By Jo Nubian
He may be a very nice man. But I haven’t got the time to figure that out. All I know is, he’s got a uniform and a gun and I have to relate to him that way. That’s the only way to relate to him because one of us may have to die. ~ James Baldwin
Last year on Malcolm X’s birthday I had a bit of a disagreement with a police officer that could have possibly landed me in jail or worse. I was on my way to work and dropping my daughter off at school when a policeman, on foot, yelled towards me “Hey, pull over.” It was one of those “click it or ticket” campaigns where police officers set up stings to ticket people who aren’t wearing safety belts. I had just handed my daughter a piece of fruit and did not have my belt on- I was wrong. I still ignored him, cut through a parking lot (I now know this is also a traffic offense) and proceeded on my way. I mean really, who yells at a moving car “hey” and expects a response? Well, I suppose this White officer did, and in some way I offended him by not responding, because he hopped in his patrol car and blocked off three lanes of traffic to pull me over.
Needless to say, he was livid and beet red by the time he approached my car. He was immediately aggressive towards me, a woman with a small child watching, in a way that was inappropriate and extreme. I met his screams and aggression with choice words of my own, including the fact that he had absolutely no right to speak to me in the manner that he was, and that if he was going to cite me he needed to do it and allow me to be on my way. I thought he was going to drag me out of the car. I was afraid, yes, but not quite afraid enough to let his treatment of me go unannounced. He went on, “You don’t tell me how to speak”, to which I replied, ” I do when you’re speaking to me.” The ugly exchange continued with him finally saying that I was just upset because I was wrong and because I was being ticketed. I looked him square in the eye, and commented, “No Officer Matthews, YOU are wrong, there is absolutely no reason for you to speak to and gesture towards me this way for a traffic offense.” I looked in the back seat at my child, who was obviously frightened by this strange man’s behavior towards her mother, and looked back at him.
The officer went to his car, calmed himself, and came back to explain the details of my citation. He now appeared to be more embarrassed than angry because, I believe, deep down he understood that he was wrong. It was his responsibility to enforce the law with calmness and restraint, and he had failed. I was very clear in noting that failure when I filed a report against Officer Matthews. Had I been, possibly, his White wife with his small White child in the back seat, I am almost certain that I would have been treated with more respect and decency by an officer such as himself. We both understood that without having to say it. The truth sat there between us as he silently wrote my ticket and I put on my sunglasses refusing to further acknowledge his antics.
My four year old told me the other day, as I was approached with a compliment by a Black male officer, that all police do is put people in jail. At first it was peculiar and almost funny, I believe because it was so absurd. Here sat this child spitting the fire of truth to this man and me without provocation. However, as I dug deep inside myself, I realized that she understood and unspoken legacy within our community- that police often brutalize us instead of protect us. I would imagine that children should consider public servants heroes, champions even, but I knew that I had never felt that way though never having been told that I shouldn’t. She’s yet to see any Black Panther “off the pig” video footage, or photographs of police officers firing hoses or unleashing attack dogs on Blacks during various Civil Rights demonstrations. My child has not seen pictures of Black men hanged from trees, strange fruit style, as proud sheriffs stood by beaming, almost ecstatic about the savagery that had been committed while ending the life of someone who was probably innocent. Perhaps though, she did not have to see those images, maybe those images are ingrained in her mind or her DNA. Possibly, there is a pocket in her brain where our story lies and in that story is a space that describes just how much anger and fear we have towards those who police us.
I don’t want my daughter to end up like the young woman punched in the face by a police officer recently in Seattle for a jay walking offense, but I wonder how much control I have over such an occurrence. Clearly, I plan to teach my daughter how to interact with the police, to object to them if necessary, in a civil way that won’t have her in the back of a patrol car with a swollen face. If I one day have a son, I’m sure my knees will bruise from kneeling in prayer with hopes that he will not become an Oscar Grant, a Sean Bell, even a police officer like Omar Edwards who was shot and killed by a fellow White officer as he attempted to identify himself while in plain clothes. There really is no rationale, no safe space, for Black people when dealing with the police, because as the above mentioned James Baldwin quote asserts, we often feel that we may be beaten, maimed, or killed regardless of what we say or do to them.
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(Jo Nubian is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on human rights, especially issues of race and gender. She is currently based in Houston, Texas where she is completing her masters of arts in literature and writing for various journals, magazines, and other publications. Her thesis work discusses the theme of womanism in the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston.)