There are no happy tours when it comes to police brutality. Everything ends in pain when it comes to police violence. Some people lose their lives. Others have to endure a journey of reliving that traumatic experience. And it can have a visceral effect on how a person views law enforcement altogether.
I was lucky. I was fortunate to have survived my excessive force encounter with police. But that one incident back in the early 1990s, left me with a great deal of caution and fear every time I encounter someone wearing a badge and uniform. It should not be that way. But it is what it is.
As a Black man with four Black men as sons and a 16-year-old princess of a daughter, I pray for the well-being of my children and I hope that they are never faced with a situation like I was where the very people who took an oath and are sworn to serve and protect you, hide behind their uniform to abuse their authority and practice their unmitigated hate for people of color.
Especially Black people. As a Black man, I fit the description every time I walk out of my house. It does not matter if I have a couple of degrees that can back up my educational pedigree. It does not matter one iota who I know and what company I keep.
When I walk into a grocery market or into a department store or catch a train to a winery, my birth name, unknowingly to me, seems to somehow switch automatically to “troublemaker.”
When I step foot into a space that is supposedly permittable, I am the Black person they are most afraid of. And for this, I am savagely beaten. I am unlawfully detained against my will. My constitutional rights as an American citizen are tossed out the window. My life means absolutely nothing. In the blink of an eye that life can be stolen without mercy and without repercussion.
This is how I felt after two white Los Angeles police officers took unforsaken and unlawful liberties with me when they decided to pull me over to pacify their unchecked racist ways. The Black experience in America is filled with this narrative. My gleeful ignorance about police brutality was dismissed late one night as I headed to work as a young, wet-behind-the-ear custodian.
Things happened so quickly. I was just moments away from pulling into one of the many parking lots at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center to officially report for my graveyard work shift. I noticed a woman crossing the street at the intersection where my car had stopped at a red light. Once the traffic light switched to green, I make a left turn unto the street that would lead me to a parking lot. I didn’t quite make it there.
The Ghost of Emmett Till
The unmistakable glare of a police car siren came out of nowhere and unsuspectingly. The yelling and the guns drawn came next. I did not see this coming. It is a night I will never forget. One moment I sat in my car enjoying the sounds of the day on my radio. In another instant, chaos erupted. Within minutes I went from being in a chill place to wondering if I was going to lose my life. And for what?
My alleged crime? I was guilty of supposedly looking and whistling at a white woman. My initial reaction when the cops told me this was, “WTF? Are you for real?”
I received no citation. I broke no law. Yet here I was gripped in high-pitched anxiety and nervously trying to figure out what was going on. With my hands on the dashboard, I was ordered to get out of my car. Things got worse from there.
I couldn’t believe I had to vouch for my validation as a human being with two cops seemingly bent on having an excuse to blow my head off if I made just the slightest twitch of movement with either my hands or body.
After the shock and awe of the moment, I tried to internalize and process everything. Was I about to become a member of a black person being killed by the police club? How did things quickly go from me making a left turn at an intersection with a green light to my life being in jeopardy?
And for what? For two white police officers to get their rocks off forming their own militia race club. All in the name of keeping the Big, Black guy in line by accusing him of looking and at whistling at a white woman. Wow.
Making this scenario more strange is the fact that I distinctly heard a whistle being let out by someone as I sat in my car at that intersection, but really thought nothing of it as I was too pre-occupied about making it to work on time. I told myself to just survive the night. That meant putting my hands on the boiling hood of my car after I had driven nearly 25 miles to work.
That also meant complying with everything these cops wanted me to do. It didn’t matter. I was physically accosted and assaulted anyway. I was forced to keep my hands on the car even though it felt like my hands were going to burn right off my body. One cop stood behind me with his gun aimed inches from my head as his partner went rogue and started to rummage through my Mustang and tossed things into the street.
Racism Painted Blue
I then went from the assumed position to being forcefully thrown up against a wall where the primary offending officer kept his gun engrained into the back of my skull and dared me to turn around or else he was going to…in so many words, “blow my f—king black head off.”
In the eyes of the two cops who pulled me over, I supposedly broke the mythic law that forbids Black men from looking at a white woman. And they were going to make sure I understood this philosophy by any means necessary.
If this sounds like something out of the Emmett Till playbook used by a group of white racists…well, that’s exactly how my up-close encounter with the police that night played out. It was a horrifying experience. I was called racial slurs that made my skin crawl. The F-bombs flew around like a mosquito circling for a safe place to land. I was called the N-word so many times that I lost count.
Judging by the way he was throwing around racial epithets at me while he continued to press his gun into the back of my head, I assume that the lead cop on this adventure must have had a long-running systematic form of hatred for Black people, especially for Black men. He also seemed to have this weird race-baiting fantasy going on about Black men and white women dating.
Did I like white women? Did I like whistling at white women? These were just the warm-up questions. This Q&A forum had nothing to do with any type of vehicle violation. This had everything to do with me being Black and the two white cops executing their privilege to inflict fear.
In the back of my mind, I kept thinking I was going to get shot and how these cops would get away with it. I was in a perfect place for them to carry out a potential homicide. I was in a desolated area right off the Interstate 10 Freeway in East Los Angeles. It was pitch-black dark. There was no one around to catch this incident on video. It just me and my two newfound badge-wearing antagonists.
As I was getting my face smashed into this concrete wall, I couldn’t help but think about Till, the Black Chicago youth whose ugly murder in 1955 urgently pushed the Civil Rights Movement to another level. What was Till’s alleged transgression? Whistling and trying to get at a white woman in Mississippi.
Is It Over Yet?
The anguish I felt during this mock traffic stop was torturous. The only thing missing from my night dance with my uniformed abusers were a couple of Ku Klux Klan robes. But the threat of my brains being splattered all over the wall and into the street was just as real as if a tree and a noose were readily available for these wayward cops to hang me.
Thankfully, that did not happen. Anyway, my night of terror came to an end when the cop behind me released or lifted his finger off the hammer of his gun and backed off as his partner gave him an all-clear sign as if signaling that there were no drugs or weapons in the vehicle. I wasn’t off the hook just yet.
Before they went on their merry way, the two cop buddies issued a not-so-nice warning to me. The officers informed me in so many words that if they ever saw me in that area of town again and catch me looking at a white woman, they would come back and finish the job and blow my “f—cking black head off.”
The cops then hopped in their patrol-marked police car laughing and took off, leaving me standing in the middle of the street shaking. I was pissed. I was also scared, terrified at the thought that my life could have ended just like that simply because of the color of my skin.
I had heard about this reality from my parents. I had read books that factually pointed to the brutality of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. I remember being extremely saddened when I learned about the death of former Long Beach State football star Reginald Ronell (Ron)Settles, who died in police custody back in a Signal Hill police jail cell in 1981.
My baptism-by-fire encounter with police over a decade later changed how I feel and look at the police. I was no longer the wide-eyed elementary school student who adored Officer Bill when he came to my fifth-grade class. I officially became the “suspect” that evening.