First impressions aren’t always the most accurate…

Cedric Benson The Great Debaters

Have you heard about Cedric Benson’s arrest on Saturday?  From the first reports I heard on ESPN Radio the other day, Cedric was “pulled over” while boating on Lake Travis in Austin, TX for a “safety check” where the police were suspicious enough of his sobriety that they put him on their boat for a test, where Benson became disorderly and violently resisted arrest enough that pepper spray was administered and he had to be dragged to his car.

My first impression? “Typical Cedric Benson. Displays no work ethic on the field to get better. Thinks he’s entitled to everything because he was a first-round draft pick and is a pro athlete. Plus, he’s probably a thug, if his actions around the police reveal anything.”

That was my first reaction. Casting stereotypes. And stereotypes sometimes work, I guess. However, my viewing of the excellent, excellent movie The Great Debaters earlier this year told me a little something about racism that I’m much more sensitized to, especially when it comes to police and minorities. In the setting of The Great Debaters (1930s Texas), it was still kosher in the wider society to treat blacks like subhuman-beings; scene after scene in the movie displayed that in shocking detail. Why this is relevant today is the simple truth that racism, while it may not be quite as immediately obvious in our society today (it’s less kosher on a society-wide level), is still deeply embedded; just harder to see. And it’s no coincidence that the most deeply-South sections of American society typically have the most embedded racism. It is this simple understanding that makes this Cedric Benson story more complex than at first blush. Especially when the experience of his friend and Benson’s mother (two passengers on the boat) is told. The quotes all come from this story.

A female passenger on Cedric Benson’s boat Saturday night in Austin, Texas, was concerned enough about his safety after police took him into custody to phone her parents and urge them to call 911, the Tribune has learned.

‘I called my dad and told him, ‘Call 911, my black friend is getting beaten up by police on Lake Travis,’ ” said Elizabeth Cartwright, 22, a friend of Benson’s from the University of Texas. “It’s more what I heard than what I saw. I have never heard or seen Cedric that scared.’

And this little tidbit matters too.

Cartwright, an English major at the University of Texas who is to graduate later this month, estimated she and her fiance had been boating with Benson six times this spring and each time a Lower Colorado River Authority boat pulled them over for a safety check.

Now, call me oversensitive, but when the three elements of the story (Texas police, a black man, and six “safety checks” in six boating expeditions) come together, I start to get a little suspicious, thanks to listening to experiences of my black brothers and sisters. The affidavit filed by the Lower Colorado River Authority described Benson as cocky, combative, and smelling of alcohol. Multiple witnesses of the event describe things differently (there were 15 other folks on the boat). According to Benson, police pepper-sprayed him in the eyes without provocation and dragged him along the ground to the point he cried out for his mother, Jackie.

Cartwright commented again,

The arrival of LCRA police perturbed Benson because of the frequency of the checks on his 30-foot boat, Cartwright said. When Benson’s boat passed the safety inspection, Cartwright said she and her fiance were surprised the officer then required a sobriety test for Benson. “We were all like, ‘Why?’ ” she said.

After an officer led Benson to the LCRA boat for the test, the second officer left behind on Benson’s boat assured a nervous Jackie Benson that her son would be fine, Cartwright recalled.

A few minutes later, Cartwright said she heard Benson begin to scream after the officer pepper-sprayed him in the eye. By the time Benson was in handcuffs, he was screaming, “Please stop, Mom, make them please stop.” Cartwright disputed that Benson was resisting arrest.

And finally,

Benson claimed police kicked his feet out from under him, causing him to fall awkwardly. When Benson got up, Cartwright remembers him sitting in a squad car surrounded by six officers.

“In the weakest voice, Cedric said to me and my fiance, ‘Help me get out of here,’ ” Cartwright said. “He was so scared.”

The reason this story sticks out to me is the radical difference in accounts between the police and witnesses. Fifty years ago, the witnesses may have been muzzled (because of some being black) and the police report would have been the only one given to the press, which would have led to more whites saying, “Typical black man (insert racial epithet here).” I still have the extended scene from The Great Debaters burned into my memory of Denzel Washington being arrested under pretenses of disorderly conduct and “communism” for having the audacity to organize the poor white and black sharecroppers to act together. The way the police handled that situation, the brutal disregard for his humanity, and the racism that bled through everything disturbed me.

I’m not saying this situation was racially charged, but I am suggesting it as a possibility. Not sayin’, just sayin’.


5 thoughts on “First impressions aren’t always the most accurate…

  1. Great article! I especially like the way you pointed out that just because racism and racial discrimination is not as open and obvious it does not happen. Also while Cedric was quickly assumed to be the bad person, if these new accounts (that the police were wrong) are true I wonder if this would be thrown under the rug.

  2. Jimmy,

    I appreciate your feedback. I certainly am not seeking to give Benson a blank check here, just highlighting that most situations are more complex than we’d like to think on the surface.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how this story evolves, and whether Benson still is vilified or the police come more under the microscope. Racism clearly is still deeply embedded in our society; ranging from the acquittal of the major perps with Rodney King to the recent acquittal of the police officers who shot the unarmed Sean Bell 50 times in November 2006 to the exclusion of traditionally black churches from community church worship gatherings in my local community.. It takes courageous listening and action to root this insidious evil out.

  3. Hey Kevin,

    Yep, Nathan Myers is still around, but Nathan Myers has a lot on his plate. But just because he has lots on his plate does not mean he’s accomplishing what he needs to. Evidently Nathan likes to talk in the third person like Mike Tyson too.

    I’ve been sitting on some thoughts here for a little while dealing with race, plus some on “appeasement” and foreign policy stuff, but they’re not developed enough to put out on the blog yet. I’ve haven’t worked very systematically here recently on anything other than settling into working full-time for Middle River. How goes life with you?


  4. Hi – I want to say thanks for an interesting post about a subject I have had an interest in for a while now. I have been lurking and reading the comments avidly so just wanted to express my thanks for providing me with some very good reading material. I look forward to more, and taking a more proactive part in the discussions here, whilst learning too!

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