My neighbor was murdered on Monday

I’ve just learned that a GoFundMe page has been created by SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) to help Rob’s out-of-town family with funeral expenses: https://www.gofundme.com/robert-white-killed-by-police. Please donate.

His name was Rob. I didn’t know his full name until I read that he was dead.

We met about a year and a half ago, when I started working from home.

He was always walking.

He’d walk by my house in the mornings on his way back from the Giant, where I think he usually bought his breakfast. Sometimes he’d walk by my house later in the day coming back from the library, holding DVDs, and then I’d see him walking back a day or two later.

Sometimes I saw him at the YMCA or in downtown Silver Spring. Or at the library when I was tutoring or looking for a good book to read. He always walked. He was very purposeful, always heading to his destination—but he was always happy to smile and say hello. We’d talk about the weather, or about the movies he’d borrowed from the library, or we’d just wave and give a friendly nod.

One day I was walking to a friend’s house nearby and I saw him standing on his porch. I was so glad to see that he had somewhere to live. With all the walking he did at all times of day—which made me think he did not have a job or a comfortable place to go—and his somewhat disheveled appearance, I’d wondered if he were homeless. But he wasn’t. He lived in a solid brick house just across the park. I was truly delighted. The world suddenly seemed a slightly kinder place to me, a place where someone who spent his time walking rather than working in an office had good shelter. (see end for note about this)

On Monday, Rob was walking through some townhouses near a walking path down at the bottom of my neighborhood. It’s a great cut-through to get to the hiker-biker trail, and my kids, my husband, and I all use it when we go for a bike ride or take the dog for a long walk. It’s also the prettiest way to walk between our house and downtown Silver Spring. There’s a well-trodden path at the end of the neighborhood street that joins the townhouse community, and the two streets in the small group of townhouses are wide and clean and well kept. It’s a lovely walk.

On Monday, when Rob was walking through that very lovely area, the police arrived to investigate a “suspicious person.”

Rob was walking. Just as I do. Just as my husband does.

But Rob was “suspicious.” It won’t be a surprise to learn that my husband and I are white, and that Rob is black.

Rob reacted angrily when the officer tried to speak with him, and he attacked the officer, but he did not have a weapon. He was unarmed. 

He is now dead.

I have heard reports that he was shot four times, or six times, or eight times. (The press release by police reports that the officer’s weapon was first “discharged,” and then that “the officer fired additional rounds.”)

When I opened up The Washington Post on Wednesday morning, I read the headline: “Police say man killed by officer struck first.”*

What? This was the headline? Where was the extremely important fact that Rob was unarmed?

As I read the article that followed the headline, I observed my socialized mind trying to decide that this was all really okay and that the police were just trying to keep me safe. The suspicious person attacked the police officer; the police officer defended himself. Everything’s really okay. It’s a shame that the guy had to die, but order has been restored to the universe in some way.

This is what my mind keeps trying to do. It keeps trying to make this be okay, in part because this type of thing actually happens with great regularity. A black man is identified as suspicious. The police arrive. The “suspicious person” reacts with fear and anger to police. The police react with deadly force. These stories are in the paper daily.

But that thought pattern gets me nowhere because it isn’t okay. Order hasn’t been restored. Rob was my neighbor. We said hello to each other almost daily. My embodied being will not allow my socialized mind to fully take the lead and dismiss this. I feel sick to my stomach, my chest aches, my throat is tight, my mouth is dry, and it’s hard for me to breathe.

I am deeply uncomfortable. Thanks be to God for that! Because if change is to come, it’s going to require that we white people experience in our embodied beings that the status quo is not comfortable. The status quo is a frightening and dangerous set-up in which the dice are loaded against our friends and neighbors.

If you are a white person who wants to work on shifting your thinking, don’t put it off. White people who don’t understand the impact of race are dangerous. Being unaware does not make us innocent. We can never fully undo our socialization, but we can become aware of the scripts we are enacting each time we open our mouths to talk about racially-infused topics (which are legion in our society). Start reading. Some books that have had a huge impact on me are: Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean to Be White; Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race;  Debby Irving’s Waking Up White; and, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ beautiful Between the World and Me. If you’d prefer to start with a video, I’d recommend Robin DiAngelo’s “Deconstructing White Privilege” —22 minutes on Youtube.

***

Robert Lawrence White—known as Robbie to those in the neighborhood who have known him longer than I have—grew up in that house across the park from me. Like me, he went to Montgomery Blair High School back when it was still on Wayne Ave.

My neighbor Joel told me that his kids grew up playing basketball in the park with Rob. Rob was a bit odd, but he was part of the extended family of the neighborhood, and he was loved. My neighbor Regina, whose son also grew up with Rob, told me that Rob was the son of Reverend Robert Lee White and Mrs. Marie White; Mrs. White died in 2003 and Rev. White passed away in November of 2016.

Since then, Rob has lived in the house alone. He lived in the house he grew up in, walked through his neighborhood and his town, and always took the time to smile back at those who smiled at him, or to give a wave in return.

I miss him each time I glance up the sidewalk to see who is coming and get ready to give Rob a wave. Just a few days ago, I was saying hello. Now, when I lie in savasana—corpse pose—at the end of a yoga class, I am haunted by how Rob’s final resting pose was on one of our neighborhood streets, his body ripped through with bullets.

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Rob’s house this morning with flowers left by neighbors and friends to witness to his life–and his death
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A note left with the flowers expressing my own thoughts and feelings as well
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Rob’s presence in the neighborhood was a gift of beauty and kindness

*The headline has now been modified online to read “Police identify officer who fatally shot unarmed man during what they call ‘combative’ encounter.” 

(added 6/16/18) A friend has pointed out to me that my assumption that Rob was homeless is likely a manifestation of negative attribution bias. I have conscious reasons I can point to for why I thought he might be homeless—but I cannot escape the reality that the implicit bias that made him first seem suspicious and then be gunned down is present in myself and in how I first saw him. I’m writing this note as a way of making transparent my own process, as it is clear to me that it is only by taking feedback and being transparent with others that we have any chance of making any shift.

 

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23 thoughts on “My neighbor was murdered on Monday”

  1. Thank you for writing that. Like you said, this story is repeated often. Thank you for not turning away. For recognizing the inequality. And most of all for sharing your feeling publicly. You have honored Rob well. Please don’t forget him as time passes.

    There will be another ‘Rob’, today, tomorrow, or next week. Let’s do what we can to help all of the Rob’s of this country. ❤️

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  2. Thank you, Anna. When we are in that tension you describe between outrage and “oh, but he started it” as though that makes it ok, I pray that we pay attention and do our part to heal this world. May Rob rest in peace and rise in glory. May his kind spirit empower as many as it takes to create change.

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  3. Thank you Anna for your wise words. I’m honored that you included my note in your blog post. Keep writing and bearing witness.

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  4. Another example of the police being overzealous and reactive. I feel so terrible that an innocent life has been lost and I hope his family will have some peace knowing that he was a good neighbor and was well liked

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  5. Anna, you are a bright light in our dark surroundings. As a black man, I am both moved and hopeful that you recognize the truth. Please keep your eyes wide open and your pen handy. God bless you and may God rest the soul of your wonderful friend.

    Love, Tyrone

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  6. Thank you for writing this. For sharing the story behind the story that appeared in the paper. For showing how quickly an innocent walk can turn fatal and how we want to explain it to ourselves in a way that makes us feel safe, even when we need to face the hard and difficult reality that it is anything but promoting safety.

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  7. The police MUST learn to approach people differently. Or watch for a moment so they would have seen he was just walking. Or better yet, walk neighborhoods themselves and they surely would have seen Rob routinely. This is all so wrong.

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  8. This is so nuanced that it rises to the level of Shakespearian tragedy. What a sad ending for the victim as well as for the cop–both lives were destroyed in a moment. Thank you so much for this tender portrait of the victim.
    And here’s a look at the cop, Anand Badgujar, when he worked for the Baltimore Police Department.

    He is of Asian Indian ethnicity and sensitive to racial issues, as suggested in the video, but he was raised in this country and could easily have absorbed all the subconscious prejudices that produce the more typical “white killer cop.” It all comes down to who each person perceives to be “suspicious.” This definition is what we all need to be focusing on.

    Here’s a starter kit for uncovering personal implicit prejudices. (Personal disclaimer..I haven’t had the courage to take any of these tests yet. My front porch looks out on the high rise that hovers over the spot where Rob White drew his final breath. This restless and active young man was killed for “suspiciously” walking through our neighborhood on a route that could easily have taken him from your block to the new Silver Spring Library which you say he visited frequently. Such a dangerous goal! I heard the sirens. I saw the helicopter. Henceforth I will always see his ghost hovering over the Parkside Plaza condominium building. )
    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

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  9. Thank you Anna for making this so personal and real… the story behind the headlines, as someone else said. And thank you for being so transparent re: your process and bias you might have had initially towards Rob. We’re programmed with those messages more than is usually comfortable for us to admit as white folks .

    Something that comes up for me in regard to these messed up situations with the police: shouldn’t police training include ways of handling the fact that black men of all ages have every reason to be angry and non-cooperative when they are minding their own business but treated as suspicious? I would be furious. There should be some baseline respect for the fact that black men are rightfully fed up with the disrespect. So even though they know that being cooperative is safer, I know from my own moments of emotional charge and reactivity that it can be hard to keep cool when you know you’re being wronged… especially when you know that it’s part of larger, long history of racism.

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    1. Thank you so much for this, Katrina. One thing I said at the (first) vigil for Rob held at the spot where he was killed) is that we have to realize that it is completely LOGICAL and REASONABLE for a black man to be afraid of the police. This must be taken into account. A violent reaction to the police is not so much an issue of “mental health” — it stems, as you say, from the larger, long history of racism.

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  10. Hi all,

    I’d like to echo Heidi about the necessity of police training to recognize the difference between what is suspicious and what is merely odd. I never knew Rob, and what I’m about to say may not apply to him, but out of concern for regular people who occasionally exhibit odd behavior, I’d like to mention that some individuals with learning differences can be seen with suspicion and could easily be someone like Rob. I know several fine young men who have learning differences, Asperger’s, or autism spectrum disorder, and who don’t always react in social situations, or public situations, in the way we might think best – or in the way we would. Some of these diagnoses can present with striking out in some way if the individual feels overloaded, misunderstood, or frightened. I’m sure you’ve all read the headlines about the high rates of autism? Well, these kids grow up and maybe aren’t employed full-time, are maybe hyper-focused in one or two subject-areas, exhibit a strong tendency to maintain routines and schedules, and perhaps don’t make eye-contact as consistently as others without these diagnoses. Parents of children with special needs lie awake worrying about just this kind of scenario. Police officers need training to determine if an individual might be exhibiting odd behavior due to any number of reasons including a spectrum disorder, but are not criminal or worthy of suspicion of criminal intent, whether that individual is black or white or anything in between.

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  11. Thank you for writing this. It’s thought-provoking and well written. My condolences to you and Rob’s family.

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  12. Thank you, Anna. I will pass this on. Fear that the administration keeps stirring, violent words, an inhuman solution implemented to “make America great (white) again”, more tolerance (numbing) around gun violence, and the “new political correctness” that supports all of that continues to dehumanize all of us. My heart aches and I weep for us all. Judith Roark

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  13. There are many assumptions is this the inherently bias readers against police. Mr. White was a neighbor, but your assumption that a police officer reacted as he did just because of minority status pre-judges a minority officer of himself having prejudice.

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  14. Thanks for this very well thought out post. As ayou black man who has socialized overwhelmingly with white people (we lived outside the US in expatriate communities), I’ve noticed a change in the US. People are getting more and more fearful of each other and I see it manifest when I walk around DC. I consider myself well-mannered, well-dressed and always try to smile and acknowledge people. Just notice more apprehension, furtive looks of fear and anxiety from white people. Police have treated me well, but I think we have heightened levels of fear.

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  15. The body cam video of this incident has been released. The video shows the suspect advancing on the officer as the officer tells him to stop. The suspect continues to advance on the officer, screaming “DO IT! DO IT!” The officer retreats and radios for assistance. The suspect advances again, the officer retreats again, and then the suspect punches the officer and runs away. The officer pursues the suspect, at which point the suspect turns and advances on the officer, repeating, “DO IT! DO IT, PUNK ASS!” The officer retreats again, at which point the suspect gets in a crouch and charges at the officer screaming, “DO IT! DO IT, BIG SHOT!” The officer attempts to use his baton, but the suspect closes distance to quickly and tackles the officer to the ground. The officer draws his pistol and fires one shot, hitting the suspect. The suspect gets up and screams, “DO IT! DO IT AGAIN!” while continuing to advance on the officer. Still on the ground, the officer fires at the suspect several more times, downing the suspect.

    Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgPIE467Uww

    Your entire post is a lie. This unfortunate event had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with either a very violent and irrational man, or a very mentally ill man (at one point, the officer radios, “I think this might be a suicide by cop thing,” which is why probably why the officer showed such heroic restraint). The officer did everything he could – and probably more than his training advocated – to not shot the suspect; he put his life in great jeopardy in hopes of not having to use deadly force. Characterizing this as a murder is a DISGUSTING and SHAMEFUL libel, and you owe the officer involved an apology. If you have a shred of integrity, you will write a complete retraction of this absurd piece of fiction that had more to do with publicly announcing what a “woke ally” you are than it had to do with your “friend” Rob (who’s last name you didn’t know and with whom you had never had any meaningful interactions).

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    1. this is partial video NOT THE FULL VIDEO.
      Anand claimed he ran into his car and Rob opened the door and pulled him out,
      so where is that?
      Why did Anand deem Rob suspicious?

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    2. I see this unconscionable, libelous post in which you call Officer Badgujar a “murderer” is still up on your garbage dump of a blog. You are a disgusting bigot.

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