Encounters in Blue

I was young and reckless. All my friends were. We shared a f**ck the police attitude but it never occurred to us to verbalize such angst directly towards them. There was a fear of being identified, arrested or even worse shot. We just wanted to be bad without consequence. The best way to achieve that goal was to avoid the police at all costs. Cross the street, walk pass without making eye contact or just do a 180 degree turn. Policemen were an authority figure we didn’t want to obey but had to respect.

Riding the L train to school, I became agitated with a girl I didn’t know and made up my mind that I was going to confront her when we got off at the Broadway Junction stop in Brooklyn. The Junction is always swarming with cops; there is a precinct at the foot of the escalator leading to the next set of trains to transfer to Queens or Manhattan.

None of that mattered though, because she had angered me so much and I can’t even recall why. However, I vividly remember throwing her down and in a fit of rage, pounding her head against the cement floor of the walkway. Some passengers stood around to watch, others continued on to their respective destinations. I was told later by my friend that I was so consumed in my vicious act that I didn’t notice the policeman yielding his night stick over my head…until she called my name.

I was escorted down the escalator, along with the other girl, handcuffed and ashamed to be caught and leered at by the early morning traffic of those bound for work or school. She nor I were bold at that moment; more like compliant and scared. I didn’t want to go to jail. I didn’t want to explain to my mother the circumstances surrounding my arrest.  I didn’t want a criminal record to follow me throughout my lifetime. She cried. I was passive in my response to the officers and was allowed to leave. She remained for lying about her age.

Avoid police at all costs. Don’t look them in the eye, keep your voice low and your hands crossed.

The encounter was too scary for me to revisit. It was the first and the last time, I felt cold steel of confinement around my wrists or walked the plank towards imprisonment guided by law enforcement.

Spring forward 19 years, my 17 year old son and I were driving down a lonely, dark country stretch with dim lampposts and trees of intimidation bordering the edge of the road. Who knows what lurked beyond their aligned girth? We were headed home from his high school basketball game and only a quarter mile from his Christian school. The lights whirling behind us from the police car couldn’t have been for me. But they were. I was hesitant pulling to the side of this uncharted road without witness or protection. But I did. It’s the law.

One officer positioned himself on the passenger side, the other approached the driver’s side and the car windows were rolled down so they both could peer inside.

“Do you know why you were stopped?” the officer asked with his hand on his gun. I suppose it was an act of warning or maybe its standard procedure.

Of course, I didn’t know. I was a law abiding citizen…bad girl gone good with a clean juvenile record and a stellar adult legal history.

“Your headlights are off,” he said.

Me, ever the gregarious one, chuckled and responded, “No wonder I thought it was so dark.” My son sat quietly, looking straight ahead.

Avoid police at all costs. Don’t look them in the eye, keep your voice low and your hands crossed.

I never taught him this tactic. I suppose it’s instinctual, the need to survive at all costs, to get home alive on arrival.  He never had the urge to be bad as I was in my youth. But our heated society has urged him to be afraid.  We joked about our encounter. But it served as a prerequisite for what- not- to do if he ever was in a similar situation. He’s made his own decisions not to drive around with a bunch of guys in one car in the wee hours of the morning and to remove himself from situations that he perceives to be potential landmines of trouble. I never had to tell him. It wasn’t part of his when you grow up speech. Instead, the news broadcasts are sufficient spokespersons of hate, violence, death and rage that consume the air waves daily. It becomes difficult to distinguish facts from exploitation, sensationalism from reality and innocence until proven guilty.

What remains is, “…makes me scared to go outside, especially as a black man in the south.”

I have never been one to close a blind eye, turn a deaf ear, or bury my head in the sand. There is a problem, yet there lacks a concerted effort to find a resolution.  There is a growing epidemic. But should we, in 2016, reason that it’s a symptomatic result of slavery, segregation and unjust civil rights?

It’s easy to point fingers, cast blame but difficult to bury sons and daughter. Sons and daughters who in death remain victims because the collective response is reactive and not proactive. Those who are fortunate to live another day are barraged with the narrative that their lives are at risk and it must end today. Come tomorrow and another live(s) is lost; the collective response remains reactive and not proactive.

A student’s genuine first response to an injury I suffered was… “Miss, who did that to you?  Want me to shoot ‘em.” In comparison, first responders genuinely are called to protect and serve. At what juncture did the lines of defending another become blurred?  The young man was reacting in a manner cultivated by the environment and culture that surrounds him.  Men and women in uniform respond the same way.

In a place where fear and hate mongers thrive, anger poisons the heart and corrupts the mind. Rational thought is replaced by irrational behavior; the collective response remains reactive and not proactive. Drawing on history we could chant “by any means necessary,” or protest and march peacefully. Unfortunately, our futures will not be transformed with past methods of reconciliation and lives won’t be saved. Where are the giants of hope to deescalate, coordinate and perpetuate change?

There is a massive problem in America but there is yet to be an enormous solution.

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