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What to Do When You See a Black Person Stopped By the Cops: A Step-by-Step Guide for White People

Last week when I was on a walk with my son, my heart dropped as we rounded a corner and I saw a police car pulled into a nearby apartment complex. I live in a neighborhood with many Black folks, and I knew there was a very good chance the person this officer was interacting with might be Black.

I knew I had to 1) go check if the person dealing with the cops was Black and therefore possibly in danger, and 2) do whatever I could to ensure that the interaction was peaceful.

But I had no idea what to do.

I almost turned around and went home out of sheer anxiety of doing something wrong, upsetting someone, making things worse, etc. But in my heart of hearts, I knew that wasn’t really an option. If I turned around and went home and later found out that yet another Black person had been murdered in my own neighborhood and I didn’t do anything, I would never forgive myself.

My First Time Intervening

Overall, it was a very clumsy interaction and I wasn’t convinced I did everything I could/should have. Shaking slightly, I walked toward the situation and saw a Black woman in her van with her kids while a white cop wrote up a report in his cruiser. She was on the phone, but I approached the van anyway and asked if she wanted me to stay just to make sure things stayed civil. She said she thought things were alright and I said I just wanted to make sure she felt safe, and then I turned and left.

The whole way home, I kept running through things I should have done differently. Should I have insisted that I stay? What if my presence made things worse? What if having yet another white person around didn’t exactly make her feel safer? But what if she really wanted me to stay and didn’t know how to say so?

My White Friend: An Anti-Racism Education Nonprofit

I honestly had no idea what the answers to any of these questions were, and Google wasn’t very helpful, but I was not about to pester Black folks with my questions. I am an intelligent person, I can find ways to educate myself, and I did through a seriously amazing nonprofit called My White Friend. Essentially, this is a texting service that allows people to ask white and non-Black POC questions about race and justice so that they don’t have to pester their Black friends to educate them. It is not the responsibility of the oppressed to explain oppression to the oppressor, and My White Friend is helping take some of the burden off Black folks to help white people understand racism.

When I got home from our walk, I texted their number and a very kind volunteer talked with me about what happened and directed me to the resources that actually made this post possible. Here’s a snippet of our conversation (shared with permission):

Text conversation with My White Friend anti-racism organization

So, thanks to the resources provided by My White Friend (linked in the section below), I have created a step-by-step guide to help white people be better allies and accomplices in the fight against racism and police brutality against Black folks. Here is what you should do if you encounter a Black person stopped by the cops.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Your White Privilege to Protect Black Folks Interacting With the Cops

  1. Pay attention to the cops. If you’re white like me, you’ve probably never really had to pay attention to the police before. There is next to no police presence in predominantly white suburbs, and even when cops are around, they don’t seem to notice me at all. In return, I rarely notice them. But it’s time to start paying attention so we can hold them accountable and protect Black folks. The first step in using your white privilege to protect Black folks who are interacting with the cops is to notice these situations.
  2. Do not engage with the police, simply ask the Black person if they feel safe. This is what I should have asked instead of “Do you want me to stay?” My original question puts focus on me, and the Black person may say they’re fine just to avoid being any trouble. Instead, center the conversation on their feelings and ask if they feel safe.
  3. Double-check if they say yes. If they say they feel safe, ask “Are you sure?” In scary situations, people often revert back to their social niceties programming which forbids them from being a burden to anyone ever. It’s possible that they simply told you they’re fine out of habit, and when you ask again, you give them the chance to really think about whether it would make them feel safer to have you stay.
  4. If they’re sure that they feel safe, leave. It’s tempting to play the white savior and stick around no matter what, but you have to consider that having another white person involved may not make a Black person interacting with the cops feel safer. Also, if the interaction with the officer is going well, that could change with the presence of a bystander. Remember, this is not about you. It is about protecting Black lives, and respecting the wishes of Black folks in situations that they probably understand far more intimately than you do.
  5. If they say no, stay until the cops leave. If the person does not feel safe, then you need to stay with them until the cops are gone. Simply sit or stand nearby. If the cops know they are being watched by a white person, they may be less likely to commit blatant acts of violence.
  6. Know the rights of people who are stopped by the police so you can record and report any rights violations. I honestly have no idea what my rights are when stopped by a cop because even though I don’t love being pulled over, I’ve always trusted the police to treat me fairly. But if it wasn’t clear before these protests, it’s clear now: the police are definitely not guaranteed to treat people fairly, especially Black folks. So check out this incredibly helpful article from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on your rights when stopped by the police and help enforce those rights for Black folks. If you notice rights violations, take down the officer’s badge number and try to record as much as you can (more info in the next point).
  7. If the cops seem agitated, keep your distance and do not interfere, but start recording with your phone. Each state has different specific laws on recording cops, but unless you live in Massachusetts or Illinois, as long as they are on-duty and you are not physically interfering with their police work, your right to record is protected by the 1st Amendment. However, this doesn’t mean the cops will honor this, so you should turn off facial recognition and record without unlocking your phone. Also, police cannot search your phone or legally force you to delete a recording without a warrant from a judge. Know your rights, expertly outlined in this article from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
  8. If worst comes to worst, place your body between the cops and the Black person. Statistics show that cops are far less likely to shoot a white person than a Black person, so you can protect people simply by being in the way. Just know that doing this may count as “physically interfering” and you could be arrested or harmed. Obviously this is a risk, but it may save a life.

Normalize Protecting Black Lives

So that’s my step-by-step guide, but before you can do any of these things, you have to be brave enough to engage with the situation. Heaven knows I almost wasn’t brave enough, because it’s really hard. Partially because I am an incredibly anxious person, but I also think it’s hard because internalized white privilege has taught me that most cops are good and I should always assume the best of them.

But I am no longer suffering under that delusion.

Now, I recognize the police force as an institution rooted in racism and violence. Even if I encounter a perfectly civil interaction between a police officer and a Black person, I have seen in countless videos over the last month that show how quickly and arbitrarily that can change. And I know it is my responsibility to use my privilege to keep that from happening if I can.

Have you stepped in to protect Black folks in your neighborhood? Have you wanted to stop after seeing police interacting with Black folks but weren’t sure what to do? Let me know if this guide was helpful, and don’t forget to subscribe by entering your email in the box to the right for more posts on social justice, mental health, and more.

4 thoughts on “What to Do When You See a Black Person Stopped By the Cops: A Step-by-Step Guide for White People”

  1. Absolutely essential guide and I’m so glad you introduced us to “My White Friend.” That’s a great service I didn’t know about. This will be so helpful to me as a anxious person who also wants to help protect Black Lives but doesn’t always know how.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so so so glad you found it helpful! I am doing my best to tear down the barriers that keep white people from stepping in to protect Black lives whenever possible, and I know anxiety is a big one for me and probably lots of others.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this article because this isn’t something that comes to mind easily- it needs to be instilled. It breaks my heart that even in the 21st century, we have such prejudice in our societies.

    Liked by 1 person

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