Under The Bridge: Fear and Peace in the Face of Lethal Force

This afternoon I visited a local park to rest for a minute after my lunch break. The Old Mill Dam is a beautiful spot on the north end of Terre Haute, where the Otter Creek flows over the rocks and remains of an antique grist mill. Near the park is a rail road bridge covered in graffiti. I sat down just beneath the eye in the above picture for a moment of peace and quiet when I heard the railroad crossing bells start ringing.

I thought about getting up and moving to a spot where I felt safer but something compelled me to stay where I was. It only took about 3 or 4 minutes for the train to pass, and I knew that there was only a tiny possibility of facing harm, but when I checked the heart rate on my new fitness watch it had jumped from about 75 bpm to 105 bpm. Just a few minutes after it passed an older black gentleman named James brought a folding chair, a couple of fishing rods, and a five gallon bucket to sit down and fish next to me. I told him about the fear I had experienced while the train passed over my head and he said, “Oh they don’t bother me at all, I grew up right across the street from a set of tracks!”

He let me turn his five gallon bucket upside down and sit next to him for a few minutes as he fished. We talked for a while about his family and as I walked to my car I found myself thinking about how differently people can experience the same event. I occasionally joke with my wife that during my deployment to Iraq in 2004 there were times when I didn’t feel any fear, but now when I look back I know I definitely should have! My lack of fear was not due to any sort of inherent bravery, it was a direct result of my ignorance or momentary forgetfulness regarding how dangerous the situation actually was.

Our unit was stationed at the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison and one of our first missions was to escort buses for prisoner releases. I was told that it was US policy to release prisoners within a certain distance of their hometowns, but the bus drivers who were contracted and paid based on the mileage of these trips were driving out of sight of the prison and forcing the prisoners off. We were then given the task of taking a few Humvees to escort several large buses to there destinations. I rode in the turret as my squad leader drove us across hundreds of miles of Iraqi highways and I rarely felt any fear of IED’s or ambushes, even though both were a constant threat.

I’m explaining this because fear would have been a reasonable response given the factual information about my circumstances. Which is why it bothers me so deeply when I hear men and women doubt the stories of black people who try to communicate the fear they experience during routine encounters with the police. This short video from Vox shows 10 charts outlining the facts regarding the disparities between black people and white people during law enforcement interactions. For a slightly longer and more detailed video check out Phil Vischer’s (yes the Veggie Tales guy) Race In America here. For many people the presence and authority of the police is a comforting reality, and that makes it even harder to understand how someone else could fear something which brings us peace.

The only type of fear I have experienced during a traffic stop is the fear that I’m going to be given a ticket, but I have no reason to doubt the stories of people I love and respect who tell me they have been afraid when pulled over by the police. When a person encounters a force powerful enough to take their life, whether its a police officer with a gun, an improvised explosive device, or a 5,700 ton locomotive, fear is a natural reaction. Now if you combine that with the statistics cited above, and the stories of abuse told by countless men and women of color, then there’s no reason why we all shouldn’t be trusting them and working together to find ways to reform our police departments and make our communities more peaceful for everyone.

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