I don’t remember how old I was the first time it happened. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old. We were in Philadelphia — my mother, my younger sister, and I — visiting my great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family. For my sister and me, it was our first time traveling that far from home, and our first time in a city like Philadelphia. Everything amazed us, from the size of the buildings, downtown to the narrow little houses on my great great-grandfather’s street, with no yards to speak of and no space between them; so different from our suburban home back in Augusta, GA.
Even going shopping was different. Instead of driving to the store, my mom pushed her grandfather’s folding cart a few blocks to a store a few blocks away, and we followed her. The store was a wonder unto itself; on the outside a rowhouse like the one my great grandfather lived in, but on the inside there were long, narrow shelves holding food, toys, and other items we’d never seen before.
Our mother had told us time and time again not to touch anything whenever we went shopping, but we couldn’t help it this time. We picked up toys and candy and other items, exclaiming to each other to “come look at this.” Until it happened.
I heard the shopkeeper before I saw her.
“Put that back!” a female voice shouted. “What are you doing in here?! You better not take anything, ’cause I’m watching you.” I looked up and into the anger-twisted face of a large, angry white woman.
We too much in shock and too frightened to say anything. I don’t remember what else she said, but I’m pretty sure she called us theives and threatened to call the police. I looked around for out mother, who hadn’t realized that we were no longer behind her. I didn’t see her for a moment, and then she appeared, no doubt drawn back to the front of the store by the commotion. She flashed us a look, and apologized to the shopkeeper (who was still giving us an angry look as we left the store with our purchases). It wasn’t until we ere out of the store that our mother explained.
The shopkeeper thought that we were stealing from her store. We didn’t understand until mom made it clear: the shopkeeper assumed because we were two black children we were going to steal from her store, and that’s why she treated us like criminals.
It was a lesson I never forgot, and one that’s been repeated throughout my life. I thought about that first time when I read this article from CNN’s Black in America series, about how being black automatically means being suspect.
For Anthony Williams, being black in America means being a suspect.
The 39-year-old former Marine said he’s never had any trouble with the law, other than a few traffic violations, and leads a middle-class life in the Atlanta, Georgia, area.
But the AT&T customer care representative said he still gets nervous when he hears that police are looking for a 6-foot-tall black man, “because I know I fit that description.”
“I worry I will get pulled over and some police officer decides to shoot first and ask questions later,” Williams wrote.
Police recently questioned him in his own driveway after getting complaints that a man was walking in neighbors’ yards, Williams said. iReport.com: Tell us what you thought of “Black in America.”
“You never know what to expect when you get pulled over by police, and that’s how it is when you’re black,” he said.
I fit the description then, and I’ve fit the description since. The next time I can remember is when I was in college. I was walking back from class, on my way to the dining hall for dinner, dressed like most of my friends dressed on our predominantly white campus, in torn jean and a t-shirt. I was halfway across the parking lot of one of residence halls when it happened.
I’d seen the police car when I was waiting to cross the street. I didn’t give it much thought, because I wasn’t doing anything. But the officers had paid a lot more attention to me than I had to them. They turned into the parking lot, and stopped right in front of me as I walked across.
One of the officers got out of the car and began asking me questions. Was I a student? Where was I going? Where was I coming from? Could I show him my student I.D.? I did, and he told me that there had been some cars broken into in that lot, and some break-ins at the nearby dorms, and that I fit the description of someone seen in the area around the time of the earlier crimes. And then more questions. Did I know anything about the robberies? Did I know who might be responsible? Did I walk through that lot every day? (Not after that day, I didn’t.)
Eventually, the officer finished his questions and let me walk away. They sat parked in the car as I went on. Keeping an eye on me, I’m sure. I thought about how differently that situation might have ended, because I knew even then the truth in what Anthony Williams said: “You never know what to expect when you get pulled over by the police, and that’s how it is when you’re black.” This was before the Amadou Diallo shooting, before Malice Green, and before Abner Louima. But being from the south, I heard stories, and I knew that I couldn’t completely trust the police, even if I’d done nothing wrong; not so much because of the police a whole, but because I didn’t know who — what kind of person — was behind the uniform, and what they might project upon me as a black man. I’d been trained without even know it on how to respond to the police; saying “Yes, officer,” and “No, officer,” and offering only the information that was requested, and then only if they had a right to ask for it and I didn’t have a right refuse. Ask the questions I had a right to ask, but never show anger or disrespect, even if they do.
I knew even though it was years before my father tried to tell me what law enforcement might both projected upon me and then respond to whether I reflected it back to them or not.
I was in college at the time. I’d been home for a weekend visit, and was heading back to school — at the University of Georgia, in Athens, GA. As I made several trips back and forth, loading up the car, my dad sat on the couch, watching television. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I caught my dad looking at me with what appeared to be concern, as though he was trying to decide whether to say something to me about it.
Finally, I finished loading the car, and said my goodbyes. But my dad stopped me before I could make it out the door and finally spoke his concern.
“Son,” he asked, “is that what you’re wearing to drive back to Athens?”
I was wearing my basic school “uniform” at that time: a ripped pair of old, faded jeans, and a old t-shirt.
“Um, yeah,” I said.
My dad then breathed a sigh that seemed a mix of resignation, exasperation, and trepidation over what he was about to tell me — what he had to tell me, really.
“Son,” he said, “You are going to be driving through a lot of southern counties. Now, I’m not saying you’re going to do anything wrong. But you are a young black man, and if you get pulled over by one of these southern sheriffs or policemen, they are going to take one look at you and get the wrong idea. They’re not going to treat you like they would a white boy dressed like that.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to argue with him, and say that stuff like that may have happened when he was my age, but it certainly didn’t happen anymore. Instead, I unpacked some clothes, and changed into a pair of khakis and a buttoned-down oxford, which met with dad’s approval.
I was still thinking about my dad’s words when I got back to UGA. After unloading the car and carrying everything up to my room, I turned on the television. At some point, the news came on and I saw this.
“This” was the Rodney King beating.
And now, half a year after his death, there is Baron Pikes.
Baron “Scooter” Pikes, a 21-year-old sawmill worker, had tried to run from police in Winnfield, Louisiana, when they tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant for cocaine possession.
But a coroner’s report found Pikes had been handcuffed and on the ground when first hit with the Taser and might have been dead before the last two shocks from the 50,000-volt device were delivered.
…In the year since Winnfield police received Tasers, officers have used them 14 times, according to police records — with 12 of the instances involving black suspects. Ten of the 14 incidents involved Nugent, who had no public disciplinary record.
Police said Pikes told officers he suffered from asthma and had been using PCP and crack cocaine.
But Dr. Randolph Williams, the Winn Parish medical examiner, said he found no sign of drug use in the autopsy and no record of asthma in Pikes’ medical history.
And for every Baron Pikes there are hundreds, even thousand of men like Michael Tillman.
Michael Tillman was 20, with a 3-year-old daughter and an infant son, when he was brought into the Area 2 police station on Chicago’s South Side for questioning. His mother, Jean Tillman, says that although he had gotten into some trouble with the law as a youngster, he had been on the straight-and-narrow, working as a janitor and paying his bills, since he and his girlfriend had their first child. That was July 22, 1986.
He hasn’t been home since.
Tillman is one of at least 24 African-American men that the People’s Law Office in Chicago claims are still serving sentences for crimes they say they confessed to only after enduring hours of torture at the hands of Chicago police officers under Commander Jon Burge between 1972 and 1992. Although 10 of Burge’s victims have been pardoned or given new trials after their illegally obtained confessions were exposed, the vast majority of the 100-plus cases have yet to be reviewed by the state of Illinois. Those men have either served out their sentences, died in custody or, like Tillman, continue to live their lives behind bars, hoping that one day they will have a fair trial.
According to Tillman’s 1986 trial testimony, when he arrived at the Area 2 police station in the predawn hours of July 21, 1986, Detectives Ronald Boffo and Peter Dignan took him to a second-floor interrogation room and pressed him for information about the murder of 42-year-old Betty Howard, whose body was found the day prior in the apartment building Tillman oversaw. When he told the detectives that he knew nothing about the murder, he says that Boffo and Dignan, along with three other officers, became abusive. Without ever reading him his Miranda rights, he says they handcuffed him to the wall, hit him in the face and punched him in the stomach until he vomited blood. During the course of what appeared to be three days, rotating pairs of officers brought him to the railroad tracks behind the station and held a gun to his head, suffocated him repeatedly with thick plastic bags, poured soda up his nose and forced him into Dumpsters outside of the apartment building, ordering him to search through the rubbish for a murder weapon until, according to Detective John Yucaitis, Tillman confessed to the crime.
According to Tillman’s mother, she, her husband and an attorney they called for counsel were all denied access to her son during his three days of interrogation.
There will be more.
How can there not be? A black man reporting on crime is held suspect.
THE police officer had not asked my name or my business before grabbing my wrists, jerking my hands high behind my back and slamming my head into the hood of his cruiser.
“You have no right to put your hands on me!” I shouted lamely.
“This is a high-crime area,” said the officer as he expertly handcuffed me. “You were loitering. We have ordinances against loitering.”
Last month, while talking to a group of young black men standing on a sidewalk in Salisbury, N.C., about harsh antigang law enforcement tactics some states are using, I had discovered the main challenge to such measures: the police have great difficulty determining who is, and who is not, a gangster.
My reporting, however, was going well. I had gone to Salisbury to find someone who had firsthand experience with North Carolina’s tough antigang stance, and I had found that someone: me.
A black woman with a big purse can’t even go shopping. (Or, to quote EnVogue, “can’t look without being watched.”)
About ten minutes into my search for the perfect boot my sister comes to me and says that she has to go to the restroom. I told her okay and that I’d watch Erica. By then I had zoned in on a pair of 9 ½ red Kenneth Cole boots and was searching for an employee to get the left shoe so I could try them both on. I told Erica that “Big TT” needed her fashion advice while “Little TT” handled her business.
So while Erica and I weighing the pros and cons of the red Kenneth Cole boot my sister comes running up to me looking both very frantic, frustrated, and upset. She says that we need to go and that I shouldn’t spend my money here.
Now my sister Jorjanna is the sweetest person, aside from my Grandmother that I know, maybe almost to a fault. She’s always cheerful and happy, yeah, nothing like her big sister, lol. So for me to see her so upset I wanted to know why.
She said that she didn’t think anything of it at first but that when we separated and were looking at shoes on our own, that she was asked more than four times by various employees if she needed help, to which she politely replied no. However, when she went to the back of the store to use the public restroom, one of the employees came in after her and my sister overheard the tail end of a conversation on a walkie-talking wherein the employee said “Who? The Black girl that just went into the restroom,” before realizing that my sister heard her. When my sister finished in the restroom, she came out and realized that she forgot to put on her lipgloss and as she reached in her purse and turned around to go back into the restroom the same employee who just asked if she needed any help accosted her yet again. By then, my sister said she got it and she quickly made her way back to where my niece and I were.
While my sister is telling me what happened three of the employees were standing a few feet away watching her. This angered her and so my sister said, “Yeah, I’m talking about you.”
Meanwhile, the KKK distributes fliers in Virginia, claiming residents requested information; students at a New Jersey middle school are assigned a project defending slavery; the vice president relaxes at a hunting lodge that flies the confederate battle flag; nooses start appearing at various college campuses, and even re-appear in Jena, LA, and the discussion ends up being about whether hanging nooses is just a prank; an all-white panel of journalists debates whether Barrack Obama is black enough.
Years after that conversation with my dad, I was held suspect again, in another police encounter that could easily have gone south.
Several years later, I was living in Washington, D.C., and found myself driving home late one night. I was giving a fraternity brother of mine, also a black male, a ride home after a late night fraternity event. My car wasn’t in the greatest shape. I’d been in a traffic accident just a few days before, and hadn’t taken it to be repaired because I needed to drive it that weekend.
We were driving past the Capitol when we got pulled over. I saw the flashing lights, and as soon as I heard the siren I pulled over. By then, I knew the drill. Don’t argue with the officers. Don’t get out of the car unless they tell you to. Get out of the car if they tell you to. Answer any questions with “Yes, officer,” or “No, officer,” give them any information they ask for, and maybe — just maybe — you won’t have any trouble. Still, what happened then was a bit surreal.
As the officer came up to my window, I said a silent prayer that my fraternity brother — Neal, who was known for having a sharp tongue and a willingness let it loose — would keep cool. The officer asked for my license and registration. She asked if I knew why she stopped me, and I said no. She said it was because one of my tail lights wasn’t working, and agreed with me when I said it was probably a result of the accident I had a few days earlier. She seemed to believe me when I told her I didn’t know about the tail light.
I thought maybe she’d give me a ticket or a warning, and give my documents back to me. Instead, she walked back to her car and got on her radio. I wasn’t worried, because it wasn’t like I had an outstanding warrant or anything more than a couple of unpaid parking tickets. But while she was in her car, another police car pulled up, and two more officers got out.
In my rear view mirror, I saw the officer who stopped us get back out of her car, at the same time that I saw yet another police car pull up. At this point, I started to get nervous — after all there we were, two black males, driving through D.C. at 4 a.m., in a banged up car, with the police units and six police officers now at the scene. Depending on any number of factors, including what we said or did, it might not matter if we’d done anything wrong.
“Is this your vehicle?” the officer asked me when she arrived back at my window. “We’ve had some car thefts reported in this area.”
I assured her that it was my car, and she stepped away for a moment to confer with one of the other officers now milling about the scene. At that moment, a police van showed up, and stopped alongside the passenger side of the car. Neal, who hadn’t said a word up to this point, looked at the van, looked at me and just said “What the…”
I finished his sentence silently, in my mind.
The officer, at this point, was back at my window. “Sir,” she asked me, “do you have the title to the vehicle.”
How many people keep the title to their car in the car itself? I didn’t know, but I knew that I did have the title in the car. I knew just where it was. It was in my briefcase, which was in the trunk of the car. I knew that in order to retrieve the title, I’d have to get out of the car — and with at least eight officers now pretty much surrounding us — walk over to the back of the car, open the trunk, open the briefcase, and retrieve the title.
What if, I thought, just one of these officers thought I was reaching for a gun at any point in that series of steps? That I had no gun — had never even owned one, in fact — was and would have been meaningless in that moment. It wouldn’t have mattered.
…I told the officer that I had the title, and that it was in my briefcase, in the trunk of the car. I told her I’d have to get out of the car, open the trunk, and open the briefcase to get the title out and show it to her. She gave me the go ahead, and I walked around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, opened the briefcase, and got the title. I don’t remember if the officer followed me, and I didn’t look to see if any of the officers had their hands on their weapons. I couldn’t.
I showed the officer the title. She looked it over, handed it back to me, and told me to get back in the car. The van drove away, and one of other police cars drove away. Finally, the officer came back to my window.
“I’m giving you a warning,” she said. “You take him home, get yourself home, and then I don’t want to see you driving this car again in this condition.”
I assured her that she wouldn’t.
“Alright,” she said. “Have a good one.”
I rolled up my window, and started the engine. To this day, I am eternally grateful that Neal waited until the windows were rolled up and we were driving away from the police officers to exclaim — well out of their earshot — “Have a good one? F___ you!”
I laughed, out of sheer relief, but I understood that there was a moment back there when we could have been “another Rodney King.” We could have been “another Malice Green.” We could have been Amadou Diallo, or even Abner Louima.
Almost thirty years after that trip to Philadelphia, and my first experience of being held suspect because of my race, I am a father to two sons, who will grow up to be black men in the same world that I did; a world that has changed very much, and very little since then. The youngest is seven months, and it will be a few years before he knows anything about the notion of — or the implications of — race. My oldest on the other hand, is five (or five-and-three-quarters, as he tells anyone who asks), and the day is approaching faster than I’d like to think when I will have to find a way to tell him what I’ve experience, in a way that may help him avoid some of what I’ve experience, but that doesn’t chip away the confidence that makes me smile with a fatherly pride I understand better now than I did when I saw the same in my dad.
Part of me must learn to see them — however much it pains me — not with a father’s eyes, but as my father saw me in that moment before I drove back to school, with the eyes of the rest of the world. It’s necessary, in order to spare them pain, to somehow let them know that there are people in the world who will not see them as I see them. There are people who will see them and not see their intelligence, the loving home and family they came from, their potential or their personhood. There are people who will project upon them what they believe about black men, and about black people, and respond to that even if that’s not who my sons are, even though I will teach them that they do not need to reflect back all that’s projected upon them. And some of those people will be in uniform.
I will have to teach them something else that my parents taught me, which Michael Eric Dyson articulated commentary written for the CNN series, about himself and his brother.
And he is not alone. There are thousands of black men who are rotting in jail cells who have done nothing to merit incarceration. And even when they get in trouble, a great number of black men go to prison for nonviolent drug offenses. Often, crippling racial profiling and suspicion of black men put them on a path to prison, while white males who commit similar offenses are arrested and convicted in far smaller numbers.
The point is not affirmative action for black thugs. The point is that white males often get second, third and fourth chances for reform — either because they weren’t suspected to begin with, or they are given far lighter sentences and far more favorable treatment — while black males are severely punished for even relatively small infractions.
Even though I grew up in an integrated neighborhood, went to an integrated school, my parents made sure I understood that I couldn’t do everything some of my friends might do, and expect the same treatment if I got into trouble. It’s a knowledge that probably kept me out of trouble, because it made me think twice about going along on what might be considered a “youthful prank” for my friends, but would be treated much differently in my case.
In college, I had a white roommate who had what you might call an “all-American” look (which meant, and often still means white, preferably blond and blue-eyed). His father was a bank president back in his hometown, so he came from a well-off, well-connected family. He drove around in a 1968 red Mustang convertible, dressed fashionably, and always had money. We became friends, but I was selective about where I went and what I did with him.
It snowed at the beginning of winter semester that year, and in Georgia that meant that classes were canceled for as long as the snow remained on the ground. By the second day, my roommate was board and decided to visit friends in Atlanta. He invited me to go along, but I declined, deciding that I’d probably end up over-extended financially if I made that trip, and if I ended up not having a good time I’d be stuck until he decided to head back.
The next day, I got a phone call from someone looking for him. It was from a bonding agency. It took a moment for me to realize what that meant, and I asked if he was in any trouble. The woman on the phone just said, “I’m sure he’ll tell you when you see him.”
Apparently, while in Atlanta my roommate had attempted to shoplift over $1000 in clothing from a major department store. Through tears he told me about being arrested, handcuffed, and locked in a cell with some “awful people,” until his parents bailed him out. While I listened to him, I quietly considered that those “awful people” who were his cell-mates for a few hours probably looked a lot more like me than like him, and if I’d gone along for the trip and gotten arrested with him my folks could not have bailed me out quite so easily or quickly, if at all.
Fast-forward a bit, and his parents hired the best, and most well-connected lawyer their money and could buy — and their connections could get them access to — to deal with my roommates impending court date. The court date came, and the sentence was community service. I don’t remember what the community service was, but at some point my roommate felt like venting and complained to me about it. I listened quietly, again, but with a bit more anger, because I knew that if I were in his shoes not only would I not have been bailed out, but there would be no well-connected lawyer, and almost certainly no sentence of community service.
I knew what my parents had taught me, that I can’t do everything my friends do and get away with it. Or, more bluntly, I can’t do what a white boy like my roommate might do, and expected to get treated as a white boy like my roommate got treated. If I got caught, my story would have quite a different ending. I had to know that, I guess, in order to have the future my parents wanted for me.
I took my five-year-old to see a movie a few weeks ago; one he’d been asking to see for weeks prior. As we were settling into our seats, the previews began, and one of them was the preview for The Express about Ernie Davis — the first African American to win the Heisman trophy — and his experience with racism during a trip south to play in the Cotton Bowl. I squirmed in my seat, realizing that up to that point, the history of segregation and the struggle against it had not yet been part of my son’s education, which focused more on basic things like learning the alphabet, learning to count, etc. As we watched the preview, which spelled out the central conflict in the movie, without making it too explicit, I wondered how much he absorbed, and what he thought about it. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to discuss it with him afterwards. Not yet, I thought, let him be a child a little longer.
And later, at home, we watched “Barney,” a show he has since declared himself to have outgrown. The episode explored the roles of various people in the community — teachers, doctors, fire fighters, and police officers — and the refrain sung for each job was “the (fill in the blank) is a friend of mine.”
When he asked us what the police officer’s job is, we answered that the police officers are there to keep people safe. And they are. But I know that at some point both he and our youngest son will have to understand that there are some people who will hold them suspect because of their race, and that some of those people will wear police uniforms, and will be armed with batons, guns, tasers, and more. And they will have to know — and know at a young age, as I learned on that trip to Philadelphia long ago – how to carry themselves in a way that that may be less likely to cause an encounter to end badly, or tragically, when or if they are held suspect.
Perhaps they will have to learn to hold others suspect, and potentially guilty of holding them suspect, until proven innocent. Part of me knows they will, and the part of me that is their father dreads it. Because it will mean the death of at least a small part of the innocence they have a right to hold on to for a bit longer, though they really can’t afford to.