I am a black man who lived his entire life in the United States, keenly aware of the fact that any encounter with the police could result in my death. It doesn’t matter why they’ve approached me. I could be stopped for a busted tail-light, or someone might be breaking into my house, or I might be at a protest. Any time I have the attention of the police, I might die. Chances are the police officer responsible for my death will not be charged or even disciplined. If my death gets national attention, there’s a strong chance a good number of people would dig through the details of my life for any scrap of evidence they could find that I deserved to die.
Sometimes I wonder how my character would be assassinated after my death. I know I’m not perfect, and I know someone would find enough to spin a narrative that fit me into a ready-made stereotype. Would it be my mental illness? Would they talk about the fact I like to smoke pot? Or would it be the fact that I write furry erotica for fun and profit? Which details of my life would right-wing media go after to justify my extra-judicial killing by a police officer?
It’s a weird thing to think about, but it’s the world that we live in. I’ve had to watch this play out in the media again and again, and I think about what it must be like for the victim’s family and friends, to know that the person you love has been killed, that their murder was tacitly approved by the state, that the killers will go free and possibly kill again. Then, to see people boil the life of that loved one down to a talking point, to see their name become the representation of an issue that we’ve had to talk about far too often.
The list of victims of police brutality is too long to count at this point. Black men and women have been killed during traffic stops, reselling cigarettes, carrying a gun they legally owned from the store they bought it, being in their backyard, being in their own home, jogging through their neighborhood. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly evident that there’s nothing black Americans can do that doesn’t carry the possibility of being killed by a police officer.
It’s an alienating thing to be a part of a culture that lionizes the people you’re sure could end your life at any time and get away with it. All of my life, I’ve been told to call the police in a dangerous situation, that they’re here to help, that they’ll keep the peace. This is a message backed up in almost every movie and TV show ever. In horror movies, entire acts are devoted to trying to get the police involved to stop the killer. In procedurals, police are often the only people willing to balance the scales of justice. The police are noble, and even the bad ones usually have mitigating circumstances that make them more objects of fascination or pity than true bad guys. But that’s never been my experience with police. If I called them, even when I really needed them, there’s a chance they might think of me as the suspect and not the victim.
The only time I’ve had an encounter with the police, I was 17 and working two jobs at the Towson Town Center. Multiple days a week I would open the mall at one store, and close it at a different store. Most of the money I was making was spent on mall food and public transportation; it took multiple busses, a subway ride, and over an hour each way to get to where I needed to be. Most of my riding was done near midnight, when even the urban center started shutting down.
I was beaten and robbed at a closed subway station near Lexington Market and went to the nearest police officer immediately, bruised and crying. He gave me a ride home, annoyed that I had allowed myself to get into this situation in the first place. He asked why I was in such a dangerous place to begin with, and advised I should be smarter or toughen up next time.
Thinking back on that, it was one of the better outcomes I could have hoped for. A 120-pound snot-nosed crying kid was nowhere near a threat, but the disdain the officer showed me right after being mugged and beaten cemented the dissonance between what I was being told and what I knew: the police were not an ally for me. If I called them when I was in trouble, I could expect to be grilled on how I got myself into that situation.
Over the years, I’ve seen dozens of black Americans like me get gunned down, choked out, beaten and abused by the police for any reason, or no reason at all. We’re always told that the officer feared for their lives, or that the subject was resisting, and that necessitated the use of force. But that same logic never seems to apply to say, white terrorists who’ve been caught resisting arrest or murdering innocent people. What that tells me is that the police are afraid of black Americans and that fear allows them to kill us without consequence. But what about me? I’m afraid of the police, but that only means I have something to hide, right? Some defect in my character or some criminal secret that makes me scared. The police are here to help, after all. They only want to keep the peace.
These past few weeks have been traumatic, it’s fair to say. All around the country there are videos of police officers injuring protestors, the media, and innocent people going about their lives. Even here in Silicon Valley, police have used rubber bullets and tear gas excessively. This isn’t a surprise to me or most of your friends who are black and indigenous in America, but it is shocking to see it so naked and open now. Even more shocking to see people who still deny it, who still defend the police.
It’s also exhausting. I’ve had to live with this reality my whole life. I’ve had to square with the fact that one world exists for most of the people I know and I can’t share in it, because for me the police aren’t for protection. They see me as an annoyance at best and a threat pretty much all the time. I’m not safe in their hands, and it’s not because I’m a criminal, or because I’m hiding something. It’s just because I’m black.
I’ve been trying to write this for two weeks now, because none of this is easy to say. I really wish I could trust the police, share in the idea that they’re here for my protection. But what I’ve seen these past several years, and especially these past two weeks, tells me that I’ll never be able to. If the police are called, for me it just makes a dangerous and stressful situation even more so. I have to manage my feelings while making sure the officer with the power in the room doesn’t get spooked. Even talking about this, I have to constantly manage my feelings. Am I being too hyperbolic? Too absolutist? Will someone read this and see my fear as something silly or overblown?
As black people, we’re constantly being told that our experience — and the insight gained from it — isn’t valid. Even when there’s hundreds of pieces of video evidence. And even though I have an amazing set of friends and an awesome support network, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel comfortable talking about the way it really feels to be black in America. But now, especially, it feels necessary. So I’ll try.