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The Bizarre Compulsion of Black Men to “Reach for their Waistbands”


If police accounts are to be believed, there is a bizarre urge among young, unarmed black men to provoke their own murder by “reaching for their waistbands” when cops are aiming service revolvers at them.

Just this week we heard Officer Darren Wilson claim that one of the reasons he killed Michael Brown was that the young man “reached for his waistband,” and–in what I guess was just an incredibly weird coincidence–we heard Cleveland police claim they killed a 12-year-old kid with a toy gun because he also “reached for his waistband.”

But this odd compulsion is not a new one.  In 2011, fully half of all the young black men shot by LA cops were cut down because–again, if police accounts are to be believed–they too were “reaching for their waistbands.”  The epidemic also spread to Houston, where multiple police accounts cite the same excuse.  Oscar Grant, the young man killed by Oakland cops on a subway platform–and the subject of the movie “Fruitvale Station”–was shot for the exact same reason.

If police accounts are to be believed, this compulsion only exists among young black men.  I have been approached by angry or frustrated cops several times in my life–twice as an angry young protestor, eager to defy them– and have never felt even the slightest urge to reach for my waistband.  Maybe white skin contains a protein that protects against this terrible compulsion?

And exactly what is it that these dead young men were hoping to find in those waistbands? Given the Cosby-condemned fashion of wearing saggy jeans, these kids have to reach pretty far down to reach their waistbands==a posture which would leave them completely defenseless against an armed cop.  What a powerful compulsion this must be!

I’ve spent a good amount of time on police ridearounds in New Orleans. If you want to see young black men, New Orleans at 3 AM is a good place to do so.  I remember one night as my cop hosts were rolling up slowly on  a kid they suspected of a robbery: no shirt, Saints cap, saggy jeans exposing his boxer shorts.  The kid sauntered on with an exaggerated cool: he  knew the cops were watching him, and the cops knew that he knew.  One of the cops poked my elbow, chuckled, and said: “Watch this.  That kid’s gonna break.”  “When?” I asked.  “The second he reaches down to hitch up his drawers.”  As I watched, another cop counted down: “Three seconds to drawa–hitchin’.  Two…one…”

At just that second, the kid reached down, hitched up his drawas, and “broke”–took off sprinting down an alley.  They pursued him for a while, then lost interest.  It was the only time I ever saw any gesture that was even vaguely waistband-related, and ithe kid only did it so that he could run without being tripped by his  low-slung Levis.

Two weeks later, one of the cops in that squad car–a funny guy, a seemingly decent guy, you would’ve liked him–was briefly suspended, pending the investigation of an “incident” in which he shot and killed a young black man in the black man’s own back yard.

The kid had reached for his waistband, if police accounts are to be believed.

My old squad-car host was cleared in a few days and returned to duty.

This has gone on far too long.  I am going to take my own mixed-race son to a neurologist today, if not sooner, to have him checked for traces of this horrible Waistband-Reaching Syndrome.  I’m concerned that, one day, it could get him killed…

…if police accounts are to be believed.

John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.. He can be reached at:



John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. He can be reached at:

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