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Why I broke the rule of survival for black Americans

September 29, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Riley Temple was walking his dog around his Washington, D.C., neighborhood where he has lived for the past 25 years when a confrontation with the police made him break the rule that all black people are told to obey in order to survive. Riley Temple shares his humble opinion on being made to feel like a trespasser and the legacy of slavery.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Sometimes overlooked in this week’s debate over whether athletes should take a knee during the playing of the national anthem before games is the original focus of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the deaths of unarmed black men in confrontations with law enforcement.

Riley Temple is a lawyer and author.

And, tonight, he shares his Humble Opinion on how those confrontations with police are a direct legacy of slavery and the racism that fueled it.

RILEY TEMPLE, Author: Whenever I go to the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum, I make my pilgrimage to Joseph Trammell’s tin wallet.

It’s a handmade, thin case that holds his freedom papers. Joseph Trammell, a black man, was born a slave in Virginia in 1831. When he was 21, he was freed, and surely believed that he had some measure of liberty so long as he had his tin wallet with him.

When he was stopped, he invariably had to effect a servile posture to the whites, who demanded to know who, why, how come, and what for. The very sight of him, no slave tag, no white supervision in sight, was terrifying, an errant and aimlessly roaming Negro going about his ordinary days.

His family undoubtedly reminded him, be nonthreatening, say yes, ma’am, no, sir, effect servility, cower even. Just don’t get killed.

I was having an ordinary day not long ago, when, in my upscale and overwhelmingly white Washington, D.C., neighborhood where I have lived for the past 25 years, my dog Wilson and I walked past an apartment building just across the street from my own.

As Wilson paused, a blustery white man appeared and bellowed at me to not let my dog stop there. Then he demanded to know if I lived in his neighborhood. I asked why it was a pertinent question.

He became furious, threatened to call the police. Three cops in two cruisers appeared within a couple of minutes, flashing lights and all. They told me they were answering a trespassing complaint.

I pulled out my I.D. I didn’t have to, but I knew I had to show my papers to de-escalate the situation. I wasn’t a trespasser in this rich white neighborhood. I lived there.

I got out of my brush with the police unscathed, but not before telling a belligerent cop to go to hell. And, in so doing, I broke a rule, the rule by which the Joseph Trammells of slavery days lived, and by which all black people today are told to obey, in order to survive confrontations with law enforcement: Be nice. Be servile. Say, no, sir, yes, ma’am.

By all means, do nothing that smacks of dignity or claim of right, else you will be killed.

My story was minor. But so too is failing to signal a lane change or selling illegal cigarettes, and those acts turned deadly for Sandra Bland and Eric Garner.

By questioning my right to be, I was suddenly slammed onto that continuum of history, a black man, perceived to be an interloper, a trespasser, an imminent threat, just like freed slave Joseph Trammell in 1852 Virginia.

Editor’s Note: On tonight’s broadcast, we aired an essay by lawyer Riley Temple. We did not include in our introduction that Mr. Temple is a trustee of the Greater Washington Education Television Association, which owns and operates PBS NewsHour.

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