When I was younger, my Uncle Howard used to tell me these wondrous stories about his extraordinary life. Some were hilarious yarns about how he’d escaped imminent ass whippings during his childhood courtesy of his quick wit and unsuspecting humor. Others were grim details about his otherwise uneventful service in Vietnam.
One story that stuck with me was a story about the brutal racism black men encountered in the south, specifically the dangers of DWBing (Driving While Black) in Alabama and Mississippi once the sun set.
I can’t recall the exact details, but I remember the angst he displayed when telling me his disturbing account about how colored folks were viciously attacked by law enforcement. His eyes were almost lifeless. His voice was ghastly. It was a depressing story, one that my Aunt Cheryl would always insist shouldn’t be told to teenagers. Howard would resist this assertion, insisting that it was imperative my twin brother and I understood the perils of racism.
He would usually follow up this parable with some “nigga” joke reminiscent of Richard Pryor. His arsenal was full of them. And they were all hilarious.
Since then I’ve had my fair share of unexpected encounters with the police. In high school, as a passenger, I was once stopped and aggressively told to put my hands in plain sight. Myself, along with my brother, and a group of our friends (5 Black males in an SUV), we were headed to see a movie or something in a predominantly white neighborhood before being pulled over for displaying “suspicious behavior.”
In college, I was detained for carrying a golf club in a park during broad daylight, while practicing golf. According to the officer, he had received a call about a “large, suspicious man wielding a dangerous object, possibly destroying property.”
I’ve even been stopped under suspicion of “engaging in legal activity” for driving around in a parking lot. Apparently the lot I pulled into was a cesspool for organized crime, and my red, late model Chevy hatchback was threatening. (Note: This event happened just moments after being the victim of a break-in, while on the phone with my mother.)
But all of this pales in comparison to what I experienced last night. In fact, it was perhaps the most frightening shit that I’ve ever experienced in my life. To put things in perspective, I’m from Detroit and have had a gun pointed in my direction on more than a few occasions. While my parents did a fantastic job of shielding me, and my brother, from the ghettos of the Motor City, given the noxious nature of “The Crib” I was bound to experience some foul shit.
Also, I’m probably one of the least treacherous black people on the face of the Earth. I grew up participating in Boy Scouts and Saturday morning art classes. My summers were filled with family road trips to Mackinaw Island and Niagra Falls. My hobbies include playing golf, reading John Grisham novels, watching HBO (Game of Thrones, The Wire, Silicon Valley and Veep are my shit), collecting Star Wars t-shirts and completing wooden puzzles with my toddler son. I indulge in foodie shit like baking cornbread and finding ways to make cauliflower edible. And I drive a 2012 Ford Focus. I’m as threatening as Wayne Brady, and Carlton Banks, combined.
Nevertheless, none of this mattered at approximately 10:30 pm on May 31st, 2016. I was heading eastbound on I-20, traveling back to Atlanta, GA from Birmingham, AL. Earlier in the day I arrived at my former apartment to finish packing my belongings and complete a walk-through. (I’ma need that security deposit back, and I don’t want no surprises, b!). It had been an exhausting day.
After stopping by Panera Bread to write a quick post (again, I’m sorry, but Harambe had to die) and complete a qualifying sample SAT exam (I’m trying to tutor some youngins out here), I didn’t get on the road until about 9:30 pm. Against the counsel of my theatrical uncle, I frequently traveled through the Alabama darkness on many occasions without incident.
About 30 minutes into my drive, just outside of Lincoln, AL, I was pulled over by an Alabama State Trooper. His justification for ushering my vehicle to the highway’s shoulder was suspicion of intoxication. Apparently, a few miles prior, I was driving too erratic. I probably was, but only slightly. I was fumbling around with my auxiliary cord as I desperately needed some tunes to stay awake. (Preferably Wu-Tang Clan’s, 36 Chambers. It gets my blood flowing.)
The trooper gave the customary instructions (license, registration and proof of insurance), to which I promptly obliged. That’s when a second vehicle pulled up. Another officer alerted to the situation approached my vehicle from the rear passenger side stopping at the back door. While the first officer was busy relaying my credentials to the dispatcher, the second officer began surveying the contents of my vehicle. I don’t have tinted windows (add this to the growing list of being a non-threatening black man), so anyone can easily see what’s inside.
After getting an all-clear from the dispatcher (no warrants, outstanding tickets, unpaid child support, etc.), the first officer then looked towards the second, who from what I could tell, is still standing on the rear passenger side of my vehicle.
Here’s where things escalate quickly. The initial officer then sternly asks, “Do you have anything illegal in the vehicle or any weapons?”
I replied, “Nope.”
Displeased by this response, the officer seeks affirmation to his inquiry. “Are you sure?” he asks. “You have a lot of stuff in there. Nothing illegal?”
Again I replied, “No. I have nothing illegal.” The first officer then looks in the direction of the second, who hasn’t moved from his position since arriving at the scene. I couldn’t see what the second officer gestured towards the first, but whatever it was provided cause enough for him to clutch his firearm and command me to place my hands on the steering wheel.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” he shouted. Now I’m beginning to freak the fuck out. Another vehicle pulls up.
A third and fourth officer are now at the scene and rush to the front of my car. The first officer shouts, “Slowly turn off your vehicle and place keys and your hands out of the window.”
I moved slower than molasses in December. I didn’t want to become a national spectacle. I didn’t want news crews showering my distraught mother with media requests. I dropped my keys and held my hands in plain sight.
“Now, slowly open the door and step out of the vehicle.” Again, I comply as if my life depends on it, because at this very moment, it does.
Exiting my vehicle, I glanced in the direction of the second officer. His firearm is withdrawn with the barrel pointed at me. Officers Three and Four immediately tackle me from behind and cuff me while Officer One begins to search my vehicle unlawfully. I am then dragged by my arms towards the front of my car, further into the unkempt, grassy shoulder. Officer Three commands me to stay put while Two and Four began assisting One with identifying the contents of my red hatchback.
Face down in the dirt I attempted to look up and witness the commotion. Immediately, Three thrusts his knee into my back, saying, “Don’t you dare fucking move.”
I calmly begin to ask, “Can I at least know…”
“JUST RELAX AND SHUT THE FUCK UP! DO NOT RESIST,” Officer Three screams. It sounds as if he’s saying “Do not resist,” to seek justification in the event he does something further, like shoot me.
Some time goes by – feels like 30 minutes, but could have been less – when One finally says to Two, “I don’t see anything. What did you see?”
“Must’ve been the golf clubs. I thought it was the barrel of a rifle or something,” he replies. The way my car is set up, my driver and 3-wood were laying across two boxes in my back seat.
“Alright, let him up,” One says to Three. He attempts pull me up, forcefully yanking my arm with his hand partially clutched around my left bicep. It’s a strenuous task (I’m 5’11, 250-pounds and not cooperating) and he asks Four to assist.
As I regain my balance with Three now uncuffing my wrists, One walks towards me and says, “Just had to make sure nothing illegal was in there. You be safe on your way to Atlanta.” Barring this bullshit I was safely on my way to Atlanta. He hands me my credentials and retreats to his vehicle. Two, Three and Four follow suit.
So there I stood in front of my car, clenched fists, dirty as fuck, boiling with anger from the violation that just occurred. I slowly walked towards my vehicle and retrieved my keys from the ground where I dropped them.
I sat in my car for a little while after the officers departed. I cried and screamed as loud is I could. I unleashed my budding rage upon the steering wheel causing the horn to sound sporadically. It was now 1:13 am. I drove another 15 minutes to Oxford, AL before deciding that tonight’s events had been enough to compel me to stay the fuck off the road until daybreak. I checked into a Holiday Inn Express and attempted to get some rest.
Side note: Hotels fill up hella quick in Oxford. Both the Hampton Inn, my preferred choice, and Courtyard Marriott (I earn points with their dubious credit card) were both sold out.
For approximately an hour and a half, four white officers acted as if I was smuggling their daughters across state lines with a sawed-off shotgun with no just cause. And it was seemingly okay.
This event won’t make national headlines. Al Sharpton isn’t going to call me and lend his unwanted support. There won’t be any public demonstrations of solidarity. For all I can tell, there isn’t even an official record of what transpired last night. (I wasn’t given a citation or even a warning.)
But my uneasiness is real. I have an unwavering legitimate fear that my life could one day end at the hands of those who are sworn to protect and serve. (For the record, I don’t think all cops are bad. It’s a dangerous job, and I profoundly respect the men and women who take their oath seriously and carry out their tasks judiciously. But the rest of you racist, bigoted pigs can fucking kick rocks). It exists because of the systemic, perpetuated bullshit that black men, women, and children are dangerous. Especially at night, and certainly in Alabama.
Imagine being too scared to drive, or walk, or fucking exist. Do you know how paralyzing that is? I sat in a Panera Bread this morning tucked away in a booth and didn’t move for 3 fucking hours because I was that shook. (Note: This one was in Oxford. I really like Panera. Their green tea is amazing and they have free wifi. You better get you some mini strawberry-rhubarb cakes and stop playing out here.) It’s bullshit.
Shit like this doesn’t happen to everyone. Just the ones lucky enough to have darker pigment. Or have different religious views. Or possess any threat to the established regime of supremacy. (White, rich and privileged.)
And frankly I’m sick of this shit. BLACK LIVES MATTER. MY LIFE MATTERS. MY SONS’ LIVES MATTERS. And if you think otherwise – that either All Lives Matter, or Gorilla Lives Matter, or any other thinly veiled racist bullshit – then you’re part of the goddamn problem.