Alan Zendell, April 14, 2021
Amid the seemingly endless shootings of men of color by police, it would be easy to dismiss last December’s traffic stop by two Windsor, Virginia police officers as a minor incident – after all, no black people were shot or killed. But it stands out for different reasons. The motorist brutalized by one of the police officers wasn’t a kid, a drug addict, or a person of interest to the police for any reason. Caron Nazario is a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army Medical Corps who was returning from work in uniform with his dog on the back seat. He was stopped for driving his new SUV without a license plate, because the car dealer had taped his temporary plate to the back window and neither of the cops noticed it.
A simple misunderstanding, right? And it would have been if, for example, the driver had been a pretty blonde woman or a white man in a business suit. Instead, despite visible and audible attempts by Lt. Nazario to respectfully de-escalate the situation, he and his dog were pepper sprayed four times while he sat with his hands out the window in plain sight, strapped into his seat. As we see and hear in bodycam videos, the officer who over-reacted was angry because Nazario refused to leave his vehicle with guns pointed at him until someone told him why he had been pulled over. The officer was fired after Virginia Governor Northam and the Windsor police chief initiated an internal investigation. Lt. Nazario has filed a law suit against the officers involved.
Compared to the cases of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, that almost sounds like justice, but it’s not. When I read about this incident, I was watching a celebration of Jackie Robinson Day, which commemorates Robinson’s first game as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947. I was only four on that day, but over the next few years I saw Robinson play at Ebbets Field and learned about what life was like for a Negro hero in post-war America. Like Nazario, Robinson had been a second lieutenant in the Army during the war, though he had to overcome discrimination in the segregated Army to be accepted into Officer Candidate School. And despite a spotless record as an officer, he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Texas. Although an all-white panel of judges acquitted him, that ended his military career.
What Robinson, and seventy-three years later, Nazario deal with every day of their lives was brilliantly portrayed in the film, 42. In a powerful scene, Harrison Ford (as Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey) tells Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) why the Dodgers selected him from dozens of Negro ballplayers to break the color line. He explains that there were many candidates as talented as Robinson, but Robinson’s history of self-restraint in the face of bigotry and discrimination were what set him apart. Rickey told Robinson that he could only be successful if he never fought back no matter how he was treated.
Three quarters of a century later, the message for every non-white citizen who is involved in a police incident is the same. Remain docile and subservient, follow all instructions instantly, and be respectful no matter what they throw at you. In the cases of Floyd and Wright, even that wasn’t enough to save their lives, which explains why Lt. Nazario drove to a well-lighted gas station before stopping his vehicle.
Like the racists who threw obscenities at Robinson in the media and on the field, it’s clear from the bodycam videos in the Nazario case that the officers who assaulted and tortured Nazario (and his innocent dog) with pepper spray, did not consider Nazario someone worthy of basic human rights. They treated a U. S. Army officer who had done nothing wrong like a piece of trash, and clearly felt entitled to do so.
I have no illusions about how prevalent that kind of behavior has always been in many police departments. Still, the recent wave of such incidents makes me believe this is yet another piece of the sad legacy left by Donald Trump. It’s almost as if his violent, divisive rhetoric was interpreted as permission to behave that way openly, much like inciting the crowds last December and January was heard by right wing extremists as an invitation to come out of the closet and bring their weapons to Capitol Hill.
The worst part of this may be the innocent victims we fail to notice. The police who care, who do their jobs faithfully and protect the rest of us from harm suffer whenever something like this happens. They deserve our respect and admiration. I make it a point to thank every police officer I meet for being there.