Friday, September 26, 2014

"We are the police. We can do any damn thing we want to you!"

I had nothing to fear. I was wearing a suit, had two jobs and a brand new car. Surely the officer would realize I wasn't one of “them.” 

Reflecting back on those thoughts that ran through my mind almost 30 years ago, I realize how futile they were. You see today, I recognize that racism is an illogical act, fueled by an irrational mindset. The idea that skin color makes anyone superior or inferior makes no sense whatsoever. But when confronting it for the first time, the response can be surreal. At least it was for me.
The year was 1988. I was employed at Laclede Gas Company and had just started my new business, Take Five Magazine, a monthly news publication. I was 31, had two jobs and my wife (at the time) and I both had brand new cars. Mine was a tricked-out Mazda RX-7 convertible.
To be honest, I thought I was hot stuff.  Why wouldn't I? Since I was a boy, people-especially white people-told me “I was different” or I wasn't like “them.” I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Six days out of the week were dedicated to studying the Bible, learning how to proselytize or going from house-to-house trying to recruit "unbelievers." I was a enthusiastic reader who could hold decent conversations with adults. Therefore, I was constantly told "you’re different.”

Anyway, on this particular night in 1988, I was supposed to meet a potential advertiser in North County. I lived in Jennings at the time and the client’s business, on West Florissant Ave, somewhere between Ferguson and Dellwood, wasn't far from home. I changed from my work clothes, put on a suit, climbed into my car and headed for my appointment.

When I arrived at my destination, I noticed that the lights in the tiny strip mall were out, except for those at a convenience store. There was a payphone in front of the establishment so I got out and proceeded to call the client. 
As I was on the phone, a police car pulled up next to mine. I watched as the young officer got out of his car, looked at my car then proceeded to shine his flashlight into my windows. I cupped my hand over the speaker part of the phone and very politely said; “that’s my car officer.” 
He ignored me, opened my car door and leaned in. I hung up the phone and walked toward him. Almost instantly three more police cars pulled up.
“Is this your car?” the first officer asked. 
“Yes sir,” I responded confidently. After all, I had nothing to fear. I was wearing a suit, had two jobs and a brand new car. Surely the officer would realize I wasn't one of “them.” 
He didn't.
“Where’d you get it?” he asked. I was dumbfounded by the question. In my mind, I thought, “I bought it, I have two jobs, what the hell do you think.” He pulled the camera off my seat and dangled in front of me: “Where’d you get this?” he demanded.
“I bought it,” I replied weakly.
By this time about three or four more policemen were surrounding my car, opening doors and rummaging through my belonging. I grew angry and shouted: “Hey, I told you; that’s my car. What’s the probl…”
Why the hell did I do that?
The officer snatched me by my suit lapels and slammed me against the convenience store window. To my horror, the lights in the store suddenly snapped off. The officer’s breath was hot in my face: 
“We are the police. We can do any damn thing we want to you!” he hissed.
They continued rifling through my car, throwing the contents on the pavement. The cop who threw me against the window went back to his car with my driver’s license in hand. When they were done; he walked back to me and flicked the license in my direction with two fingers:
“We’re looking for someone who fits your description,” he said. “Have a nice night.” They all climbed back into their patrol cars and left.
I remember standing there on that dark parking lot, panting, tears brimming in my eyes and overwhelmed with feelings of fear, betrayal, humiliation and helplessness. I realized that my suit, my two jobs, my new car and my professional demeanor meant nothing. My skin color made me “just like them.”
That incident really wasn’t my first encounter with racism. Ten years earlier, as one of the last “affirmative action” hires at Laclede Gas, we young black men had to deal with angry white bosses, most from the Missouri boonies, who did their dead-level best to let us know we weren't welcomed. 
But that’s gist for another commentary. The point is; I wasn't prepared for the illogical mindset. I was raised in a religion where white people were friends to my family, mentors and confidantes. Throughout my young life, it was mostly whites who told me I “was different.” Then, as well as now, many benevolent whites walk me to opportunities. Yet, as a child, I was too young and naïve to recognize the insult in those compliments and too needy of validation to realize I was being conditioned to think I was different or better than those who share my hue.
All these years later, the officer’s words still echo in my head. 

 I am Darren Wilson bands

Sadly, it’s a missive that's just as relevant today as it was some 26 years ago. It’s disheartening to realize that my 28 year-old-son, my daughters and my grandchildren have to deal with the deadly, illogical mindset that my parents and grandparents endured.
In class, I remember how our Sweet Potato Project youth reacted to the news of George Zimmerman’s exoneration for the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the slaying of Michael Brown this summer. Their comments reflected the sense of pain, betrayal and humiliation I felt on that dark, lonely parking lot in 1988.

What’s even sadder is that black kids today are in no way as naïve as I was at their age. Through news media, movies, music and interactions with white strangers they've already accepted the fact that they are “them”-the ones to be feared, detained, scrutinized and justifiably brutalized. 
Believe it or not, black kids do believe in "the system." They know if they or their peers screw up, they will go to jail. It's an insult to what we've taught them that the killer of an unarmed teen, Officer Darren Wilson, has yet to be detained or charged with a crime. It's painful for youth to hear people justify the killing of a kid eating a bag of Skittles or a teenager who might have stolen a pack of Cigarillos.  
It hasn't escaped me that Michael Brown was killed in the same area where I was detained and humiliated years ago. Recently, I read about Ferguson police officers who are wearing "I am Darren Wilson" wristbands. Do they have any idea what message they are sending to youth and people of color? It's illogical. It's a sick and sad irrational mindset. 
In reality, it's the same message I received almost 30 years:  
“We are the police and we can do any damn thing we want to you!”



4 comments:

4realpeople said...

Fear is a mindset that drives aggression. The illogical mindset creates the context that allows the perception that all black men are less than human and inherently criminal.

John said...

Thank you, Sylvester. I may use this in my class. We have so much fear, and fear drives the prejudice, as 4realpeople says.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. said...

Yes, of course you may use it in class. Let me know if the students want to further the conversation. Peace!

Anonymous said...

Thank you people dont want to deal with this fact that the police really beleive they can do what they want with you.