I tried to write something about my new workspace, but it turned into a rumination on September 11 and our changed national culture. I don't know why this surprises me.
Last Thursday, I watched the video of Philando Castile bleeding to death after he was shot by Minnesota Police. First, my blood ran cold. Then, I wept. Finally, I sat down to write this.
Let me tell you a story about why the climate in this country terrifies me right now.
Once upon a time, I thought that police officers were here to protect us. I was very close with the officers who came to my elementary school and taught us about saying no to drugs and gave us other innocent warnings you get as a kid, your child's brain blissfully ignorant of what it all actually means or what it will mean for you one day as an adult. My uncle Timmy was a New Jersey police officer for years and one of the bravest, sweetest men I knew. When you saw those flashing lights, it meant help had arrived. That innocence was gradually snuffed out with every second of that video, all the other footage I have been watching for the last few years, and my own experiences.
When I was 21 years old, I finally got my driver's license. I was so proud of the achievement; I was prouder still of the fact that I drove a stick shift. My car was a beat-up '97 Toyota Corolla. A friend of mine was playing a show at a trendy club, the I/O Lounge down in Overtown, Miami (also known as the straight-up hood). I got all dolled up, wearing a cute but revealing halter top and a black button-down over it to stay a little modest. Since it was a balmy 90 degrees outside, I decided to throw the button-down in my backseat; after all, I could put it on as I was walking into the club. I got in my car around 10 p.m. and began my trip from my dorm at Florida International University, about 25 to 30 minutes away.
When I entered Overtown, Mapquest directions in tow, I began to get extremely confused. Most of the streetlights were out or broken, so I could barely read the street signs. I followed the directions until they failed to make sense due to unexpected construction. This was at a time when GPS wasn't readily available, and the smartest thing your phone could do was autocomplete. I called my friend in a panic, seeing the dereliction around me, but she didn't pick up. Crackheads, prostitutes, and crazy people out walking the streets is not something this suburban-raised girl was or is used to, so I was understandably terrified. I came down a road I thought would lead me to the club, and it would have...if I hadn't been going the wrong way down a one-way street. There were no signs or markings on the street to show it was one-way, because in the ghetto, the city largely doesn't care about upkeep or fixing things that are broken, if only for the well-being of their citizens. It looked like the right way, so I took it. At the end of this street, a police car was parked just waiting for me. As the vehicle turned on its high beams, blinding me, my heart skipped a beat. I had only been driving for five weeks and never in the city. I just knew this was the end of my license.
The police officer screamed at me through the loudspeaker attached to her car, demanding I pull over. I did as I was instructed and waited in my car patiently, but sweating nervously. A white woman with reddish hair stormed out of the car and up to my window, which was already rolled down. She yelled in my face, "What the fuck were you doing? You could have killed me! What the hell is wrong with you?" She saw my phone in my lap. Although I had only used it at a red light, I knew she had her hooks in me now. Accusing me of reckless driving and being on the phone while driving, she was clearly agitated — too agitated to notice I had started crying long before she shoved her face in my window. She glanced around my shitty car and then, out of nowhere, ordered me to get out of it.
Not only had I never been in trouble with the police, but I'd barely had so much as a detention in my entire life, and that was for tardiness, not misconduct. I had to go to the bathroom and was shaking with fear. As I closed my car door, I saw a gathering beginning across the street. A few people were clearly watching to make sure nothing bad happened, but there were several men ogling me, some touching themselves suggestively. I quickly became painfully aware of how exposed my skin was in my halter, so I asked the officer if I could get my other shirt out of my backseat. She was too busy scribbling down my information to look up at me but said yes all the same.
I turned toward my car and reached through the open window to get my shirt. As I pushed to get it, the officer screamed. I smashed my head against the roof of my car as I struggled to get out of the window. When I turned around, I saw her standing there, but my vision went blurry and my ears were ringing. She had a gun trained on me, pointed right at my chest, from approximately 10 feet away. My head was swimming. She yelled for me to put my hands on top of the hood of the car and to kneel in the street. I did what she said, humiliated and terrified. She called for backup, never taking the gun off of me.
The second police officer arrived just moments later: A tall and burly black man with his weapon also drawn rushed to the first officer's side protectively. When he saw I was the object of her panic, he put his gun down and looked at the woman like she was crazy. "Is this seriously who you called me over here for?" he asked. She explained that I had tried to pull a gun on her and she was protecting herself. He came over to me, helped me off the ground, and asked me to explain what happened after I caught my breath.
The cop asked if he could search my car, which I immediately agreed to. Having found nothing, he realized my story was correct and handed me my shirt. He looked at my identification and saw I was a new driver and a student. He went to explain this to the female officer, who gave me a ticket and immediately left the scene. The male officer apologized profusely and told me to get on my way, giving me good directions to the club. I was literally one street away from my destination.
In the end, the ticket was never filed and no report was made. In 2001, it didn't occur to me that the same situation that had been figuratively heart-stopping could, in 2016, have literally stopped my heart. I didn't know to complain or appeal to government officials for a tightening up of police protocol. I couldn't have known about the multitudes of unarmed black men, women, and children that would come to be threatened, harassed or murdered by police officers, nor did I understand how many had experienced this before me. All I wanted was for the night to be over.
Now, I fear for my life. After driving in South Florida for a little over a decade, I know firsthand that "driving while black" is real. I know that not all police officers are there to save you. I know that some cops use their authority to manipulate civilians and inspire fear, rather than offer a sense of peace and vigilance. I have had police officers accuse me of having a taillight out just to get my phone number. I have had police officers write me tickets for traffic offenses that didn't happen. I've had police officers harass me and accuse me of racing them after I tried to get over on the highway and they sped up and slowed down to prevent me from making my exit. I've had white people call the police on me for being a paying customer. Some of this was in front of my white (or white-looking) friends. I have even called the police on myself in an attempt to defuse the situation, only to be treated like I was being overly cautious.
I fear for my life more and more every time a person is "accidentally" killed by police in this country. I fear for my opinionated mother's safety in the sexy red Mustang she just acquired. I fear for my brother's well-being, as he is a sweet boy with a congenital heart condition and would not know what to do in the situations I have been in. I fear for my cousin, a New York City cop with a heart of gold, who may come across someone who wants to send a message to police everywhere. I fear for my friends, even my worst enemies. I fear for us as a country, as this divide grows between us racially, economically, and subculturally with things like the election and police brutality only fueling the fire. I wonder what more has to happen before change comes, and what the cost will be.
I am so tired of being afraid, but it seems there is no end in sight.