AFRICANGLOBE – Last July 4, my family and I went to Long Island to celebrate the holiday with a friend and her family. After eating some barbecue, a group of us decided to take a walk along the ocean. The mood on the beach that day was festive. Music from a nearby party pulsed through the haze of sizzling meat. Lovers strolled hand in hand. Giggling children chased each other along the boardwalk.
Most of the foot traffic was heading in one direction, but then two teenage girls came toward us, moving stiffly against the flow, both of them looking nervously to their right. “He’s got a gun,” one of them said in a low voice.
I turned my gaze to follow theirs, and was clasping my 4-year-old daughter’s hand when a young man extended his arm and fired off multiple shots along the busy street running parallel to the boardwalk. Snatching my daughter up into my arms, I joined the throng of screaming revelers running away from the gunfire and toward the water.
The shots stopped as quickly as they had started. The man disappeared between some buildings. Chest heaving, hands shaking, I tried to calm my crying daughter, while my husband, friends and I all looked at one another in breathless disbelief. I turned to check on Hunter, a high school intern from Oregon who was staying with my family for a few weeks, but she was on the phone.
“Someone was just shooting on the beach,” she said, between gulps of air, to the person on the line.
Unable to imagine whom she would be calling at that moment, I asked her, somewhat indignantly, if she couldn’t have waited until we got to safety before calling her mom.
“No,” she said. “I am talking to the police.”
My friends and I locked eyes in stunned silence. Between the four adults, we hold six degrees. Three of us are journalists. And not one of us had thought to call the police. We had not even considered it.
We also are all Black. And without realizing it, in that moment, each of us had made a set of calculations, an instantaneous weighing of the pros and cons.
As far as we could tell, no one had been hurt. The shooter was long gone, and we had seen the back of him for only a second or two. On the other hand, calling the police posed considerable risks. It carried the very real possibility of inviting disrespect, even physical harm. We had seen witnesses treated like suspects, and knew how quickly Black people calling the police for help could wind up cuffed in the back of a squad car. Some of us knew of Black professionals who’d had guns drawn on them for no reason.
This was before Michael Brown. Before police killed John Crawford III for carrying a BB gun in a Wal-Mart or shot down 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park. Before Akai Gurley was killed by an officer while walking in a staircase and before Eric Garner was strangled to death. Without yet knowing those names, we all could go down a list of unarmed Black people killed by law enforcement.
We feared what could happen if police came rushing into a group of people who, by virtue of our skin color, might be mistaken for suspects.
For those of you reading this who may not be Black, or perhaps Latino, this is my chance to tell you that a substantial portion of your fellow citizens in the United States of America have little expectation of being treated fairly by the law or receiving justice. It’s possible this will come as a surprise to you. But to a very real extent, you have grown up in a different country than I have.
As Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness, puts it, “White people, by and large, do not know what it is like to be occupied by a police force. They don’t understand it because it is not the type of policing they experience. Because they are treated like individuals, they believe that if ‘I am not breaking the law, I will never be abused.'”
We are not criminals because we are Black. Nor are we somehow the only people in America who don’t want to live in safe neighborhoods. Yet many of us cannot fundamentally trust the people who are charged with keeping us and our communities safe.
As protest and revolt swept across the Missouri suburb of Ferguson and demonstrators staged die-ins and blocked highways and boulevards from Oakland to New York with chants of “Black lives matter,” many white Americans seemed shocked by the gaping divide between law enforcement and the Black communities they are supposed to serve. It was no surprise to us. For Black Americans, policing is “the most enduring aspect of the struggle for civil rights,” says Muhammad, a historian and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. “It has always been the mechanism for racial surveillance and control.”
In the South, police once did the dirty work of enforcing the racial caste system. The Ku Klux Klan and law enforcement were often indistinguishable. Black-and-white photographs of the era memorialize the way Southern police sicced German shepherds on civil rights protesters and peeled the skin off Black children with the force of water hoses. Lawmen were also involved or implicated in untold numbers of beatings, killings and disappearances of Black Southerners who forgot their place.
In the North, police worked to protect white spaces by containing and controlling the rising Black population that had been propelled into the industrial belt during the Great Migration. It was not unusual for Northern police to join white mobs as they attacked Black homeowners attempting to move into white neighborhoods, or Black workers trying to take jobs reserved for white laborers. And yet they strictly enforced vagrancy laws, catch-alls that gave them wide discretion to stop, question and arrest Black citizens at will.
Much has changed since then. Much has not.
Last Fourth of July, in a few short minutes as we adults watched the teenager among us talking to the police, we saw Hunter become a little more like us, her faith a little shaken, her place in the world a little less stable. Hunter, who is biracial and lives with her white mother in a heavily white area, had not been exposed to the policing many Black Americans face. She was about to be.
On the phone, she could offer only the most generic of suspect descriptions, which apparently made the officer on the other end of the line suspicious. By way of explanation, Hunter told the officer she was just 16. The police called her back: once, twice, then three times, asking her for more information. The interactions began to feel menacing. “I’m not from here,” Hunter said. “I’ve told you everything I know.”
The fourth time the police called, she looked frightened. Her interrogator asked her, “Are you really trying to be helpful, or were you involved in this?” She turned to us, her voice aquiver. “Are they going to come get me?”
“See,” one of us said, trying to lighten the mood. “That’s why we don’t call them.”
We all laughed, but it was hollow.