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White privilege runs out – at least for now

Rod Watson

If you want to know the definition of white privilege, here it is: Jeffrey Calhoun is alive today.

Calhoun is the white man accused by a black mother of pulling a gun on her after a minor traffic accident – to call it a fender bender would be an overstatement – a few weeks ago.

Video from a bystander also shows him pulling it and waving it at the bystanders before holstering it and then, when police arrive, walking toward them with the weapon as the witnesses warn the officers with one saying, "Sir, he’s got a gun. Oh no!"

Incredibly, the cops appear to do nothing much. They don’t order him to stop. They don’t order him to place his hands behind his head. They don’t order him to get on the ground and bury his face in the pavement.

Instead, Calhoun is allowed to walk up and place the gun on the hood of the police car.

Unarmed black men around the nation are dead for doing much less.

That’s white privilege, Part II.

Part I began moments earlier, when Calhoun felt entitled to pronounce himself judge, jury and – she says – threatened executioner of the woman who tapped the back of his vehicle at a North Buffalo traffic light as she was on her way to pick up her kids from school.

It began when he felt entitled to take the law into his own hands, apparently based on racist assumptions that a black woman could not be trusted to exchange registration and insurance information like any other motorist after a mishap.

Instead, Jeanneie Muhammad says he reached in and took her car keys and then tried to take her purse, which she refused to let go of. During the ensuing scuffle, she says, he threw her down or tripped her three times and even bit her in an attempt to get her to let go of her purse. On the video, you can hear a good Samaritan admonishing him, "You can’t bite her!" That’s in addition, she said, to pointing the gun at her chest before the bystander started filming, as well as claiming to be a cop; and finally, for good measure, calling her the N-word, while seated in the patrol car.

"I want to be an advocate ... to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else in our community," Muhammad told a meeting of outraged activists, many of whom had seen the video.

Hate crime charges filed in July incident in North Buffalo

The incident struck a nerve like few others, fueled in part by "the current national climate in which communities of color find themselves the targets of increasingly frequent terrorist attacks at the hands of white supremacists."

That language comes from a letter sent to District Attorney John J. Flynn last week by a coalition of African American organizations ranging from the Buffalo Local Action Committee and the NAACP to the Peacemakers and the Stop the Violence Coalition demanding that Calhoun be prosecuted for everything from first-degree robbery because he displayed a gun, to assault, reckless endangerment, criminal impersonation and hate crimes and that he not be offered a plea deal for anything less than a felony that would prevent him from owning a gun.

Angered by a history of politicians who make the banquet circuit of black organizations every election season and then forget black concerns once in office, they met and strategized to apply pressure to hold Flynn accountable to the community.

Calhoun initially was charged in City Court with attempted robbery, menacing and harassment. Coincidentally or not, that changed Tuesday when Flynn filed felony hate crime charges after presenting the matter to an Erie County grand jury. Though warning the case is not a slam dunk, Flynn cited race as a motivation in Calhoun’s alleged actions.

Muhammad said she’s satisfied with the hate crime charges and that it "sends a message," but she won’t be entirely happy until Calhoun is "actually in jail serving some type of time." The potential seven-year sentence would send a message to people "with his mindset" that you can't treat black women this way, she said.

So why did the 62-year-old Lockport resident feel the need to respond this way to a black woman, when it is clear from the video that his life was never in danger – unless he considers any black person a mortal threat?

Calhoun didn’t respond to a message left on his phone. His attorney, Daniel Henry, said last week he’s still conducting an investigation and that it would be premature to comment.

But Calhoun’s actions aren’t the only ones under scrutiny. Activists – in addition to mobilizing before his next court date Oct. 2 – still want to know why cops treated the armed man with so much deference and plan to press the Common Council’s Police Oversight Committee on whether the officers’ response was appropriate.

In fact, the whole video – from Calhoun’s waving of the gun at black people to police extending the benefit of the doubt to the middle-aged white guy – plays like the short version of "Birth of a Nation," 2019 style.

The difference is that 2019 black Buffalo will not take it.

Thanks to a courageous black woman willing to stand up to make sure something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else, and another courageous black woman with a cellphone camera, Calhoun’s privilege has run out – at least for now – because he ran up against a DA who followed the evidence.

But that doesn’t mean his privilege won’t re-emerge.

All we can hope now is that he gets an impartial jury – and not a jury of his peers.

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