As pre-teenagers, my best-friend Boogie (R.I.P.) and I religiously worked on our jump shots, and our AND1 moves. We were blindly preparing for our careers as professional b-ballers in the NBA. We usually practiced in Boogie’s backyard until the brutal Columbus, Ohio winter forced us inside of Brentnell Recreational Center. Everyday after school we would ball at the rec center until it closed at 8:00 p.m. Once it closed, Boogie and I would leave the rec center together going home, and part ways at the corner of 17th Street and Brentnell Avenue. Boog’ lived in Brittany Hills, a ‘hood on the Northside of Columbus. I lived just behind the Hills on Devonshire Road. This was our schedule all winter.
But this one particular snowy night as I made it to my spot, I put my key inside the keyhole and turned the lock to let myself in, but the dead bolt prevented me from entering. I’d experienced this before. For several reasons, which I’m not comfortable discussing at this moment, my mom didn’t want me in her house. In an epic fail, I knocked on the door attempting to get in. Like always, my mom came barking at me in her Mississippi drawl: “Get ya’ ass away from my house, n***a. You not getting in here.” Those words will never leave my mind. Ever. I’d heard statements like that from her a thousand times, so I calmly walked away, lonely as sh*t. Now, usually when this happened I’d walk to my cousin Tommy’s house. Other times, I’d stay at Boogie’s house. But this night I was too embarrassed to tell Boogie that my mom wouldn’t let me in. Plus, it was a little too late for me to try to stay with Boogie on a school night and I didn’t feel like taking the long trek to Tommy’s crib, which was on the other side of the Northside. So, I called 911 for help.
They picked me up near my mom’s crib, put me in the back of the paddy wagon and went to talk to my mom. When the cops came back, I heard one cop ask the other: “Where will we take him?” Now, the tone and biting nonchalant attitude of this cop’s answer still makes me angry today. It was as if he said: Man, we don’t have time to deal with this little n****r. That’s what I took from it. But, the cop answered: “He’s going to juvie hall.” I’m in the back seat thinking: “What the f**k? I didn’t do sh*t. Why the f**k are you taking me to juvie hall?” I wasn’t scared. I was a regular at kiddy jail, the Huckleberry House group home and St. Vincent Children’s Center (a school for kids with behavior and learning problems). I just didn’t want to go because I didn’t break the law.
So, I learned early in my childhood not to call the police when I need help. And there were several times after this incident where, as a pre-teen, I just roamed the streets after being kicked out of the house. I just didn’t trust police. I had valid reasons not to. Plus, I’d seen footage, heard grown folk talk and listened to rap songs about Rodney King being beaten by cops.
Police officers brutalizing and murdering black people is nothing new; it’s as old as America itself. Despite my understanding of this widespread and recurring trend, I still never believed that a cop could murder me. But that all changed when I saw the horrible footage of Laquan McDonald’s body riddled with sixteen bullets by then-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. After watching McDonald lose his life, I’ve come to a hard-to-swallow conclusion: I’m not exempt from being murdered by a cop, and as a young black man living in America, many police officers don’t see me as a human being.
Human beings are treated with respect. Many cops don’t respect us. A human being has feelings, thoughts, a past, a present, a future and potential. The fact that many cops don’t respect our livelihood proves that to them, we don’t fall into the human being category. If so, McDonald wouldn’t have been murdered. Cops wouldn’t have tried to cover it up. There wouldn’t be campus uprisings of black students demanding that their needs be met. And an overwhelming number of prison inmates wouldn’t be found dead in their jail cells, without a single person being punished for it.
Now, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with cops. And yes, I have been treated with respect by some cops as well. However, cops have also harassed me for no reason at all. My first encounter with actual police harassment happened when I was 13-years old—one year older than Tamir Rice was when patrolman Timothy Loehmann gunned him down in Cleveland. It was fall. School had recently started for the year. The sun had just dropped below the horizon. After leaving my then-girlfriend’s house a few blocks from my home on Devonshire Road, I walked at a quick pace to my friend Bink’s house to give him the scoop on what just happened with my girl and I. As I rushed to his home, a cop pulled up alongside me, driving at the pace that I was walking and said, “How much do you want to bet that if I get out of this car you’ll take off running?” Of course, he angered me. But I knew I couldn’t beat a grown man, even in a fair fight, so I just ignored him and kept walking. With an arrogant smirk on his face, the pig rode next to me for another block. Eventually, he rolled off into the night. I made it to Bink’s crib upset, frustrated and confused. At this point, my experience at my girlfriend’s house was no longer important. Instead, I told Bink what the cop said, and he told his mother, Ms. Sullivan. She explained to me that I was living in a world where white cops want to see us see black men in jail or dead. Then, she explained to us that we were bound to a certain behavior. We had to be careful of how we walked, talked and interacted with others in public. But I wanted to know why, so I asked Ms. Sullivan. The best she could come up with was: “Baby, that’s just the way it is, was and always will be. White folks don’t care about us.”
I’d heard this before but this was the first time that it really resonated with me. I mean, I’ve seen cops take away my big homies in my ‘hood. But with this encounter, I was personally connected with cops harassing young blacks. A couple years before my own encounter, a group of my friends were sprayed with mace as cops tried to break up a block party in the Windsor Terrace project buildings, where I’d spent much of my childhood. With these experiences, coupled with me being a die-hard fan of Tupac back then, and his raps about the black experience and crooked cops, I had valid reasons to believe that cops didn’t like me because of my skin color. Later in life as I became an avid reader of books, I learned of the history of cops and that many of them were nothing more than uneducated, pawns for the government. Most of them are too ignorant to understand that. But that’s another story.
And today as an adult, the harassment still hasn’t stopped. I’ve had cops draw their pistols on me for minor traffic violations. Just a few weeks ago, I was walking down Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. It was well after 9 p.m. on an unusually warm November night. Undercover cops followed me for three blocks, then called for a marked cruiser to slowly pull up next to me. As the unmarked car rode alongside me with the car door ajar, the officers hoped I’d run so they’d have a reason to chase me, and a valid “protocol” to do whatever they felt like doing. However, I shot them a look of disgust, which I hope read: Dude, get a f**king life you ignorant, racist dumba**es, and kept walking at my normal pace. I had no reason to run, so I didn’t. Once the cops realized that their illegal racial profiling tactics didn’t work on me, they kept going. The fact is, I’m a college student. An aspiring history professor. And a hip-hop journalist who frequents Harlem to study, write, and attend panels at the Schomburg Center. Yet, this is all futile to the cops patrolling Harlem streets. All that matters to them is that I’m a black man, and according to them, they can probably find drugs in my possession. All further proof that these cops don’t value my life.
Knowing that some police don’t consider me to be human takes a toll on me, psychologically. When I see cops in the streets, I feel as helpless as a toddler watching his mother be abused by her boyfriend. I get tense, anxious and I’m filled with trepidation because my smallest movement can cause friction, thus leading to me getting hurt, or worse, losing my life. And for me to maneuver through the daily life of school, work and my internship, worrying about whether I’ll be murdered by a cop is an attack, and disrespect to my manhood.
This psychological terror isn’t new either. I’m sure that the psychological drawbacks that I’m experiencing are very similar to what blacks experienced during post-Civil War with the Black Codes, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era. Many blacks had to accept being humiliated by whites in order to make it home to their families and to keep their jobs, their homes and businesses. One example of this is the 1921 looting of the Black Wall Street section of Greenwood, Okla. Many black people in Greenwood made a name for themselves by creating successful black-owned businesses such as salons, banks, hotels and grocery stores. The area also boasted of lavish homes owned by blacks. But you know, blacks doing exceptionally well and being unapologetically intelligent and business savvy was damn near suicidal. That being the case, jealous, racist whites rampaged Greenwood’s Black Wall Street, also known as “Little Africa,” with bombs and guns, killing up to 300 blacks, and leaving more 9,000 African Americans homeless. Back then, terror like this usually occurred after a black was accused of assaulting or disrespecting a white person. Today, cops don’t need a reason to terrorize blacks. They just shoot to kill.
I’m not the invincible teenager I once was. After all of these years, Ms. Sullivan’s words finally mean something to me. With all of the young black men murdered by cops in recent years, I really do have to be conscious of how I walk, talk, how loud I play my music and how hard I nod my head to my tunes. In fact, I’m so conscious of how I maneuver that I don’t even carry books in my hands at night for fear that I’ll encounter a cop and he mistakes them for a gun. If I’m in a coffee shop studying, writing or reading, and cops come in to have coffee, I get up and leave. I just don’t feel comfortable around them and probably never will.
This is America. Slavery was legal here. Jim Crow was legal here. Segregation was legal here. Blacks are being murdered by cops and going unpunished here. As a young black man in living in America in 2015, I’ve learned, not only that I’m not human, but I can’t rely on the laws here to protect me. We, as black men, must find out what’s necessary to protect ourselves. In fact, I think that it would be wise if a select few of brave and intelligent black men build on the Black Panther Party organization so we can patrol, protect and serve our own ‘hoods. Because who else will help, if not us?