Protests Herb column

Hundreds march along Truxtun Avenue to return to the evening vigil in front of Bakersfield police headquarters on Tuesday evening. The message from these protests and gatherings is clear, according to columnist Herb Benham: “We are mad. We are human and our lives have value.”

Normally, I don’t do this kind of column. Not because I am above or below the subject matter but because other people are better at it and make it their life’s work. I’d like to think, though I may be kidding myself, that I traffic in light, love and humor.

However, it’s time. At the risk of sounding like I am running for president, we can do better, we are better and, if not, we should do better.

I’m talking about George Floyd, the black man who was killed recently in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin, who kept his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Chauvin has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder and the country has been in turmoil since.

After listening to the sheriff's helicopters in our downtown neighborhood for four straight nights, this time seems different from the protests and unrest that have preceded it. This feels like a Howard Beale moment in “Network,” a scene that bears watching right now. During his rant he says, “I want you to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I am a human, (expletive), and my life has value.’”

I don’t want to scold anybody. Call anybody out. If I scolded or called out, I’d have to do it to myself because most of us share this responsibility. We are a team and we move the ball forward together.

Not scolding and calling out goes for the police, too. Theirs is a hard job. Most of us wouldn’t make it past lunch. However, we and they can do better.

What many of us forget — “many” in this case meaning white people — is that it’s no picnic being black in this country and especially a black male when it comes to law enforcement. Even worse, a young black male.

The anecdotal evidence is astounding. You don’t have to be young, poor and black because the list of celebrities, athletes, lawyers, doctors, teachers, you name it, who have been pulled over, interrogated, harassed and often spread-eagled against the hood of a car is extensive. More people are on that list than not on it.

For a moment, put yourself in their shoes. It’s humiliating, infuriating and depressing. I am ready to go bonkers when I get bad service in a restaurant or when somebody comes too close to me when I’m on a bike. Most of those experiences are one-offs rather than one on and on and on.

I emailed two black friends. One is in his late 50s who has worked for the same company for 30 years, raised kids, loved his late wife and taken care of his grandchildren. The other is an attorney in his mid-30s. I asked if they had ever been hassled by law enforcement, or as they call it, “driving while black.”

First, a response from the young black lawyer: “The majority of my dealings with police have been positive, or deserved (like a speeding ticket). I would say that I have had five unwarranted and downright bad experiences with police where I had to seriously question whether they did it because I was black. They were rude, and aggressive when it was not warranted, and during those times I was not behaving in a manner that justified their treatment of me.

“Of 10 black friends, I would say eight have had an experience that was not good. Eight friends who were not in the wrong. I mean the police treated them much differently than other citizens with a different skin color.”

Sent from my second friend: “Yes, it happened to me twice. Once in Los Angeles and here in Bakersfield. Most of my friends have been stopped and let go. The number would be about 8 out of 10 who have experienced it.”

•••

Recently, I was driving my almost-40-year-old truck in the tony end of our neighborhood. The truck was dinged and dirty and I didn’t look much better. I looked behind me and noticed a patrol car tailing me.

It was odd. Being tailed in a neighborhood where I have lived for more than 30 years. Doesn’t he know I run this place?

After a few blocks, he turned off and I continued. For a few seconds, I got a small taste, with the emphasis both on “small” and “taste,” of what it felt like to be profiled. Had I been anything other than lily white, the situation could have been more complicated.

I don’t support the violence that has come with the latest demonstrations nationwide, but the message with the beating drums that are accompanying the protests is clear: “We are mad. We are human and our lives have value.”

Contact The Californian’s Herb Benham at 661-395-7279 or hbenham@bakersfield.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays; the views expressed are his own.

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