaves his home to go to work, to pick his children up at school. Whenever he has been stopped, he is told to get out of the car and put his hands on the roof. He knows enough to not complain, to comply with the officer’s orders. He does not carry his driver’s license in his back pocket, but in plain view on the front seat.

I remember when Matt was born, twenty-seven years ago. I went to be with my sister when he was only a few days old. He had big brown eyes and tight blonde curls. He was fascinated by his hands, as so many babies are, and I was fascinated with his fascination, taking picture after picture as he examined his fingers.

In the years since, Matt has grown into a sweet gentle man. He has three children of his own and nothing is more important to him than his “kiddos” as he calls them. His trajectory in life has not been a straight track, but I am proud of him and what he stands for. His hair isn’t blonde any longer, it’s dark brown and he is six feet tall, handsome.

So when did Matt become a threat? Not while he was driving his children to school. Not when he was going to work. Not when he was taking his mother to the doctor or hospital.

If he is seen as a threat, it is not because of what he is doing. It is because of how the person who feels threatened is seeing him in his black skin. That is the hidden reality of racism.

Judith McDaniel, PhD, JD, teaches Law and Social Change at the University of Arizona. Her book, Sanctuary: A Journey, was published by Firebrand Books in 1986

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