You Don't Belong Here: How Ferguson Brings Back The Pain

What happened to Michael Brown did it. 

What happened to Eric Garner did it. 

Even what happened to Trayvon Martin did it.

What did these incidents do? They brought me back to a moment I often try to repress. A moment so painful I have been reluctant to share. But, I want my daughter to know about this. I will no longer be ashamed about something that was not at all my fault. It is time I put this in writing, so that she can read this one day.

On a Friday night back when I was in my early 20's, I was hanging with some old college friends of mine. After a night of drinks and chatter in the Lower East Side, we decided to head uptown, where I lived. I made the decision not to go with my friends to a strip club. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time, being a sensitive thoughtful male. I planned to walk to 3rd Avenue and take the bus home. This decision haunts me to this day. 

As I walked across Manhattan avenues on the Upper East Side, a police car approached me. I was asked to stop. Next thing I know two police officers ask me to place my hands on the car as they frisked me. They then asked for my identification. I am not sure if I was ever more scared in my life. I was concerned that I would be taken into custody for no reason. I was scared that saying the wrong thing might provoke a beating. I was scared about what might kind of beating I might endure in a cell. I was scared because I wasn't sure if this would affect my professional career. These police officers were gruff and demeaning. It took some time before I was even told why I was being detained. I apparently fit the profile of a rapist who was attacking women in that neighborhood. 

It was also tremendously embarrassing, as countless people walked by and seemed to be judging me by their expressions. After over an hour, I was told I was free to go. I took their badge numbers with every intention of filing a complaint, only to be too afraid of what might happen to me if I did so. What added to my pain was that during the hour or so they spent with me, the real criminal might have been out there assaulting another woman.  

I realized I made a mistake. I thought I was different. In fact, I was consistently told that I was. I thought I was different because I was deemed smart and attended an exclusive NYC Upper East Side boys school, an elite New England boarding school, and a fine college. I thought I was different because I was teaching of all things English at that exclusive NYC Upper East Side boys school. 

But, I wasn't different, at least not to these cops. To them, I was just a potential perp. Someone who had no business being in the Upper East Side at 1 AM. Didn't matter that I had a dude playing polo on the top corner of my shirt. Didn't matter from where I graduated. Didn't matter that I worked in that very same neighborhood. It just mattered that I was a black male. This was humbling, but one must be humbled in order to grow and put things properly into perspective. 

I still give police officers the benefit of the doubt. I want to entrust my safety to law enforcement. Even with the utter ridiculousness of what happened with Rodney King, I have tried my best to support the police in their tireless efforts. However, after my encounter, I understood not just in theory why so many black folks have been frustrated with law enforcement. Being profiled by the police is painful and to experience it frequently takes its toll. 

Let's be clear. I can not condone criminal behavior, violence, or looting. I do wait to learn more about what happened before completely rushing to judgment, but when I see incidents like these, it is difficult for me not to think about my encounter with those police officers however brief it might have been. I almost instinctively have sympathy for the victims. I am unsure if I will ever put aside the emotions I felt that night, but I do know this. People really need to be aware of the psychological impact of profiling and the frequency of excessive force. 

I am pleased to see so many people paying attention to what is happening now in Ferguson, MO, but it can't just be the liberal cause du jour that is forgotten when the next cause emerges. For many of us, it is not just a cause. It is our lives. And lives are real.  

Additional reading.


Posted on August 19, 2014 .