My two adult children got an interesting lesson this week. They are white and privileged — in a middle-class, west county sort of way — and they learned this week what it’s like when the police refuse to listen to you, when the police hold your life cheap and hold up the person who threatened you as the real victim, and then paint you — armed only with your measly little candle for your candlelight vigil—as the aggressor.
As you may have guessed, my son and daughter and her boyfriend were at the Black Lives Matter candlelight march in downtown Santa Rosa on Saturday, when a woman in a white Porsche SUV first slowed before a socially distanced sea of protesters bearing candles and then accelerated into the heart of the crowd.
The police reported that she attempted to drive along the side of the road to avoid the protesters — the videos (there are four of them) show otherwise. The police reported that she tried not to hit anyone. That may be true, but that's not how it felt to the people diving for safety or to the teenage boy on a bike who was hit or to the mother who grabbed up her child and threw him out of the SUV's path. (These are based on firsthand accounts of multiple witnesses that I interviewed.) Reckless driving is still a crime.
My daughter said the screaming was so loud she assumed at first that it was a mass shooting, until she saw the car bearing down on her and the other protesters and thought, “I guess this is how I die.”
She looked down at her hand. All it held was a flyer. Next to her, a young man picked up his bike and threw it at the car; it bounced off like a wad of paper, she said, only to be crushed beneath the wheels.
The car missed them by two or three feet as it barreled onward toward another group of panicking protesters further on.
All of this lasted just seconds.
Here’s the good news: no one died.
But that isn’t thanks to the woman behind the wheel, whose first instinct — was it road rage or mere impatience that then turned into panic? — was to plough two tons of steel into a field of fragile human bodies.
And then she stopped a few blocks on, where a bicyclist who had followed her from the protest, punched her in the face.
Then, undoubtedly feeling deeply wronged, she picked up her mobile phone and dialed the police to report that she had been assaulted and her car vandalized.
And that’s what the police reported in their Nixle release, under the title “Vehicle Vandalism and Assault during Planned Protest.” They even published a photo of the damage to her car. Poor car!
She has not been charged with any crime, and the police are refusing to release her identity.
And then the media, taking its cue from the police department Nixle, repeated this story ad infinitum. “Nurse Punched After Protesters Say She Drove Into Crowd.” (As a headline writer, I just have to remark that the word “say” here is doing quite a lot of work. Protesters didn’t just “say” she drove into the crowd. Two hundred people saw her do it. Four of them filmed it. This isn’t the moment to use “say” unless of course, you want to throw some shade.)
It’s unfortunate that this incident brought together two well-worn stereotypes — that black people are violent and nurses are angels – in such a way that the reality of the situation — a woman driving heedlessly through a group of people as they leapt out of the way — was difficult to discern.
Imagine the opposite scenario — a black man speeding through a sea of, say, Trump supporters. Imagine the sympathy of the police as they listen to his story of how frightened he was surrounded by these violent and hostile protesters. Imagine them letting him go with no charges.
Are you having trouble imagining that? That’s why they call it white privilege.
When protest observer Caitlin Childs’ post about the incident was picked up on the West County News Feed on Facebook, the comments were disheartening. Most blamed the protesters for being in the street in the first place, suggesting they got what they deserved, as if street protesting, nay jaywalking, had suddenly become a capital crime, and that was OK with them.
“Heartbreaking that in 2020 my own neighbors here in these comments feel that peacefully blocking a street is grounds for manslaughter,” wrote Evan Wiig, who was also at the protest. He then posted a video of Martin Luther King marching in the street in 1965. No doubt many drivers were inconvenienced that day.
So what’s the lesson my children learned from their experience? It was crystal clear to both of them that they were getting just the tiniest bitter taste of what Black Americans have dealt with their whole lives at the hands of America’s white majority: the disbelief, the suspicion, the assumption that you were somehow to blame no matter the weight of the evidence (in this case, the testimony of 200 protesters versus that of the one driver), and, most galling, the suggestion that you, with your white candle or the flickering flame on the screen of your iPhone, were somehow the aggressor, the violent one, the threat, the other.
It’s a lesson they won’t soon forget.
Laura Hagar Rush is the editor of Sonoma West Times & News.