by Vernon Keeve III
I don’t care what anyone says, the air of the United States blew differently for every black male after learning of Trayvon Martin’s murder and witnessing his murderer get exonerated. During the trial, I was in Virginia visiting my mother and every time my 27 year-old hand touched the front doorknob after sunset, she inquired into where I was going. She became afraid for me after that trial. Afraid she was going to be categorized with Sybrina Fulton, Jacqueline Johnson, Lucia McBath, the four mothers of 16th Street Baptist, and Mamie Till. The list of grieving, Black mothers is long and growing.
I was even scared, at times, when I pedaled through the cool, summer night air, pirouetting through streets and empty parking lots on my bike with no helmet or reflectors (I know shame on me). On any of those nights, when I stumbled home from the bar drunk and unable to walk a straight line, cops could have accosted me. Anyone with foul motives could have accosted me.
But I was never accosted, so a part of myself grew comfortable with the idea that I was too tranquil to be seen as a threat to police. As person in America who hasn’t been convicted of crimes, who has earned multiple degrees from a plethora of esteemed institutes, who wants to make a career of teaching in high-risk schools, who is queer, and who has always attempted (I am not perfect) to walk in an upright stance, I shouldn’t have to worry about cops. However, cops are humans; humans are inherently inclined to motivations; and the south is full of stories of what those motivations of one can do to another.
The occasion was the last night of 2013. I did not have a resolution, and I didn’t want one. The winter drear that surround the holidays had already visited my family, and two high school friends were dropping me off at my mother’s house after a night of trying to cheer me up. We pulled into the driveway, which is positioned between my mother’s house and her neighbor’s, sat in the car for about seven minutes – continuing our conversation from earlier, reliving the past, and saying farewell. I was just about to get out of the car when bright lights pulled into the driveway behind us, blocking us in. I thought it was nothing as I have witnessed drivers pull into the driveway to turn their vehicles around on many occasions. My friend, the driver, told me it was the cops, and my friend in the back seat confirmed. With the new year just an hour and ten minutes away, that cop’s shadow emerged from glaring headlights like a villain ready to consume our innocence, delusion, and freedom.
“What are you all doing?” asked the cop.
“Dropping my friend off,” said the driver.
“Can I see some ID?”
We relinquished our IDs and I presumed that all was going to be fine because the address on my ID was the address on which we were idle. The cop scanned our IDs and took a step towards his car, paused, and returned to the window.
“I smell marijuana. Have you guys been smoking tonight?”
“No, we have not,” we said in abrupt unison.
“Well, I smell marijuana and we will be searching the vehicle unless someone ‘fesses up.”
Our chorus did not change.
Back up was called to the scene, and I recognized their motivations when I was asked to get out of the car first. A car that wasn’t in my name. A car that supposedly smelled of marijuana. I was the only male in the car. I was thoroughly searched, and the cop found nothing upon my person but my wallet, phone, keys, and some random receipts. By the time he reached into my final pocket, discovering nothing, I could feel the cop’s resentment manifesting in heavy warm breaths on the back of my neck. I was no longer embarrassed that neighbors who have seen me grow from a boy to a man, have written my letters of recommendations for graduate school, and have close relationships with my parents were standing in front of their homes with concern on their faces. I was now thankful that my neighbors were there to see that no further, more heinous acts of abuse or misconduct were administered. A fear grounded within my experiences of racism and the knowledge of the 42 seconds in which a black man was tasered by a white cop just months before, and blocks away from where I now stood being frisked and called a “liar,” began to strangle me.
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“Here’s what we’re going to do,” said the cop as he began putting cuffs upon the wrist of my drug-free person. “We’re going to detain you because we know that there are drugs in that car.”
A car that still hadn’t, miraculously, been registered to me in the past ten minutes.
I was thrown into back of the police car. My friends were searched, but never cuffed. The car was searched from engine to trunk. And even while the cop was removing the cuffs from my wrist, he attempted to get me confess to partaking of drugs that he did not find. I remained calm, silent, and awaited the cops’ pitiful departure from the driveway. I can only assume from the way the cop spoke through his teeth to other cops, with red rage on his face as he pointed at me through the cruiser windshield, that there were motivations inside of him that wanted to find a reason to take me into the precinct. But I remained calm, struggling not to feed his search. He ran my ID and saw that my past was offense free. He knew that shackles had never bound my hands, and he wanted to give me the memory of having been placed in cuffs and thrown into a cop car for the first time. He wanted me to know what it felt like to be imprisoned, even if just for a moment. I wish I could say that I was never going to be put into handcuffs again, but America has taught me that, because I am a black male, there is not a definite never that can be applied to this matter. In America, my flesh doesn’t come with the right of being innocent until proven guilty. To be black, no matter the gender, is to be seen as guilty until proven innocent. Even then, the list of lynched black people is filled with innocent persons.
The cops left in the manner they came – with nothing. My friends and I wanted a refund for our trampled thrills. We now had only nine minutes left of 2013 after an hour of our lives taken for unwarranted frisking and detainment. In the remaining crumb of 2013, I created a resolution: to do everything possible to protect myself from experiencing their bullshit shackles again; to never forget the life that was taken on February 26, 2012; and, definitely, not to forget about the killer who, unlike myself, was never placed into handcuffs.
To be a black male in America is to be in constant danger of having your life taken and your death garrisoned by fears garnered from ignorance. The jury that acquitted Trayvon’s murderer could not envision Trayvon as a child. They could only imagine the made-up brutes white southerners concocted during the Reconstruction Era that extended ropes into the hands of lynch mobs. People with a fear of the black male body become teachers with the inability to empathize with black male youths, thus deeming them emotionally disturbed without legitimate cause and hindering their education. When, in actuality, they were never treated with compassion. People with a fear of the black male body randomly open fire into cars filled with black youths at gas stations because they are violently terrified of our collectivity. People with a fear of the black male body get voted into office and pass laws akin to Stand Your Ground. People with a fear of the black male body become cops who shoot first and ask questions later.
When I was called from the car, I knew to remain calm and cooperative because, at any given moment, that cop’s fear of my black male body could have resulted in my eulogy and not my resolution. And my death would have been justified in the cop stating that he smelled marijuana—which he never did find.
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Vernon Keeve III is a storyteller from the south. He received his MFA from California College of the Arts, and he is currently working to attain another masters in education. His poetry has been published in Ishmael Reed’s Konch Magazine, and he is currently working on a collection of neo-slave narratives.
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