Ryan Coogler’s police encounter at bank proves doing the right thing isn’t protection enough

OPINION: Touré writes that while the teller and cops involved in Coogler's detainment were Black, the incident shows that implicit biases and racist perceptions don’t live solely inside of white people.

Director Ryan Coogler
Director Ryan Coogler attends the 19th Annual AFI Awards at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on January 4, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed. The views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

I am enraged watching footage of Ryan Coogler, the superstar Hollywood director, being handcuffed inside of a bank that he patronizes, while asking for money that he earned after presenting state-issued identification.

Despite all of that, the Black bank teller assumed that he was there to rob the bank and called the police. This is yet another example of how Black men strike fear in others—or activate fear in them. We move through the world being perceived as criminals even if we’re not. Many of us overdress, smile quickly, and try to create a vibe that puts others at ease because we know that Blackness and maleness can create fear and when it does it can become our problem.

When I was a teenager my parents told me that if I were to ever become enraged in public, it could create fear in someone else who could then alert the police. Being angry, they said, could cost you your life. I learned to suppress my anger and to this day it’s hard for me to bring it out even if I try. But even still,l I have to fear other people’s fear of me and that fear can come out no matter what I do because the Coogler situation also reveals a more frightening truth—doing all of the right things is not necessarily protection enough. 

You can speak calmly, you can be patient, pleasant, and personable, you can be respectably dressed—all of which Coogler was—and even still you can be seen as criminal and treated as one. Respectability politics does not work.

“Respectability politics” is the notion that if we present ourselves the way the dominant culture wants us to—if we dress like them, talk like them, think like them—then we’ll be accepted by them. No—we can do all the right things and still be seen as criminal. Or, we can get all the right degrees and wear the right suit and speak the King’s English and still not get what we deserve in our career.

But what’s even more disappointing about the Coogler situation is that we expect these sorts of racist perceptions to flow from white people and for some reason, we don’t expect them from Black people. But we should.

Many people have been quick to point out that the bank teller who called the police is Black. And the police officers who detained Coogler are Black. How, they ask, could this be an example of racism, when the situation only has Black people in it? Sigh. OK, all the people who are in the room when Coogler is judged to be a criminal and is treated like one are Black but that room is not a free-floating space in the universe. That room exists inside of America. Everyone in that room enters it having endured years and years of American programming that teaches them to link Blackness with criminality. Even the Black people in that room have been taught that.

Implicit biases and racist perceptions don’t live solely inside of white people. They can get trapped inside Black people, too, and we may not even fully realize it. And when people get afraid, when they think they might be about to be robbed or attacked, their ability to think rationally ends. Even Black people sometimes see other Black people and clutch their pearls in fear. Black people can and do form perceptions based on racist messages received from white people.

A bank teller tweeted at me this morning to say that back when she was being trained as a teller, they were shown examples of criminals who might attack the bank and all of the examples were Black. No one explicitly told her to watch out for Black people — and they didn’t have to. They just planted the notion that Black people might be a problem someday. Surely, the training program was designed by white people, and their messages seeped into Black people who were tasked with running and protecting the bank based on ideas implanted by white people.

Black people are not magically free from implicit bias, we are captured by it. 

CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 10: Director Ryan Coogler attends the photocall for Rendezvous with Ryan Coogler during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 10, 2018 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

I would hope that Black people could be strong enough to say “wait a minute, let’s make sure this is a robbery before calling the police,” but they were not. I would hope that Black cops would be smart enough to say, “wait a minute, let’s make sure this is a robbery before putting someone in handcuffs.” You know, the sort of due diligence that would probably be extended to white people.

But Black people are too often guilty until proven innocent. These Black officers detained Coogler even though he wasn’t committing a crime and they didn’t even pause to determine if he was. They pulled guns on him first. Surely these weren’t those “good cops” people talk about because good cops wouldn’t have detained him at all. Good cops would have properly assessed the situation and insisted on knowing that a crime was being committed before detaining him. These cops didn’t shoot him and they didn’t body slam him and they did speak calmly with him after they realized their mistake but no these, too, are bad cops who assumed Coogler was a criminal and proceeded accordingly.

I use the good/bad cop dichotomy only to mock the notion that there are good and bad cops. There are not. There is a system of policing that directs and incentivizes officers to make arrests and a system that strongly encourages them to find those arrests in Black neighborhoods and among Black citizens. Black officers aren’t free from the constraints of this system and, in many cases, they must overperform within it to prove that they’re not giving Black people leniency. 

Good policing, as well as good banking, would have meant Coogler walked out of the bank on his own. One of those Black people should’ve said “wait a minute, let’s make sure we’re right before we arrest this man.” I bet all of the Black people in the situation, from the teller to the cops, have seen Black Panther but even though Coogler’s a wealthy man and a famous person, when he walked into the Bank of America and handed the teller a note saying he wanted to withdraw money from his account, he was treated like a common criminal. And this isn’t abnormal. It’s just another day in America. 

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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