Friday, August 18, 2017
I am walking home from the yoga studio. South Wabash Avenue is quiet: food delivery trucks dropping off for the weekend rush, late commuters, nannies walking babies, dog walkers and me. I don’t notice the traffic on the street: I’m thinking about the rest of my day. I am deep in thought when I hear the buzzing, angry horn of a police cruiser. I plug my ears, unsure how long the sound will last. One of those new Dodge Chargers, big, black, masculine, beautiful, pulls over and the SUV cruiser behind it with the blue lights flashing.
This could go one of several ways.
I am stunned when the door of the Charger flies open wide and the driver steps out. He is like his car: big, black, masculine, and beautiful. Maybe 6’2”, 190 pounds, in dark pants, a blue t-shirt and sandals. He has short hair and a face that would be handsome if he were smiling, if instead his face weren’t contorted with something—agony, rage, regret. He is holding in his hand a short cup of red fluid, he’s calling it juice.
It’s going to go that way.
I wonder, is he famous? An athlete I should recognize? Is that why he’s gotten out of the car? Maybe he wants to show Johnny Law, hey, you just pulled over a famous guy, and even though I’m black and male and we all know what that means when it comes to black men and the police, maybe it doesn't have to go down that way. Can we just let this go, bygones be bygones. Can I sign a ball for you or something for your grand-kid and we can call it a day?
The officer is white (duh), older, male, in a CPD uni. He and the driver are speaking over one another, the officer trying to pull him over to the hood of the cruiser, the driver demanding to know why he’s been pulled over, insisting he’s done nothing wrong.
The officer is barking into his walkie talkie on the shoulder of his uniform in a voice high and tight with fear, “Traffic stop gone bad, I need a car!” and he’s shouting out addresses on the block we’re standing on, between 14th and 16th street, 1520 South Wabash, 1516 South Wabash. I keep walking, but I’m watching openly. A white man walking a small dog has his headphones in, and he’s watching too. Once I’m at a distance that makes me feel safe, I stop walking and continue to watch.
I’m unsure if I should be watching. I want to see what this cop is going to do to this brother. There is a part of me that wants to give this man his privacy, too, though. No first responder I have ever dealt with—paramedic, fire department, and especially police—has been human when doing their job. They’ve been “professional”, whatever that means, they’ve followed protocol; but their own humanity, and the humanity of folks they’re dealing with especially, goes right out the window. If I were being harassed on the street, would I want people gawking at me? Or would I want as few witnesses as possible.
I turn to go. The ink on my arm lights up, I feel it burning my skin, and in an answer to my question, the driver calls my name. “Sister!” he shouts, “Sister!” I turn and we lock eyes. “Watch him!” he says to me. And I do. This is what I said I would do, and he’s asked me to, so I watch the man shout at the officer and the officer shout at the man. I am not close enough to see if the officer is going to plant anything on him or in his car, and I do see him finger a holstered weapon on his belt, but nothing comes off of it.
Now the white man walking the dog is involved. “Sir, I think you should obey the officer,” he says. The driver protests, he doesn’t see any reason why he should be touched, he hasn’t done anything wrong.
(I roll my eyes inwardly. Of course, another white guy has to get involved, I think. History is full of examples of success for black folks listening to the police. Excuse me sir, you dropped your privilege.)
“Sir,” he repeats in a low, measured tone, “I’m a lawyer, and you have a legal right to defend yourself in court. But if you resist or disobey the officer you’re going to make it harder.”
No one is listening to each other. The driver can’t hear the white man with the dog because the cop is shouting at him. “Hey, I need a lawyer, you a lawyer? I need a lawyer,” the driver repeats to the white man with the dog.
“Stop trying to touch me, man, I’m trying to drink my juice!” the driver is shouting. “I just got outta jail, I ain’t do nothing wrong! He can’t even tell me what I did!”
He can probably say something, but whether or not what he says is true, well, it doesn’t really matter at this point, does it.
I watch as CPD descend on the man, as if they have been lurking in the shadows waiting for this moment. Two cops, four, ten, thirteen, sixteen.
I am not exaggerating.
Another cruiser pulls up, and another; a police wagon. (a fucking police wagon. For one guy.) Plain-clothes cops, more unis: like ants on sugar, like roaches, like mice. Quietly, swiftly, they grab this man. The cuffs are out now. They force him to bend at the waist where he puts down whatever he was drinking.
There is an ancestral, generations-old, centuries-old, crushing and painful familiarity about what I am witnessing. Some part of me knows the spectacle of white men in a knot wrestling with one black man who just wants to do his life. I’m not sure I can feel my body. I’m not sure I can breathe. My arms are reflexively crossed over my belly. I am scared and angry.
By the time the driver is in handcuffs and being led toward some police vehicle, thirteen of them have actively participated in subduing him, with a cadre of other cops pointing and barking and attempting to look official. Thirteen police officers. To subdue one black man with the nerve to try to be free.
No one has been shot. No one has been tased. This is not how this should go, but at least, today, he is still alive. For now. He just got out of jail, he says. And now he’s likely going back.
Now there are statements, clean up, a tow truck for the Charger in the street, and there will be paperwork, and now I turn to go. I don’t want to talk to cops. I’m not going to help an effort to rob another black man of his freedom.
At the end of the block, a blond-haired white woman with a sweet voice tries to stop me. “I’m sorry to bother you,” she says, “but do you know what happened?”
I shake my head at her. I know if I open my mouth, I will scream at her; and she didn’t do anything but miss the action, and she just wants someone to tell her a story.
It won’t be me.
When I sit down to write this, I am still shaking.
It’s not my story. I am not the story here. The story is how hard it is to be free when everywhere you go the system is designed to rob you of your freedom. You can’t even drive down the street and enjoy a drink without being threatened and oppressed and incarcerated.
Well, some of us can.
There are lots of ways this could have gone. It could have gone a lot worse, but it could have gone a lot better.
I bet the officer would say he followed the rules.
I don’t know the rules. But I can tell you this:
They. Don’t. Work.