When the story of Michael Brown’s death first broke, I’m not going to lie; I tried my best not to read it. It came too close behind the death of Eric Garner and the verdict in the Renisha McBride case. I wasn’t ready to put my heart through that meat grinder of hurt again. Because of where we live or the color of our skin can, many of us think we can afford to look away. We can go on living our lives because Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride and a long list of other victims don’t really matter to us. And because we don’t really understand or have chosen to forget what it means to live a life under siege, we can blame the victims. I wish I had that luxury, but I don’t.
I am a citizen under siege, and I try and navigate what that means. It’s not just about the police, it’s the daily micro aggressions that strip away our human dignity and leave us vulnerable. I don’t hate the police. I have friends and family who are police officers. I dated a police officer. It is not individuals who make me leery, but the systemic racist policies carried out by the men and women in police uniforms who make my heart beat a little faster every time I’m pulled over by them. I am a Black, middle-aged woman, and I have been stopped by the police quite a few times in my adult life. Sometimes justifiably so—talking on my cell phone, expired sticker, and not justifiably so—being in the wrong skin at the wrong time. See scenarios below:
I have been stopped by White, Black and Latino officers. So, it’s not about race; it’s about racism. I’ve been alone and in the company of others. Once there were four of us (two men and two women) leaving a party and looking for something to eat. It was about 12:30 am. We had been out steppin’. One of the guys said, “Be careful. You don’t want to go above the speed limit around here because these racist cops will definitely pull you over.” Just as my friend was reducing her speed from 35 mph to 30 mph in a 30 mph zone, the cops pulled us over and asked us where we were coming form. What raised the cops’ antenna? Driving 5 miles above the speed limit while Black after dark in a predominantly White suburb.
Another time I was in an SUV with four female friends all past the age of 30, in downstate Illinois. One of my friends was seven months pregnant and had to use the bathroom. We were on a long stretch of road headed back to Chicago when we saw a motel sign. The driver switched lanes before the white line ended and pulled into the motel’s parking lot. A police car pulled in behind us, and the officers walked up to the SUV, one on each side, shined the light in our faces, and asked, “Where you ladies coming from, a hip-hop party?” Another time an officer asked me what was I doing walking through the neighborhood, and I told him I worked around there. I had just bought my car—a Black Honda Accord S.E. and I had temporary plates when I was pulled over and asked for my license and insurance, but not told why I was stopped as I made a right turn on a green light. The officer said my plates didn’t come up, and I needed to talk to the dealer where I bought my car. I didn’t get a ticket. And I was never told why I was stopped.
A few weeks ago I was driving home from Walgreens about a mile from my house. I had the radio on and I was singing along when I happened to see blue lights in my rear view window. I pulled to the right so they could pass. They stopped, and four police officers emerged from the car. I remember thinking, Four, really? Two cops approached my car, and the other two stayed back. I rolled down the window and placed my hands on the steering wheel.
Me: Did I do something wrong?
Cop: You blew that stop sign back there.
Me: I didn’t know that I ran a stop sign.
Cop: Where are you coming from?
Me: Picking up a prescription for my mother from Walgreens
Cop: Do you have a driver’s license and insurance?
Me: Yes, I do.
I handed him my documents, and waited. I was in the car thinking to myself that I just might get a ticket. Then the officer came back to the car, and handed me my stuff and told me to drive carefully. I thanked him and went on my way. I wear my hair short, and I wonder if it’s the short hair that made all four of them get out of the car only to realize that I was a She and not a He. I wonder if my being articulate, polite and cooperative turned the tables in my favor. I know that acts of kindness are not common in my neighborhood. I witnessed police disregard and disrespect people in the areas they patrol.
In the summer, flashing lights, sirens sounding, and “suspicious” routine stops are par for the course. I watch young Black men endure the eagle-spread-pat-down-rite of passage regularly. Sometimes I slow my car down to watch, and other times my immunity from the commonality of it kicks in and I keep driving. Once while driving in a nearby suburb, I saw a White guy spread eagle across a police car, and I nearly crashed my car trying to see. It was so surreal to me. And that contrast is pretty sad.
There are Black men in my family. I love them to life, and I want them to live to be old men. To say that I am afraid for them is an understatement. I’m not a church-going woman, but I pray consistently for their safety because I know the world does not love them like I do. My 41 year-old nephew is a grown man with a son of his own. He lives across the street from me in a neighborhood associated with frequent acts of violence. My nephew knows everyone in the neighborhood and when things pop off on the block, he tries to calm things down. Sometimes he just sits on the porch laughing and talking. So, I’m always ears perked for voices—his voice—for the wrong kind of noise. I stay posted on the porch or in the window. He’s grown, and I’m always telling him to go in the house. He laughs at me, but goes inside anyway. His work as advocate puts him in the streets, so he knows.
My nephew’s 17 year-old son, my great nephew is fairly naïve. In an effort to keep him safe, we have sheltered him. And that worries me. So, while he understands to some degree the dangers he possibly faces as a young Black man in America, he doesn’t fully get it. He believes that if he doesn’t bother anyone, then no one will bother him. I want to believe that, too. But I can’t afford that luxury.
There is a tightly coiled tension between Black people and law enforcement, and it’s becoming undone. We can’t live without police presence, but there are some areas where it difficult to live with them. This is not an attack on individual officers who show up to work every day to serve and protect under some of the most horrific circumstances, but this is an attack on a system of institutionalized racist policies that are being carried out by our men and women in police uniforms. There is no getting around the fact that there is little justice for the Black and Brown bodies who find themselves interacting with the U.S. criminal justice system.
I teach young people. And I have been watching this rage in them and lack of respect for law enforcement grow at a rapid rate. I remember thinking that blood would spill in the streets before we recognize the severity of the situation that we’re facing. Ferguson, Missouri is just the beginning. People with nothing to live for don’t care about dying. Some of them will kill each other. Some of them will be shot down for nothing other than the erroneous assumptions associated with the color of their skin. And others will commit suicide by constantly putting themselves in harm’s way forcing someone else to take them out of their misery.
So, I went back and forced myself to recognize what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri. And when I read that the residents of Ferguson were holding a candlelight vigil on their front porches, I went out and bought some candles, created a poster with Mike Brown’s picture on it and some quotes about struggle and oppression and I sat on my porch with my 17 year-old nephew listening to protest songs like Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On—and other songs from back in the day that are still socially relevant today.
It was chilly outside, but I didn’t care. I needed to be one with the people in Ferguson because like it or not, we are all in this world together, and the sooner the rest of us realize that, the sooner things will begin to change. Our skin color maybe be different, but our blood is red. The blood that’s shed will not continue to flow from Black and Brown bodies only. We have been warned. We can no longer afford to ignore what’s unfolding before our eyes.
Solidarity with communities like Ferguson is not a luxury; it’s a necessity.