Swimming While Black

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

By Robert C. Koehler

“He came into the call out of control, and as the video shows, was out of control during the incident.”

And cellphone videos continue to unravel America’s “law and order” paradigm. You might almost call it the cellphone revolution, as random video clips keep exposing a dark side of our social order that used to be so easy to deny. YouTube has become the gateway to our collective conscience, such as it is.

Nobody was killed (phew-w-w!) in the latest racism-tinged clip of policing malfeasance to go viral — the disrupted pool party in McKinney, Texas — but once again a disturbing buzz permeates the nation, as . . . huh? . . . a profanity-spewing police officer is shown flinging a teenage girl in a bathing suit to the ground and grinding his knee into her back as he handcuffs her, then pulling out his handgun and waving it menacingly at several teenage boys, also wearing bathing suits and obviously unarmed, all because . . . the (African-American) kids were noisy, and maybe some of them didn’t have permission to be swimming at this particular public pool in a mostly white subdivision?

The usual defenses of such actions — “he was just doing his job” or “they didn’t comply with his orders” — fall short of the mark. The officer, Eric Casebolt, who in 2008 had won his department’s Patrolman of the Year award, was suspended shortly after the video went public and a few days later resigned from the force. His chief, Greg Conley (quoted above), condemned his behavior at the scene; and even the Fraternal Order of Police, generally supportive of every act of police brutality, criticized not the waving of a gun at kids in bathing suits but his “use of profanity.”

None of these official condemnations closes the case. There are too many searing questions raised by this pool-party video for it to be buried and forgotten, and it fits too jarringly into an emerging national context as new as the social media and, at the same time, 400 years in the making: In America, if you’re black, you’re automatically the enemy. If you’re black, you lose. The law is not on your side.

“He came into the call out of control . . .”

That’s a nice way to put it, of course. The mainstream accounts I’ve seen generally describe Casebolt’s behavior in racially neutral language, as though the only factors affecting him were darkly personal; but it sure seems like his actions fit into a long, long tradition of racist policing. That is to say, he went into this call presumably aware that there were lots of African-American teenagers making too much noise at a “white” public pool. Whether or not they “complied” with whatever orders he gave them, he clearly was coming at the situation with brute, intimidating force, not with a sense of calm authority rooted in mutual respect. He came in like a member of an occupying army, not like a public servant. Remember, this was a call about a teenage pool party, not an armed robbery in progress.

When his intimidating tactics failed to create instant submission and “order,” he became, first, physically abusive to a girl in a bathing suit who was, apparently, “running her mouth” with friends; then, with her subdued, he recklessly pointed a gun at some boys standing nearby.

Those defending this behavior are quick to point out how confusing and chaotic such a crowd situation can be. Maybe so, but it’s also true that only the black kids at the party were being handcuffed and otherwise coerced into showing proper respect, seeming to indicate that only the black kids were “the problem.”

“Everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic,” 15-year-old Brandon Brooks, the boy who shot the video — and is white — said in an interview afterward. The police “didn’t even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible.”

And a 13-year-old girl described to CBS Dallas the Catch-22 that black kids were caught in: “I honestly believe it was about race because mostly they did nothing to the Caucasians,” she said. “They were trying to make us leave, but if we ran, they’d chase after us, and if we stayed, then they’d arrest us.”

Steven W Thrasher, writing this week in The Guardian, said: “It made me cry to see how black life is simply illegal in the United States: driving, walking and now swimming while black . . . makes one suspect.”

He also talked about how his father, who grew up in Ohio, learned to swim as an adult because he never had the chance to learn as a child: “As a child in Ohio, he couldn’t learn to swim in the local segregated pool; and, even though he served in the United States Air Force on Johnston Island for a year, he couldn’t swim.

“I see these black kids terrorized around a pool, and I think of the child version of my father being told he couldn’t go to the pool, as well as the young adult Sergeant Thrasher on that dinky island in the South Pacific afraid because he couldn’t swim.”

Such a memory begins to cloak the McKinney pool party video in a context that is oh, so large, and mostly ignored or dismissed by non-black America. White supremacy — remember that? It’s still with us. “On your face!” it shouts. Its fingers still caress the triggers of guns.

It’s the evil twin of American exceptionalism. It’s why we go to war — in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia, in the suburbs of Dallas.