Monday, October 10

The Man Whose Story Inspired BlacKkKlansman, on the Complicated Reality of Black Cops

The new movie BlacKkKlansman is one of my favorites of the year. It’s careful to let you know very early on that its story is a true one, with a few embellishments for film. And it likely does so because said story — a black man goes undercover and becomes a trusted confidant of some members of the Ku Klux Klan, including David Duke himself — would be written off as preposterous if it occurred in a fictional context.

But no, that man really existed. His name was Ron Stallworth, and as an officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department, he really did talk on the phone with local Klansmen and with Duke. With the help of his white partner, he was able to infiltrate the organization and work to bring down some of its local members.

It’s a great story that is made all the better by virtue of being true, and in both Stallworth’s book about the experience and in Spike Lee’s film, the story becomes a way to look at both the ridiculousness and the poisonousness of American racism.

I was thrilled to have Stallworth join me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, so we could talk about the process of turning his incredible life story into a movie.

But I was also interested in how the film depicts the double consciousness of being a black police officer pretending to be a white supremacist, and the fraught identity of being a black police officer, period. I asked Stallworth about that, and his response, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff

One of the things the film depicts really well is the inherent conflict of being a black man in a police department. The first 20 to 25 minutes of the movie are just about that, before you get into the meat of the plot. What were your thoughts on that when you were a young officer?

Premiere Of Focus Features’ ‘BlacKkKlansman’ - After Party

Ron Stallworth

We as black cops live in a void, in that we’re too black for the white community and we’re too blue — as in the uniform, badge, and gun that we wear — for the black community. Neither one likes us. They don’t want to accept us. And yet we are in that profession for a noble, honorable purpose. Most of us get in there for that reason. We’re trying to do good for the public’s safety.

But you’re not accepted by either group. In terms of the white side, they look upon you as an n-word, resent the fact that you have the authority you have over them and put it to effect from time to time.

I’ll give you an example. I investigated a case where a white woman was raped. I’m the responding officer. One of the things we have to do in a case like that is we have to take any article of clothing they may have on because it’s evidence. I asked for everything. About a day or so later, I get a call up to the internal affairs office, the only time in my 32-year career I ever had to undergo an internal affairs inquiry. Her son-in-law was offended by the fact that I, a black man, had done this to his mother-in-law doing my job.

The reason why he filed that complaint was her rapist was a black man. So he felt like she was being taken advantage of by me. We quickly dispelled that, and the thing blew away, but the issue of my race came in for doing my job to the best of my ability in a proper procedural manner. That’s just one example.

To the black community, they don’t want to accept you because they view you as a traitor. You’ve chosen to join the system, to work against a system that they feel oppresses them. They forget that you are, in fact, one of them. Because at the end of the day, at the end of my career, when the badge and gun come off, I was and still am just a black man in America. They tend to forget all of that. I can’t tell you how many times I was called “pig.” Yet we can’t respond to it. We have to more or less grin and bear it and do our jobs, when in fact we want to respond accordingly.

That no man’s land that we live in, it’s a lonely existence, but it’s one that we’ve chosen, and if you can’t handle the pressures of that as a black man, you should not become a police officer.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you have thoughts on if there’s a way to find rapprochement between police departments and black communities? When you were in the police department, did you see ways that the police can find to ease those tensions?

Ron Stallworth

The police department can ease a lot of tensions by being more thorough in vetting who they allow into their ranks. You get good people in there, and the good will pay off in the end. You bring somebody who has bad in them, that’s going to come to the forefront in time.

And in some cases, you know going into an interview, this guy’s not the right fit. But you put him on anyway. You take a chance with him when you shouldn’t. The interview process you see John David [Washington, who plays Stallworth in the film] go through to join the police department, that was a very true depiction of what actually happened to me. The only difference was I was 19, and in the movie, he’s around 25.

Those questions that they asked him were actually asked of me. In the book, I explain a lot of the questions. That was an accurate portrayal. I was 19 years old. I was still a kid, and I’m asked about womanizing and, “Do you drink? Can you handle being called the n-word? Be the Jackie Robinson, accept it with grace and dignity without fighting back, even though you want to?” That was a very true depiction of what I went through at 19.

Police departments can be more thorough in their vetting process. When they uncover a bad apple, they also need to be more aggressive to take the necessary steps to get rid of them and stop erecting the blue wall of silence, which is real. It is not a myth. There is a blue wall of silence that occurs.

Law enforcement needs to recognize that when you catch somebody that’s bad in the department, go after them aggressively. Give them the boot. Prosecute them if necessary. And stop looking upon that person — who’s basically degraded you and the entire profession by their illegal actions — as a brother officer. He or she is not. They’re just dirty, bad, corrupt cops that need to be booted out of the profession to clean it up all around.