Lesson №1 for Being a Black American, Don’t Call the Police When You’re in Trouble

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Atatiana Jefferson was shot dead by police in her home. (YouTube)

wasn’t born in America. I immigrated here when I was 21, after living in Nigeria and Britain. But I consider myself to be part of the African American community. In fact, until I open my mouth and speak with a British accent, you wouldn’t know I’m not a native African American.

However, living in America as a black person means you have to learn to live by certain rules. These rules can literally save your life. You learn to be very careful about driving while black. I learned to always try to have my papers correct and with me, because you’re going to be pulled over. It’s even worse if you drive a high-end car. I have friends who drive Mercedes-Benzes and they always get shadowed by the police.

I had a situation where a family member had an emotional meltdown and was preventing medical workers from helping another family member. I thought about calling the police, but then I remembered all the stories I had written about black people who have called the police, to help deal with a family member with a mental issue, only for officers to show up and kill the person with gunfire!

Another rule is to be wary of the police. Being black in America means you learn not to see the police as your friend. And if there’s a problem in your home, you often don’t call them. More than 30 years ago, the rap group Public Enemy made a song called “911 is a Joke,” which talked about the futility of calling the police for help.

I’ve used this lesson several times in my life. Many years ago, when I was young and stupid, I dated a girl who got physically abusive. She attempted to hit me and even threw a space heater at me, (an incident I included in my stand-up act.) But I didn’t call the police. One of my co-workers said I should have contacted the authorities. I said, “If I called the police and told them the situation, they probably would have arrested me.”

Another time I had a situation where a family member had an emotional meltdown and was preventing medical workers from helping another family member. I thought about calling the police, but then I remembered all the stories I had written about black people who have called the police, to help deal with a family member with a mental issue, only for officers to show up and kill the person with gunfire!

A similar situation happened recently with the terrible death of Fort Worth, Texas resident Atatiana Jefferson, an aspiring medical doctor. A neighbor noticed her door was ajar late in the night and called the police to investigate. Police officer Aaron Dean showed up and shot Jefferson dead within four seconds of arriving on the scene. She was killed while she was playing video games in her own home — in front of her nephew. This is the seventh police shooting of a black resident in Fort Worth this year. (The police report claims Jefferson pointed a gun at the police. But Dean never announced his presence and Texas is an open-carry state.)

Now James Smith, Jefferson’s neighbor, regrets his actions. Should he have called the police? He was trying to do the right thing but now a young woman is dead and she would probably be alive if that call hadn’t been made.

“If I had not called the police to do a welfare check, my neighbor would still be alive,” said Smith in an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This reminds me of a story I read about a black transgender man, who had transitioned from female to male. He called the police to his home for an incident and was shocked to see them show up with guns pointed at him. His neighbors admonished him for calling the police in the first place. I guess he hadn’t learned the rules of being a black man in America yet.

A recent ABC News story detailed Jefferson’s community’s lack of trust in the police.

Yashunn Hale, a neighborhood resident, said he would be reluctant to call the police.

“It’s not that I’m scared of the police, but you just don’t know who you’re going to catch on the wrong day,” he said.

I don’t blame him.

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Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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