Recently, Officer Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty in the shooting death of Philando Castile. Castile, age 32, was pulled over because Officer Yanez felt the “occupant[s] just look like people that were involved in a robbery.” Upon Yanez approaching his driver side window, Castile informed Yanez that he owned a legal firearm. Castile was informed not to reach for it, but was also told to get his car registration which was also in his glove compartment with his firearm. Yanez then shot Castile four times for reaching for his car registration forms. Because, Yanez panicked and feared for his life.
When I heard about the verdict, I wasn’t surprised. If there is one thing that I have come to accept while living in America it’s that there is such a strong portion of the populace that can’t fathom a police officer acting out of turn. If the officer did something involving excessive force, there must have been a truly valid reason for his actions. After all, our police receive a lot of training. They know when to and not to use fatal force.
And yet, we see in our television shows and movies police who are corrupt. Police who go too far. Is it because we’ve seen it so much in those mediums that we only believe it to be fiction?
Or, rather, is it like Trevor Noah said in regards to the jury’s verdict;
Because what they’re basically saying is in America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are Black.
Some of us grow up aware of the biases that people have about ourselves because of our race. Others don’t. In my case, I was made painfully aware that because I was of a darker complexion, either being read as Black or Latino or Muslim, I would run the chance of being assumed guilty of a crime. I learned this lesson at a very young age.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I asked if I could take my puppy for a walk around the block. I was a pretty active kid and would go for walks and bike rides a lot. My parents said yes and I was pretty excited. During the walk, my puppy got excited and I accidentally let go of the leash. By the time I rounded the block, a cop car drove alongside me. They asked me my name and I told them I was not supposed to talk to strangers. They said they were police officers and not strangers. They persisted to ask me questions. What was my name, was that my dog, where did I get the dog. When I got in front of my house, I told them I was going inside and getting a parent. They told my dad they received a call that I was “chasing down a dog.” They had assumed I somehow stole the dog.
That set the tone for how I thought of a cops for the rest of my life.
Maybe you read that exchange and thought nothing of it. Maybe you don’t see anything wrong with a cop car following an 8 year old boy halfway around a block and asking him questions. Maybe you think there is nothing wrong with them not asking where I lived or could they speak to my parents.
But, for me, it cemented something into my belief system: I will always be presumed guilty because I am Black.
As a kid, my parents dressed me very preppy. I remember walking around a local CVS and being confused that it felt like an employee was following me in the store. I did not grow up in some ghetto in some run down neighborhood. I grew up in an upper middle class area of Long Island, New York. I remember asking my mom one time “why did a man in CVS follow me throughout the store?” My mom looked at me and thought long and hard for a second. “Because you’re Black and he wants to make sure he can catch you stealing.”
Just think about that for a second. Before the age of 10, I had been taught that despite people saying “innocent until proven guilty” I was being given a firm lesson that I guilty until proven innocent because of the color of my skin. I had been taught to be extra careful in following the rules in order to prove people wrong.
And then Matthew Shepard and Amadou Diallo were murdered.
And then I learned it wasn’t just about dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s. I stood a real chance of dying, of being murdered, because of WHO I was, not because of WHAT I did.
Matthew Shepard taught me that my sexuality, of which I only knew I didn’t like girls at the time, could get me killed. Not only could it get me killed, but it would not be a hate crime if it happened.
Amadou Diallo taught me that because I was Black, I might match the description of a suspect. I might match the description of a suspect in a broad sense that I was Male, Black, and alive. I may be shot 41 times by officers of the law because I reach for my wallet because I want to give the officers my ID. My murderers may be found not guilty.
These two incidents really stuck with me. The death of Matthew Shepard kept me in the closet and afraid to really come out to anyone for years to come. The murder of Amadou Diallo and the acquittal of the officers taught me that I had to be more careful than I already thought I had to be around cops. I learned that I should not keep my hands up. I should stay perfectly still. And I should pray to God no one panics.
As Black person in America, whenever another story of police violence occurs you hear all these details of what YOU should do be doing in order to not be a victim. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t walk towards the cops. Do as the cops say, don’t resist. Don’t flee. Be polite. If you’re not guilty of a crime you have nothing to worry about.
As I read and saw more stories of the deaths of both Black men and Trans women, I became more fearful of the world around me. Not so paralyzed that I could not leave my apartment, but enough so that I worried about being alone at times. While my size emboldens me, I’m 5’9″ and weigh roughly 275 lbs, I also know it could be the very reason things could go wrong when police become involved.
And so, as I stood outside one summer night last year surrounded by five police officers and three squad cars, I thought to myself in that moment “this is how I die.”
Earlier that day, while walking to the library, I saw a beat up office chair next to the dumpster by the police station. I asked an officer if it was free game and he said sure. I snapped a picture, sent it to my room mate and asked him if he wanted it. I didn’t hear back from him until later that night. So, while I went out to play PokemonGO, I figured I’d grab it on the back end of my walk. I stopped at a grocery store, bought a two liter of soda and a bag of chips, grabbed the chair and put my grocery bag inside it, and began to walk home.
As I got about two to three blocks from the dumpster, I was “pulled over” by a squad car. A mixture of confusion and panic rushed over me but I took a deep breath and waited for the officers to address me. Both officers got out of their car, one asking for my ID. At the time, because I only owned a Passport as my ID, I did not have any on me. I offered to the officers that they could escort me to my apartment, which was only five blocks away, and I would gladly hand over my ID. They questioned me about my lack of ID and declined my solution to the situation. I clearly gave my name, its spelling, the address which was on my Passport, and my Social Security number. In the time that this was going on, two more squad cars had arrived.
Three officers got out of the two cars and circled me. The officer that had been talking to me, who had yet to tell me why I had been pulled over, told me that the officers were here for his safety as well as my own. After the 30 or 40 minutes it took to confirm my identity, I was asked about the office chair and what I was doing out that night. I explained I was playing PokemonGo, I had confirmed earlier that day that the office chair was fair game, and that I had gone to a grocery store. The officer walked away again to confirm that the chair was by the dumpster. No one at the station could confirm the chair was next to their dumpster. I found this a little odd. Officers park their civilian cars next to the dumpster, surely someone had seen it.
When I was eventually told I could continue my evening, I was informed there had been a string of break-ins, that I had been seen “suspiciously behind the station,” and that I was followed because of that and the chair in my possession. I waited for each officer to get in their respective cars and drive off.
Numbly, I walked home, acutely aware of any car that I heard behind me. When I got into my apartment, I sat in my living room. I was shaking. I was afraid. And I was crying.
I didn’t leave my apartment for a week. I stopped playing PokemonGo altogether.
I was surrounded by six police officers over a beaten up office chair. Six officers with their hands on their holsters in a holding pattern. Make no mistake, in that moment, I honestly thought “I’m about to die. This is how it happens. I’m going to move in a way deemed threatening and that’s going to be the end of me.”
Imagine thinking that, frightened by the sheer amount of police on hand, and having to stay calm. Imagine remembering to say “sir.” Imagine remaining polite.
So, when I hear people say that we don’t know the whole story; that we don’t know how the victim was behaving; that we don’t know the state of mind of the officer– remember that I had an officer call for backup because I was walking around with a beaten up office chair wearing a tank top, jorts, and a pair of flip flops.
Remember that Castile was shot for being asked to both not reach for his firearm AND yet to grab his registration.
Remember that for most Black Americans, dealing with a police is a moment in which they think to themselves “this is how I die.”