Police shot Robbie Tolan, in his own driveway, accusing him of stealing his own car. A white officer panicked and shot the black Tolan, in a script so rote, we can probably recite it from memory: misidentification, hasty violence, media uproar, acquittal. Except Robbie Tolan did something few black police shooting victims to: he survived to tell his own tale. Now he figures we’re ready to hear what happened that night, nearly ten years ago.
Tolan lived with his parents on December 31, 2008. The Tolans were one of the few black families living in Houston’s prosperous Bellaire suburb, a community rife with common, but largely undiscussed, frictions between minorities and the police. Driving home from the store in the small hours, a white patrol officer misidentified his car as stolen, skipped verification protocols, and decided to tail the mysterious black driver. The resulting gunpoint confrontation has disturbingly familiar overtones.
Waking in the hospital with a collapsed lung and pulverized liver, Tolan, a committed athlete with a future ahead of him, faced months of rehabilitation just to walk unaided. Many local commentators suggested he should count his blessings that he had any future coming whatsoever, since many youths in his situation became voiceless statistics. Then the online death threats began pouring in, as they do in these situations. This only motivated Tolan to speak out.
This book fits into Tolan’s larger campaign. A regular media figure now, he provides a rare opportunity to witness police shootings from the other side. He’s also fought vigorously to return to baseball, without success. (He remains optimistic within these pages.) He considers himself at war with the Bellaire city government and its police department, a metaphor he uses repeatedly throughout this book, but he refuses to let that war circumscribe him, or his options.
In a fairly unusual move, the grand jury voted to indict Tolan’s shooter on criminal charges, including aggravated assault. Tolan spoils it, so I feel no compunction in sharing: the jury acquitted his shooter. But Tolan also provides an insightful tour of the actual justice system, which shook him, since he only knew it from TV courtroom dramas. He walks us through the banal, frustrating procedures and frank boredom that characterize a real life trial.
Tolan makes a subtle, sophisticated witness. His descriptions are earthy, sensory-based, and salted with just enough vulgarity to keep cynical readers engaged. (One wonders how much that owes to Tolan’s ghostwriter, Lawrence Ross, an experienced journalist and media professional.) But he also describes how his family’s religious faith kept them anchored during his ordeals: they didn’t just fight injustice because Robbie suffered it, but because God gave them strength to keep speaking truth to power.
Other authors have attempted to situate recent police violence against African Americans in a larger context. Matt Taibbi’s recent biography of Eric Garner, for instance, is more about Garner’s world than Garner himself. But that’s mainly because most high-profile victims of police violence don’t survive to tell their own stories, and many who do lack the eloquence demanded by today’s media-saturated environment. Even Eric Garner’s survivors admit, he was a lunky guy, no media superstar.
Robbie Tolan, by contrast, has both an athlete’s strength and a media professional’s poise. Even before this book, he’d become a veteran interviewee, speaking both for himself and for African Americans generally. Therefore, this book spends less time than others on the black experience context. Tolan occasionally cites statistics and scholarly studies about police violence and the resulting blowback, for example, police officers on trial. But throughout, he keeps the narrative focused on his experience.
This book presents the longing for justice, not as an abstract philosophical concept, but as the lived experience of one man who simply wanted to drive home. How readers respond to Tolan’s story will probably reflect what the believed going in, as all such recent discussions have mostly done. Yet it provides a needed antidote to either formal stats-driven journalism or informal finger-pointing. Robbie Tolan makes clear, this is his own story, personal and important.