Most Black Americans are familiar with those few moments in modern life when you can’t believe your eyes and ears. Roots, Eyes on the Prize, and countless Black history months help to intellectualize racism but nothing compares to a smack dab in-your-face example to drive home the point that it is alive and well.
I guess I’d been lulled into a false sense of security. Most of my life has been permeated by the subtle or institutionalized brands of racism. I was born and raised in a free state, Ohio and people there had long learned to just look down and cross the street when they see a Black person approaching. White flight allowed racism to be conflated with classism and it’s all been a murky cesspool of interpersonal conflict from there. Of course there were those few times when a white kid had called me a nigger or once when my teacher said that I looked like I was going to hit him but those were rare incidents. Somewhere, I’d come to think that modern American racism had become more nuanced along the bend of history.
1963-Atlanta student arrested during
protest by SNCC.
I live in a mixed neighborhood. By mixed, I mean that it is mixed by Black people who’ve lived here for years and the yuppies who’ve pushed property values up only to replace neighborhood fixtures with Starbucks, organic yogurt shops, and a place where you can paint your own pottery.
The entire span of my walk home is maybe eight blocks, which I walk faithfully because I don’t drive (I don’t because I can’t not because I have warrants or anything.) Two blocks from the train station, I saw one of Decatur’s finest drive past me only to bust a u-turn in the street and stop a little bit ahead of me. It was strange but I kept walking. It was one o’clock in the morning and I wanted to get home, after all. A female officer got out. “What are you doing out here so late,” she wanted to know.
I’ve only been stopped by the police once before – after all, I don’t even drive – so all that I could manage to get out was an indignant, “Excuse me?”
“It’s past one, what are doing out here?”
“Excuse me?! I’m walking.” Clearly.
“Where are you walking to,” she asked. I wanted to say behind the preposition but she seemed serious. It was also around this time the second car pulled up.
“Why does it matter?” I asked. Now I was offended. The shock soon wore off and I was starting to feel harassed and nervous. Did I have to tell her where I was going and why did it matter what time it was? This is America, I thought and what the fuck is this other car doing here? She sounded more Southern, less belle and more Bull Conner and wanted to see my ID. I didn’t want to show it to her. It felt too much like presenting a traveling pass of freedom papers.
|Video from the Rodney King beating.|
She looked at my state ID which showed my address just up the street and then to my Morehouse student ID. “You should be happy I stopped you. It’s dangerous out here,” she said while calling in my ID. She looked back at the Morehouse ID and tried to make small talk. The officer wanted to know where I was from and what I majored in. She seemed genuinely shocked at everything I said, especially a part about my being a writer. “Like reporting news,” she asked. I shook my head. Now she was nervous.
My ID came back without a hitch and for some reason I was relieved (The one time I’d been stopped before was for jaywalking back home.) She reassured me that she “ would've stopped anyone.” “I don’t care who they are or what they are,” she said.
The cars pulled off like nothing had happened. No one said, “Sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Ramsey” like they do on TV when a mistake is made. I was left with myself.
I felt the guilt of not handling it better. Why did I ask so many questions? I should have recorded the conversation but that might have gotten me beat up. I reached for my wallet without warning them. She could have killed me. I decided that I’d done the right thing. I was alive after all and not in jail. Isn’t that a Black man’s compass for doing the right thing?
But I still couldn’t understand why I was so shocked. In all honesty, I left the whole incident feeling guilty. I was too comfortable. I mean, how many times have I sipped my earl grey or scarfed down pomegranate yogurt on the same street without remembering that I really wasn’t welcome to. After all, those accoutrements of trendy locals weren’t built for me. If they were, there’d be some in the hood. I thought because no one bothered me, I was welcome. As Christ Rock put it, “I left my neck open.”
I considered that I was being paranoid and maybe I am but tomorrow I’m going to check with the police department to verify that cars had actually been broken into. I know from working on a mayoral campaign that those records (including race of offender if known) are public. If their story doesn’t gel then I’ll file a complaint for racial profiling. Even if there had been break-ins by Black men wearing loafers and carrying a number 3 from Checkers (my dinner that night,) I may look into what the procedures there are for engaging a suspect/random person on the street. Maybe it’ll stop someone else’s dinner from getting cold or from being treated like a criminal.