By now, you’ve heard the story: Last Thursday, actress Daniele Watts was handcuffed and detained by LA police who allegedly mistook her for a prostitute. Upon first seeing Watts’ emotional posts about the incident, I was appalled on her behalf. That disgust, though, soon turned to confliction.
The knee-jerk reaction
According to Watts’ original Facebook post, she was detained by the police officers after refusing to agree she “had done something wrong by showing affection, fully clothed, in a public place.”
She later went on to post that as the incident unfolded, she felt racially profiled — much, as she recalled, her father was many times throughout her childhood.
And I was genuinely livid for her. For her father. For the ludicrousness that there are still people out there who cling to the archaic notion that some people are better than others simply because of the color of their skin.
Honestly, though, I soon started to feel the familiar tug of torn emotions. When this story first broke, no one was giving the police officers involved the benefit of the doubt.
And I’m sure the defense there is that there have been several high-profile stories lately that seem to shine a spotlight on unscrupulous officers. But why wouldn’t that logic also apply to celebrities? Stories break seemingly every second about celebrities who have crossed some moral line or broken the law or lied to further their own agenda.
So why were people so quick to lampoon the officers involved in this incident before getting all the facts? Why is an actress any more credible than an officer of the law?
I personally believe it was because the accusation of racial profiling had been thrown out, and I think the knee-jerk reaction to that is both a positive and a negative. Positive because it shows growth in the general public — people are speaking up. People who will no longer stand for such depravity.
Why, then, is it negative? Well, that’s a far more complicated conversation, but the main premise is dilution.
If every time there is a tense situation regarding people of two difference races and someone pulls the proverbial race card — even in cases where race did not come into play — doesn’t it diminish just a bit the impact of the argument when it truly is valid?
Don’t get me wrong. I respect Watts’ right to fight for what she believes in. What I don’t respect is what I perceive to be the hypocrisy of the situation. In their initial posts on Facebook, Watts and Lucas insist they were victims of racial profiling and that, because he is white and she is black, the officers assumed Watts must be a prostitute.
But weren’t they making assumptions about the officer, Sgt. Jim Parker, too? They assumed he was racist when, in fact, they know nothing about him personally. They assumed he was targeting them when, in fact, he was simply responding to a call.
Still, they publicly lambast the officers, creating a media firestorm and causing chaos and, I’m sure, personal strife for all involved.
The crux of the couple’s argument up to this point has been that they were doing nothing wrong — there had been no reason for the cops to be called in the first place. Then, TMZ released photos and firsthand accounts from people in the office building who had filed the initial complaint.
A question of semantics
While Watts did, in fact, appear to have her clothes on, it was also very clear that the two were involved in very physical and vigorous sexual activity of some sort. (For the record, there are ways to have sex with your clothes still on.)
If she had come right out and admitted that they weren’t just making out (which implies only kissing), I personally would feel more confident about her credibility.
Rather, when CNN’s Michaela Pereira presses Watts and Lucas, asking point-blank if they were having sex, Watts never implicitly denies they were having sex. She just says that as long as they have their clothes on, “It doesn’t matter how passionately we’re making out.”
Rules, rights and entitlement
Her response also segues into what may be my biggest issue with her behavior throughout the entire incident: She doesn’t seem to think the rules apply to her.
The fact of the matter is that while we live in a free country, we do not live in a lawless society. There are checks and balances, and they exist for a reason.
In her interview with CNN, the actress says that the entire altercation began when the cops approached the couple and asked Lucas for Watts’ ID instead of asking Watts directly. However, she starts off by saying she was on the phone with her father when the cops arrived and not particularly interested in participating in the conversation.
There was a bit of back-and-forth between Watts and Sgt. Parker concerning his right to identify her, by law. “No, he will not be giving you my ID, because I haven’t done anything wrong, and I know I’m not required to do that,” she recounted. “I’m talking to my dad. Nothing personal, but I’m walking away.”
Then Sgt. Parker again asks to see her ID, explaining, “Somebody called, which gives me the right to be here. So it gives me the right to identify you by law.”
Watts somewhat abruptly brings race into play. “You how know many times I’ve been called — the cops have been called — just for being black? It’s because I’m black and he’s white. I’m just being really honest.”
I’ve listened to the audio and read the transcription. I’ve read the various accounts.
Insomuch as I can tell, the only extent to which race is involved is that in “cop speak,” race is used as a descriptor. So when the call came in and the witnesses were asked to describe the couple having sex in the car, the description was entered as “a male white and a female black involved in a sexual act inside a Mercedes,” according to Officer Sally Madera, spokesperson for the LAPD.
Still, Watts refuses to show her ID, and follows up her initial accusation of racism with, first, the celebrity card. “And if you’d like to demand it, you can take me down to the court office and I can make a scene about it. And you know what? I have a publicist, and I work as an actress in this studio, OK?” And second, the sick relative card. “And what I’m saying is I’ve not done anything wrong. I’m on the phone with my father, my stepmom is dying…”
Eesh. This is where I get the creeping sensation in my gut that part of Watts’ response comes from a place of feeling embarrassed. She got caught. She and Lucas got a little carried away, and they got caught. I get it — it’s natural to get defensive when you feel you are cornered.
But then that veers toward entitlement. Threatening to sic the publicist on him? Really? This notion is only bolstered by the fact that she loops her father (on the phone) in too.
The other side of the story
What struck me about much of the audio is how, for the most part, the officer comes across as pleasant (albeit he was likely also trying to ascertain information). When he talks to Lucas about how he’s just trying to do his job or how he understands Watts is “just heated,” it feels pretty off-the-cuff and authentic.
And you know what? I find Watts’ response about how she would have handled the situation naive and, frankly, a bit annoying.
“Well, I’ve actually played an officer before, and I’ve thought a lot about this. I think it comes down to seeing the humanity in another person and having empathy and awareness, you know, for what your actions are and the repercussions of your actions.”
Playing a cop is worlds away from being one. And police officers don’t have the luxury of giving people the benefit of the doubt — that can get them killed.
The bottom line
Does Sgt. Parker make a sarcastic remark or two? Sure. But he still, in my opinion, maintained a level of composure Watts was unable to.
She goes from haughty at times (“I think I’d like to identify you to my publicist,” “I’d like to make another YouTube video,” “I can sit here and talk to you all day, I’m enjoying myself,” “Should we take some selfies while we’re here, you know, to read about it?”) to accusatory (“I bet there’s at least one person up there [in the office building] who’s a racist. I bet you. I bet you’re a little bit racist.”) to downright frenzied (“I’m enjoying this because instead of f***ing around at a coffee shop, now you get to f*** around with me,” “You get to deal with batshit-crazy f***ers like me every day of the week,” “I hope when you’re f***ing your spouses, you feel really alive,” “Maybe I can take [the handcuffs] home, f*** my boyfriend with them.”)
Truth be told, apologies could stand to be handed out on both sides of the fence here. But I believe Watts should be the one to initiate.
I have nothing against her. As a matter of fact, I love a strong woman who’s a bit feisty. I like to think I fall under that umbrella. Besides, as Watts has mentioned in interviews, she has started a dialogue, and that’s fantastic.
But an equally important facet of being a strong woman, in my opinion, is knowing when to stop blame-shifting and accept your share of the responsibility.