Two weeks ago, Django Unchained actress Daniele Watts made headlines for standing up against police brutality and the abuse of power inherent in what she claimed was the racist harassment of herself and her Caucasian boyfriend, Brian James Lucas, by the Los Angeles Police Department. However, not long after, Watts' claim of police brutality and racism was challenged by the LAPD, who released audio of the entire exchange and furthermore claimed that Watts and Lucas were having sex in a car with the door wide open and that Watts had been belligerent from the start. Toss in some photographs showing Watts sitting in Lucas' lap in the car and you had an open and shut case. Or did you? Watts penned an editorial about the LAPD incident in the Los Angeles Times on Friday and, regardless of what truly happened, she raises some very thoughtful points.
In the op-ed, Watts reflects on an incident from her childhood in which her father was unfairly harassed by a police officer and told her words that stay with her to this day: "You don't want to mess with the police. They can judge you unfairly and make life very hard." She says these words are part of why she reacted so vehemently to the arrival of the LAPD for an incident that she, at least, did not consider worthy of investigation. In a continuation of the he-said she-said situation, Watts maintains that she and Lucas were not having sex and that she was simply sitting on his lap with their clothes completely on as they kissed.
Her claim might be backed up by the security camera photographs that were obtained by TMZ, but even the reality of the situation is nowhere near as important as how Watts chose to end the piece.
One last question I can answer: If I had nothing to hide, why didn't I just hand over my identification? I might have ended the stop much sooner, and I certainly would have avoided the avalanche of accusations, insults, slurs and even threats that I've received.
But in saving myself time and pain, I would have lost something far more valuable: my right as an American to limit intrusions by police... I objected — and I continue to object — because if we are unclear about our rights, and we continue to believe that in every case when a police officer tells you to do something, you have to do it, as I was told, we allow the police to abuse their power.
We have rights because people throughout history struggled and even died to secure them. If I had handed over my ID, I would have denied their efforts. And I would have turned my back on the 16-year-old who watched her father endure an unfair and humiliating stop by police.
At this point, it's impossible to know what really happened between Watts and the LAPD. The audio recording can tell us what was said, but it can't tell us whether or not the cut that Watts received on her wrist was due to rough treatment by the officer that was handcuffing her or due to her own struggling. It can't tell us whether the officers were truly giving Watts and Lucas such a hard time due to racism or whether or not the people who called the LAPD to begin with were doing it out of racism either. However, what this piece tells us is that, while Watts is able to admit that she might have overreacted during the incident, that doesn't change the fact that many people of color experience harassment and brutality from the police all over the country.
This piece is especially poignant in the wake of incidents like Ferguson or South Carolina, in which innocent men of color were shot by officers who have received little to no punishment for the crime. Comparing Watts' situation to that of those innocent men would be a gross overstatement, but her piece did a good thing in placing the necessary attention back on an issue that is very real and very present in our society today. If she truly has been receiving accusations, slurs, and threats, then it needs to come to an end right now. With this piece, Watts is removing herself from the narrative of police brutality while simultaneously giving us all something to think about in a societal and historical context. And that, at least, is something to admire.
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