I have only the haziest memory of the events that led me to walk into a 7-Eleven with a gun in my pocket. But I thought about it again today, at the news that Keith Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by police in a case of mistaken identity.
I was young; not yet 19, and drunk and dumb. But the fog of alcohol and the mists of time haven’t stopped me from thinking about it often over the past 25 years. And more recent events have given me pause to reflect on what my – breathtakingly stupid – actions have to teach me (and maybe others) about white men with guns and the privileges afforded them.
What I do remember: it was during the six months between finishing high school in Philadelphia and starting university in Australia. My days and most of my nights were occupied as a busboy in a city restaurant, often pulling double shifts to save money for college. On the free nights I had, the few friends that hadn’t left for college that fall would idly congregate anywhere that was free of parental supervision, and drink.
That particular night we were at a friend’s older brother’s place in Northeast Philly. The older brother was out. After a lot of beers, my friend mentioned that his brother had guns. We thought it would be fun to check them out. I remember a hand gun and a pump-action rifle. I know it was pump action because I held it and pumped it, like I’d seen in Scarface, loading a bullet into the chamber. Everyone hit the ground. It seemed hilarious. We went out back and took turns firing the handgun into the night sky.
It was cold out – late fall, or early winter – and I was wearing a leather biker jacket. As often happens on such nights, someone decided a trip to 7-Eleven was required and we piled into a car. I don’t know why, or why nobody stopped me, but I tucked the handgun into my pocket. This memory is clear – walking into the 7-Eleven, handgun in my pocket, feeling the heft and the power of it. Willing someone to mess with me so I could show them.
Nobody did. What I wanted to show them, I’m not sure. A young man with a brain marinating in testosterone and alcohol can feel an overwhelming need to prove something he can’t articulate, with little regard for the consequences. I don’t make any excuses for my actions. I was just lucky that day, lucky that nobody in that 7-Eleven stopped me, or spoke to me, or looked at me funny.
Just lucky. That’s what I used to think. I used to think that if there was a greater truth to be found in my idiocy, it was that in a nation full of guns any momentary lapse in impulse control can be deadly. It’s not a new thought. Parents Against Gun Violence post a summary of such cases every month, as heartbreaking as it is monotonous.
But it’s not the prevalence of gun violence in America that has prompted me to think about that night.
Mike Brown, a black man shot dead by police in 2014 outside a Missouri convenience store, wasn’t carrying a gun.
Alton Sterling, a black man shot dead by police in July outside a Louisiana convenience store, wasn’t carrying a gun.
Keith Scott, shot dead by police today in North Carolina in a case of mistaken identity, wasn’t carrying a gun.
Nor were any of the other 102 unarmed African Americans shot by police in 2015.
These are recent events, but they are not new. Ta-Nehisi Coates, growing up in nearby Baltimore at the same time as me, wrote in his brilliant coming-of-age memoir The Beautiful Struggle, that his mother:
“…knew that I had no idea how close I was, would always be, to the edge, how easily boys like me were erased in absurd, impractical ways. One minute we were tossing snowballs at taxis, firing up in front of the 7-Eleven, speeding down side streets and the next we’re surrounded by unholstered guns, a false move away from going down. I would always be a false move away. I would always have the dagger at my throat.”
Although I’ve thought about it often, I’ve never written about it. Partly because I’m ashamed of some of the stupid things I did when I was young. Partly because, as a white person (and now a white Australian at that), #blacklivesmatter never felt like my struggle.*
What prompted me to decide to write about this was another shooting, this one last week, of Terence Crutcher, an African American man shot dead in Oklahoma. Police responding to an unrelated call pulled up behind his stalled car. They didn’t offer assistance. They shot him dead. They said he wouldn’t put his hands up, although a video tells a different story.
One day in my senior year of high school, when my Mom was away for work and I should have been in school, I took her car to buy a keg of beer. On the way home I got a flat tyre and pulled over on the interstate. A police car pulled up behind me and a very polite officer helped me change the tyre. We had to move the keg of beer out of the way to get to the spare.
This is white privilege.
A young, drunk white man, concealing a gun and possessed of an incoherent and unfounded rage, walks into a convenience store and because nobody stops him or even questions him, wakes up the next morning with no consequence except a hangover.
This is white privilege.
Recognising that our lives might have been very different without the benefits it confers is important. It’s not going to dismantle the systemic apparatus of white supremacy. But at least we’re being honest with ourselves. It’s a small thing, but it’s a start.
*And if you think this is an American struggle, reflect on the fact that Indigenous Australians make up 98% of the prison population in the Northern Territory, or that 25 years ago a comprehensive royal commission into our appalling record of indigenous people dying in police custody made 330 recommendations, only a handful of which have been implemented. In 1991, 17% of the prison population was Indigenous. That figure is now 27%.