Va. traffic stop echoes George Floyd

by Dahleen Glanton

Months after police killed George Floyd on a busy street in Minneapolis, Army Lt. Caron Nazario had a dangerous encounter with police in rural Virginia.

Nazario, who is Black and Latino, survived. But the officers’ overreaction to Nazario for driving a new SUV with temporary license plates was eerily similar to the way officers initially responded to Floyd for buying a pack of cigarettes with a fake $20 bill.

Nazario, still dressed in his Army fatigues, was driving home from an Army drill weekend last December when police officers in Windsor, Va., pulled him over, doused him with pepper spray, pushed him to the ground and continuously berated him.

Both times, the officers approached the men with their guns drawn and yelled at them to get out of the car. The men were immediately determined to be a threat, and rather than attempt to de-escalate the situation and ensure everyone’s safety, the officers made it worse.

Details of Nazario’s encounter are documented in police camera video, and a lawsuit filed this month against the small Police Department seeking $1 million in damages for illegally searching his car, using excessive force and violating his First Amendment rights.

It was nighttime, and when Nazario saw the flashing blue lights behind him, he decided it would be safer to drive about a mile to a gas station than to stop on a dark, isolated road. He drove slowly and turned on his blinker when he pulled in.

Perhaps Nazario had seen the video of Floyd’s arrest and realized that these sorts of incidents don’t often go well for people of color like him. The video has been played repeatedly during the murder trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing Floyd by pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

Nazario’s intuition was correct. The two officers pursuing him were out of control.

They jumped out of their police vehicle and approached Nazario with guns drawn and yelling, “Get out of the car!”

Nazario had no idea what was going on. So he asked them repeatedly why he had been stopped and placed his hands outside the window of his SUV, as they ordered, to show that he was not armed and dangerous.

“I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” Nazario told them.

“Yeah,” one of the officers responded, “you should be.”

The officers continued to yell, and they doused Nazario with so much pepper spray that it dripped down his face. He appeared to be blinded by the chemical as the officers pulled him from his SUV and pushed him to the ground.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, the complaint accuses the officers of responding with “knee-strikes” to Nazario’s legs and knocking him to the ground. It alleges that the officers struck him multiple times, then handcuffed and interrogated him.

“What’s going on?” Nazario is heard asking the officers on the video.

“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” the officer answered, using a slang reference to the electric chair.

Nazario, a 27-year-old graduate of Virginia State University, told the officers that he was an Army lieutenant.

“I’m actively serving this country, and this is how you’re going to treat me,” Nazario told the officers, clearly breaking down emotionally.

Floyd pleaded the same way when the officers approached his SUV last May. He begged them not to hurt him and tried as best he could to convince them that he was not a threat.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Officer,” Floyd said as they pulled him out of his vehicle. “I won’t do anything to hurt you, Mr. Officer.”

Perhaps Floyd’s pleas with the officers that “I’m not that kind of guy” resonated with Nazario, an Army medic.

What neither Floyd nor Nazario apparently realized at the time is that every Black man is “that kind of guy.”

When it was over, the officers let Nazario go without filing charges. Turns out, he had recently purchased his Chevrolet Tahoe and had taped the temporary license plate inside the rear window while waiting for the permanent plates to arrive.

But before he was allowed to go free, this brave, patriotic Black man who had vowed to die for his country was reduced to crying and cursing while handcuffed and on his knees in front of two men who did not deserve his respect.

What happened to Nazario and Floyd had nothing to do with breaking the law. It was about breaking the spirit of Black men and stroking the ego of rogue police officers who thrive on power and control.

It’s the same method slave masters used to maintain dominion over slaves on the plantations. The only difference is that their whips have been replaced with pepper spray, Tasers and guns.

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.