� Cell: Processing Jail | Main | Friday Fragments �

February 11, 2005

Driving While Black: A Personal History

I need a new nigga, for this black cloud to follow
Cause while it's over me it's too dark to see tomorrow

-- Nas

I started to write this piece yesterday afternoon as I was minding kids as a school parent. The point of it is supposed to be how 'not there' I am - 'there' meaning in the ferocious grip of the controversy over the latest tragedy of [another] black kid shot to death by the LAPD. But that would miss the point that I feel I owe, because in so many ways I have been at Ground Zero of 'there'.

You see, my youngest brother died in jail.

In 1991 in a holding cell in Gardena, Ca, my baby brother took off his t-shirt and hung himself in shame. I can't remember it like it was yesterday. It was a long time ago, but what I can remember is how it made me feel in light of what I had been doing at the time.

I have probably mentioned it many times before, but somewhere around 1989 I ditched my buppie cadre and headed for the radical hinterlands. As part and parcel of these days before the Internet, I was always attending seminars and lectures, trying with the zeal of a scientist, to find out where black culture and politics would lead me. In those days of Darryl Gates, Ron Settles, LaTasha Harlins and soon Rodney King, it led me to a very cynical and oppositional state of mind.

I really didn't realize exactly where I was until some time later in Boston over beers with my colleagues. The stories rolled around from 'the best single malt scotch' to 'the finer points of cow tipping' and finally to 'times I was so drunk and got stopped by the cops'. I had been laughing my ass off, wiping the traces of slobber and shrimp scampi from my mouth. Suddenly I was Schleprock with my own personal thundercloud over my head, only I was evil Schleprock determined to rain on everybody's fucking parade like ten tons of shit bricks. Think Gary Oldman, the pill popping cop in 'The Professional' saying 'EVERYBODY!!'. Instead, I loosened my tie, took two rapid shots of Glenfiddich and marveled at the good fortune of my colleagues' unslit throats. I slipped into what Brent Staples calls 'parallel time' where every white person becomes transmuted into the black & white realm of Mayberry or Hooterville. Where nothing, absolutely nothing they say or do can be taken any more seriously than the pronouncements of Don Knotts. Where their reality suddenly becomes a meaningless sitcom. And I laugh the soundtrack laugh over their silly little stories. You want to know what's real? Huh? Do ya? You feel lucky?

I didn't let it show, but then how could I not? I suddenly knew my most real friend there, Tom. Because after a moment, he stopped laughing too and looked straight at me. I waved him off and shook my head looking down. I'm OK man, I gestured. Just let me breathe. I don't really know what transpired at the rest of that dinner, but I started actually counting the number of times I had been stopped or detained by the LAPD. By detained I mean forced to get out of the car while the officers do something, like come up with some bullshit story to excuse the stop. You know the pose. Cops talking into their lapels, black man sitting cuffed on the curb. The answer for me was...

fzample, having been detained by police about 27 times before my 30th birthday (with only 3 or 4 actual citations issued), i have amassed a great deal of anecdotal evidence that my car was one of the most often stolen in the city of los angeles. and of course that changed depending on what kind of car i was driving. once it was a 68 karmann ghia, then it was a bmw 2002, then it was a bmw 318i. then i happened upon consumer reports or an insurance industry something in kiplinger's which stated that through those years the stolen cars were consistantly 2 year old camrys, cutlass cierras, and ford mustangs. for the parts! imagine my heartbreak to find how misinformed those poor police officers actually were.

..complicated. I have always put my own personal grief in the context of something larger than myself, and I think most blackfolks do as well. So it came as no surprise to Pops that when I did a 'call for papers' for my DWB project, I was the only one willing to speak up. Who wants to write it down? Who would speak the unspeakable outside of the mob? Of those 27 times, here are the ones I most remember:

  • Cops pull me over for 'not signalling' and run a complete check on me. I am told that there is an 'escaped convict' that fits my description. (several times)
  • An off duty officer pulls a gun on me and my date for stealing his parking space.
  • Officers push us up against a chain link fence and feel up my girlfriend. No citation is given.
  • An officer pulls me over because my brights are on, and asks me a series of idiot questions. "Most car thieves don't know how to operate BMWs"
  • Officers ask me my 'gang name', ask me if I know where 'Pookie' lives.
  • Officers detain me and ask me if I plan to blow up the 1984 Olympics. I ask if I am under arrest and if not can I go? "Are you willing to risk that I won't let this dog out after you?"
  • Officers cuff me first, run a make on my plates and then uncuff me to give me a sobriety test. The reason for the stop? "I was driving at night with my windows down."
  • Officers draw weapons because I refuse to get off a 10 speed bike. "Do you have a reciept?"
  • Most young black men in LA County know the meaning of the figure $277. This is what it costs to get a traffic warrant removed. At least that's what it cost in the 80s. But outside of LA County, in my 30s I never saw another. I have no fear at all of cops, I never got my head split. Despite all this, in the context of black manhood, I am considered fortunate. But I know a lot about how cops operate and I have extraordinary spidey senses about and around police vehicles in traffic. I know when I'm being tailed and much more.

    You see, my current youngest brother is an LAPD officer.

    One of the reasons I am not 'there' is that I went the whole 9 yards before. If I had been in Los Angeles during the riots, I would have gotten myself is a heap of trouble. I dreamed up a plot to kidnap an officer and remove his trigger finger with garden shears. I would return the hostage as soon as I got my airtime. I invented a new salute, which might still actually be useful, which is an open hand with the index finger bent over. A good cop doesn't shoot.

    My cop stories from LA are something of a bottomless pit. In the wake of Rodney King, I actually spent a lot of weekends out cruising the streets with a videocamera. I wanted to catch 'em in the act. I drove all over the city and followed cops, even ones with sirens blazing, and once through a red light. I never got them on tape once, beating or even with kids cuffed on the curb. Try as I might, I couldn't prove with video, what I knew to be my own personal experience. Not one head slammed on a hood. So during this time after the King beating and before the riots, I recognized that police work was work. I did find them assisting with traffic accidents. And the one time I thought I hit the mother lode, running into half a dozen squad cars parked outside a highschool gym, it turned out to be a charity basketball game.

    After my brother died and the family went through the various dramas (We had Johnny Cochran's law office and Maxine Waters in the mix, as well as an independent review of the Coroner's report), I had gotten my fill of Los Angeles. I knew the place was wrong, and I knew that I was wrong. I had options, so I exercised them. But I was openly sick of the place and I said so all the time. This town yeilded up nothing. No accountability to the public or by the public. It was a seething cauldron of people shouting and shooting past each other. I hated LA.

    Once outside of LA, it all stopped. NYC cops walked. They were everywhere, but never seemingly in a hurry. They were calm. They talked to people, never having to assert their dominance. Boston cops were fat joke caricatures of cops. Heaven forbid they had to run after anyone. By the time I lived in Atlanta, 5 years out of LA, I had even lost some of my peripheral vision. And then I visited LA for a weekend. Sure enough, I got pulled over. But by this time, the LA cop was in Hooterville. But hey it was true, I didn't have a front license plate. (cue laugh track).

    When my brother applied to be a cop, suddenly a million things clicked all at once. There was absolutely no question in my mind that he was exactly the kind of person I would want to be a police officer. I had moved back to LA, over it, and had been here for a couple years. Previously, Doc had been with FedEx. That fit him too. When it absolutely positively had to be done - no excuses. That's the kind of man he is. Eggs is eggs. He was from the 'hood, like all of us, with no reason to be irrational around black youth, but also no slack for knuckleheads. Gangbangers killed his best friend back in highschool.

    As he went through the academy he would call me and tell me about how things were going. How so many of the younger recruits behaved, what the training officers stressed, how the PD felt about itself, what the senior officers were like. He called me one weekend to tell me about non-lethal training. Officers have to tazed as part of learning how to use a tazer. They have to take a face full of pepper spray too. One day, long after he had been on duty, he took me shooting. So I've been getting the inside scoop for a while.

    What I know about cops, ironically, comes from my own gut. I know what it's like to step into the danger zone and try to right the wrong. Most people don't understand that's not what cops are supposed to do. They essentially are part of the system whose job it is to take dangerous people out of our midst. But since they are human, they're usually there after the fact. So what a cop learns very quickly is what the mess looks like. A cop knows what dead bodies look like, in empty homes, at the foot of tall buildings, in crack houses, and in the steel tangles of ex-automobiles. A cop knows that people are their own worst enemies, and sometimes the only way to know someone's heart in the 15 seconds it takes to end a life, is their reaction to cops. And a cop knows that they are the line over which good people don't step. That's why they exist, because you can't do it yourself. You can't fire a gun because you don't like guns, and you don't know how. You can't wrestle a violent drunk to the ground because you don't know how. You can't stop a man from slapping his wife around because you don't want to get involved and it's none of your business, plus he looks kinda scary. Men like Doc say 'no excuses', and I like that. I need that, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

    When it comes to the politics of protest, well, I've graduated from that school. That's why this is a blog and not a flyer, a picket sign or a bullshit manifesto. I believe in going the whole 9 yards in every direction and relying on your gut. So, being of sound mind and middle age, I get somewhat annoyed knowing that there is history out there as well as real cops and real families with real stories, when I hear the same old complaints. The bottom line is that we have a social contract in place, and we punt a hell of a lot of our own responsibilities off to police forces. They shoot bad guys because we are afraid to shoot bad guys. They deliver suspects to court, because we don't know how. And judges judge and jailers jail and parole officers monitor all because we have decided not to be our knuckleheaded brothers' keeper. Which is both our bourgie prerogative and our moral default. And so we have a system that handles all that mess for us, and we don't like to spend too much tax dollars on it, and we feel sorry for the poor slobs who have to be government employees in it, with their steel desks, old staplers and cardboard boxloads of papers and forms.

    Imagine living at the DMV. Not fun. Now imagine a DMV full of burglars, counterfeiters, drug dealers, fences, domestic abusers, sexual predators, hustlers, pimps, stickup men, gangbangers, vandals, hookers, drunk drivers, car thieves, suicidal nutcases, mental outpatients, brawlers, crackheads. Except they're not all at the DMV, they're distributed all over the city walking next to you and me. Hell, you can't even stand it when the guy in the car next to you is booming his sound system.

    Probably because I used to spend a fair amount of time on the subject, I quite frankly don't care enough about police reform any longer. I knew Daryl Gates was an ass for a long time, and chiefs around the state and country knew it too. I have come to understand how public pressure results in police policy, and I know very clearly how certain political forces came to regard young blacks as the enemy. I realized early on how white distrust of blacks manifest itself, nothing made that clearer than commentary surrounding the Verdict, and subsequently the OJ Simpson trial. Cops are the instrument and must exist because of the social contract, but we should all understand that the social contract between blacks and whites is broken. Tragedy is the inevitable result. So I don't think about it simply in terms of cops and me, but in terms of you and me, politically.

    So when I listen to the angry voices lamenting the loss of some kid whose face and name was brown. I know that there's still a bunch of folks out there who believe they live in a different America. They do. But that's partially their choice and it's partially ours. Still, I have to say, as one who has been 'there' as a black man, that there were too many times that I had been living under that cloud and slipping into parallel time, as if this wasn't my America too. I don't have to be eating shrimp scampi and telling jokes all the time to know this is my America, and I don't have to be looking at the face of a snarling German Shepherd to know something's wrong.

    I'm going to leave this without a personal conclusion and close with the words of James Baldwin. On good days, I'm fairly sure that I'm already there, but it hasn't been easy writing this. And of course, it's not all about me.

    Take no one's word for anything, including mine-but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration, There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

    Posted by mbowen at February 11, 2005 08:28 AM

    Trackback Pings

    TrackBack URL for this entry:

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Driving While Black: A Personal History:

    What I know about cops, ironically, comes from my own gut. from Negrophile
    I started to write this piece yesterday afternoon as I was minding kids as a school parent. The point of it is supposed to be how 'not there' I am - 'there' meaning in the ferocious grip of the controversy... [Read More]

    Tracked on February 11, 2005 05:21 PM