Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had some morbid advice for a black college student who asked for advice in dealing with police during a criminal justice forum in South Carolina over the weekend.
At the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College, a student asked Sanders: If I was your son, what advice would you give me for the next time I get pulled over by a police officer? Sanders paused in thought for a few seconds, and then replied:
I would do my best way to identify who that police officer is. In a polite way, ask him or her for their name. I would respect what they are doing so that you don't get shot in the back of the head. But I would also be very mindful of the fact that as a nation, we have got to hold police officers accountable for the actions that they commit.
So to answer your question. I would be very cautious, if you were my son, in terms of dealing with that police officer, but I would also defend my rights and know my rights and make sure, if possible, that police officer's camera is on, what goes on.
This writer's perspective
The problem with this answer is not that he says to respect police — I would hope any good father would advise their son or daughter to do that. The problem is that his answer carries the assumption that every time a black person is pulled over by police, he or she is facing the threat of death.
That kind of rhetoric about a basic traffic stop normalizes the narrative of black men being in constant danger from police, instead of combating it or trying change it. It places the responsibility on the black person to take a posture of subservient respect toward police officers to preserve their lives, rather than placing responsibility on officers to avoid the use of lethal force in unnecessary situations.
A black man who gets pulled over should be respectful of the officer's job. But let's say he isn't. Getting shot in the back of the head shouldn't be a potential consequence of disrespect. Yes, Sanders referred to "accountability" for officers. But accountability doesn't bring back lives. Ask the families of Botham Jean or Atatiana Jefferson.
Conversations about policing reform should not start with what an unarmed or non-threatening minority should have to do not to get shot. They should start with the police, and with preventative measures and training, otherwise we will continue responding to tragedies rather than fixing the problems.