Fortunately, the officer was finally released, though certainly not unharmed. Also fortunately, he is suing the officers involved for violations of his civil rights, which is the only way that we even know this happened.
Of course, we have to ask ourselves what might have happened if he hadn’t chosen to drive to a well-lit place before pulling over. What would have happened if he hadn’t video-recorded the incident on his phone? What would have happened if there hadn’t been functioning body cameras on the police officers?
We’ve seen this movie way too many times before, and it's heartbreaking to even have to imagine what might have happened had he not taken those precautions.
When I first heard of the incident, I was immediately reminded of a story about another Black US. Army lieutenant and his confrontation with authorities. In 1944, a U.S. Army lieutenant boarded an Army bus at Fort Hood, a base located in Texas -- and named after a Confederate general, by the way.
The lieutenant sat in the front of the bus to talk with a fellow officer's wife. The bus driver demanded that he move to the back of the bus. He refused. Military police arrested him. He was court-martialed and spent the next two months fighting the court-martial. He was eventually acquitted, but was unable to deploy to Europe with his unit. He knew he couldn’t give in because he was fighting for a bigger cause.
That man was Jackie Robinson, the man who only three years later would desegregate professional baseball as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and change the world of sports -- and so much of society -- forevermore.
I know the story well because Jackie Robinson was my father’s all-time favorite baseball player. The story was fresh in my mind because I had just shared it with my company as part of our learning day for Black History Month, when we watched films that raised key themes related to fighting racism.
I watched “One Night in Miami,” a powerful story trying to imagine the conversations Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X might have had in the hours they spent together in a small Miami motel after Ali knocked out Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight boxing title. I was taken aback by how incredibly hard they worked, each in his own special way, to effect change in society -- and how each of their efforts were misunderstood by so many.
I also mentioned how, 15 years ago, I had a chance to watch a baseball game with someone who had been part of the Dodger organization for a small period of the time that Robinson played. I’d told the baseball exec how a 17-year-old high-schooler in a small town in western Pennsylvania -- my father -- had sent a letter to Robinson in 1950, asking him to circulate the letter among his teammates for autographs, and then send it back to him.
When he heard the beginning of my story, the baseball exec was dismissive, suggesting that the Robinson he’d known then certainly wasn’t going to take that kind of trouble for somebody else -- implying that Robinson was too inwardly focused to worry about a request from a kid sending random fan mail.
When the exec said that, I wondered how this person could even begin to question Jackie Robinson’s commitment to others. Maybe he was quiet and introspective around the team, but his whole life had been devoted to fighting and winning battles for hundreds of millions of others.
Robinson, like the group of Black icons in Miami featured in that movie, did so much for so many -- and still ended up being misunderstood by so many.
That another black U.S. Army lieutenant has to endure institutional racism and violence almost 80 years after Robinson did is tragic. He would expect we would have done much more to make things better by now.
By the way, counter to that skeptical baseball exec’s belief, Robinson did circulate the letter, collecting more than a dozen signatures from the 1950 Brooklyn Dodgers team, and sending it back to the adoring teenager in Pennsylvania. I am lucky enough to have it to this day.