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Last week, actress Daniele Watts was detained by LAPD police officers in what is considered to be a racially charged incident in which she and her boyfriend, Chef BeLive, were caught getting a little too hot and heavy in BeLive’s car outside of CBS Studios.
Both Watts and her boyfriend took to their respective Facebook pages to express their frustration with the situation arguing that the officers in question asked loaded questions suggesting BeLive was a John and Watts a cheap prostitute dumb enough to service a client in a car outside of a major network studio. Watts was cuffed and put into the back of the cop car after she refused to show the cops her ID and proceeded to call her dad while walking away from the scene and the police.
From her Facebook status update:
As I was sitting in the back of the police car, I remembered the countless times my father came home frustrated or humiliated by the cops when he had done nothing wrong. I felt his shame, his anger, and my own feelings of frustration for existing in a world where I have allowed myself to believe that “authority figures” could control my BEING… my ability to BE!!!!!!!
What Watts fails to emphasize is the fact that she declined to give the officers her ID after they had asked her for it, and that the police were responding to a complaint. They didn't randomly identify Watts and BeLive. Someone—perhaps the man from a nearby office building who had told the couple to "stop putting on a show"—had called to report their inappropriate behavior.
More from her Facebook page:
“NO POLICE OFFICER OR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL IS MORE POWERFUL THAN ME. WE ARE EQUALS.”
While I agree with this sentiment in theory, in practice it's just not true. We live in the age of "corporate personhood" and Citizens United. The individual is more powerless than ever and to argue otherwise is to be in denial about the ways of the world.
Watts would have saved herself a lot of trouble, not to mention a cut wrist and a panic attack, had she just done what BeLive did and provided the officers with her ID. If she really felt abused after cooperating with the police, she should have filed a police misconduct report.
Like many black women, when I first read this story I was outraged because I thought the cops were being racist, but after I stopped shaking my fist I realized so much embarrassment could have been avoided had Watts remained calm. Did she have every right to be upset? Absolutely. Do I feel that things would have been different had the couple not been interracial? Not really. Should she have walked away from the scene when the officers were still standing there? No.
Typically, I am the first person to criticize the police, but in this case they weren't wrong, they were just doing their job. Trying to argue with cops is pretty pointless, which is why Mayor Bill de Blasio recently encouraged citizens “not to resist arrest” because it only makes matters worse. Gawker equated the Mayor’s stance to victim blaming and pointed out a number of examples where suspects were not resisting arrests but had been brutalized by police anyway.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen—it most certainly does. What I’m saying is that in the case of Watts and BeLive, the cops were responding to a complaint, and it’s their job to do so. Her reaction has provoked many inspiring conversations about race and gender, which is ultimately a good thing, but at the end of the day Watts is the one who made a mistake.
I am not a police apologist and I’m not trying to excuse their behavior. I have seen firsthand what police brutality and disregard for Black bodies looks like. The police are here to protect, but they often end up humiliating us and harming us instead. I will be the first to admit that I don’t trust cops. I don’t think they are trained to work with and protect people, they are trained to (try to) stop people from breaking the law—and in this day in age they are willing to use any means necessary. It’s frightening to think of this as a reality, but it’s hard to look at it any other way considering the deaths that happen at the hands of police officers far too often.
This brings me back to Watts: Protect yourself. If you go up against a cop in the ring, you’re not going to win. Arguing with police officers isn't going to fix anything. It's a dead end. Report police misconduct when you encounter it, and exercise your first amendment right to free speech instead. These are by no means guaranteed solutions, but at least they are rational ones.
Lauretta Charlton is an editor at Complex. She dislikes passive-aggressive behavior and tweets at @laurettaland.