I am of mixed race. On paper I’m half black and half white, but culturally I’m half Jamaican and half Dutch. This leads to lots of pot jokes. I’ve heard them all. Growing up mixed race in Canada wasn’t that big of a deal. But when my family moved to Florida when I was 15 I learned my race, to some people, was a very big deal.
In school in Canada we were taught that if you were in trouble you could find a policeman and they would help you. I’m sure many of you were taught the same thing. When my family moved to the States I learned that my race would deeply impact how I interacted with the police. As an impressionable teen this was a biting lesson to learn.
When we first moved my father had “the conversation” with me. If you don’t know what “the conversation” is, it’s a discussion that a black father typically has with his son about how to interact with the police. Usually the conversation happens when the son is a teen or tween, at about the age where a child gains enough independence to be outside or in public on their own.
My dad somberly explained to me that while we were in the USA, we were non-white. This meant we might be treated differently. I didn’t really get it and I don’t think I wanted to get it. I’d lived my whole life in Canada where I didn’t feel my race was a factor in how the police or anyone else interacted with me. I rolled my eyes at him. I thought he was exaggerating.
My dad told me stories of his interactions with the police as a university student in California in the 1960s. What I’ve learned since then is that while our own interactions with the police help shape our opinions of the police, our parents’ and grandparents’ experiences with the police help shape our own views. I thought surely that Florida in the 1990s would be different than California in the 1960s.
My dad tried to get me to focus, he told me what he was telling me was important. He said I had to be very careful. He told me to be polite, comply with whatever they asked and without question, to say “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” to never make a sudden movement, always move slowly when reaching or obeying a command, explain everything that you are about to do before you do it. Most importantly he told me to always keep my hands where they can be seen. I reluctantly suffered through the conversation, tucked it in the back of my head and went on with my life.
It didn’t take long until I realized my dad’s warnings were very necessary. My dad and I had been “randomly” pulled over several times while driving. I realized that things hadn’t changed all that much since the 1960s.
I wasn’t in Canada anymore. I soon felt the eyes of the police unfairly trained upon me because of my race. It is biting. It makes you angry and it makes you resentful of people who are supposed to be there to protect you. I’d only been in the States eight months when I had my most traumatic encounter with the police. This story is hard for me to tell because it makes me angry every time I tell it.
I was on my way home after a long day. I had to take some extra classes, as my American high school hadn’t accepted some of my Canadian courses as equal credit. I was feeling good. I aced several exams and was nearly home. My music was loud, my windows were down, I was 16 and life was good. My day was almost over.
We lived in a high-end gated community near Ft. Lauderdale. I passed through the gate, turned left towards home. On my way in, at one of the houses between the gate and my house was a marked police squad car parked in the driveway. I would later learn the officer had been at the house addressing a complaint nearby when I drove by.
Then I saw the flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I was nervous as this was my first time being pulled over on my own. At the time I was more nervous about what my dad was going to do to me if I got a ticket. What had I been doing wrong? Speeding? Nope, there hadn’t been enough time to really accelerate. Were my tags expired? No, we hadn’t even been in the state for a year. Then it hit me: it was my music. I should have turned it down. Oh well, I thought, I’ll be polite, it will be ok, until my dad finds out.
I remembered what my father had told me. As soon as I saw the lights, I waved my acknowledgement of the officer and signaled, turning in to the driveway of my house (my house was one of the first when you passed the gate). I went through my dad’s checklist in my brain. I opened all the windows, shut the car off, turned the dome light on and placed my hands on the steering wheel.
A sheriff soon appeared next to my window and I politely asked “Hi officer, is something wrong?” He asked for my license and registration and as I’d been taught I explained that I would need to get the registration from the glovebox, and my license from my back pocket. He nodded that it would be OK and I did so, very slowly.
The officer came back to the window and asked me to get out of the car. I complied and stepped slightly away from the door, making sure my hands were visible. I’d never been ordered to get out of a car by a police officer before. I was scared. I moved back a little bit to give the police officer space. My dad’s warnings and stories of the 1960s began to race through my head.
This was my first traffic stop, my first real interaction with a police officer by myself. I could feel my nerves, the cold feeling in the face, dryness in the throat. I’d never been in trouble with the police and I was no longer afraid of what my dad might do to me if I got a ticket. I was now terrified of what the police officer might do.
What came next was a lecture about my music. I was told it was loud, maybe I wouldn’t have heard his siren, or what if there were an ambulance trying to get around me? I knew he was right; my music had been too loud. I was polite, agreed, apologized.
Then he asked me why I had squealed my tires. “Squealing tires?” I asked, I hadn’t squealed my tires. I was told I had squealed my tires during the short trip from the gate to the house. Then I remembered, that our car had a squeaky belt, what’s what he must have heard. I chuckled nervously and told the officer “nope, you’re mistaken, this car has a squeaky belt, you probably heard that, I wasn’t accelerating hard enough to squeal my tires.”
I thought he would laugh and tell me to get it fixed.
Suddenly, the officer drew his sidearm, pointed it at me, and began yelling.
Or at least I think it was yelling. When someone points a gun at you, everything they say sounds like yelling. He was stern, and I was terrified. All I could see was the barrel of the gun, nothing else.
If you’ve never had a gun pointed at you I can’t explain how it feels. If you were to see something like this play out on TV you would think, “he’s not going to shoot that person,” but when you’re that person and the gun is pointed all you can think is “I’m going to die.” On a scale of 1 to 10 he took what was already an 8 or a 9 for me and took it to a 20.
He yelled that if he said I was speeding, then I was speeding. If he said I squealed my tires, then I squealed my tires. He told me that it was “goddamn punks like you just doing what they want that are the problem!”
I was in tears, I didn’t know what to say or do. 16-year-old boys don’t cry easily. I apologized profusely, I asked him to put the gun away, I told him he could give me a ticket, take me to jail, tell my dad, just don’t shoot me. Please don’t kill me.
He put the gun away. Maybe he had a moment, maybe he realized he overreacted, maybe he didn’t expect me to cry. He calmly told me he was going to give me a warning. He was acting like that didn’t just happen. I got my warning and I went inside. I wanted out of there, and fast.
I didn’t explain what happened to my parents. Although my mother knew something happened with the police, as she saw him just as I was pulling away. I was pale, crying, shaken and unintelligible, but I didn’t want to talk about it.
I can only assume the officer wanted to get me to respect him. I respected him before he pulled the gun out. What he taught me instead was to fear him and to fear the police. I’m not alone; teens that have frequent or aggressive encounters with the police regardless of why they encountered the police are more likely to have negatively skewed views of laws and the legal system. They are also less likely to trust the police and among other things feel dehumanized by the police. From my experience that day and subsequently, I can tell you that I felt all of those things and sometimes I still do.
At every traffic stop, even every police car even coincidentally traveling behind me always leaves me rattled; I shake, I sweat. At several points in my life I have been in situations where I should have called the police for help, but I didn’t. I was more afraid of them than of those who had done me harm.
I’ve gotten better at hiding the nerves, but still 20 years later, an oncoming police car will pass and I will watch it until it’s a speck in my rear view mirror. I’m back in Canada now and my experiences with the police here have been much better. But I can’t erase the barrel of that gun from my memory. I *know* the majority of police officers are amazing. The job they do is immensely difficult, and they are the people you call on the worst day of your life. I have immense respect for anyone who chooses to serve the public as a police officer.
Yet still, I am afraid.