Three weeks ago, I was riding the bus to work, just like I do every day. I like riding the bus. I like the diversity. I like the energy of it. I like the idea that I’m helping the environment. It’s a sometimes infuriating logistical puzzle of routes and stops and fares. Mostly, though, I like riding the bus because of the people. Hundreds of them, at least, I’ve already seen come and go. On the bus, off the bus. Sitting. Standing. Trying to get to wherever it is that life has them going next. Not thinking ten steps ahead, but one or two. For most people, that’s as far ahead as we can imagine things, anyway.
So, the bus picks me up, I pay my fare and I take my seat. Another stop, and we gain a few more riders. A young black girl gets on, probably college-aged. She sits across from the bench I’m on in the first row of front facing side-by-side seats. On the bus, you don’t sit by people unless it’s full or you know each other. Another stop. More bodies. It’s getting full. Another stop. A few more bodies. One of them is a young black male, couldn’t be more than 20. I think of him as a boy, not in the pejorative sense obviously, but because I think of all people of college-age as boys and girls, even though I know that isn’t quite accurate. But he’s not a big guy. 5’8″ or 5’9″, tops. He sits his backpack down at his feet as he sits next to the girl across from me. “They probably know each other”, I think. He’s now sitting almost directly in front of me. Another stop. More bodies…
Friday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a man is driving his car down the highway. Probably thinking one or two steps ahead, like most of us do, he rolls along the road. I can imagine exactly what I’d be doing in that situation. I’m listening to podcasts or Chance the Rapper or NPR, passing subconsciously in and out of that state of black top Nirvana we all reach when we’ve been driving long enough that we put our minds on cruise control. Suddenly, his vehicle begins to stall, and before he knows what’s happened, he’s stuck in the middle of the highway. Somebody calls it in. Somebody else does, too.
A left hand turn takes us off of the main road and into a residential area. A right hand turn takes us down a street populated by low-income apartments on either side. We make our first stop on this street and pull away, as usual. Then, unexpectedly, the driver pulls the bus over. This has never happened to me before. I just assumed someone was sprinting to catch the bus and the driver was doing him a solid. I was admittedly caught a little flat-footed when the bus doors opened and a police officer stepped on board. The officer was white, probably early to mid 50’s. He wore glasses that said he didn’t give them much thought. On one hip, he wore a taser. On the other, a police firearm.
For five minutes we all sit, waiting to see what’s happening, to be told what was going on, to be explained to why all of our lives had been interrupted. Truthfully, it was tense. In my mind, I wanted to be anywhere else but here, and I know I had nothing to fear. Then, the simplest of things something I do dozens of times a day, thousands of times a year, sets off the tinderbox.
The police arrive on the scene to find a man, Terence Crutcher, in need of assistance. One, then, two. He interacts with them, but we don’t know exactly what that consisted of yet, except that video shows nothing remarkable. Mr. Crutcher, a 40 year-old black man who needs some help with his stalled car, begins to walk back toward his vehicle, just like anyone would. Now 3 police are there, and then 4. Overhead, the police helicopters circles in like an ominous buzzard. Could he even hear over the chopper and the sirens and the many voices?
It was a phone call that made things jump off on the bus that day. The boy across from me, the one who sat next to the girl, he called his boss and told him the bus was stopped and he’d probably be 10 minutes late. Before he can repeat himself to the person on the other end, the officer demands “Hang up the phone!”, still standing by the driver and the door, 10 feet from the object of his commands. The boy complies. This is where things get weird. The girl sitting next to him says “Excuse me”, implying that she wanted to get out of her seat. This means the boy has to get up and let her out. He does, as anyone would, giving the girl the freedom from her seat that she desired. The officer is obviously unnerved by all of this. He undoes the latch holding his taser in place and places his hand on the grips. Before he can sit all the way back down, the boy is told to put his hands on the bars over his head. He finishes sitting before the command can possibly process. This causes the officer to take two steps forward, now 5 feet from the object of his aim, a person, a man, a boy who rides this bus and has a boss to answer to. The taser is now drawn. It’s aimed right at the boy’s chest. He stands and turns slowly, complying.
“I just got on the bus, sir. I just got on the bus”, he pleads.
“Was that after you robbed the Dollar General?” the officer replies.
Within seconds, Terence Crutcher is tasered and shot. The only thing that happened faster than him getting gunned down in the middle of the highway was being labeled by the cackling crows in the sky. Footage from the police helicopter let’s us know that the first inclination of the officers was to begin to find ways that Mr. Crutcher might deserve to die that day. A person who has never met this human being, a college student, church goer and family member, had already begun to sweep Mr. Crutcher’s humanity under the rug when he said:
“That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something.”
Seconds later, he is dying on the pavement in the waning Oklahoma sun. Neither those on the air or the ground attempt to help the man dying in the road. For more than two minutes, not a single pulse is taken and not a single fuck is given. The impression is that if the tow truck could haul him off when it picked up his stalled vehicle, they’d give the driver an extra $50 and call it a day.
The boy matched a description for a suspect in a recent robbery. Young, black male wearing a white t-shirt and a hat. Specific, I know. He didn’t do it, by the way, at least, not that my research has turned up. They arrested two other guys for the robbery. After he was hauled off the bus in handcuffs, there was a collective sigh. Not of relief, but of that barely describable feeling that lies somewhere between sorrow and anger. The girl sat back down. I asked her if she was okay. She wanted prayer. So we prayed. It’s really all I could have done anyway that made any difference. Sometimes I wonder if it’s the only thing I do that can make a difference.
A man in the road.
A boy on a bus.
And we sigh that sigh. And we pray that prayer.
We get back on the bus. And we hope for a better tomorrow.