The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.
— James Baldwin, The Nation, 7/11/66
More than 40 years later, I can still remember the incident as if it happened yesterday. It was my first real interaction with a NYC police officer. A few of us were headed home after being let out of school, waiting for the “M” train on the elevated Wyckoff & Myrtle platform. It was a rainy, drizzly early spring day. My friends and I were all “A” students — the talented tenth — at the (even then) notorious Bushwick High School. We were just standing around cracking jokes on one another, talking about girls — the usual fare of masculine adolescence. We weren’t being loud, weren’t breaking any laws. We were, well, breathing while Latino (we were all of Puerto Rican descent).
As we stood there bonding, a police officer approached us and demanded to know what we were doing. He was tall — over six feet — and towered over my then 5 feet five-inch, 125-lb frame. I had never had any bad experiences with the police; maybe it was because I looked white. My friends would always tease me that I often got a free pass. This time, however, everyone immediately became quiet and the tension was palpable.
I informed the officer that were all going home, that we had just left school. I wasn’t being confrontational, just merely stating a fact as I would if I had commented on the weather. He then asked for ID, or our “program cards.” What I remember most was that he unnecessarily was rude and abrupt.
We all showed him our school IDs and then he looked at me and said, “Get the fuck off this platform.”
We were all taken aback since we had to be on the platform in order to catch our train home. When we didn’t react, he looked straight at me but said to everyone, “Didn’t you hear what I said you little spics. Get the FUCK off this platform.” Now, the “spic” part was uncalled for, I felt. In a nice way, I informed the officer that we were all headed home and we had to take the train. Up to that point, I wasn’t arguing with him, I was trying to reason, even though he had used profanity and a racial slur. We were standing by the stairs leading down to the street.
“If you don’t get the fuck off of this platform now you little prick, I will kick your spic ass down those stairs.”
And that’s when I became argumentative and things took a turn for the worse. I stated that we all had a right to stand on the platform and that we hadn’t done anything wrong to provoke him. I asked him by what authority could he speak to us in that manner and violate our basic rights.
I’ll never forget his response. He said, in a low, threatening growl, “If you don’t get off this station by the time I count to three, I will kick you down those stairs.”
I stood there, staring at him defiantly, determined not to move. By then, my friends, all of whom were intimidated, advised me, “C’mon, Eddie, let’s go, don’t get into any trouble, man, it’s not worth it.” I stood my ground determined not to move.
The police officer counted:
There was this look of determination and pure hatred on this man’s face. Looking back, I realize this is the front line, the location where the forces of institutionalized racism and resistance meet and clash. I was no longer just a 14-year-old kid and this man was no longer just an officer. We were now symbols of opposing forces — the colonized and the colonizer. I don’t know exactly why, perhaps realizing discretion is the better part of valor, I decided to move right before he counted to three. I turned around and started climbing down the steps and that’s when I felt his foot slam into my back. I don’t know how I did it, maybe it was instinct, but somehow, as my body began its propulsion head first down the metal stairs, I reached out and grabbed on to the only thing available — the officer’s foot.
And in that way we tumbled down those long, cement-and-metal stairs, tangled in a ball, for I was holding on to dear life. After what seemed like an eternity, we landed and I heard the sickening crack and immediately noted the unnatural position of the officer’s leg and his howls of pain. I remember two elderly white ladies shouting and a crowd gathering. At that very moment, taking in everything, I realized I was fucked… and I ran.
After, my friends told me that the police officer rounded them up and tried to get them to tell him who I was. To their credit never ratted on me. For over two years, I was unable to take the train to school; I had to walk to school (a 45-minute walk each way) rain, cold, snow, or shine.
I was a 14-year-old honors student who never did anything wrong and my life could’ve have easily been destroyed by that one chance encounter.
The problem is that these chance encounters have (and continue to) destroyed lives and the fabric of mostly communities of color. Growing up, my experience wasn’t outside the norm. My close friend, Michael, had his penis almost shot off by a police officer. It was a Saturday night, one of our acquaintances was running from the police, passed by us, and when we heard gunshots, we all ran. My companion, Michael, who was not the target, was shot and the bullet passed through his thigh and through his penis. When we picked him up, we saw the blood flowing from his groin area. He was lucky, the main “dick vein” (as Michael explained it) wasn’t destroyed, and the doctors were able to stitch it all back together again. He did have the ugliest penis I ever saw. Accustomed to experiencing trauma, we used the time-worn urban coping skill of the macabre wit to kid him and called his penis Frankenstein Dick.
My friend Shadow, one of the blackest Puerto Ricans I ever met (hence the nickname), was a Golden Gloves champion with a promising boxing career. He was going to box for the Air Force after high school. He was “accidentally” shot dead in the flower of his youth by a stray police bullet. Another stray police bullet left a friend paralyzed at 17 — for life. Both incidents were termed as “mistaken shootings” or something like that. And those were only the most egregious infractions. I can’t even begin to enumerate all the little infractions, the almost daily “minor” humiliations and indignities, at the hands of the police. I can’t begin to enumerate the countless times parents, grandmothers even, were rounded up like common criminals during drug “sweeps” — periodic lockdowns of whole city blocks in which the police ran roughshod, with total disregard for all basic human rights.
This is not to say all police are brutal or even corrupt. I am, however, trying to offer the insight that the relationship between communities of color and the police are strained at best. Oftentimes, structural racism is expressed through the vehicle of law enforcement. It isn’t that there are a few bad apples; the true issue is that the barrel itself is rotten.
Today, when I hold workshops teaching children how to protect themselves from those who are supposed to protect us, I hear the same stories. Stories of young people of color being thrown against a wall, or with a boot on their neck. I continue to hear stories of young men literally being undressed in broad daylight. I still hear about the humiliations and of a police force that resembles more of an occupying force than a beneficent social institution. So, whenever I hear justifications for racial profiling, such as the ones in use in major urban areas such as New York and Los Angeles, I am not surprised, for I know the drill. However, it doesn’t mean that I am not outraged.
You should be too.
Racial profiling leads to very real and harmful consequences, one of which includes police brutality and the curtailing of basic American freedoms. Yet, you will hear high-level officials defend it in the same manner one acquaintance put it to me:
Police deployment these days is determined almost strictly by rates of relative violence/crime in each police district. The rate of violence is not some subjective quotient created by a racist cop, but is determined by counting citizens reporting that they were shot, stabbed, beat up and otherwise assaulted, this is combined with citizen reports of burglary, robbery, theft, etc. You see, your racist conspiracy theory is illogical when you know that police resources are deployed based on crime as reported by citizens and not some racist plot to destroy minorities. That is logical.
The problem with this line of thinking, aside from its moral bankruptcy, is that it is not based on fact nor reason. Racial conservatives — both black and white — maintain that racial profiling isn’t racist. They argue, like the individual above, that racial profiling is justified since we all know blacks and Latino/as are criminally predisposed! As Heather MacDonald of the conservative think tank, the Manhattan Institute, puts it, “Judging by arrest rates, minorities are overly represented among drug traffickers” (MacDonald, 2001) . Black conservative, Randall Kennedy agrees. He goes so far as to say that arrest rates present a “sad reality” and justifies racial profiling on those grounds (Kennedy, 1999). Well, if this is true, scientific examinations of racial profiling should yield results that back up the claims of racial conservatives.
For example, a New York Attorney General’s study of stops and frisks in New York City, issued in 1999, recorded 175,000 encounters between officers and citizens over fifteen months. The study tracked hit rates by analyzing the percentage of stops and frisks that ended in an arrest. The data is damning. The study found that police arrested 12.6 percent of the whites they stopped, only 11.5 percent of the Latino/as, and only 10.5 percent of the blacks (Spitzer, 1999). This is exactly the opposite of what defenders of racial profiling would predict. When New York City police officers utilized racial profiling intensively, they found what they wanted less often on blacks and Latino/as than they did on whites.
From a personal perspective, I have a sneaking suspicion that those who champion racial profiling don’t do so because they actually believe it’s statistically “sound policing.” I submit they support such practices because they want to justify racist practices. They are comfortable with such practices because, for the most part, it doesn’t affect them. They are not the ones being dragged handcuffed from their homes, or suffering humiliation while driving or even walking down a city street. They think it’s acceptable to commit such acts on certain Americans because they just don’t give a good goddamn — until it happens to them…
There’s a price we all pay for racial profiling, the least of which it makes all of us less safe, as police are more determined to bust low-level black drug dealers in the streets while the big drug game is taking place somewhere in a sleepy suburban enclave or high roller penthouse loft.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…