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OPINION

Don’t call them ‘mistakes.’ Unjustified police encounters are acts of anti-Black terror.

‘Wrong place, wrong time,’ officers say. But is there ever a ‘right place, right time’ for Black people in America?

A viral TikTok video posted by ace876media shows Tashawn Bernard in handcuffs being taken to a police cruiser and his father, Michael Bernard, speaking with a cop after Tashawn was released.ace876media/TikTok

Taking out the garbage while Black. Driving to a sports tournament while Black. Being in a restaurant while Black.

At least three times in recent weeks, Black people going about their business have been handcuffed, arrested, pepper sprayed, or held at gunpoint. And in every instance, police later admitted these were “unfortunate” cases of mistaken identity.

Tashawn Bernard, 12, went outside last week to toss garbage in a dumpster behind his family’s Lansing, Mich., apartment complex. When the boy did not return promptly, his father, Michael, looked out the window only to see his son handcuffed and being taken to a police cruiser. It was all captured by a neighbor in a now-viral TikTok video.

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“When it happened, I was really, like, shocked and frightened about … the situation, and how it happened,” the boy said in a “Good Morning America” interview on Monday.

Lansing police later apologized for what it called an “unfortunate case of ‘wrong place, wrong time.’ ” It takes a staggering degree of victim-blaming to say that a child taking out the trash behind his family’s apartment was in the “wrong place” at the “wrong time.”

But that’s the same absurd story behind how a Black family driving from Arkansas to a basketball tournament in Texas got pulled over at gunpoint by police. It’s why in February Porcha Woodruff, then eight months pregnant, was arrested in front of her children and accused of being a robbery and carjacking suspect. Falsely identified by an automated facial recognition search by the Detroit Police Department, she was held for 11 hours. (She was also the sixth person — all of them Black — erroneously identified by the department’s questionable technology.)

And it’s why Jermelle English, a young father wrongly accused of fleeing a car accident, was wrestled to the floor in a Kenosha, Wis., Applebee’s restaurant, his baby snatched from his arms. He was then pepper sprayed and pummeled by several police officers.

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Mostly due to cellphone cameras, these are known cases of mistaken identity. Certainly, there are far more that will never garner notice. Even the publicized stories will eventually fade from public attention — at least until the next one, and there’s always a next one. But the distress and fear these incidents inflict on those targeted burrows under the skin, inflamed and ever-present.

According to Ayanna and Rico Neal, lawyers representing the Bernard family, Tashawn is so “traumatized” that he “doesn’t want to go outside anymore.”

That trauma does not stop with this child or his family. What these “mistaken identity” cases also do is reinforce the sense that there’s never a right place or right time for Black existence or safety in America. It keeps Black people perpetually wary, especially at the sight of flashing lights or officers approaching them on the street, even when they know they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.

It’s long been documented that Black and Latino drivers aren’t only disproportionately stopped by police but that these incidents generally occur with less proof of wrongdoing compared to white drivers. Earlier this year, a Justice Department investigation launched after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis revealed that the city’s police routinely harassed and employed unjustified deadly force against Black and Indigenous people. Some officers used Tasers on Black pedestrians and drivers accused of minor offenses — or no offense at all.

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Before a Falcon Heights, Minn., police officer shot him to death in 2016 — after pulling him over in what was later determined to be a case of mistaken identity — Philando Castile had been stopped by police in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area at least 49 times in 13 years. Most of those stops were for minor traffic infractions like turning into a parking lot without signaling.

Behind the current outrage over what happened to a 12-year-old doing a mundane chore outside of his home is the painful history of how quickly that encounter could have escalated into something far more lethal. What police shrug off as mistaken identity never takes into account how it feels for someone to be treated as a criminal, to face police guns drawn and pointed, or the vulnerability of having one’s hands cuffed behind their back.

Those charged to serve and protect communities too often do neither for Black people. Instead their actions, whether reckless or intentional, instill fear. And rote apologies fail to acknowledge the lasting scars caused on the victims and their communities.

Physically, Tashawn Bernard is fine. But never let it be said that he — or any Black person pulled into a similar encounter — walks away unscathed.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.