I Am Afraid To Be An American: When A 'Routine Traffic Stop' Makes Us Question The Police Again

by Nikkya Hargrove
Christopher Mark Juhn/Anadolu Agency/Getty

We live in a constant state of fear, afraid of what might happen to us if we speak up, and stand up for our rights as Americans. Our souls live out the trauma of watching how the assaults on Black bodies and the murders of Black people are so unimportant that these stories no longer make the nightly news. Six words provide the context for the kind of America we live in today: It does not change my life. In other words, whatever happens to you, Dear Black Person, will in no way impact me.

These are the words a policeman from Virginia said to a man he had just sprayed in the face with pepper spray. What should have been a routine traffic stop, has turned into an all too familiar reminder that some police have a complete disregard for the lives of Black people.

According to CNN, an unarmed, Black and Latino Army Lieutenant named Caron Nazario, an Army Medic, was pulled over on December 5, 2020, in a small town not too far from Norfolk, Virginia. He was never told why by police. In three short minutes, a Black man’s life teetered between life and death for absolutely no reason. Only now, as Lt. Nazario sues the police department alleging that Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker used excessive force during his traffic stop four months ago, is the video made public. It will now be tried in the court of public opinion.

Lieutenant Nazario’s lawsuit is for $1 million in compensatory damages alleging that the police used excessive force. If you watch the video footage though, you’ll conclude that it’s a fact, not an allegation, that the police officers used excessive force, just like they did with George Floyd, just like they did with Philandro Castile, just like they did with Pamela Turner, just like they did with Eric Garner, just like they did with Breonna Taylor, just like they did with Michael Brown, and Daniel Prude … the list goes on.

Lieutenant Nazario feared for his life. When he tells the police officer,“I am afraid,” one responds, “You should be.” This is our America. With the officer’s guns drawn on him, commands are made for him to “get out of the car.” Lieutenant Nazario turns on his cell phone and begins to record — I imagine preparing to possibly record his murder. Lieutenant Nazario is not murdered, but the video is still painful to watch.

The officers scream angrily at Lt. Nazario, who is calmly asking them “What is going on?” hoping for an answer, clarification as to why he was pulled over, ordered to put his hands out of the window, and told to get out of the car. Lt. Nazario knew his rights as a Black citizen living in our gun-happy America, a place where policemen shoot first and attempt to cover their tracks later, just how Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker can be seen in the video trying to blame Lt. Nazario for their actions.

Officer Joe Gutierrez says to Lt. Nazario, “You made this way more difficult than it had to be. Get on the ground!” And with those words, Lt. Nazario is pushed down onto the pavement by two armed policemen. Lt. Nazario had no weapon. Lt. Nazario did not resist. Lt. Nazario simply asked a question of which the officers did not answer; if they had, the situation would have been easier for them.

Towards the end of the video, we see Officer Gutierrez again blaming Lt. Nazario. The officer says, “There’s no need for this to be on your record. I don’t want it to be on your record. However, it’s entirely up to you. If you want to fight and argue and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, you have that right as a citizen. If that’s what you want, we’ll charge you.”

It is unclear, really, as the viewer, of what they would charge him with. He did not assault them. He did not commit a crime. He asked to know why they pulled him over. Do you remember the video recording of Sandra Bland’s traffic stop? We do not deserve answers from policemen, right? Wrong. The officer’s statement is that of a perpetrator blaming the victim, a man unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, or the fact that he mentally, emotionally, and physically harmed another human being without cause.

In the footage of the assault, which escalated very quickly, Lt. Nazario is fearful. You can hear it in his voice, but he continues to calmly ask, “Can you please talk to me about what’s going on?” He’s determined to get an answer even with guns aimed at him.

This traffic stop was something far beyond “protecting and serving” — there was no threat to the officers or their community. They were afraid of a man who did not immediately obey their commands to “get out of the car.” He knew he shouldn’t have to get out of the car for a routine traffic stop, and he knew that his life was in danger.

Even when you’re handcuffed and face down on the pavement, your body motionless, your life means nothing. And as the four Minnesota policemen responsible for George Floyd’s death thought: If he lives or dies, it does not change my life. Black America is tired of hearing “You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son”– what one officer can be heard saying to Lt. Nazario. In other words, you are going to die tonight — a threat, no?

It is hard not to live in fear as a Black person navigating our America with violent policemen like this. Our America does not care if a Black man lives or dies, whether a Black woman can go to sleep in her bed with peace of mind knowing that she will live to see the next day, or a young Black teenager can walk to the corner store, feeling safe in his neighborhood. These are fears White America cannot understand because — It does not change my life.

For a mother to bury her son or a child to live without their father due to the inhumane actions of someone in authority — someone meant to protect and keep us safe — is an injustice to us all. Lieutenant Nazario is another victim of this racist and violent system. I hope you or your father or brother or sister or son or daughter never has to prepare to record their assault or worse, their murder.