6.25.2010

Thoughts on police and policing



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.)

2 comments:

  1. You focus on the police brutality but how many ppl die are gets disenfranchised by the black criminal element in black neighborhoods?

    Yes there are crooked racist cops and black men who prey on black ppl just like the days of the slave trade.

    How do we come up with a comprehensive plan to defend and cooperate with the badge and filter out the criminal element in black communities?

    My suggestions:
    1.) Police Officers should have to live in communities they police so they have a vested interest.
    2.) Private hotlines for police tips.
    3.) Politicians should have report cards on how they manage crime.
    4.) We need to brake down crime rates by zipcodes so we can identify problems comprehensively.
    5.) Teen curphews/Ticket Parents Who kids violate
    6.) Ban on violent music
    7.) Open insurance policies on black youth
    8.) Private Gang & Drug Task Force

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  2. Let me begin by saying, I love that quote by James Baldwin. It is so true and still very timely. Next, please try to understand this comment with an open mind.
    Jo Nubian began her letter with a statement, “I had a bit of a disagreement with a Police Officer.” Words are powerful and the words we use dictate a course of action. “Disagreement” is a mild way to put it. She stated he “yelled” at her to pull over, well if a person is on foot manning a check point and you are in your car (maybe with the windows rolled up), is it still yelling? Or speaking loud enough to be heard clearly? When you make a conscientious decision to do something then you need to be prepared for the reaction – whatever that may be. Jo Nubian made the decision, after identifying the fact that there was a check point set up and the man yelling as a Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) not some dude on the street trying to “holla” that she would evade the check point by driving away. In the Middle East and New York (ref. Shawn Bell), if you drive away from certain check points you would be shot until your car stops. So, when the Sworn LEO “block three lanes of traffic” to pull you over don’t be surprise. Question, do you believe in cause and effect? Writer Jo Nubian stated, “He was immediately aggressive toward me,” this is the effect – the cause “I still ignored him, cut through a parking lot and proceeded on my way.” Was the Officers aggressive position justified? Somewhat, did the “white police officer” know this was a woman with a small child or an escape serial rapist or murder hell bent on not returning to prison. Yes, the officer could have and should have handled the situation better. Police Officers are suppose to be professional at all times but, keep in mind that throughout this country LEOs are killed almost every single day, that’s why I say somewhat.
    “As a woman with a small child,” and knowing the history of police brutality in our community, did she think about what can happen to her in front of her child before she committed to her decision to “still ignored him?” True, “it was his responsibility to enforce the law with calmness and with restraint.” It is also your responsibility as a citizen to obey the laws of the land in which you must live in. In my humble opinion, you both failed.
    Part of the Willie Lynch indoctrination is that his teaching is self repeating. Our Grandparents grew up with the fear of white people ingrained in them from babies. I teach my children to fear no one but GOD. A LEO is a man who put his pants on just like you. Considering the climate of Police and Black Peoples relations, the young lady in Seattle was bless to walk away with her life. I would very humbly suggest to Mrs. (s) Jo Nubian that if she don’t want her daughter to end up like the young lady in Seattle then don’t teach her by example to “just ignore” the police and drive off. In order to get respect you have to give it. When you do and officers don’t give it back, and then file a complaint, that pen and paper can be powerful. Don’t stop there; keep it going until you get your desired results, even if that means filing a law suit. Form a community group and hold them accountable for their actions, there is strength in numbers.

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