By my 20th year, I have lived through two highly publicized cop shootings of innocent black men in New York City. And in each case, the (white) cop(s) have been let off without punishment.
When I was eight years old, I remember sitting with my siblings at an aunt’s house, playing with blocks with her children as my mother and aunt listened tensely to the verdict on the Amadou Diallo case. (Amadou was a 23 year old Guinean immigrant who was shot 19 times by four plainclothes NYPD officers who mistook his wallet for a gun.) I remember both my mother and aunt sobbing intensely as they learned all four policemen were acquitted of all charges.
As I grew older and participated in a program called Young Men’s Rites of Passage with my church, I got my first version of “the talk” that has become part of the mainstream discourse since Trayvon’s shooting. We were told if ever pulled over or stopped by cops, to slowly raise our hands above our head and politely, but explicitly state, ‘I would like to reach for my wallet or license and registration, is that okay?’ We were told that sudden or aggressive movements could leave us dead.
Fast forward a few more years to 2006, when five undercover and plainclothes detectives fired 50 shots at three men, killing Sean Bell, after thinking they heard someone from his group of friends say ‘Yo, get my gun,’ while in a nightclub in my hometown of Jamaica, Queens.
My father, who has for decades been involved with the National Bar Association (the legal association African Americans formed after being initially excluded from the white American Bar Association), the NAACP, and United Black Men of Queens (as was his father), took me to a rally the NAACP held in Queens shortly after the shooting. I witnessed firsthand the tears and outrage of a people who are systematically targeted, killed, and betrayed by the police. And to see a similar judicial outcome occur – all three of the officers charged were acquitted of everything – I lost my faith in what should be a fair system.
I was racially profiled on the subway in the eighth grade. I was on my way to our grade’s Day of Service in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, in New York City. I was dressed in old sneakers, dirty jeans, and a gray sweatshirt. I swiped my Student MetroCard through the turnstile, walked up to the platform, and was shortly tapped on the shoulder by two police officers. They asked me why I was using my student card on a day when public school wasn’t in session. I explained that I went to a private school and was on my way to do community service. They asked to see my ID and I showed them my school ID and the New York State non-driver’s ID. They scrutinized them – and me – intensely. I tried to call my dad to help, but service was spotty and he couldn’t hear me. Eventually, they let me go on a warning, but when I got to school, none of my white classmates could understand why I was upset or what had just happened to me. I am traumatized by the event. I tense up when walking past police, and, paradoxically, appear more out of sorts and suspicious by trying to appear normal and unsuspicious.
My predominantly white private school (which I attended from 7th – 12th grades) yielded a number of other uncomfortable experiences. Also in the 8th grade, one of my teachers mistakenly called another black student by my name. I felt a little discomfort, but what shocked me the most was when one of my classmates piped up and said to our teacher, “It’s okay – they all look the same, don’t they?”
Some remarks are not as explicitly offensive. Cynical and ironic comments from friends or peers – joking that ‘You can’t do this, because you’re black!’ – or sudden questions that turn me into the spokesperson for my race deeply alienate me. The questions, oddly phrased thoughts, or sudden stares when someone mentions something black – which sometimes come from close friends or even teachers – hurt, but I tend to minimize their impact because they usually come from well-meaning and non-malicious places.
But, this is not the right response. I shouldn’t have to feel a little part of me being stripped away because I don’t want to offend those who I know love me and who I know care.
And so today I charge myself, my fellow African Americans, and everyone who feels bits and pieces of their soul silently torn out to act to speak out and speak up. To always stir the waters and to never shy away from asserting our identities for fear of “making others uncomfortable.”