It Was Terrifying and Maddening, And For Black Americans, It’s Everyday Life
As the topic of police brutality and racism stews once again, I have been thinking recently about my own experiences with police. As a white guy, most of my interactions have not gone the same way as we hear and see with black and brown Americans, even when they perhaps should have. For most white people, this clouds the general image of police. They were nice to me, so if they weren’t to you, that must be something you did.
In one instance when I was 18, I once urinated on a subway platform in front of cops – and got away with it. I was drunk and stoned out of my mind at the time. I once was accused, wrongly, of shoplifting at 20, in which the cop ended up buying me a soda as an apology for accusing me. For several years, I had a PBA card, given to me by a friend on the force, that got me out of several speeding tickets until they stopped working.
I had so many of these instances with cops that one of my friends once joked that my gravestone should read “He was lucky he wasn’t black.” The joke was funny at the time, but today just makes me irate and serves as a constant reminder of the privilege I have.
I did, however, have one experience with the cops that I think back on that wasn’t positive, and I’m often reminded of it as a life lesson. This one experience is what black and brown Americans face regularly, and it might have ended with tragic consequences if it were a black teenager instead of myself in that situation.
This story takes us back to May 2001. I was a high school Senior at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, New York. Because it was a college preparatory school, upperclassmen created their owns schedules similar to what you would do in college. We had many elective half year classes that ran in the first and second semesters only. We had a seven day cycle schedule and had free periods scattered throughout. I had set my schedule so I had four free periods in the Fall and 10 in the Spring, my last high school semester by doubling up on electives in the Fall. I struck gold in getting last two periods (5th and 6th period) free every Day 6 in the cycle. That means I was able to leave school at 12:30 p.m. when Senior lunch started, instead of the regular 2:40 p.m. dismissal.
But this one specific Friday, close to the end of the year, I hit the jackpot. My teacher for my 4th Period on a Day 6 was absent, meaning I could leave at 11:30 a.m. that day. So I packed my bag up, saw one of the secretaries, Mrs. Colasanti, on the way out, bragged about leaving at 11:30 a.m. and headed home.
It was during this time that Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in his final year at City Hall and deeply unpopular (this was pre-9/11), fell back on an issue that had seemingly worked for him during his entire term – law and order. His Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton having flopped and his personal life souring his image, Rudy decided to try to change the subject to the latest non-issue annoying the city’s Karens – truant students. They were in malls, busses, diners all hours of the day when Rudy’s base voters expected not to see them, and their complaints had made the pages of the New York Post. So the mayor and the NYPD decided to go on an anti-truancy blitz, seeking to catch kids who had been skipping school, arresting them and bringing them back to school – or worse.
At just around noon that Friday, I was standing at the bus stop near Queens Center Mall, where I switched from the Q88 bus to Q11 during my commute home. I was in my school uniform and was one of only three people there and obviously the only teenager. While waiting for the bus, two police officers walked up to me and asked me who I was and why I wasn’t in school. I began to tell them about my free periods and the school’s policy of allowing people to go home early if they have no more classes, but kept getting interrupted with other questions and a request to see identification. It was clear to me that they were trying to annoy me, but cutting my off when I answer, in the hopes of getting a reaction, but cops intimidated me and I was scared to respond. I handed over my ID and caught my breath.
As one officer started looking at my school ID and driver’s license, the other pushed me hard up against the bus shelter – where I can remember clear as day there was an advertisement for Old Navy. He proceeded to hold my hands behind my back, as if he was ready to handcuff me. The whole thing happened extremely fast, but I’m pretty sure I tried to resist, an involuntary movement, and said something to the effect of “let go of me, you’re hurting me, I’m not cutting school” to the cop. I remember asking them to call the school, saying that they could prove it. Mrs. Colasanti had seem me leave and she would vouch for me. They didn’t listen. The cop holding my hands behind my back told me to shut up. Suddenly, the other cop, who I assume had been looking at my ID – I couldn’t tell since I was facing facing away from him – told his partner to let me go.
“We can’t take him in, he’s an adult,” the cop said. His partner let go of my hands and the other cop glanced at my drivers license, then at me, then at the license and handed it back to me. At this moment, I was confused. It was still another three weeks or so until my 18th birthday, so why was he saying I was an adult? Was this a trick? Was he expecting me to respond that I was still 17 and if I didn’t, he’d arrest me for lying to a cop? I remained silent. Anxiety riddled my body and I was breathing heavily. My face sweat and my heart beat so loudly it shook my entire body. Did he read my birthdate wrong? (I always assumed he read May 3, which had been a few days earlier, instead of May 30, my actual birthday).
“Don’t cut school again,” he said, before walking off with his partner. No apology, no smile, just a passive aggressive comment, as if he was angry some loophole in the rules prevented him from being able to slap cuffs on a teenager and drag him back to school in the back of a squad car. It felt like they were getting some enjoyment out of tormenting me, out of asserting authority and it was a buzzkill only to realize they didn’t have authority in this situation.
There were two older people in the bus shelter waiting for the bus at the time, and I avoided eye contact with them as much as possible, but I knew they were staring at me. Neither asked if I was ok. I assume they thought I had cut school. The bus came, I got on, took a seat way in the back and stared out the window the entire ride home, wondering if I had narrowly missed a trip to Rikers Island. What would have happened if they had taken me in? Would I have gone back to school and would they have let me go when the school told them I was allowed to leave? Would my parents find out? Would they believe me? My heart was racing and my face was flushed.
I got home that day and I hid in the basement where I took a nap. I was super quiet all weekend. I debated whether or not to tell my parents what happened, but feared they would think I actually DID cut school. I was raised to believe “if you have interactions with cops, you must have done something wrong,” which even today is a common refrain among supporters of the police in the brutality debate. I thought no one would ever believe the cops harassed me for no reason, or that they were wrong.
I was a white kid in a Catholic school uniform in Queens – the demographic you wouldn’t expect to have this experience. I can only imagine what it would feel like for a black 18-year-old in that situation. It was clear to me these cops were aggressive and looking to assert authority. If I was black, would I have been shot in that moment? I hadn’t even considered it at the time, but now I wonder, would a black kid have been even more terrified than I was? Would that have caused him to resist more strongly as a flight response? Would that have led to them killing him? This is how those situations happen; a conflict over a minor violation that turns deadly because a person feels aggrieved and cop feels his authority has not been respected.
And further, as terrifying as that situation was for me, it only happened once. Only one other time – when a cop asked me to stop out of the car after pulling me over in 2014 – did it almost happen again. I got out of that by dropping the name of the Executive Officer at the cop’s precinct.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be facing that situation on a regular basis, and I can easily see how a “flight or fight” response to aggressive policing, like the one I almost did, could lead to a situation where a cop shoots, either in fear for his or her life or to reassert authority. No wonder the anger and feelings of hopelessness are so palpable among black Americans, My experience with cops that one time in 2001 that left scars through today, is a regular fact of life for them.