My struggle with ‘white silence’

A protester holds a sign outside the Tulsa County Courthouse last year following the announcement that Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby had been charged with first-degree manslaughter in the shooting of Terence Crutcher. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

I was watching the Oklahoma City Thunder game and messing around on Facebook last night when I saw a post made by a former co-worker. I realized pretty quickly that it was newly-released body-camera footage of an incident in Fort Worth, Texas, last month.

What happened that day is relatively well-known. But for the uninitiated, Jacqueline Craig, a 46-year-old black woman called police Dec. 21, 2016, to report that her white male neighbor had assaulted her 7-year-old son. Officer William Martin responded, and learned that the neighbor allegedly assaulted the child because he believed the child had littered.

From there, the interaction was broadcast to Facebook via the platform’s Facebook Live feature.

That video showed Craig telling Martin it didn’t matter if her child littered, because even if it had happened, that wouldn’t give the neighbor permission to touch her son.

“Why not?” Martin asked.

Craig appeared offended by the remark, and the conversation between her and Martin grew heated. Martin eventually threatened to arrest Craig, saying “if you keep yelling at me, you’re going to piss me off and I’m going to put you in jail.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Martin forcefully wrestled Craig to the ground and arrested her, as well as her 19-year-old daughter.

Fort Worth police later dropped the charges against the two women, and suspended Martin without pay during a review of the incident.

I watched that Facebook Live video exactly one time. Which is one time more than I watched the body-camera footage that was released by Craig’s attorneys on Thursday.

Why? When I saw the new recording had been released, I had zero interest in watching it. I’m always shocked and saddened at the inhumanity in some of these recordings, and this incident was no different. I’m fatigued by them. They’ve become the equivalent of sad dog commercials, my heartstrings have been tugged on so often that rather than watch I just change the channel.

So I scrolled past. But then I began to question myself. Is it wrong of me to do that? I’m extremely unlikely to ever face a similar situation, so by ignoring the video am I ignoring its reality? Am I ignoring the pain incidents like that cause and the people they hurt?

A story
When I was in college, I briefly waited tables at a restaurant in Muskogee, which is primarily a blue-collar town. Census data from 2015 list Muskogee as having about an 11 percent black population.

Because of the economic depression happening there, the tips we relied on as servers were always a crapshoot. And despite anecdotes about black people not tipping, it was a crapshoot that crossed boundaries of age and race.

One day I was standing by my empty section and a male co-worker strolled by. The conversation was about nothing important, so I can’t even remember what we started talking about. But I remember where it went. Suddenly, while complaining about a table he had, he dropped the n-word on me.

Jacqueline Craig, left, is seen on body-camera footage recorded by a Fort Worth Police Department Officer last month

It’s amazing how fast the human brain works. I quickly assessed that no one else was around, no one heard the slur but him and me. In my mind, that particular racial slur is the worst thing a person can say and I was shocked by how casually he used it.

He’s white, I’m white, and he assumed that he could not only say it around me but TO me. And he assumed I would not be offended by it.

And while I was offended by it, I chickened out. I said something unrelated and walked away.

And I was immediately ashamed of myself. I realized I’d made the decision to not confront him because no one was around to hear what he said. By not saying anything to him, I felt complicit in his racism, but since it was just between him and me, no one would be able to hold me responsible for his action, or my inaction.

So I consoled myself. Next time that happens, I said, I’ll say something.

Once again
Months later, I was in the kitchen when a female coworker burst in from the front of the restaurant. She was in tears, not just little wet eyes, she was heaving with sobs.

If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, it might surprise you to know how much female servers put up. Unwanted sexual advances from staff and customers are generally part of the routine. I put my arm around her and asked what happened.

She looked toward the restaurant floor and said “those (expletive) (slurs.)”

The entire kitchen paused. A large portion of the staff there was black. Generally speaking, everyone who worked there were friends with each other. Everyone was stunned into silence, and they all stared at her.

And they all stared at me.

I realized that by virtue of her saying that word to me, everyone expected me to respond. She later said the table had been continually rude and were now taking pleasure in making her run all over the restaurant, so much so that she couldn’t keep her other customers happy.

But there was no excuse for what she said. And there was no excuse for what I did next.

“Let me take the table for you,” I said. I’d cash them out and she wouldn’t have to see them again. It was altruistic and it was pitiful and weak.

Again I had been thrust into an act of racism and again I had stood by and done nothing.

Fort Worth video
So I watched the body-camera video and it was just what I feared. Once the officer threatens to arrest Craig, her daughter steps in front of her to get her out of the situation. Martin throws her to the ground and appears to continually escalate a situation where he turned a victim’s entire family into suspects.

What did I learn from watching it? I don’t know, exactly — I guess that despite whatever we want to believe there is still ugliness and oppression that refuses to go away.

But I’m not going to avoid videos like it anymore. Maybe it’s better for my mental health to ignore videos like that, but it’s not better for my humanity. I owe many people an apology for my past inaction, and it’s my resolution to never have to do that again.