If you are receiving this letter, it is because I was gunned down or otherwise brutally killed by the hands of a police officer or a random white person by mistake; or in self-defense; or because they somehow knew I had a violent felony on my record by just looking at me; or because I looked aggressive; or because I looked suspicious; or because I refused to capitulate; or because I had shiny object in hand; or because my hand came out of my pocket too fast… or too slow; or because I once posted something inappropriate on Facebook or Twitter; or because I resisted.”
–The Brooklyn Reader, August 2014
I wrote that open letter in August of 2014. On October 1, 2015 that eulogy almost became reality.
Driving a rented white 2016 Hyundai Sonata, I was pulled over by a police car around 10:00 pm. What happened next reignited feelings of distrust and appropriately invigorated sentiments of “Fuck the Police!”– feelings that could have gotten me killed if not for the echoing of my parents’ advice: “Marlo, please be careful around them police. You know they could kill you.”
Both officers exited their vehicles; one came to my driver’s window, and the other walked to the rear passenger side window. The officer at the driver’s window directed me to lower my window and put the car in park, which I immediately did. In a deceptively cordial tone, he began his inquisition. The first question the officer asked me was:
“Are you on probation or parole?” to which I answered, “neither.”
Subsequent to handing him my license and rental agreement, the second question he asked was:
“Did you kill someone?” to which I answered, “no.”
“Did you stab or shoot them?” to which I answered, “neither.”
“So why were you convicted of assault in the 1st degree? Why were you charged with attempted murder?”
My answer: “Bruh, that was 16 years ago.”
This cop was toying with me and devaluing my time in a way that was disrespectful, intrusive, and discriminating; and at this point he still had not told me why he stopped me. But, I knew why.
My hoodie, black baseball cap, and black skin were the reasons he stopped me. The subsequent questions about my criminal past were irrelevant to the stop. Would he stop my white neighbors to ask them if they were on parole or probation? Would that be the first question he would ask them on a ‘routine traffic stop’?
“…because they somehow knew I had a violent felony on my record by just looking at me”
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Policing in Black and Latino urban centers throughout the United States has been a repetition of bad feelings, and bad feelings cannot be reformed through policy. Placing ‘community’ before the word ‘policing’ falls short of erasing the stain of police violence that is viscerally embedded into the black experience in this country.
This stain is evidenced by the mere existence of Blacks in Law Enforcement of America, who offers a workshop titled, How do You Survive Police Confrontation? Even black cops feel (if they’re courageous enough to admit it) what Sandra Bland felt, what Tamir felt, what Eric Garner felt, what Mike Brown felt—what I felt on October 1, 2015 just two blocks from my Bedford Stuyvesant studio apartment—feelings of being targeted, devalued, fed up, disrespected, and infantilized.
I had every right to reciprocate this officer’s disrespect, did I not? But then what, would I be alive to tell this story? I am formerly incarcerated and served time for my role in a violent crime, so my death would be based on my past, and not my present.
According to people like The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, who wrote regarding protesters in Ferguson, “…we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.” If I asserted my right not to be harassed, the news headline would have been “violent felon who served ten years in prison was killed by police during a routine traffic stop.” This could have become my fate, but my parents’ warnings were ringing in my ears. I did not want to die.
Ironically, two days before this encounter I was a panelist at St. Francis College discussing Urban Policing.
I spoke about the historical underpinnings of the animus that black and brown people have towards police. I made the linear connection between the Harlem Riots of 1943, Watts 1965, L.A. 1992, Ferguson 2014, and Baltimore 2015. I mentioned that though I work to reduce community gun violence and police violence; and often consulted by elected officials for advice about how to engage the community in various endeavors, I am still aware that my black body is violently policed. And, despite my first hand account of the reasons Black and Brown people distrust police, a white lady in the audience advised that if I did not argue with the police and didn’t dress like a slob I would not have to worry about negative interactions with the police.
I told her and the audience, “This is what white supremacy looks like.” Dismissing my experiences is dismissing me, and the core of white racial superiority exists within the erasure of the black biography—our human experience.
…And I feel irate that I did not tell that cop the same thing. The costs of these microaggressions are measurable. In the VICE HBO special, Fixing the System, former Attorney General, Eric Holder’s analysis of experiences like mine and myriads of black people over the decades was on point. He said, “When an incident occurs, all this accumulated anger explodes.”
Harlem 1943, Watts 1965, L.A. 1992, Ferguson 2014, Baltimore 2015…
Quoting NYC Councilman Brad Lander, “Most African-American men in New York City don’t have celebrity status to call attention to whether their arrests [or traffic stops] are appropriate or not.” I am not James Blake. I am not a celebrity. In a conversation with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, I was given the option for mediation with the two officers, and then sign off on an agreement that we would keep the incident discreet. I decided to pursue an investigation against the officers instead of silencing my feelings. Too many Black women and Black men feel the way I do, and to not politicize this would be a disservice to the community empowerment work I care about. I want to make those officers infamous, and the culture that coddles them.
The strategies many without celebrity status bring to the table include more than simply training our way out of bad feelings. We cannot policy our way out of bad feelings. We have to seek ways to reduce police interactions with residents. We have to allocate more resources to empowering communities to be fully actualized. We must explore avenues that will remove the bad feelings.
Bad feelings that pushed me to conclude my eulogy this way:
I am writing to live beyond the castration of my character that you will vigorously pursue. To that end, I write now because I believe that I have to tell this story now before your power tells my story– a story that will raise just enough doubt in the eyes of a jury—white or black. I write now because I am scared and my father is scared for me.
I write now because as much as I hate to admit it, I know that in this system of things, Black life matters little to it, and if I do not tell my story, the right story, your story will win.
So, yes, even in death, I resist your arrest (of my character).