The majority of Black men over the age of 40 have a cop-biography. This is our personal history of police altercations that have left mental scar tissue. We are not “victims;” we are the walking wounded.But not all of us are dead, like Rayshard Brooks, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the hundreds of others. We carry on and succeed despite the profiling, the running, the death.
We are triggered every time someone who looks like us is harmed by police and we catch glimpses on television. The same for many Black women who have been beaten or raped by police officers. They are walking wounded, too, especially since they also bear the emotional brunt when partners, sons, brothers, fathers, and uncles are brutalized.
We never publicly acknowledge that the dead person likely feared for THEIR lives. Black fear has an archive of hundreds of blatant murders that justifies fleeing. And we don’t have the District Attorneys in our back pocket to protect us, like officers.
Most often we are abused because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other times for petty offenses, such as not using a turn signal when a cop says, “pull over,” like Sandra Bland, or getting caught passing a counterfeit $20 bill, like George Floyd. Or falling asleep in a Wendy’s parking lot, like Rayshard Brooks. Thousands have died this way, unnecessarily.
I wish I could tell you I’ve never had a run-in with police. I am a part of the Black Lives Matter movement because I have had a violating experience with a cop or three and lived to talk about it. Here.
And yet, it would seem I’ve lived a charmed life: Hewlett-Packard public relations manager and company historian; a Ph.D. from the top sociology department in America, the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and tenured faculty member in beautiful Christchurch, New Zealand. I protest instead of watching this cultural uprising on television because I know the terror of being “policed while Black.”
Here is my cop-bio. This informs why I will keep fighting until African Americans are considered human in America. And later, I have a modest request for you to consider.
Incident with Police #1
Just like most kids, I like fresh fruit on hot summer days. Lucky for me, one huge plum tree was on our street . . . and too tempting to pass up on this day. I climbed, picked some fruit, and dropped it to my friend. This tree stood on the border between an apartment complex and a large house inhabited by an elderly, wicked lady. That’s what us kids thought. Turns out that old Black lady was telling the truth this time when she said, “I’m gonna call the cops on you kids!”
She called the cops. I didn’t think she would “narc” me out to “ the man,” but she did. He stood beneath the tree. I came down, red-handed, and the white officer escorts me head-first into the back seat of the black sedan. Mind you, I’m all of 10 years old.
I listen to the cop scanner and watch the wicked lady point down the hill to my house while she leans up into the cop’s grill.She knows my mother is a Louisiana butt-whuppin kinda woman. But the cop lets me slide with a warning, “Don’t ever climb that tree again.” Deal. I never did.
So far, so good. No prison record after my first police incident.
I walked home with two friends from the nearby corner grocery store and spied two other friends staring at the ground. They waved us over. Then there were five boys staring at the ground. We stood transfixed in the parking lot of a beige two-story apartment building. We could visualize what transpired.
We just watched for about 10 minutes. Somebody whispered, “When is the ambulance going to arrive — and the police?” Another voice said, “Never.”
We just drifted away. The ambulance never arrived. The cops never arrived. We wanted them to arrive. Public Enemy would be right in the future when they would say, “9–11 is a joke.”
A man wearing church shoes was trying to high-tail it out of the parking lot in his car but was shot through the windshield. He had then stumbled out of the car and landed flat on his face. He just laid there, Black man in his late twenties, bleeding all over the hot asphalt.
I’m breaking the timeline to tell you about an incident in 2019. I own a Townhome in a White upper-middle class neighborhood of northern California. I departed for the Bay Area one sunny summer morning to visit my girlfriend. After one block, I remembered leaving my coffee on in the microwave, or some such nonsense. I drove my Sonata back, opened my garage door, walked into my kitchen — and triggered the alarm.
Good thing the alarm box is right next to the door. But the battery had just died, so I could not disarm the alarm.Before I could get to my car and my phone to enter the passcode, I get a call from Xfinity to tell me the alarm had been sounded.
“No worries, I’m here — it was me. Sorry.”
“What is your password for your alarm service, sir?” She asked, robotically.
“Hold on, I’ll get it for you.” I check through my 187 passwords stored on my phone, then with joy — like I’d found my lost passport — I yell, “Oh! Here it is!”
Here’s the thing. I have Cable TV, WIFI and my alarm system (damned “bundle”) with Xfinity, so by mistake, my Black ass gave her the WIFI password. She hung up.
Before you could say, “hot coffee,” A White cop is braced at my door with hand on top of holster (yes, I see race).
“Of course. It is my time to die. I should have known it would end this way. Over some simple bullshit. Why did I think my Ph.D. made me different?” That’s the imagination of seeing your own death in slow motion before it happens.
I answer the door. (Yes, I peed a little.) But I put on the mask that every other Black person who moves in white social circles has to don, and that is the theater mask of joy. That’s the smile and pretentiously “happy” mask that we have to wear around White people, so they won’t kill us. White cops, that is.
Do you know how hard it is to smile when you are frightened for your life? This acting steals bits of my soul.
Black people notice when African Americans of “high social stature” return from the “front lines” of white society, because we can’t stop the double-consciousness “eternal sunshine” glitch that reveals the perpetual “shining” we do to gain White trust. Not with friends we love, but with people in power who can otherwise severely harm our life-chances. Black folks know where we’ve been . . . and how we’ve sold out our true selves.
“I’m the owner.” I say through my fear.
He says, “Can I see your ID?”
“My ID is in my car’s back seat, in my backpack.”
With smooth, deliberate actions I walk with him through my kitchen to the garage and to my car. I open the door slowly (so as not to startle John Wayne), and then present my wallet, my driver’s license, and my slave papers. After a security check, I was legit.
He exhaled. I exhaled. He walked out.
And we wonder why Black people have extraordinary rates of high blood pressure. Turns out, he was from Australia. I’m glad he wasn’t from the USA. Why are White people outside the USA much friendlier to Black Americans? “Slavery tainted our White people,” was my wrong-headed conclusion.
Here’s where it gets a bit thicker. I’ve had nine near-death experiences in my life. Close calls — just like in the movies. You’ve likely had one or two, yourself. I’ve never counted incident #4 as near-death. Walter Scott and Rayshard Brooks, both shot in the back by police, force me to rethink that.
I was a salesman at “The Great American Shoe Store,” Kinney Shoes, back in the 1970s. I earned $1.65 an hour at Eastmont Mall in Oakland. I clocked out at 9:15 pm one night headed for my older sister Floy’s house near Seminary and MacArthur Boulevard, six-blocks from the Mall. Late, and dark outside, but no big deal. Nobody hassled me in my part of town.
After two blocks I stopped to look up at a police helicopter circling the graveyard. People were out of their houses pointing to the copter and then gesturing towards the graveyard. Nearby apartments were emptied as people anticipated the capture of somebody very, very bad. I know it was something bad because people were out in their house-shoes and robes and hair curlers and talking up a storm.
I, too, also looked up waiting for the bad guy to “Come out with your hands up!” Then my “Spidey senses” started tingling; I looked to my right and saw a Black officer pointing through the crowd toward me. He walked in my direction without losing eye contact. He then pointed to me. I looked to my left to see a White cop who was maintaining voice contact with the brotha cop.The White cop then pointed to me, also. They both targeted my 6′ 2″ 160-pound Black body as the culprit.
“We’ve got our guy!” seemed to be the consensus. A classic pincer military movement. I waited until they were both ten feet from me on both sides. Then I did what my mother always told me to do to survive when problems arose: “RUN!”
I ran straight across the street toward the fenced graveyard. I didn’t have a plan. I was trapped. I started running to the north — towards my sister’s house.A cop car then rolled up on the curb and blocked my path on the grassy side-hill with no sidewalk. I climbed over the police hood and kept on running. Easy. Okay, just a tad dangerous.
I turned on the afterburners and ran with both the Black and White officers in hot pursuit.I never looked back to find the squad car. Floy Dean had made gumbo, so there was additional motivation.
Here’s how dazed I was: I ran down the two-lane street on the opposite side of the road. I was running on the left of the yellow line against traffic! But I had a good pace; only three more blocks. A Black woman pulled up next to me and rolled her banged-up car window down to talk to the running man. She said,
“Young man, why are you running down the wrong side of the street?!!”
“Because the cops are chasing me!”
“Why are the cops chasing you?”
“I don’t know why! But I need a ride to my sister’s house!”
“I can’t give you a ride — I’ve got a baby strapped in the back seat!” Fair enough.
“I’m only going two blocks!”
“Okay! Get in!” She slammed on her brakes, I got in, she drove two blocks, broke off a left turn on 61 avenue, until I yelled, “Throw me out right here — then GO!” Boys in the Hood kinda shit.
I jumped out of the Samaritan’s car while it was still moving and ducked into my sister’s house. Safe. Alive. Sweating. I looked at Floy and she put her hand on her hip and snapped, “Why are you sweating?”
“The cops were after me. They thought I did it. Something bad happened at the graveyard. I got away.” I looked for the obvious sympathy you’d get from your sister, twelve years your senior. This is what she said: “Welcome to Oakland.”
I lived to earn my Ph.D. and become a college professor. I’m one of the lucky ones, if you call that luck. This went sideways. What was the right thing to do? Put my hands up, get cuffed and possibly die in police custody? Or get shot in the back?
This one stuck with me the most because it happened during my first master’s degree when I was 24 years old. I was pledging Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, and my line brothers and I thought it would be a good idea to visit our big brothers at the neighboring college (UC Davis) to show off our colors and to flirt with the many coeds at this fine institution. So, we rode — seven-deep in a long white loud Oldsmobile that drank gas and woke up the neighborhood.
We danced, chatted with the ladies, got phone numbers, bragged, said some pledging line “goodbye big brothers” chants, then headed home after midnight. We stopped at a nearby 7–11 for snacks.
Healthy snacks, like microwave burritos, twinkies, slushies — you know, the good stuff. We piled back in, good natured and now happy, and headed around the corner and back home to bed.
Not so fast. Roadblock! Cops everywhere. Lights blaring. Trapped like dogs. We slowly pulled over and stopped, chilled to the bone.
“Get out of the car!” the badass cop yells from a distance.
I whisper, “I got this brothas.” I was the oldest by three years, a grad student majoring in communications — with a minor in defusing volatile situations with White people.
We piled out, lined up, then I took the lead: “What seems to be the problem, officer?”
“Get back in line!”
I follow instructions. I want to live. “Just follow instructions!” I comply.
The cozy tree-lined upper middle-class neighborhood was straight out of Sunset Magazine. Why so many officers and flashing lights? But one cop got my special attention. He stood beside a tree with a rifle aimed directly at me. He was AIMING! They had the drop on us.
I thought about what I should do. I thought, this is not the time to “Run!”
But I did think, “What are the odds that guy shoots me for running . . . simply for being scared? A student on his way to be somebody? Nobody would ever know who I was. Internet hashtags were not yet invented. “Vern was trying to escape capture,” they’d say.
Next, Chief cop (is he a bad apple?) yells, “Take your pants off and put them down on your ankles.”
We glanced around at each other — awfully humiliated and confused. We looked for somebody to take the lead. Somebody among us to object. That was my job. But I was too scared. I let my brothers down.
Bad Apple yells, “Now!”
We quickly complied. He circled us while inspecting Black men in tight white underwear, shivering.
“Now open your mouths and stick out your tongues.” We complied. Failure to comply was an ass whuppin, guaranteed. Because the “Bad Apple” is a quaint way of saying, “Overseer, judge, jury and executioner.” When people call people who exert unnecessary roughness, “bad apples,” correct them. They are intentionally minimizing lethal executions. That’s like calling the electric chair a “prisoner’s lounge.”
People in power are adept at configuring and framing the narrative language to suit their agenda: Kill people, then justify the status quo as “near perfect” with “no racial bias” . . . merely a few “bad apples.” Move along. Nothing to see here.
If I want you to think police are great, I’ll call the murderous ones “bad apples” so it appears this is a small issue. The rest of the officers in the barrel are untainted. Everybody likes apples. And who gets mad at something so simple as a bruised apple?
Think about it differently. More like a person with Covid-19 symptoms entering a small, crowded church. Before long, many other people are infected. Just like we watched the “training day” Bad Apple Chief teach his congregation of three officers how to murder George Floyd and get away with it. Perfect. Get the “bad apple” to train otherwise good men and women cops to kill without fear of prosecution. Tangent over. Back to our terror in Davis.
After looking into each of our mouths, the cop asked, “What are you doing in this neighborhood?”
This was what I trained for. This was my time to shine.
“We are college students. We were just at the Rec Pool Lodge at UC Davis at a party.”
“Where are you from?”
“Chico sir! And I am a graduate student!” (That should “learn him” for thinking we were all criminals. I got this!)
“When are you headed home?”
“Right now,” I said.
“Then pull your pants up and move along.”
I asked, scared but determined, “Why did you stop us?”
“Well, six black men who looked just like you robbed this store two weeks ago. We are just making sure the neighborhood is protected. Drive home safely!”
I think this is where the phrase WTF originated. In this moment.
We dragged our emotions to the car and squeezed uneasily into the musty white Oldsmobile. Seniority meant I got the seat behind the driver. I stared out the window, but I didn’t cry. None of us did. “You hold that shit in. You are a man now,” I thought.
We rode highway 99 for 75 minutes. We didn’t say one word to each other. We’d been bullied and molested in full view of polite neighbors and frightened children. I let slip from my hands a phone number of a cute and interesting woman I’d met that night. “So long.”
Our joy was stolen. We felt like criminals. We were just college boys out having college fun. None of us ever discussed the incident. If we didn’t talk about it, it never happened. Until now. It is time I broke the silence of our public humiliation. Every Black man has a cop-bio. You’ve got mine. And mine is tame.
These stories are not nearly the worst of it for Black men and women who grow up in neighborhoods like mine. Far more people have been through far more than me. Imagine the people who had their lives cut short by being in the wrong place when the bad apple arrives. Their potential is cut short. Their genius never given a chance to blossom.
We are condoning this stormtrooper-type behavior when we look away from racial profiling. The statement, “they looked just like you,” is an old trope that simply means, “Stay away. Black people do not belong here.” Real estate “redlining” was designed to keep the undesirables — Black bodies — far away from “respectable society.”
Young, Black, Endangered
I understand how precarious life can be as a young black man. Today, my young Black male students have that look in their eyes that I had after our incident in Davis. These young men are mostly from Sacramento, Oakland, Vallejo, South Central Los Angeles, Compton, Inglewood and San Diego. I am still learning how Black women manage to cope.
Whatever they go through, they still arrive in college with more energy and enthusiasm than I notice in the Black men who are more apt to carry on their faces that vacant, abused, searching stare. I know that they need another Black man who has been through similar horrors to tell them that they are whole and that they can handle any challenge thrown their way.
When I see that look, I check in with them. I ask how they are feeling. They sometimes can’t express exactly what their issue is. Racism and violence are overwhelming. I don’t have the bandwidth as the only visible Black male professor (there might be two others) at my institution to keep up with everyone.
And remember — Black professors can work two angles: 1) mentoring and guiding Black folks (and many times Brown folks) through the collegiate experience and traumas, and 2) being a role model for white students who will never have had a Black authority figure and who learn to respect the process of inquiry, research, discussion and transformation from passive racist to ally and even strong justice advocate.
Every academic institution needs to assess its hiring practices. They will find flaws that inadvertently (I’m being generous here) eliminate Black and Brown candidates. And many other folks not “normal.”
Some students fall through the cracks of society . . . dropping out of the University, never to be heard from again. Some are suffering through unintended Covid-19 consequences because they are forced by the University shut-down to leave the cozy confines of a college town and return to their sometimes-shattered neighborhoods.
There, they negotiate with gangs for right of passage down streets and later negotiate with cops for the proof they are not in gangs. “I’m a college student” is their only “ace” card to play. I know that card.
These shattered students are one reason I protest and march and wear a “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt to the farmer’s market in my small White town, to my classes, and on sunny spring days. I identify. You might not.
When I ask my White American friends to protest, I’m not making an idle request. I’m asking you to help keep me alive. I flinch when tailed by a cop car in my small town; I feel a surge of adrenaline when I walk past a cop on a downtown street; I wince on the freeway when Highway Patrol officers ride my bumper. I guess most people would sweat when the cops are following you. I do because I have brown skin.
I haven’t been to war, but on rare occasions it feels like I live in a Civil War zone; and this time the good guys are losing. Some southerners feel the Civil War was not lost but rather is still raging.
Thus, seeing George Floyd, Walter Scott and Rayshard Brooks go down the way they did — in a public executions, part and parcel of what America has done to Black people for centuries — only adds to my high blood pressure. I want us to be done with this legacy. Enough is enough. Protests help.
White Altruism must start with a Calling. I’m Calling You — Help!
When I ask White people to join this fight, I want them to fight for the thousands of Black girls and boys and men and women who’ve had their futures deleted in an instant by a cop who was scared of Blackness.
I know, Covid-19 is getting in the way. That’s real. So, if you protest, do so safely. If you aren’t up to protesting with us on the street, how about an alternative? What about fashioning a home-made Black Lives Matter tee-shirt, like many fashioned those Covid-19 masks to save us?
It would not hurt you to wear a BLM tee-shirt then post your photo to your friends.Or get groceries in your new shirt. Or make up your own shirt with your own ally-friendly slogan. I can guarantee you it is certainly a conversation starter.
You’ll find who amongst your friends might need a conversation to clear up some confusion. I welcome and treat those discussions gently. Okay, not all the time. But I never, ever yell names — and I suggest you not do that, either.
White people — good White people — are dying for engagement on these issues, and I oblige them. This can wear on a brotha, but my job is to educate. This is a 400-year-old marathon race for equality and peace.
For those White Americans who do accept my “double-dog dare” to wear a BLM shirt as an ally-in-training, I want you to know what you’ll be up against. I have inserted in my book — written before any of the 2020 murders — a summary of the vitriol thrown at football players who kneeled or otherwise supported BLM in the NFL.
Oh, and thank you for the late apology, NFL. Yes, you were wrong to condemn players for exercising their freedom of speech. As White people love to say: Don’t tread on us.
You will add your name to the growing mountain of great White folks who are re-writing the history books day-by-day in this country. We, along with the tens of thousands of Black protesters, are committed to making America awesome.
That BLM tee-shirt you are going to wear will momentarily let you know how Black folks feel when profiled. You’ll find out what it feels like to be watched and judged. And then you will have that moment . . . that moment when you say,
“I get it.”
You got this. If conservative republican Mitt Romney can march and protest and say, “Black Lives Matter,” then maybe you can find the courage, too. Prepare yourself for the possible hate and mass confusion.
But some will say, “Nice shirt.” They are justice allies, just like you.
Originally published at https://drvandrews.com on June 16, 2020.