My Experience with the Police
I was born in inner-city St. Louis. I was told we used to live in “the projects.” Apparently, when I lived there in the mid-60s, it was not as bad as it would later gain a reputation for being. We lived in the “city” until I was 10 and then moved to “the county.” We moved into our first house. I had my own room. In the place where we used to live, all five of us, my parents, my two sisters, and me, all slept in the same room. We only had three rooms in that place, a living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen. Our new house had a basement. I never remember thinking that we were poor in our old place on St. Louis Ave near Kingshighway. I always remember everyone that I knew had about the same was we did.
When I started going to middle school, however, I learned that we were lower middle class. I found out that some of the people in my class had parents that were university professors, etc. They lived in “big” houses. It was the first time I remember feeling shame about what I had or where I lived. My parents divorced when I was ten, but my mom had a good job and worked a lot of overtime to make sure that we had what we needed. My schools were predominantly black in the city. It wasn’t until around middle school that I started having more white classmates. In high school, I took all accelerated classes, and even though my school was 75-80% black, my challenge classes were 75-80% white.
I remember some of my mom’s stories about what it was like to be black in the 1950s, but I don’t remember her ever teaching me to have hatred for white people. My mom shielded me from traumatic things on TV, like the Vietnam War and whatever the racial climate was in the late 60s early 70s. All I got to see were soap operas, like “The Edge of Night.” Most of the racism that I remember hearing about was how my parents experienced racism in employment.
My mom was one of the first black telephone operators at AT&T. She told me that she had to learn how to sound “white.” If she sounded black, sometimes she’d be called the “N-word” or cussed out. She was not allowed to retaliate, and her bosses listened in on her calls. She told me about how white people got hired for jobs because of family members that already worked there. She was of the generation that believed education was the way to success for blacks. She wanted me to become a doctor.
My dad said that black men were not allowed to have any job but janitor at AT&T and hated it. He said that he was told that he didn’t score high enough to be anything else. My dad said that the test was high school math and that he was sure that he didn’t miss a single question but that they refused to show him his score. I remember my dad being proud of playing a significant role in exposing AT&T’s practice of receiving federal dollars for hiring blacks for 90 days and then firing them on the 91st day.
Though my parents definitely had stereotypes about white people, I don’t remember them ever teaching racism to me. Even though, as it pertains to a white girl I dated once, my mom asked, “couldn’t you find any black girls to date?” I was always told to do exactly what the police said and not to talk back. I don’t remember being taught that I’d end up dead, but I remember that it was drilled into me how to deal with the police. I didn’t remember having any bad experiences with the police, but then my dad reminded me that in high school, I had to stand in a lineup.
My dad said some woman picked my picture out of a yearbook along with another kid who looked nothing like me. At the time, I was 6 ft, 180 pounds. They brought me in as a suspect for a purse snatching. The suspect was reportedly, 5’4”, 140 pounds, with a goatee wearing Army fatigues. My dad was furious. I didn’t meet the description at all. According to my dad, they wouldn’t even talk to my football coach, who could verify that I was at practice at the time of the crime. I had a very good academic record, and I was a good athlete. My dad was worried that my being brought in would affect my scholarship chances. My dad wanted all records purged and even threatened the police officer that brought me in.
I ended up going to the Air Force Academy at 17 when I graduated, and for the first time in my life, I was in the minority population. I had white roommates and was thrust into white culture and military culture at the same time. I made friends, and I adapted. I remember calling home once, and one of my relatives said that I sounded “white.” I remember experiencing what W.E.B. Dubois called “twoness.” I had to be able to navigate the black culture that I came from, and I had to be able to navigate the white culture that I was placed into. I remember, for the first time, experiencing both subtle and overt racism up close. Yeah, one time back in St. Louis, some white guy drove past me and yelled the N-word, but I didn’t know him.
I remember being made to feel that I was less than many of the white cadets because some of my entrance scores were lower. I even remember hearing from a white cadet that I was only there because of affirmative action. I excelled as a cadet and held high military rank, played division one rugby, sang solos in the Gospel Choir, and graduated as the “Oustanding Cadet in Organizational Behavior.”
I had become a “born again Christian at 18 or 19, and I remember considering myself a “republican” and voting for Reagan. I remember admiring him and calling him “Uncle Ron.” I cheered when he bombed Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. After my four years at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, I went on to serve 24 years in the military.
It wasn’t until about five or six years ago that I realized that after I left St. Louis, I grew up very differently than my friends and family. My attitudes were different. My beliefs were different. My politics were very different. There were no black republicans in my family, only amongst my military friends. I also began to realize that although I grew up in black neighborhoods, in a black family, and studied the atrocities against black people in the 1960s, I knew little about black history. My parents loved the arts and sports, so I knew a lot about black entertainers and athletes, but I didn’t know a lot about our civil rights history.
I knew about Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Andrew Young, and Reverend Jesse Jackson, but for example, I didn’t find out who Congressman John Lewis was until he passed away this year. I know I studied civil rights in history class but probably didn’t study it any more intensely than any other class.
At a military academy, I spent more time learning about military leaders and their contributions than the contributions of African Americans. Even there, the accomplishments of African Americans were severely downplayed or excluded. It wasn’t until I became part of a Tuskegee Airmen chapter that I really began to understand the contributions of black men and women to the success of the Air Force and the military overall.
I realized as I was writing this book, that my military career, and living most of my adult life on an Air Force base, shielded me from interactions with the police. In my military career, I dealt primarily with military police. It wasn’t until my 40s, near the end of my career, that I experienced a “traffic stop” in which they asked if I had drugs, weapons, etc. It wasn’t until I was retired and got to Arizona that I had my first humiliating “traffic stop,” where I was made to answer questions about drug use, prior arrest record, weapons, and where I was going. I had pulled into a shopping mall parking lot, and people were walking by as I was answering these questions for a traffic stop that I wasn’t cited for.
On the other hand, my military training brought me face-to-face with my greatest concern about the police—the shooting of unarmed men, women, and minors. Every year in the Air Force, we were required to review the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). We had to review and sign off on it. Our LOAC training taught us that we could not just shoot civilians or even former combatants who surrendered or were prisoners. How then, I wondered, were police officers then able to shoot people who were unarmed, people who had their hands up, people who are running away from a traffic violation? How were the police able to justify the death of people in police custody? I wondered how their training was so different from ours? What justified the difference in their standards? Here is an excerpt from some LOAC guidelines that I found online:
“People. Only combatants or those directly participating in hostilities may be targeted. Determining who counts as a combatant depends on status or conduct. Non-combatants, including civilians and persons out of combat, may not intentionally be targeted…
Non-combatants. The law of armed conflict prohibits attacks on noncombatants, to include those sometimes referred to as hors de combat, or out of combat. i. Civilians.
I remember asking a police officer why a police officer doesn’t “respect and protect” the “wounded?” Why aren’t police officers required to render first aid to people that they have shot? He told me that they are supposed to try to assist, but only after they make sure that the area is clear of threats. Obviously, that’s not what we saw with George Floyd and with so many other cases. I talk about Philando Castille a lot in this book. The officer shot him more than once, at least twice, after it was clear that he wasn’t resisting. Even more disturbing, the officer kept his gun pointed at him even though it was clear Castille was dying. It seemed that just in case he flinched, he needed to be able to shoot him again.
Walter Scott was shot multiple times in the back. The difference in a few shots could have been the difference in disabling him, neutralizing him (though he was unarmed), and killing him. Just recently, Jacob Blake was shot seven times at point-blank range. How many times was he shot after he was even able to resist? Walter Scott wasn’t a “combatant” he was a 50-year old running away from a traffic violation. How are we required to show more empathy for combatants in a war than we are to people guilty of misdemeanors?
I used also wonder why it seems that the “Blue stuck up for the Blue” even when a police officer was clearly wrong, even criminally wrong. In the Air Force, our “blue” indiscretions become front-page news in the Air Force Times, complete with details of subsequent military disciplinary actions.
At Guantanamo Bay, military people ridiculed suspected terrorrists, people who are not subject to the same protections as normal combatants, while forcing them to pose naked. When it was discovered, people were court marshaled, senior leaders were fired. There was a public condemnation of their actions by senior military leaders. Within the police community, there seemed to be this unwritten rule to protect misconduct by the police. Further, it seemed that rather than own up to their mistakes or misconduct that they would often smear the victim, citing a criminal past, no matter how minor the crime.
Recently I was encouraged by the response of the Fraternal Order of Police’s response to George Floyd’s murder:
“The nation’s largest police union condemned officers’ actions in detaining George Floyd, the black Minneapolis man who repeatedly begged for air as a white cop fatally pressed down on his neck.
‘I do not believe this incident should be allowed to define our profession or the Minneapolis Police Department, but there is no doubt that this incident has diminished the trust and respect our communities have for the men and women of law enforcement,’ Fraternal Order of Police President Patrick Yoes said in a statement Thursday.” (Murdock, 2020)
I have shared all this so you can get a sense of the perspective that I am writing from. This has been a grueling book for me. In many ways, it has been an emotional trainwreck for me as a black man to discover a long, deep, and enduring history of police brutality and system racism, particularly against blacks. I couldn’t have imagined that the racism and inequity in America’s police system were this pervasive. It hasn’t been my personal experience, but it has unfortunately been the experience of many, many others. I could literally fill this book and several volumes after it with racist encounters with the police or instances where racist people unnecessarily called the police on a black person.
I am not a cop basher. I’m not writing this book to bash police officers. I have not set out to prove that America’s police force has been overrun by racists and that America is filled with racist white people who will abuse 911 to try to bring harm to black people. I think as I locate myself and try to share where I am with the reader, that Dr. King captures it best in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. (King, Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), 1963)
As I look at my own life, I place myself in the complacent category, the person who’s “security” has made him “insensitive to the problems of the masses” of people who look like me. I have always been active in the community. I have won awards for volunteering in inner-city schools in St. Louis and Compton. I have have taken pride in mentoring African American Air officers and being active with the Tuskegee Airmen and writing books to bring attention to the concerns of both. But I have been ignorant of the scope of the present-day disparity between blacks and whites as it pertains to policing because I hadn’t experienced it. In this next section of the book, I share a lot of data and example after example of inequitable treatment. I did it to enlighten people like me.
I’m not trying to get people to hate the police or white people. I am trying to show people that may be as naïve as I was that many, many black Americans are still experiencing degrading, humiliating, frightful, brutal, and even deadly experiences with the police that are, in many cases, hard to imagine. There are many fine, heroic police officers, and there are many beneficial aspects of the police force. I am not advocating dismantling the police. I am advocating, however, a re-examination of dark areas of America’s system of policing, to make it safer and fairer for all Americans.
You won’t understand the need for radical change until you see the suffering. As I have stated, writing about it and watching all of the mistreatment and even deaths has taken a toll on my soul and changed my life forever. It is for that reason that I have inserted links to actual police camera footage and cell phone footage wherever possible so that you can experience what I experienced and regain sensitivity to the “problems of the masses.” For those reading the paperback version, I have created easy to type web addresses that you can use to see the videos as you read. I warn you that these experiences will not be the same without seeing them. It is, for lack of a better phrase, the George Floyd effect. For many, police brutality in America was not real until they saw it.
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