It was a sweltering summer afternoon in 1993 in St. Louis, MO, and I was 16 years old. I was walking to a friend’s home about 10 minutes away. As I made a right turn up a street on a hill, I noticed the sound of a car creeping behind me. I kept my stride and waited for it to pass. It didn’t. I risked a quick glance and realized that the good news was that the vehicle wasn’t filled with thugs. The bad news was that it was a police car, and it was pulling up beside me.
To understand my mind state then, you need to know that upon reaching adolescence, my family had imparted a concept to me that went something like this: If you’re black, no matter what else you may be, you’re always a suspect. Until then, it was an abstract nightmare. But at that moment, the nightmare was eyeing me from the window of a Crown Victoria.
Fortunately, after complying with the passenger’s request that I empty my pockets, he flashed a smile like he’d just eaten a few shit-glazed donuts, wished me a nice day, then motioned to his partner. Off they went, leaving me to stumble through a daze of shock, anger, and shame.
The next summer, while riding with a friend and some acquaintances, police ordered us to exit the car and walk into an alley. One officer demanded that we pull down our shorts and underwear; he checked us for drugs as his partner combed through the vehicle. By this point, I wasn’t even surprised. I’d come to accept that potential police harassment was just a part of life in the ‘hood, like liquor stores and food deserts. The ghetto offered no escape. If I wanted to be free from it, I reasoned that I’d have to leave the ghetto behind forever.
Of course, I now realize that there was absolutely nowhere to run.
During Freshman Week at Harvard, a group of police approached me and a few other friends, insisting to see our IDs. There were dozens of other potential targets for their suspicion standing around…but none of them were black. Classes hadn’t even started and we’d already learned that even Ivy League walls weren’t tall enough to shelter us from the prejudicial attitudes that lead to harassment or violence at the hands of police. Later, the police shooting deaths of Amadou Diallo in New York City, Ronald Madison in New Orleans, Oscar Grant in Oakland, and Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina became further testimonies to the irrelevance of geography in the equation.
Innocence and guilt are also inconsequential. Some who fell victim to police brutality, like Diallo and Ferrell, are universally acknowledged as having done nothing wrong. In contrast, others have been assigned post-hoc backstories that color them with just enough guilt to be somehow less deserving of human rights.
NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo stood a few feet away from witnesses and choked the life out of Eric Garner. Garner was rumored to have been selling unlicensed cigarettes prior to his homicide. Michael Brown fell at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, less than 30 minutes away from my own first encounter with the police, and was left to lie like carrion in the street for hours. A full six days later, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson informed us that Brown was suspected of stealing cigars, only to confess hours later that Officer Wilson was unaware of the alleged theft when he confronted Brown for walking in the middle of the street.
Friends, tobacco may indeed be a pernicious drain on society, and we’ve all felt the sting of a jaywalker’s heinous disregard for the law, but I’ve got trouble believing that summary execution was in order for either of those men, even if the accusations against them are true. But the truth isn’t important either. Perception is everything, and if you’re black, the perception is that you’re a threat.
That fact stands even when the victim is a cop. Just ask the father of William Wilkins, an Oakland police officer killed by so-called friendly fire in 2001, or the widow of Omar Edwards, an NYPD officer who met the same fate in 2009. For too many police, black people can no more rid themselves of suspicion than they can rid themselves of their skin.
Unlike fellow St. Louisan Michael Brown, I’ve been able to walk away from my run-ins with police with nary a scratch. For that, I’m thankful. But despite leaving the ghetto I grew up in, attending world-class academic institutions, and calling one of the most cosmopolitan cities anywhere home, I have never been able to escape the shadow of police violence, because even when unnecessary police aggression produces no physical damage, it creates psychic wounds.
These wounds serve to keep one in a perpetual state of low-level fear, and when you’re afraid, you’re malleable. It increases the likelihood that the next time you’re in a similar situation, you’ll be more willing to follow orders, regardless of their justification. Today, that might mean surrendering your ID for no apparent reason, or allowing unwarranted access to your car. Tomorrow, it could mean surrendering freedom of the press and facing indefinite, illegal detention. For decades, many Americans have seen police harassment and brutality as a black issue, but if we continue walking the path toward authoritarianism, black people won’t be the only ones searching for an escape.