As I read the news of the unrest of Ferguson, Missouri I couldn’t help but feel saddened. It was a reflection of how little we have progressed in the US. The refusal to indict Darren Wilson was a clear indication that people of color still have no recourse when the authorities abuse them. The anger of the community is on full display, and frankly I cannot blame them.
Let me try to help those who find it hard to relate to the angst by sharing some of my experiences. In my life, I have been racially profiled at least eight times. That does not count the times that I have had to deal with racists who have threatened me. I can tell you that every time I was profiled, I was left shaking with rage and without recourse. Let me share just two of those occasions. Thinking about those events still upsets me. I cannot forgive nor forget.
When I was in high school a popular girl once made a comment about my skin: “Look how nice your skin is; it is perfect for the summer.” I bit my tongue, accepting the compliment from my pasty colleague and thinking to myself, “You really have no idea what you’re wishing for. You’d never make that trade.”
I know she meant no harm by her comment, and I don’t even fault her for it – my skin is pretty nice if I say so myself – but I could not envision her trading for my skin and all of the consequences melanin bring. That summer I was stopped before boarding a flight from my tiny domestic airport to St. Louis. I was to connect to a flight to Miami and continue on to Ecuador. I was 16 and dressed in an oversized YFU (Youth for Understanding International Exchange) t-shirt. The guard, who had personally gone through all of my bags already, decided that I needed to be searched again. I hadn’t left his view but he insisted that I open my bags again and I take off my shoes. Besides him, I was also the only non-white person in the airport. I guess he was afraid I would be the next Richard Reid. But he had as much reason to suspect so as I did that one of the white fellas flying with me would be the next Timothy McVeigh.
I told that anecdote often and my white friends tired of it. "I should get over it," they groaned. What they didn’t understand is how much that exchange fundamentally bothered me. Why did I have to be treated different because I was brown? It is still a question I have. To this day, I think about my actions and wonder if something innocuous could be construed as threatening to another, probably white, person. It’s a worry that I doubt my white friends have to think about too often. That experience makes me wonder whether white society will too tire of the angst felt in Ferguson, whether it will be too much for them to hear about it again...
Usually, I must say, when I’ve been profiled, I was two dark for the area that I was in. One year I met with a friend in a western suburb of Chicago.
She dropped me off on the corner and exited back onto the highway to return home. I walked towards the station, located in the middle of the bridge (The elevated train ran in the neutral ground that separated the highway.) I hadn’t walked half my journey when a police car busted a U-turn right in the middle of the street and flashed its sirens. I looked at it. It was clearly for me because no one else was around. The officers came out of their cruiser and asked what I was doing there.
As the officer addressed me, I did not sense any respect. He barked his questions at me and got more aggressive as I gave him my answers. I denied the charge of being there to buy drugs and I told him that I was just getting on the train. Unsatisfied, they had me take everything out of my pockets. It was twenty degrees outside but I had to take my coat off. I had to take my shirt off. I was down to my pants and wife beater. I stood there shivering as the police stood there in disbelief that I didn’t have anything on me. It took every ounce of effort for me not to scream at them – an act I knew would do nothing for me.
“Let him go. He doesn’t have anything,” the good cop said – he had been sitting silently observing as his partner berated me. His partner, disgusted that I had nothing, ordered me to pick up my stuff and to be quick about it.
I would later find out that I was the wrong color for that neighborhood. It was the first time in my life I had been too white for my own good.
Angry, I cried silently on the train. What could I do? I couldn’t report them and even if I had, what would have come about it? Who could I have possibly spoken to have a complaint that would go anywhere? I didn't even bother telling too many people, wary that they wouldn't believe me or care.
In the case of Michael Brown, the same holds true. The people of color who have been racially profiled as they go about their business have no idea how to respond. Why is it acceptable to step on our freedoms. As police officers do things they shouldn’t, who do we – the victims of their misdeeds – have to go to make sure they are reprimanded for wrongdoings? When the very people who are meant to protect us violate us, there is no incentive to work with them.
I know that such actions are not of every cop and they probably don’t even make up a majority of the non-work related police interactions that I have had. But, as the saying goes, one apple spoils the bushel. And when the bushel is bad, it’s time to through it out.