by Amy Ongiri
The first interaction I can remember having with the police happened when I was five or six years old. My father, a tough and fearless African immigrant who made me feel completely safe whenever I was with him, was pulled over by the police while we were driving on the highway. I don’t remember why or anything specific preceding the sirens, so it was probably for speeding. I remember this incident so clearly because I was shocked to see this father of mine, a giant to me and seemingly afraid of nothing, very visibly frightened. He was a teacher. A man of high character with a strong standing in our community; wherever we went he commanded respect. I was shocked by how the cop spoke to him because I had never seen anyone speak to my father in such a disrespectful manner and just lurking beneath that disrespect was a very palpable and menacing threat. My two sisters and I began to cry really hard, although we couldn’t have articulated exactly why. When the officer went back to his car, my father screamed at us to shut up and we did. Afterwards, we drove home in silence. When I asked my mom to explain what had happened, she told me not to worry about it.
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My next interaction with the police came five or six years later. By then I knew what every Black ten-year-old knows about the police. They were dangerous and often violent. It was very common among all kinds of people where I grew up to call a police nightstick a “nigger beater.” I understood why my father, who had no criminal record, would be scared by what, for any other American, would be a routine traffic stop. One afternoon, my younger sisters and my mom were shopping at K-Mart and my mom was in one part of the store while they were in another. My sisters picked up a couple of paint swatches from the hardware department. The store security guard accused them of shoplifting, though the samples were ostensibly free. Mom, who had been called to the security office, rightly argued that you cannot steal something that is free. The security guard stated my sisters were too young to purchase paint, so the samples were not meant for them. Mom finally offered to pay, but since no price could logically be assessed, there was no way to pay. Eventually the police were called and when they arrived, rather than telling the store they were out of line or negotiating the situation, threatened to arrest my mother who now, along with my little sisters, was in tears. My mom still can’t speak of this incident without bitterness and tears.
When we think about police brutality, we tend to focus on high profile cases like the beating of Rodney King or the murder of Oscar Grant. But how many African American lives have been impacted by the actions of law enforcement on a daily basis in ways that don’t make the headlines? In “Invasion,” Jeru the Damaja’s 1996 song about the actions of police in his Brooklyn neighborhood during the early years of the so-called “War on Drugs,” Jeru tells us “when I was young I used to shoot for the stars but got shot down by demons in patrol cars.” The murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson has thrown the question of police brutality into high focus again, but every time something like this happens I wish that we could also amplify a critique about the everyday ways that law enforcement makes our communities unsafe. I wish that we could scream loudly and be heard about the things that they do that are not necessarily lethal but just as potentially damaging.
I had my most recent experience of this when I lived in a working class Black neighborhood. One day Detective Joseph Rawley from the Alachua County Drug Task Force, and another man, who never identified himself though asked, brought a package to my house that a friend sent me. They confiscated the package from Fed Ex because they had reason to believe it contained drugs. They were going to open an investigation since they didn’t understand why “someone would pay that much money to send you a package.” I explained that my friend overnighted me the package because of my escalating health issue. However, the fact that a friend paid fifty dollars to overnight a package into an African American working class neighborhood was, I guess, reason enough to be suspicious.
Apparently, they didn’t need anything more to confiscate the package or to open a drug violations investigation, which included sending it to a state lab to be analyzed. A year and thousands of dollars of legal representation later, the Drug Task Force closed the case because the package, in fact, contained no drugs, yet my privacy had been invaded and my peace of mind deeply disturbed. I felt continuously threatened and intimidated, though I had done nothing wrong. Eventually, deeply scarred, I moved away from that area. The police never apologized for this incident. Neither was I ever compensated for the loss of the package, or the nearly two weeks’ salary I had to use to retain a lawyer to fight the potential arrest. They were threatening me with could have potentially ruined future employment opportunities since arrest photos are often the first thing that come up when someone google searches your name and they don’t come down no matter what happens to you after that point.
Virtually everyone I talked to about the situation, who had any knowledge of the way in which “the War on Drugs” is being visited on African American communities, expressed that I was “lucky.” I was “lucky” that it wasn’t worse, that I hadn’t been arrested, that they hadn’t searched my house and damaged my property or hurt me. I wouldn’t have been compensated for any of that either. I was “lucky” that I could afford a lawyer, that I had no involvement with drugs, or previous arrest record. I had community standing to threaten them back with so I was lucky with that too.
Rapper KRS-ONE rapped about police presence in Black neighborhoods: “You were brought here to protect us but who protects us from you?” Like so many people before me I found once again that the answer was no one.
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Amy Ongiri is a middle aged, butch dyke educator and researcher living in the Midwest. She is currently the Director of Film Studies at Lawrence University.