• Stephan Garnett

Driving Us Crazy

Updated: Apr 17, 2021

Buying a new car shouldn’t end with being murdered by a cop.

But that is precisely what almost happened to U.S. Army Lt. Caron Nazario last December.

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock these past few days, Nazario is the Army medic who was pulled over by two Windsor, Va., police officers because his brand-new Chevy Tahoe was missing a rear license plate. Nazario chose to pull over in a brightly lit gas station instead of a dark road, and by the time he got there, he was confronted by two furious police officers, who had drawn their guns while shouting conflicting commands at him.

Nazario has said the reaction of police officers Daniel Crocker and Joe Gutierrez was so frighteningly vehement that he was afraid to exit his car. He literally pleaded with the two policemen to tell him why they were detaining him. His pleas were answered by a death threat and a chemical irritant sprayed in his face.

Fortunately, as in so many instances of police officers abusing people of color, there is video of the incident. And like so many of those videos, it is painful to watch. By the time it ends, Nazario has been forced to the ground and is heard repeating in agonized tones: “This is so fucked up. This is so fucked up.” Because it was!

Once again, we’re seeing in real time what is meant by the expression “driving while Black,” where being stopped by a police officer for a minor traffic infraction can end in sudden and violent death. It is a fear that lives with every Black motorist from the day we first obtain a driver’s license, and it remains with us throughout our lives.

Nazario didn’t have a rear license plate on his brand-new Chevy. Philando Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light. Sandra Bland didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott had a non-functioning brake light. Rayshard Brooks fell asleep in a fast-food line. Daunte Wright had an expired registration. Nazario was abused and terrorized.

Castile, Bland, Scott, Brooks and Wright are all dead.

For the average white American, being pulled over by a cop is usually a minor annoyance that will more than likely end with a traffic ticket and a fine. But for a Black driver, seeing blue lights flash in the review mirror can put your heart in your throat. We don’t know if we’ll survive the encounter.

That’s probably why Caron Nazario chose to drive less than a mile to a well-lighted spot, and it’s a good thing he did. Had he not, we wouldn’t have seen so clearly how hostile and threatening the two police officers were. Worse, if Nazario had ended up dead, we might never have known why.

All of this recalls the extra instructions my father gave to me when he taught me how to drive, at age 15, in case I was ever stopped by the cops: “Pull over as soon as you can, shut off the engine, put down the window, keep both hands in clear view, remain calm, and above all, never show any anger.”

More than five decades later, I still practice that life-saving drill. That could very well be why I’m still alive, and after living and driving in Chicago all of my life, I have indeed been fortunate. I’ve had a Chicago cop shove a loaded gun in my face only once.

I’m sure that before too long, we’ll all start hearing about the defense, not of Nazario, but of the cops. We’ll begin to hear that not all cops are bad, don’t stigmatize them all because of the actions of a few, understand that most cops are good people.

I suppose you can believe that, if you aren’t Black, if you don’t grow up and realize at some point that for Black folks, the police aren’t here to serve and protect us. They’re here to control and confine us. They’re here to serve the “good” people, good being a code word for white, and to protect them from us.

No matter how many times we’re told that there are good cops out there, we seem to have the uncomfortable misfortune of attracting the bad ones, the ones who can’t distinguish between a gun and a cell phone, or who can’t tell the difference between a Taser and a handgun, or who don’t know when to take their knee off a man’s neck.

And I’m just as certain that before long we’ll also start hearing the “he should haves,” as in “he should have stopped immediately” or “he should have done what they told him” or “he should have kept his hands in view” or “he should have gotten out of his car.”

Oh, yes, absolutely! Nazario should have stopped on a dark road, where either he or the police officers could have been struck by another motorist, and where the two needlessly intimidating police officers wouldn’t have seen the temporary tags in the rear window of his new car.

Or he should have done what they told him, which was what exactly? He was ordered to show both his hands and get out of his car. Was he supposed to show his hands while unlatching his seatbelt with his tongue? And maybe he would have gotten out of his car if he hadn’t been convinced that Gutierrez and Crocker, both of whom had drawn their service pistols, were about to blow his head off.

Nazario has filed suit against Crocker and Gutierrez for $1 million in compensatory damages for violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights, and Gutierrez has been fired.

I sincerely hope Nazario wins that suit, and that Crocker is also fired.

At least then, we won’t have to worry about those two cops ultimately murdering someone for the unpardonable crime of “driving while Black.”