I have never been mistreated by an officer. Ever!
Since I was a child, I cannot recall, not one single solitary negative interaction I’ve had with a police officer. Quite the contrary. My interactions with the police have always been positive.
I was raised to respect authority. At least, to their face. You can think whatever you want but respect authority and if they are worth a damn as a person, they will treat you in kind. So whether it was my parents, my teachers, my camp counselors, my employers, or the police, I’ve always interacted with them in a respectful and gracious manner. It has kept me out of trouble. In fact, I grew up trusted by my parents and generally liked by my teachers, employers, and other authoritative figures as a result. Not 100% of the time, but close enough. Quite different from the image of the angry, menacing, stressed out, or suspicious cop, the police officers I’ve interacted with have always been helpful, patient, and friendly.
From the classroom officer we had in elementary school as a way to build trust between the police department and our community, to the patrolman who stopped me on Macopin Road and gave me a ride back to camp so I wouldn’t have to walk in the road. From the two officers who welcomed me to California after inquiring about what state my license plate was from, to the front desk officers who cracked jokes and cheered me up when I had to report that car stolen a few months later. From the campus officer that picked me and a friend up and drove us back to campus so we wouldn’t have to walk around those DC streets at night, flashing his siren lights so we could drive through a few very long red lights, to the officer that flirted with me in California when I had to go through metal detectors at the police station, asking me to relieve myself of any guns, knives, pointy nail files, platinum grills, dangerous looking keys, or especially tough looking boyfriends before passing through. Every time I’ve ever interacted with the police, they have either helped me or made me smile.
In the age of ‘Black Lives Matter’ I have never been made to feel that my life meant nothing to these officers. I am a black female. I have never been mistreated by the police.
Just because that is my personal experience, doesn’t mean it’s the truth for everyone. Just because I’ve never been mistreated, doesn’t mean that these indignities at the hands of police against black people (or other minority groups) is manufactured. Just because the police have never hurt me, doesn’t mean I don’t fear them. Just because it’s never happened to me, doesn’t mean it never will. Doesn’t mean the strong arm of the law will never hurt my family, my friends, my loved ones. Doesn’t mean I get to sit idly on my hands and pretend it doesn’t affect my life while my people are targeted and killed.
I could, if I wanted to. I could skim past the heart wrenching videos of black bodies hitting the pavement and choose to focus on Brangelina or cute cat videos. I could use my own experience to justify why this is a false narrative and give the excuse ‘well if you just respected authority like I do, if you’d just check your attitude like I do, if you just didn’t break the law like I do, if you just didn’t dress like a…’
But I can’t do that.
I remember being a little girl growing up in Long Island, New York. My world was safe, suburban, and filled with good people. But as I grew, I started to learn that the world outside my safe haven was a bit more complicated. How did I come to find that out? Well would it surprise you to learn that it was actually the death of Biggie Smalls?
See I was never a hardcore rap fan but I liked Biggie. I didn’t understand his lyrics or anything about East side West side beef. (My address was North Long Beach ave, so I figured North was neutral and I could like both… I was so innocent) But I liked Biggie because he was a big, black dude who looked kinda tough. Kinda like by big brother, whom I adored. I imagined that I would marry a big, tough looking black dude like that, if not Biggie himself. And then he was shot and killed, and I was heartbroken. And I waited. And I waited. And no one got the killer. What were the police doing, I wondered. If they could find a killer from a used cigarette or by matching tire tracks, then surely they could find a guy who shot a celebrity as big as Biggie Smalls! I don’t remember who said it, but someone told me that they’d just chalk it up to inter gang violence and let it go. I couldn’t believe it. The police were just one step down from superheroes. They wouldn’t stop until justice was served. But no one was ever arrested and I realized for the first time that police officers aren’t superheroes. They can’t always catch the bad guy.
And a few years later, I learned that sometimes, they were the bad guys.
Amadou Diallo. His name was everywhere. The images were everywhere and they haunted me. Terrified me actually. He wasn’t a criminal. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He wasn’t a bad guy but the police shot him anyway. They shot him 41 times! To a young girl, the consequences for that should have been simple. The cops that shot him should go to jail. They had killed an innocent man. They deserved to be punished. Anyone else would be, even if it was an accident. Why should the police be any different? But they weren’t. And suddenly, I was terrified in a way I hadn’t felt before. Not for myself, but for my brother and my father.
In the wake of the Diallo case, I had nightmares of my brother being shot by police. In my nightmares, I’d watch them shoot him over and over again, and I ‘d run through the streets screaming for help, but no one would come. No one would care. No one except me and my mom and my sister. I would run to the police station and cry and ask for help. I’d tell them that bad police shot my brother. But they wouldn’t pay me any attention. I’d look for help from my neighbors. But they’d say ‘if the police shot him, he must have been bad’ and no one would believe me when I’d promise he wasn’t. During that time, I was nervous anytime my big brother was out with his friends after dark. I wanted to go with him wherever he went. I figured that the police wouldn’t bother him if I was there; a cute, respectful, likable little girl.
And though the years passed and I had plenty of positive interactions with the police since, that underlying feeling of dread I feel when I see them walk by or hear a siren has never left me. All that has happened is that my fear has turned to hurt and anger. James Baldwin once said that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time”. And as I’ve grown to become more aware of the injustice around me, I’ve certainly felt that rage.
For decades the black community has decried unfair treatment at the hands of the police. Not just white police or male police. The police. As a group. As an organization. We are targeted disproportionately, our communities are treated like war zones, our youth as future inmates. We’ve yelled to the heavens that police use deadly force without just cause, jail us more often than other racial groups for the same crimes, and plant evidence against us. We’ve marched, rioted, and protested about these issues for decades and yet, many people – including other members of the black community – didn’t necessarily believe it. Black people were just playing the victim and excusing their own shortcomings as a community. But times have changed. Suddenly everyone has a smartphone, and the videos are striking. Suddenly, these claims don’t seem so far fetched.
And yet, for many people, even having video evidence is not enough to make people believe there is a problem. Month after month a new video surfaces, each more damning than the other showing unarmed black men, women, and children being killed by the police. There is often no attempt to deescalate. No attempt to resuscitate. If they’re armed they’re shot. If they’re unarmed they’re shot. If they’re resisting arrest they’re shot. If they’re complying they’re shot. If they’re already dead they’re left to rot. If they’re still alive they’re left to bleed out and die. All the while, people pop their popcorn and settle in to watch the latest drama unfold so they can tweet angrily one way or the other. The newscasters relish showcasing the tragedy on their networks for a ratings boost, get a close up on the grieving suffering black women and children. Their tears are the money shot we’ve all been waiting for. Down low racists make up excuses for why they either deserved to be killed or vilify them, the police release their statement, someone either gets charged or not but no one ever does any hard jail time and then we move on to the next hashtag.
I don’t want to see any more black people being killed in situations that other races of people can get away from alive. I don’t want to see my community being stunted because they can’t get out of this viscous cycle of rage and pain. I don’t want my stomach to turn when I see someone in a uniform. Especially when no officer has ever mistreated me personally.
But the people I love are big “scary looking” black dudes, “rowdy” black kids, and black women with “attitudes”. I have family members that are “prideful” black gun owners who think no one can tell them a damn thing. I have friends who have criminal records and “questionable associates”, who talk too loud, who refuse to step down even when they know they’re wrong, who will run if an officer looks at them too long for no damn reason! I believe the black community lives in a state of terror, that paralyzes us and keeps us from advancing. I live in that state of terror. And it has turned me angry. It’s turning many black folks angry. And that is never a good thing.
And when riots break out, everyone suddenly wants to talk about peace. Be like Dr. King, they say. Well guess what? Lot’s of people hated Dr. King. They called him an instigator. And they killed him.
Change cannot come from the black community. We have enough issues to work out among ourselves without having murder by the people meant to protect and serve us being one of them. It must come from the higher authority. Police should be trained to use deadly force as an absolute last resort in any situation regardless of color, gender, religion, or circumstance. They should face consequences for killing unarmed civilians regardless of the circumstances. They should face the same level of accountability and scrutiny as the average citizen or even our military. They should not be investigating themselves and they should not be taught that their number one priority is their own safety. It should be the safety of the people they are policing. We don’t tell firefighters to let people burn in a building to keep themselves safe. We don’t tell social workers not to go to dangerous neighborhoods. We don’t tell veterinarians not to treat animals with sharp teeth. And yet all these people have a higher level of accountability than our police officers?
Think about that.
If I take my cat to be groomed, and he scratches and scares the groomer and they drop him and stomp him and kill him – I would sue! And I would win! They are meant to take precautions and are trained and trusted to deal with animals that might bite or resist help or services. So if they kill my pet, they are held accountable. They may even go out of business. But if police officers kill someone they came there to help? Nothing. It’s not their fault. Their jobs are stressful and they have to be on high alert. They cannot be held to the same level of accountability that we give our pet groomers.
This is the cause of the rage. The anger. Even more so than the killing, it’s the lack of accountability that boggles the mind and brings me back to that little girl in Long Island wondering how officers could shoot a man 41 times and not go to jail. It’s that lack of accountability that causes my stomach to turn even in the presence of officers treating me kindly. It’s that lack of accountability that makes black people call the police, the biggest gang in America.
And until that changes, nothing else will.
It doesn’t matter how nice they are to me.