Just like Michael Brown, comedian and commentator W. Kamau Bell is six feet four inches tall. And he knows it.
I am afraid of the cops. Absolutely petrified of the cops. Now understand, I’ve never been arrested or held for questioning. I’ve never been told that I “fit the description.” But that doesn’t change a thing. I am afraid of cops the way that spiders are afraid of boots. You’re walking along, minding your own business, and SQUISH! You are dead.
Simply put, I am afraid of the cops because I am black. To raise the stakes even further, I am male. And to go all in on this pot of fear, I am six foot four, and weigh 250 pounds. Michael Brown, the unarmed Missouri 18-year-old shot dead by police this summer, was also six foot four. Depending on your perspective, I could be described as a “gentle giant,” the way that teachers described Brown. Or I could be described as a “demon,” the way that Officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown in his grand-jury testimony.
I don’t engage in any type of behavior that should place me in a cop’s crosshairs. I don’t live in “one of those neighborhoods,” or hang out with a “bad crowd,” (unless you count comedians). I am not involved in felonious activity. I’m not bragging. I’m just boring. But the fact that I’m not involved in any of that stuff doesn’t leave me any more confident I won’t be killed. That’s because I’ve been endowed with the triple crown of being killed for no good reason: big, black, and male.
On Monday night, I went out for ice cream at 12:30 A.M. I walked a while because I live in a pretty sleepy neighborhood in Berkeley, California. I had my hoodie up, because it was cold and it made it easier to listen to the podcast in my headphones. By the time I found a late-night convenience store, I had passed a few—by my eye—unsavory characters of all races. So, as I walked in the store I had to take some precautionary action. For starters, I took the hood down. I took it down even though my afro had become a flat-fro from being squashed underneath. I didn’t touch anything that I wasn’t absolutely sure I was going to buy. (Just like my mom had taught me.) I kept my hands out of my pockets with palms clearly visible so the clerk behind the counter could easily see that I wasn’t shoving things in—or maybe more importantly about to pull something out of—my pockets. And as soon as I decided on an It’s It ice-cream sandwich, I went directly to the counter and gingerly placed my selection down, again keeping my palms visible and only making the movements I needed to get the money out of my wallet.
All seemed to be going well. But I was so preoccupied with not seeming unsavory that when the clerk said “two twenty-five”, I thought he said, “one twenty-five.” As he wordlessly stared at the two bucks I had given him without looking me in the eye, I realized my error and simultaneously had a tiny jolt of adrenalin.
“Uh-oh!” I thought. “He’s going to think I’m pulling some sort of scam!” I envisioned him getting loud, “WHAT ARE YOU UP TO HERE?” Then I imagined myself trying to calm him down . . .
He misunderstands, and pulls out a gun. I run out of the store. He calls the cops. Since I live in a good neighborhood they show up quickly. They cut me off as I’m running home. They leap out of their car, guns drawn. I start to truly panic, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! IT WAS A MISTAKE!” I put my arms up in the air. At this point I realize I’m holding the It’s It, which I never paid for. I wave my hands frantically and say, “I DIDN’T MEAN TO STEAL THIS!” The cops take in all my hand waving, crazy talk, and B.B.M.-ness and then, POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! POP! I’m dead.
The next day, it comes out that earlier that night I’d had a fight with my wife . . . and that I had recently written a blog about comedians and depression . . . and that in my standup act I have jokes that are critical of police. The media reports that when I was in high school I was an assistant instructor at a kung-fu school. Headline: Black Comedian, a Martial-Arts Expert Who Hated Cops, Fought with His Wife, and Was Clinically Depressed, Demonically Steals Frozen Treat From Local Merchant.
That all went through my head—in about a second. And I was just trying to buy ice cream. I don’t live in a socio-economically deprived neighborhood. I haven’t been denied a good education by my local government. I don’t generally feel trapped by my circumstances. But I do feel every bit of my six-foot-four-inch, 250-pound body, and every bit of my black skin. And lest you think I am exaggerating in the above scenario, know that it contains elements of the deaths of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Kajieme Powell, Eric Garner, and others.
The fact is that being a B.B.M. has consequences. Being a B.B.M. is why I smile quickly. It’s why I don’t usually stand to my full height. I slouch and bend. When acquaintances haven’t seen me for awhile, I often hear, “I forgot how tall you are!” I know you did. It’s because I’m trying to make you forget. This is what being black in America has done to me, to others like me, and in some sense, even to you. It’s not that I think that I will be killed by a police officer. It’s just that if I am, it won’t be a surprise.
W. Kamau Bell’s “Oh, Everything!” Comedy Tour runs through the end of January 2015. He is also the co-host of the new podcastDenzel Washington Is Greatest Actor Of All Time Periodwith his longtime collaborator Kevin Avery available on Wolfpop.com.