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Black Lives Matter

The Dueling Sides of “Just Comply”

Since the gunning down of Mike Brown in August of 2014, more attention has been brought to the problem of police brutality in America, specifically police brutality directed at unarmed black men and children. While the mainstream narrative prefers to frame this as a “new” problem, it’s really an age-old issue rooted in the severe systematic and institutional racism of America.

Every time I see a new story about violence by police I’m consumed by practical questions of policy and how to combat policy brutality, as well as personal feelings of anger and sadness. Directly after one of these well-publicized murders by the police, the debate ensues about the obligation of citizens to just comply with an officer’s demands. A repetitive rhetoric about the blind authority of the police never fails to surface, and the counter points to this argument follow. With Mike Brown, many people said he should’ve just stepped onto the sidewalk when commanded to do so by the officer. This argument comes from people who falsely believe in the unquestionable authority of the police, but also from those who believe that abuse of authority is just part of the times and that in order to keep yourself safe you have to just comply. The latter reasoning is what leads me to question of how I would handle this with my own child.

From the perspective of a single, adult white woman, it is very easy for me to say I wouldn’t comply. I would demand more information from the police; I would vehemently oppose and outright disobey unjustified commands from an officer.

From the perspective of a single, adult white woman, it is very easy for me to say I wouldn’t comply. I would demand more information from the police; I would vehemently oppose and outright disobey unjustified commands from an officer. But that mentality has been fostered by the fact that I didn’t grow up with images of the police abusing people who looked like me. I didn’t experience police harassment of white women in my neighborhood, and I was never taught through experience, at least not in my childhood years, that the police were a source of threat rather than protection. So yes, it is easy for me to disobey because my life doesn’t stand in the balance every time an officer approaches me. Despite the fact that I’ve never had a pleasant interaction with an officer, my complaints pale in comparison to the consequences that black men face during their encounters with police.

However, as one half of an interracial relationship with a black man, my perspective had to change. The reality is that if I ever have a child, he/she will be another black man and/or woman to police. My child will be treated with the same lack of care for human life as Mike Brown, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Jonathan Ferrell, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland and the countless others not named here. My son could be sent to the best prep schools, be the best behaved of children, but on the day that he/she is walking home from the store with his friend, he is just another brown face to police. So what do I do? What do I tell my children? How do I protect them?

Despite the fact that I’ve never had a pleasant interaction with an officer, my complaints pale in comparison to the consequences that black men face during their encounters with police.

As a parent I want to protect my child by any means necessary. So as a parent my instructions will be the speech that many young black men and women have experienced. “Don’t cause trouble, obey the police, and just comply.” As a lawyer, I’ve even considered giving my teenage child a card that invokes all possible rights and telling them to comply, hand over the card to police and just wait for mom to get there. Unfortunately, I feel like this speech is necessary for the safety of my child because it becomes more and more obvious that every encounter that my biracial child may have with police could be a matter of life and death. So this speech, these instructions, which further invoke fear and accept abuse, feels necessary to protect the life of my child.

As a policy analyst, as an individual trying to assess the current state of affairs in the US, I can’t agree to this speech so easily. I recognize that by giving these instructions, and spreading the “just comply” mentality is accepting a culture of police abuse that I’m not comfortable with. When having this debate with myself, I remember Bernardine Dohrn’s words: “The aspects of patriotism that hush dissent, encourage going along, and sanction comfortable distancing and compliance with what is indecent and unacceptable… those aspects are too fundamental to ignore or gloss over.” I can’t gloss over what it means on a macro level when I encourage compliance and thus ingrain this culture of police abuse in my child.

There are greater consequences, cultural consequences, of long standing endorsement of police abuse when I utter the words “just comply” to my young child. By repeating these instructions I’m endorsing the idea that police have incontestable authority that is to be blindly followed and never disputed; an idea that I passionately oppose. However, no matter how many times I go back and forth with this idea I can never seem to settle on how to protect my child while not pushing an agenda that is counter to everything I deemed to be right or moral. And to be honest, I’m not sure I will ever have the answer to such a high risk situation. At some point, I will have to make whatever I believe to be the best decision for my child.

I’ve gone over these thoughts multiple times and I’ve yet to come to an answer because it seems that no matter the course of action I take, death could be imminent for my child and for the other black and brown children just trying to make it home from the store. Is the cause bigger than my child’s life? Of course not. But by attempting to save his life with “just comply” am I adopting a frame of mind that ensures him, his children and his grandchildren are in danger for decades and centuries to come? I’ve yet to find the balance.

By S. Lorén Trull, Ph.D

I'm a native North Carolinian who currently resides in DC. I hold a JD from UNC School of Law and a PhD in Public Policy from UNC Charlotte. Prior to entering my PhD program I was a defense attorney in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. I'm now a policy analyst and my research focuses on education, immigration, race, gender and inequity.