A Black man’s experience with racist police practices and racial violence
Add a new rule to the List of Things a Brother Must Never Do to Avoid Being Profiled as a Criminal or Shot Like Trayvon Martin — don’t do pull ups on building scaffolds after dark.
True story …
It was past 10 o’clock pm earlier this year and I was walking north on Greenwich Street between Rector and Albany Streets in New York City, headed home. I saw a horizontal pole in the building scaffolding on the east side of the street and as part part of my fitness habit, I knocked out a set of pull-ups. Just when I finished my set, a stocky 40-plus white guy with dark hair and a mustache walked out of an open shop and walked in the same direction I took. I somewhat discounted the glare he gave me since he can’t possibly think I was doing pull-ups until I found a prospective robbery victim, yet I walked slower than my usual pace since I thought walking near him would create unnecessary alarm.
My precaution didn’t stop what happened next — Stocky Guy quickly puts his hand in his black leather jacket pocket as if he had a gun and began to back away from me toward the street. His glare went nowhere, but his nervousness was equally prominent.
It’s amazing how the human brain calculates data in real time. I sensed there was a non-trivial probability that I was about to become a shooting victim for doing pull ups while on the way home and I had to concurrently assess the imminence of this threat — i.e., does Stocky Guy really have a gun; does he appear ready to use the supposed gun; are there any signs he’s drawing weapon at that moment; what are my options for handling this situation. His backing away to create additional space between him and me can be a good or bad event as I reasoned on the spot, since retreating can signal a lack of willingness to confront me, or it can mean he’s ready to shoot but wants to make sure I’m not close enough to grab his weapon. My computed odds that he had a weapon and that I was facing real danger: unknown-50%.
I was aware of our close proximity to the 9/11 Memorial, which meant there were security cameras all over the place as well as police officers at least 60-70 yards away. Not to mention the residents who live on the upper floors of the street.
Armed with this data, I initiated my calculated course of action: “Easy Bro,” I said with my hands raised while continuing my northward direction and creating additional distance between us. “I’m just walking home.” My voice was calm as usual and I wasn’t the least bit nervous.
“You’re about to get f*****g shot, sneaking up on me like that,” was his angry response.
Time to launch the next step in my plan, which was to quickly draw attention to this situation: “NO ONE IS TRYING TO SNEAK UP ON YOU,” I said loudly while moving further away from him.
Stocky Guy said nothing else and quickly crossed Greenwich, disappearing on Carlisle Street, headed west.
I never expressed anger or sadness during or immediately following the incident. I walked past a police car that was positioned to guard the 9/11 memorial as well as two foot patrol officers on the corner of West and Albany Streets without any thought about reporting what I just went through.
Thinking about that night made me recall the previous times I experienced guns drawn on me.
No jail record, but very popular with police
Like the time I was passing through North Carolina as a college student on my way back to New York City with three friends. The car I was riding in received its second flat tire that evening. Two friends were left in the car while another friend and I took a long walk north on Interstate 95 in search of a gas station — he carried the damaged tire while I carried a crowbar. I walked a few feet in front of the friend until I realized he was no longer right behind me. I turned around and saw him talking to a state trooper in a patrol car with no flashing lights. I walked toward the trooper and friend thinking that we now have a ride to the gas station when the friend began to scream at me to drop the crowbar. Mind you the trooper said nothing at this point. When I had a clear view of the officer he was still in his car with his gun pointed directly at me from his window while telling me it was a good thing my friend gave me the warning since “you never know out here.”
Like the time I was 15 years old walking through Central Park in search of a possibly rained-out high school football team picnic when a cop in his vehicle drove parallel to my vector, got out of his car and drew his gun, using his car door as a shield. Before I knew it, additional cops surrounded me with guns drawn. My supposed crime? A black man, whose description did not match mine, snatched a woman’s purse.
Like the time I met two friends in New Brunswick, New Jersey one Saturday night to hang out. We were passing through the town of Elizabeth when our car, a Jaguar, was trailed by a police car for no more than a half-mile. Without surprise, we were pulled over by the officers – guns drawn of course — with additional officers joining the traffic stop. Their inquiry included our providing a complete account of the places we planned to visit that evening, along with corresponding times. “Brake light malfunction” is the official reason for why we were stopped.
Like the time I learned that driving a rental car 46 miles per hour in a 35 mpg zone somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Miami can earn the experience of a police gun briefly pointed at you.
I haven’t covered the times I was pulled over for various reasons by police officers — sans drawn weapons — or the times I may have been a target for undercover officers. What would you think when a twenty-something year old white guy almost suddenly wants to buy you a drink in a trendy lounge on Chrystie Street to talk about Italian mobsters and famous hit jobs that occurred before he was born — two topics you never offered a clue that you were ever interested in discussing? In any case, I didn’t sense a good outcome from that conversation so I quickly exited.
In the aggregate, I was struck by how my emotions had been removed from these incidents. However, coupling my experiences with US Justice Department statistics several years ago that show how people of African descent are twice more likely than white Americans to be stopped by police, and how these stops are three times more likely to result in the use of force by police officers made me feel more like a member of a hunted species as opposed to being an ephemeral “person of interest” in the eyes of the law. I don’t imagine that antelopes, gazelles or other animals make heavy emotional expenditures in their past encounters with hunters as much as they focus on the moment they live in and how they will survive it.
It does not end with ‘The Talk’
Even even as an adult, my parents still inspect the clothes I wear when I visit them and they will quickly suggest changes that they think will attract less attention from police officers. In their calculus of probable frightening events, the chances I may be shot by members of the criminal or law enforcement clans carry equal weight. Wearing pants that sag off my butt has never been my style. Besides my lack of desire to wear a virtual utility belt, I also don’t carry my smartphone in a belt holster for reasons obvious to most members of The Hunted. I learned that making adjustments to my car dashboard while near a toll booth makes me a more prominent target as was the case twice when approaching the Hugh Carey Tunnel in Brooklyn. I try not to carry many bags, particularly large ones, after dark. I don’t have a police record, nor have I ever been arrested. Despite my background or adjustments made to my appearance, I can’t seem to cast away my “Hunted Species” status.
I watched the film Fruitvale Station last Friday and witnessed my typically calm and steady demeanor give way to heaves and tears. I’m still not sure why I was crying but while I may have seen a part of myself and my personal experiences on-screen, I certainly made a connection between film subject Oscar Grant’s death at the hands of Bay Area police officers and the lives of Sean Bell, Randolph Evans, Amadou Diallo, Clifford Glover as well as many other people of African descent who died from state-issued bullets or by those of self-appointed deputies.
Perhaps the tears were a necessary reminder of my own humanity…
song currently stuck in my head: “back home” – yusef lateef
Note: This post now contains six sub-headers, where the original post did not.