We Asked the Real 'BlacKkKlansman' Some Hard Questions About Being a Black Cop
Retired undercover cop Ron Stallworth talked about what it means to align yourself with law enforcement when you're black.
Ron Stallworth at the premiere of Focus Features' 'BlacKkKlansman' at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on August 8, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
In the summer of 1999, my mother was a guard for a major Klu Klux Klan rally in Cleveland. As a detective in the city’s Gang Unit, she stood in the rain in riot gear alongside 300 other officers while men in bedsheets boasted their racial superiority. When she talks about working that rally today, she describes herself as a “soldier following orders.” But as a proud black woman who once skipped school to see Martin Luther King Jr. speak, it was also one of worst days of her professional career.
When she was a child, she’d seen the vicious police brutality against blacks that led to the historic 1966 Hough riots. She was hired as part of a consent decree aimed specifically at helping stop extrajudicial violence. And she has never been one to back down to racists—she always told me to pop a peckerwood right in their mouth if they called me a nigger. In her mind, her professional life had been committed to working against the agenda of groups like the Klan, not protecting them. But that is exactly what her job had asked her to do. And even though I was only about 10 at the time, it was clear to me when she came home from that rally that it had taken a tremendous toll on her and split her in two.
I hadn’t thought about that rally in years, but my mind flashed back to it while I was watching the latest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman. The new film about a black detective in the late 70s who infiltrates the Klan is based on “some fo real, fo real shit,” namely a memoir written by Ron Stallworth. The New York Times bestseller chronicles how Stallworth went from working as a lowly police cadet for the lily white Colorado Springs Police Department to becoming the city’s first black officer who led a case he seemingly had no business being a part of. Through countless phone conversations, Stallworth ingratiated himself not only with local members of the Klan but Grandmaster David Duke. To pull off the ruse, he had a white avatar play him at Klan meetings and ceremonies. By the end of the investigation, Stallworth had become the world’s only black card-carrying member of the KKK.
Spike Lee’s movie ups the ante of the true story. The multi-layered dialogue between actor John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth and Topher Grace’s David Duke goes from hilarity to suspense to repulsive in an instant. There are explosions and deaths that never took place, a fabricated black power love interest, lots of laughs at the expense of bumbling racists, and some brilliant connections made between the Klan of the past and Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right of today. But what really hit me—and made me want to call my mother—was the film’s exploration of the fraught position of black American cops, caught between their ties of blood and blue.
This issue is discussed in the memoir, but Lee dives into it even deeper with the help of Patrice, a fictitious character played by Laura Harrier. She is a radical black college student who hates pigs but is unknowingly dating the real undercover brother. The whole movie we see Stallworth pretending to be other people and other people pretending to be Ron Stallworth. But in the presence of Patrice, he has to reckon with who he really is—a man with “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
While all black Americans deal with this, a condition WEB Du Bois dubbed “double consciousness,” black cops like my mother and the real Ron Stallworth walk along its bleeding edge. But through his contentious, romantic relationship with Patrice, Spike’s Ron is able to arrive at an unlikely peace within himself. The yin-and-yang dynamic Patrice and Stallworth have formed at the powerful ending of the film is reminiscent of the way Lee literally framed Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr in fire in the iconic climax of Do the Right Thing. The activist/cop odd couple are depicted as two halves of a necessary whole in the fight against hate.
As convincing as it might have felt in theaters, this cinematic framing has come under fire since the film’s release. Last week it was revealed that Spike Lee was paid $219,113 by the New York City Police Foundation, a nonprofit that funds initiatives for the NYPD, to consult them on community outreach. In light of this payment, Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley expressed his belief in a widely-discussed Twitter essay that Blackkklasmen is essentially an ad for cops that uses the specter of the Klan to distract from the dysfunctional reality of American law enforcement. In particular, Riley felt that Lee made Stallworth look more radical than he actually was, considering the real Stallworth infiltrated far left-groups like the Progressive Labor Party, of which Riley was a member. Riley wrote, ”To the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines—we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from white cops. Black cops, too.”
When I asked my mom if she was one of the black cops Riley had brought up, she didn’t hesitate to tell me that there were some orders that she would have never followed, no matter who was giving them. I got the chance to pose some similar questions to the real Ron Stallworth last week in a phone interview, several days prior to the publication of Riley's Twitter essay.
As someone who sees the institution of policing in America as racist, I hoped talking to him would help me understand some of the hard choices officers of color like my mom have had to make when they put that blue uniform over their brown skin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conversation remained firmly in the “void” that Stallworth described in his memoir—that nether region that it is too black for law enforcement and too blue for black civilians.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
VICE: How did you view police officers growing up?
Ron Stallworth: When I was growing up, I knew a black police officer. He was one of the first in El Paso’s police department. He lived right across the street from me and I went to elementary school with his daughter. We were good friends. His name was Bruce Mathis. When I was in about first grade, I remember seeing him in his uniform coming home from work. I was in awe. He seemed bigger than life with a gun on his hip, the shiny badge, the nice, crisp blue uniform. And that was my encounter with police. Personally, I never had any negative encounters with the law growing up. I was a good kid. My mother kept me on the straight and narrow.
What was your community’s perception of law enforcement when you were a kid?
I had relatives who referred to cops as “pigs.” And I had relatives who advocated smoking pot. When I got involved in law enforcement, I used to tell them, “If I ever catch you, I will bust you.” So I got called “pig” by some, laughed at by others. But I persevered. My mother was enthusiastic about my joining. But she was always concerned about my welfare.
Did you have an internal conflict over being a black man working for law enforcement?
I always felt confident that I could do it. The only conflict that occurred was the time I got to meet Stokely Carmichael while working undercover. Stokley was a very moving speaker. He could move an audience with his voice and his words. He made such good sense to me that I started yelling, “Right on!” “Black Power!” When he talked about whites not respecting anything except the barrel of a gun, that made sense to me. When he talked about the economic plight of blacks in America, that made sense to me. When he talked about whites wanting to kill blacks to establish their supremacy over them, that made sense to me, too. As I listened to him, I slowly started raising my fist. But when I realized what I was doing, it dawned on me: You better not be doing this because you’re supposed to be on the other side of the fence. I was caught in that dual world that we black officers live in.
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In the book, you quote Kwame Ture as telling you that one day you’re going to have to “kill whitey.” Lee’s Stokley is not as explicitly radical when he meets Ron Stallworth. What do you think about that change?
I have nothing critical to say about the movie. Spike Lee did an excellent job. In terms of how do I feel about Stokely this far out? Stokely was a vital part of black American history. He expressed himself appropriately for the time in which he lived. I viewed it as a personal honor to have the privilege of sharing that moment with him.
Right now, there are a lot of people who equivocate current leftists movements like Antifa with violent extremists on the far right. Do you see these movements as two sides of a dangerous coin?
Well, the Klan was about terrorizing people—in particular blacks, but later Jews, Catholics and then whatever minority group that came across their path. The far left groups weren’t about terrorizing people. They were about stopping groups like the Klan. But some of them, in doing so, advocated violence towards that end. You never heard of a far left group who basically had on their agenda Jews, blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Catholics as adversaries worthy of going after like the Klan.
Part of your investigation uncovered that there were Klansmen working in the government. Today, we see the alt-right had a seat at the table for awhile in the Trump administration with Steve Bannon. Trump has even been said to take on many of the positions of David Duke. Is that one of the biggest differences between the extreme right and left?
To the best of my knowledge, I have never been aware of anybody associated with a far-left group who was in positions of power to advocate on behalf of their political agenda. Some people would make the argument that there are former Black Panthers like Bobby Rush who are in Congress. You had Jane Fonda’s ex-husband Tom Hayden, who had been part of the Students for a Democratic Society, which spawned the Weather Underground. He got elected as a state senator in California. But these were people who were long past their primes as militants. They had matured and become family people, professional people.
What is the threat of the Klan to average citizens?
The Klan was one of the most violent terrorist groups that has ever existed in the United States. For anyone of color to sleep on the Ku Klux Klan is foolish. We should always be, as Spike would say, “woke” to the fact that the Klan has never changed their stripes. And when you hear Donald Trump say “America First,” that was a Klan slogan from the early 1900s. Trump simply resurrected it. It’s a clear example of his racist attitude.
What do you think about the connection between the violence committed by the Klan and police brutality. Many people have made the link between lynchings of yesterday and the grainy videos of police violence that we see today.
Yes. The only difference is the time frame in which they occurred. Had there been cell phones back in the day, you would have seen a lot more police officers involved in those activities because a lot of them had connections to the Klan.
Have you ever crossed the line and abused your athority when dealing with the public?
It’s very easy for an officer to abuse his authority. I’ll give you an example: I have slapped gang members in the face who got physical with me. You can argue that I violated their constitutional rights and I wouldn’t disagree with you. But I do know that at the moment I slapped them in the face, they were trying to exert authority over me. And as a cop on the street, we can never allow ourselves to be put in those uncompromising positions. I didn’t do it that often, but I did it enough times to where I was fortunate no one caught me on camera. Otherwise, I probably would have lost my job.
So these kinds of interactions are frequent?
When you hear officers say they never pulled their gun out in the line of duty, I call them a liar. Because in 32 years of police work, I had my gun out of the holster a lot of times. I only shot it once and fortunately, I’m a bad shot and I didn’t hit the suspect I was shooting at because it would have been a bad shooting. But I took my gun out of the holster lots and lots of times as a measure of keeping control over a situation because I was dealing with some very dangerous people who could have gotten out of hand at a moment’s notice.
But what you're describing is different than situations like Mike Brown or Eric Garner.
Yes. This whole issue today of police abuse of authority has gone to another level from what I was just telling you about because now they’re actually shooting people in the back. Now there’s actually video of police officers gang stomping individuals lying on the ground, and that is uncalled for. We took an oath to defend the public, not to abuse the public or to abuse our right as police officers. So I stand with those officers who are good cops and are deserving of our support. But I stand against those cops who are clearly bad and need to be dealt with in the judicial system. I have lost friends over that, too.
What advice would you give cops working today, especially when they are walking into “BBQ Becky” and “Permit Patty” situations that could escalate unnecessarily?
The people who should be condemned are the ones that are making those calls. Because in each instance I’ve read, the people that were being called on weren’t doing anything wrong. I would tell young officers today to be true to the oath that you take to uphold the law and defend the weak. And I would also tell them when you find corruption in your ranks, take the step forward and ‘do the right thing,’ to quote a Spike Lee movie. Basically, put a stop to that behavior because only by weeding out those bad cops does the police profession flourish in the future.
A lot of people would say the essence of the police profession is to maintain white supremacy because the first cops patrolled for slaves. Is it a good thing to have the “police profession flourish?” Is there such a thing as a “good cop"?
One thing I’d like for your readers to understand is the percentage of “bad” cops is probably one percent. There’s not a lot. But it doesn’t matter because it’s too many. That person needs to be removed from the ranks of the police force once his unjust abuse of authority is brought to light. In terms of the history of policing, Yes it is common knowledge that policing has a history connected with slave patrols. They were enforcing the laws of the South to hunt slaves and keep slaves with passes in check. Law enforcement has an inherent history of racism behind it, but that doesn’t mean that all cops are racist and all cops are bad.
BlacKkKlansmen is about the Klan. But what do you think is adversely impacting the black community more today—mass incarceration and police brutality or far right wing terrorist groups?
The mass incarceration is of great concern. But the issue of white supremacy groups is there, too. We also have a failure of blacks and other minorities to exercise their right to franchise and vote in elections. And nowhere else have we seen this more in effect than in the last presidential election. So many sat out or chose to vote for a third party candidate that had absolutely no chance of winning simply because they didn’t like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. We basically put a white supremacist in the White House. So shame on those minorities who failed to exercise their franchise. Shame on them.
Do you have any kids?
I have two sons, 32 and 28.
Did you have a talk with them about interacting with cops?
Yes, I did. I told my sons on several occasions, “If you’re ever encountered by a cop, obey that officer. First of all show him your hands. Make sure he can clearly see your hands. If you’re in a public space, make sure people know what’s going on so you have witnesses. Secondly, be respectful to the officer. Don’t give him a bunch of lip. That is not the time or the place to challenge an officer. He has the law on his side and he can find many, many laws to come at you.” I remember when I worked in Wyoming, they still had laws on the books for spitting in public. So if I really wanted to be chicken-shit back in those days I could have arrested somebody for spitting. My point is you do not have the edge in an encounter with the police. Don’t give the police an excuse to come after you because there are some officers who will. Let the situation end—that’s when you get your parents, you get the legal authorities, and you come at that officer.
Did being a police officer make you more fearful for your kids and their interactions with cops?
I can’t speak for every black parent, but I think my experience is about the same. I worried every time my sons left especially as they got older, especially living in a predominately white environment like we did. That’s why you try to prepare your child as much as possible for the possible consequences of their blackness in America, but you can’t dwell on it. Because dwelling on it is not helping. And you can only control so much as a parent. The child has to do the rest. If you raise them right, if you taught them right, they should be able to function and survive and thrive in white America. I did.
What do you think about Black Lives Matter’s critique on law enforcement?
I think Black Lives Matter is a necessary, modern group of activism and should be applauded. I encourage them to continue in their efforts. I wish them the best and police officers need to stop fearing or being concerned about them because they really aren’t our enemy. If anything, they are our allies and we should support them. Having said that, I can tell you that I have colleagues that will totally disagree with me in part because they are listening to Fox News. And Fox News is putting out the reports that Black Lives Matter are radical, militant black activists, which is not true.
Is there ever a time when it makes sense for citizens to be militant and use violence to fight for their liberation?
All I have to say is Revolutionary War. The Founding Fathers committed violence against Britain to bring about the change that they felt they were due and today we have a nation called the United States. The only difference was the Founding Fathers were lily-white men—a lot of them rich, slave owners—and their actions were considered appropriate for the time.
If you fast-forward to the 60s, Martin Luther King was fighting for Civil Rights for all men, but primarily black citizens who were being abused by the government. King advocated nonviolence. He didn’t fight back and as a result he got assassinated. But in the long run he accomplished his goal because a lot of things changed as a result of his form of activism. But as a counterpoint, you had people like Malcolm X, who basically fought for the rights of black citizens “by any means necessary.” So how you go about affecting political and social change in America is contingent upon the times.
When black people are using violence to bring about change, what do you do as a black officer?
That’s very easy. You are there to enforce the law. You’re there to keep the peace. You may have skin in the game. But you are there in a capacity of your official duty as a police officer. You cannot give one side more sway over the other. You have to apply the law equally and forcefully to both if necessary. So you cannot choose your black brothers over the whites. It’s simply a case of right and wrong, not black and white.
Would you ever encourage your kids to be cops?
I would encourage my boys to become firemen. Everybody loves firemen. People give donuts to firemen. But I don’t know anybody, at least in my day, who willingly offered me anything. I was being called “pig” and “nigger cop.” You have to have a firm back in order to be able to become a cop in America. Very few people are going to say “thank you” for who and what you are, and that’s OK. But you don’t get into police work in order to make friends. You get in there because you have a purpose in life and you want to follow through on that purpose.
This interview was conducted prior to the release of Boots Riley's Twitter essay. VICE has reached out to Ron Stallworth about Riley's characterization of his career in law enforcement. Stallworth has yet to respond.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.