Have you ever been stopped by an officer and told to your face you look like a terrorist?
Have you ever been told to get down on your knees and put your hands on your head simply because you “look suspicious”?
Both times were traffic stops. In both instances, I was simply going home. The first I was stopped ostensibly for blowing a stop sign (I hadn’t). The second was for going five or six miles over the posted speed limit (which I did). In both instances, I kept perfectly still and kept my hands on the wheel. Each time I did not roll down the window until the officer was by my window, that even that I did slowly. Each time, my hands were always in the officers’ view. During the former, the photo on my license had been unchanged since I was 27 because I simply renewed my license online. Now, there’s a marked difference when you’re a shaved fresh-faced youth with a head full of hair, and a bald, middle-aged unshaven man whose features become weighed with age. Yet It’s one thing to say “are you sure this is you? It doesn’t look like you” and another to say “step out of the car, please. You look like a terrorist.”
In the second case, the officer took a look at my new (photo updated) license, looked at me again, then the license, then without explanation asked me to step out of the car, get on my knees, and put my hands on my head while he backed away to his vehicle with his free hand on his still-holstered piece.
As an aside…if the United States of America’s biggest selling point is that it’s one giant melting pot, I can say without irony that I am arguably representative of that concept. I’m mulatto. My racial/biological heritage runs a recent generational spectrum of Cuban, African, Asian (Chinese), and European (French/Spanish) (and that’s what I’m aware of). Hence I have always had an eclectic look; to the point that no one knew how to racially classify me. Hell, one my closest friends, a woman I have and always will I consider a “sister from another mister”, remarked to me once on social media that in thirty years of friendship, she still didn’t know how to classify me until after I had classified myself. All my life, I’ve lived with the reality that while I “belong” to many, due to dilution I was (and probably still am) accepted by none. Because of that difference, I’ve been told I look Samoan, Mongolian, and, yes, Middle Eastern; the latter having been replaced in the minds of some by another buzz word: “Terrorist”.
In the first case, the cop was clearly a rookie from the way he handled himself and the situation. His older partner, hearing him make the statement, admonished him with a disapproving look. As for me, I was more angry over the insulting presumption than I was over the unfairness of being unjustly pulled over. I got a ticket, and was left to go on my way. I didn’t think any more of it until the second instance, wherein; a disturbing implication hit: I may have been stopped due to traffic infractions, but my looks…my very being…may have made me a target. Never mind that in each instance I was non-belligerently compliant. Never mind that I was just driving home in both instances. “Minding my own business” may sound cliché, but that was exactly what I was doing.
I admit with some shame in the latter instance at experiencing shock and despair at being made to kneel. I neither argued nor fought but I was abjectly terrified. It was a dark night, pulled over in a dimly-lit neighborhood, houses darkened in the late hours, no witnesses in sight, my only company an officer whose intentions were unknown. I remember feeling a tear running down my cheek when I realized at that moment, with this current climate, I might have been taking my last few breaths. That I may never see my loved ones again and, quite possibly, they would never know what happened to me. Que dramatico, you say? You live in that moment, knowing what's happened to others in similar circumstances, and see what goes through your head. The humiliation, confusion, and fear must have been etched in my features because, to his credit, the officer came to the conclusion that I was anything but a threat; he let me go with a warning. I don't remember going home. I just remember sitting in the car for almost a half hour, shaking with a tumult of emotions too difficult to express to trust myself to drive just six more blocks to relative safety.
This week closes with the deaths of two African-American and a slew of police officers who were doing their duty, which come on the heels of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many others that have gone unreported in the general media. They hit me viscerally given my experiences, and ruminating on same make me see that they are filled with contradictory messages: I was initially judged based on my appearance. I was neither arrested nor killed for same.
Racism is ugly, demeaning, and soul crushing. The fear being espoused by minorities is horrifically real. There are bad officers out there who are ruled by preconceived notions and prejudices. However, there are just as many out there who are decent and rational (as opposed to rationalizing after the fact) and doing the job. But an “us versus them” mentality is pervading the public consciousness. When the protectors are seen as the hunters, the hunted feel the need to fight back; the violence becomes cyclical. This past week may be just of taste of what’s coming. But it doesn’t have to be this way. My above-experiences tell me so.
I wish I had answers. I don’t. I wish I could spout some bon mot that could tie this all in a nice conclusive bow. I can’t. I fear it will get worse before it gets any better. Maybe it’s naïve and Pollyannaish to believe it can get better. But it is possible.