I still shudder at the memory of my most terrifying encounter with the police. I was in Maywood visiting my best friend. At the time, I was living in Peoria and had grown homesick, so I drove the two hours for a trip that was supposed to be a few days. It turned into a few weeks of me crashing on his basement couch and spending my days waiting for nights of jokes and laughter over beers and shots.
One afternoon during my visit, my friend and I hopped into his car to go to a destination I now forget. While he was pulling out of his driveway, a black sedan drove by. As the sedan turned the corner, I could see the passenger looking at me. For a split second, our eyes locked and I knew without knowing that the car would turn around and about five seconds later, it did.
And before either of us could process a response, two plain clothes officers were playing good cop-bad cop outside of our respective windows. They demanded we show our hands, present our IDs and explain our presence in the community where we were both raised, lived and have our being.
“When was the last time you were arrested?” the Hispanic cop outside of my window asked.
When I showed him both my state ID and my University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign student ID, which I still carried with me, having finished college a few years before, he asked me why I would be in Maywood if my residency was Peoria.
None of my answers were good enough for him. When we told the officers that we had no drugs on our bodies or in the car, and after a full-body pat down yielded nothing, the Hispanic cop still threatened to call the K9 unit to tear the car up.
Despite my studied deference, the ‘bad cop’ insisted that I was being a smart aleck and ordered me out of the car. He sized me up, his face inches away from mine, and threatened to handcuff me and take me to jail if I so much as breathed his way.
The whole encounter lasted maybe five minutes — the utter helplessness; the paralyzing fear; the inexplicable shame despite my innocence — but I can still it feel it some 10 years later.
The cops didn’t know my best friend was related to multiple Maywood cops, one of whom he called that day. Later that evening, my friend and I stood in the Maywood police station facing those two plain clothes cops, who turned out to be with a Cook County narcotics unit.
“College boy!” the Hispanic officer greeted me, halfway attempting to ingratiate himself while still managing to demean me. His countenance had changed. He was disarmingly non-threatening, even chipper. We shook hands.
He wanted me and my friend to “understand” why we were stopped. Seconds before we pulled out of the driveway, the bad-cop-turned-good explained, a guy rode by on a bike, making it appear as if we’d been part of a drug deal. Me looking him in the eyes didn’t bolster my innocence, he told me.
I’m thinking of Dave Chappelle’s Def Jam poem about him being surveilled in a Korean store (“I’m not stealing in the least, but if you’re shopping and you know someone’s watching you shop, that shit will make you look like a thief.”).
And then, managing to weaponize even empathy, the Hispanic cop insisted that my friend and I put ourselves in his shoes, that we understand what cops like him — who police our hometown like it is an occupied territory and treat us as if we’re hostile insurgents — must feel as they’re forced to make split-second decisions in the complex, crime-ridden terrain that is our everyday lives and their war zone.
What the cop did not say at the time, but what I would eventually learn, is that he is trained to protect his own self, first and foremost, and then the bodies of his brothers in arms, so that, at the end of the day, they can all return home to their families, and that this is to be accomplished by any means necessary, even if it means terrorizing the people he is sworn to putatively ‘serve and protect.’
This sense of terror, this dreadful state of policing and being policed, is not egalitarian, is not distributed equally, is predominant in communities of color like mine and not because of anything we citizens of color merited. My friend and I did not earn this treatment.
After the powwow, my friend’s stepmother, a veteran Maywood police officer, asked us if we wanted to file a complaint. We both declined to do so.
My best friend is now a rookie police officer himself — the only black cop in a lily-white suburb, where the police are polite and accommodating and even deferential to residents (particularly, and especially, my friend, because we all know what would happen if he were a bad cop in this good suburb) — who within the last few weeks has been called a traitor to his race by a white protestor during a Black Lives Matter rally.
A few days ago, my friend texted me with a request. Can I write something in response to whites who suddenly want to be allies?
This is the best I can do.
This current crisis in policing is not about individual police, all of whom are human (and I have never known a human being to be an apple). This is about twin perpetual crises that our present system of policing was created to manage: the crisis of racism and the crisis of capitalism.
Modern policing developed in America in order to patrol slaves and to discipline unruly, underpaid and underfed workers whose “riots” were the genesis of the modern labor movement, which is why it is so ironic that politicians’ piecemeal police reforms are so often stymied by powerful police unions.
It’s not a coincidence, for instance, that Oak Park’s police force has always seemed to expand during moments of racial tension. After the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which prohibited discriminatory housing practices and allowed blacks to start moving into suburbs that were formerly closed off to them, Oak Park’s police force grew by a third, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Today, 40 percent of the village’s general budget goes toward policing. From 1998 to 2020, Oak Park’s police budget (excluding pensions) grew by 155 percent — from $10.1 million then to nearly $26 million today. The growth in local police spending over those two decades has outpaced the rate of inflation by roughly 62 percent.
And growing alongside that bloated police budget has been fear — of young men who look like me, of black bodies whose movements through time and space have been contained and strictly controlled and surveilled with suspicion.
In her recent study on the imperial origins of American policing, Julian Go of Boston University writes that local police have “borrowed tactics, and organizational templates from America’s imperial-military regime that had been developed to conquer and rule foreign populations. Imperial feedback occurred as a result of imperial importers, many of them veterans of America’s imperial-military apparatus, who constructed analogies between colonial subjects abroad and radicalized minorities at home.”
There’s a scene in “Jarhead,” one of my favorite war movies, where Lt. Col. Kazinski, played by Chris Cooper, briefs fresh troops new to the Gulf War on their mission — to protect Saudi oil fields.
“And gentlemen, I’m talking a lot of oil,” he says. “A lot of oil. So gentlemen, you will hydrate, you will train, you will adjust to this desert and you’ll hydrate some more. And you will be ready, you will maintain a constant state of suspicious alertness and one day soon Saddam Hussein is going to regret pulling this sorry shit!”
“We’re going to kick some Iraqi ass!” the soldiers chant over and over again, as if spellbound.
As a black man, in a way a kind of Iraqi, I can only hope the spell breaks.