Growing up Black, there are a few things you learned very quickly. One of those things was the tense relationship Black people have with police. Although, no one said it to me directly or told me the reasons why when I was a kid, I always felt the looming sense of fear and suspense when they showed up in our neighborhoods.
They would come like starved dogs sniffing for a steak. They would come with multiple sqaud cars waiting to haul men away. The neighborhood would stand still as if time would stop when they showed up. Balls stopped dribbling, kids stopped running, women stopped stalking, and Black men would stand straight with stiff necks. All because the twelve showed up at two. I would watch from the window as people cowered and whispered. Women clutched their hearts, hoping it wasn’t their son they were coming for. Hoping that the men they had captured would be okay.
I lived in close proximity to drug dealers, who at the time, I thought were just men who just hung out on the corners with extreme amounts of money- childish delusions. They would buy me cookies and tell me I was going to grow up to be a heartbreaker (I’m sorry that 19 years later, I have sadly disappointed them). To me, they were nice young men in my neighborhood. So when the police came, especially for them, I was so baffled. They would run frantically and look for hide outs. The police would grab them and put them on the sidewalks. Put them on display for the entire block to see. They were handcuffed and scolded. So you could imagine how terrifying and unfair that looked through the eyes of a six year old. Police officers who were almost always men, who were almost always white, shouting in the faces of young men who looked liked me. They would be hauled away and almost never returned, to be replaced by a new set of guys standing on the corner. My idea of police started with this. When officers in my neighborhood would take post and wave to us kids coming home from school, I often felt my stomach flip. They would assist in crossing the street to make us forget about the scene they had caused the night before.
As I grew, my ideas about police never got any better because most of the encounters I saw them have with people in my neighborhood were hostile. There were home invasions, lost cases of people they didn’t care about, and useless help from calls made that were never responded to. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I would have my own encounter with police that reshaped my silent caution about police.
I was maybe a month removed from high school graduation. My best friend and I were sitting in her first car- a minivan in a mute color. She was double parked but not blocking the flow of traffic. We were gossiping about graduating and whatever high school drama could still be lingering after graduation. A police circled the block three times. I remember her saying, “ugh let me just pull over so he doesn’t say anything.” A second after she parked, the police office put on his siren, pulled behind her, then stepped out of his car. He said he we looked suspicious sitting in the car talking. He also said she tried to drive away when he signaled her. The officer didn’t signal her in any way. He circled the block three times. We looked at each other and we were frozen. I took a deep breathe. My entire life, I had heard bad stories about police and what they do to Black people. The officer was angry. His brows were furrowed and he banged on the window of the car. She rolled down the window. Instantly, he shined a blinding flashlight in our eyes. He was yelling. He was demanding license or ID. There was another siren and another officer flashing a light in the passenger seat window. That was followed by lights shining in the back seat of her car. There was a police van behind us. My heart was beating triple time. I had never been arrested in my life and I hadn’t had many personal encounters with the police. This was my first one and it was unpleasant. We were severely scolded. We were temporarily blinded by flashlights and had several other unnecessary officers waiting for us with a police van. At the time, I didn’t realize that we were kind of lucky to be able to reflect on that moment later in our lives. He let us off with a warning. After they drove away, we sat angry for a moment. I went into my house, thinking about being yelled at by a police officer. I sat thinking about the flashlights in our eyes and the flashlights searching her back seat through the window. I thought about the police van. I looked in the mirror, trying to see if I looked suspicious in my work uniform- a green polo shirt. My friend in a black graphic muscle tank.
We were two Black girls sitting in a car. Two Black girls laughing about non sense we can’t even remember now. Two Black girls who looked so suspicious that the officer needed more officers and a police van. This was my first personal encounter with police. It wasn’t a pleasant dialogue or directions because I was lost. It wasn’t a friendly officer telling me to stay in school. It was an angry man yelling and flashing lights. That is rather mild compared to public beatings, public executions, and tear gas. That moment along with the murder of Trayvon Martin shifted my perspective about a lot of things including law enforcement. At that time in my life, I reflected on seeing men on the ground when I was six. I thought about my boyfriend at the time telling me how police harassed him and treated him like an adult at the age of 13. I thought about the amount of white police officers in my neighborhood with scowls and faces turned red from the anger of having to patrol Penn North.
I knew from a young age that Black people had a very complicated relationship with police. It wasn’t until I had this encounter that made me realize that police weren’t for us or created by us.