The first time that the police put me in handcuffs and sat me down on the curb for display, I was 12 years old.
Just a couple years before, we had moved to PG County, Maryland, from D.C. The whole idea of us moving was that my parents wanted to get us away from any distractions in our old neighborhood. And, man, that suburban life felt like the country to my brothers and me. We played tag after dark, football in our friends’ yards, and rode bikes for miles.
This one summer day, me and my older brother were coming back home after a long afternoon of playing basketball. Usually we rode our bikes everywhere. But my brother’s friend had just turned 16 and gotten a new car, so we caught a ride with him.
I never thought that one decision would change my whole outlook on being black in this society.
One minute, my brother and his friend were laughing and joking around about how they had been dogging everybody at the court that day. And I was that little brother sitting in the back seat in silence, just listening, happy to be there.
Next minute, we heard the siren. We looked back and saw the flashing lights. The police pulled us over and walked up to our car. Immediately, the first officer said, “Y’all got weed in this car?”
My brother said, “No, of course not. We don’t smoke.”
It was the truth.
But we were told to get out of the car anyway. They sat us down on the curb and handcuffed us behind our backs while they searched the vehicle. My brother was so frustrated that he started yelling at the officers, asking why his 12-year-old brother was in cuffs. The officers cursed at him and told him to shut up.
For 10 minutes, we sat there as people drove by rubbernecking at the “young black thugs.” It felt like an eternity. And then, after all that, the officers just took off the cuffs and told us to be on our way.
Being 12 years old, I was just … shook. Helpless.
That’s the only word for how you feel in that situation.
At that time, the police in PG County were notorious for pulling over young black men. We knew the deal. But we never expected to be cuffed and humiliated over nothing.
I still remember getting back in the house and my father asking us where we’d been. My brother wanted to keep the run-in with the police to ourselves. But I decided to tell my dad what had happened.
My father was beside himself. He wanted all the details, and of course, me being the younger brother, I immediately caved in and told him everything. Even how my brother had tried to defend me.
“He’s only 12! What the hell are we doing on this curb anyway?! We don’t have anything illegal!”
My father looked at my brother with a sense of frustration, but also a sense of empathy. He had lived through all this himself, as a young man in the ’60s. He had witnessed brothers and sisters injured and killed by police during the civil rights movement. More than anything, I think he was mad at himself for not teaching us the protocol that black people unfortunately must adhere to when encountering police.
People who look like us are still being killed regularly, senselessly.
In my father’s eyes, the only form of control you have in that situation is silence.
If you just don’t say anything, you’ll get through it. That was the thinking in his generation.
Silence will get you back home.
But in America in 2020, with everything that has been captured on video for the world to see, we all know it isn’t true.
More than 20 years after the police put us on display in our own neighborhood, people who look like us are still being killed regularly, senselessly.
I have a one-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. This is real to me. I don’t want my children to fall victim to these same injustices. But, as sad as it is to say, I know that our talk won’t be as straightforward as my dad’s was with us.
I can’t just tell them to say, “Yes, sir,” and, “No, sir,” and expect that everything will be O.K.
How can I say that, after all we’ve seen?
You know, even when I’m driving now and I get pulled over, I roll down all my windows so the officers can see my son’s little car seat in the back. Even if he’s not with me, I still do it as a defense mechanism.
See? I’m just a dad. I’m no threat. I’m just trying to get home.
When my children get older, I know our discussion will have to go deeper. I’m going to have to teach them every trick I know. I’m going to have to tell them to make sure to press that red RECORD button on their phone, no matter how routine the traffic stop. That’s the world we live in right now.
And what tears me up inside is that even if they listen to me, and follow the protocol, and do everything in their power to just make it back home….
It still may not be enough.
Unless we change as a society, it still may not be enough.