How it Feels to Not Be Free

There is something happening, post-release of the assault on Sandra Bland, something profound and disturbing and a great reminder that as much as we chanted “I am Sean Bell” or “I am Trayvon Martin” or “I am Eric Garner”, what we needed to say was “I could be John Crawford III” or “I could be Michael Brown” or “I could be Victor White III”.

What is happening across social media is the reality that many of us have been Sandra Bland.

This morning I decided to exercise outside. I hadn’t exercised outside in weeks in this town. The last time I did so, two young men tried to compliment me by shouting “Work it OUT!”. It hit my body like street harassment. The time before that, a male stranger walked with me for two miles chatting. It seemed pleasant enough until we arrived at what I thought was the end of our road & he stopped me and asked: “Where do you live?” After a long back and forth, us now standing on the sidewalk in an incredibly hot South, with me trying to figure out the best way to get home without being obvious about going that-a-way, he finally sighed and rolled his eyes and said: “I’m here every Saturday at this time and sometimes on Monday and Wednesday.” I stopped exercising outside altogether in this town.

But this morning, I walked the trash to the curb and breathed a good, solid breeze and decided to forgo the gym and take my chances exercising outside here. So what, I thought, as I set out on my path, I might run into another young man who tells me he’s homeless because he’s traveled all the way here from Seattle for a girl who turned out to be married and he’d spent all of his money and we was now broke and homeless and couldn’t I spare him some money for bus far and when I said sorry sorry and kept walking he let me get a little ahead of him before trying to silently follow me on the gravel pathway and I knew an opening was coming up to leave the pathway to get onto the main road and cross the street and head back home which is what I did but not before looking over my shoulder and seeing the guy had left his bag behind. He smiled at me and that ended my exercising in the evening in this town. So what, I thought to myself, if you’ve run out of fingers to count the number of times you’ve been harassed for exercising, so what, be outside, release some toxins, breathe in some freshness. How silly of me to think that I could walk around, a woman, in this world, and not become the object of some man’s harassment/”affection”?

When I made it home, I sat on the stairs to take a breather and logged into my Facebook account. There it was, the dash cam video of the final hours of Sandra Bland’s life.

What I saw was this:

a woman irritated by an officer who himself was becoming increasingly irate and belligerent and filled to the brim with his own sense of power and authority. The more Bland said that did not sound like “Yes, sir; Yes, officer” the more unhinged he became. “I’m gonna yank you out of here” “I’ll light you up”.

What this video made me think about:

a few years ago, my mother told me she’d been signaled by a man driving in a truck to pull over. She drove to a bank and pulled in. He pulled up beside her and threatened her, said he was an officer and he’d given her an order to pull over. While she was driving to the bank, she called my father, told him what was happening, where she was headed, asked him to meet her there. The man was wearing gym shorts and a gym shirt. When my mother asked for his badge, he went to his truck and showed it to her. Weeks later she was in a courtroom; the man was not there. He was, in fact, an officer. He had been off-duty. He was angry with my mother because she didn’t let him cut in front of her.

Her story reminded me of the time in Houston, when I was driving along a road that was quite well known by the townies for its incredibly odd left-lane merging into a right-lane. I knew the point of merge on this road and always got into the right-lane long before the merge happened, otherwise I’d end up in a left-turning lane. On this day, I was in the right lane. An officer was in the left lane. He was just behind me and right before the merge happened, he sped up and tried to cut me off. I continued to drive at the speed I was going. He ended up behind me. His lights came on soon after. I continued to drive, made a right-turn, parked across the street from my home. The neighbors knew me; they knew my car. They were mostly elderly and home in the afternoons. I figured I was as safe I was gonna be.

I won’t go into the details. It was a long long long exchange. Half an hour or so. First one officer at my driver door, a white guy. Twenty minutes later, I guess his patrol partner got tired of waiting, and he tapped on my passenger door, a black guy. For twenty minutes, the white officer leaned into my car, one arm on the window, the other pulled long on the roof. First he said I’d broken the law by not letting him over. I asked him what law. Then he said I was breaking the law by driving on Michigan tags. I informed him that I was a student and Texas law allowed students to keep their previous state’s tags and driver’s license for a year. He called me a liar. A liar. About Texas law. I told him to look it up. Back and forth we went. Eventually he began to insert threats: I can find out where you live; I’m an officer, I can look up your tags; I will find out where you live; You’ll never be safe in this city. . . and on and on. When the black officer showed up, I said something like “Oh come on now, seriously, what are you gonna do, play good cop bad cop?” The black cop said, “I’m the bad cop”. Ten more minutes of that before they were exhausted and I felt victorious. Victorious. I waited for them to leave before I drove around the block, parked in the garage, went in the house & called to tell my parents about my victory. They called me stupid, said I could’ve been harmed. “Oh, please,” I said, “what could they have done to me?”

The idiot that I was, I recounted my other Houston victory. Another white cop who pulled me over while I was cutting through the Fifth Ward to get to school. I was driving 32 in a 25. He told me I had a busted taillight. He tried to arrest me for driving on Michigan tags. I told him I didn’t have time for his bullshit; I was late for class. I recited the Texas law to him. He said he didn’t about that. I told him to look it up, give me my busted taillight ticket and keep it moving. He said he’d escort me to campus. He didn’t believe I was a student. I showed him my student parking tag. He said I could have stolen it. He escorted me to campus, parked when I parked, got out of his car when I got out of mine, walked behind me across the street and left me when I entered the door to my building.

After I hung up with my parents, I called the police station and reported the two officers. The person on the line asked: “what do you want us to do about this?” I said: “Whatever you do to officers who harass citizens without cause.” “Okay,” the person said before hanging up. That night, I looked out of my window to see what car was parked in the alley with their lights on, why they were just sitting there. It was the cops. They came there every night for two weeks. Every night for two weeks I called their precinct and reported them. I finally let my neighbor know about it & she called. That ended their visits.

I thought that ended my long history of giving attitude to officers. But I can’t stomach the idea that an officer deserves respect and that I don’t.

In Louisiana, I was pulled over on my way home from the airport. It was after midnight and I was exhausted and speeding to get to Baton Rouge and in my bed. The cop flashed his lights at me & yelled into a megaphone for me to pull over. The highway was under repair and the heated bright lamps were on full blast; coupled with the cop’s high beams coming from his SUV patrol car, I felt like I’d been thrown into Times Square, minus the people. I pulled over and turned my engine off, rolled my window down. The officer used his megaphone to tell me to stick my hands out of the window. I stuck my hands out of the window. He told me to open my door. I put my hands back in the window to open the door & he yelled at me: “Did I tell you to put your hands in that vehicle?” I thought he must be on drugs or this must be a game show. I sat in the car. He continued to yell at me to exit the vehicle. I continued to sit there. Eventually he walked up to the car, yelling: “When I tell you to get out of the vehicle get out of the vehicle!” I explained to him that it was impossible to get out of the vehicle without the use of my hands, which were apparently supposed to be sticking out of the window. “Of course,” I said, “I could use my feet, but quite frankly, I’m not that limber.” “Don’t be a fucking smart ass! I told you to get the fuck out of that vehicle so why are you still inside of that vehicle?” What can be said to an unreasonable officer? I said nothing. He screamed “Now, I’m walking back to my vehicle and when I tell you to exit your vehicle you exit your vehicle.” He walked back to his car, put his megaphone to his mouth and screamed “Now, open your door.” I opened the door. “Put your left foot on the ground.” I put my left foot on the ground. “Lean your head out of the car.” I leaned my head out of the car. Eventually, my whole body was out of the car, arms raised. I felt like I was in a strange S&M porn flick. “Walk towards me.” I walked. “Stop!” I stopped. “Walk SLOWLY towards me.” I walked slowly, haltingly, the lights were blinding me. “Why are you stumbling? Did I TELL you to stumble?” I’d had enough. “Listen you fucking sick fucking asshole, these fucking lights are blinding me! I don’t know where you are! I don’t know where your car is! I have no fucking idea what I’m walking towards you! And why in the hell do I need to walk to you? What do you want?” “You do as you’re told!” he screamed. I dug my heels in and stood there. He came towards me and told me to go stand beside my car. He began some long-winded explanation, that he had to protect himself, make sure I wasn’t carrying a weapon. He made no sense. He asked for my license and registration, said I’d been speeding. I told him my license and registration where in the car in the glove compartment and since he was in such fear of his life he should go and retrieve them himself. I thought he was going to slap me. He didn’t. He raised his hand and quickly put it back down. “Go the fucking passenger side and get your got damn registration and license.” I was exhausted. Before I was finally given permission to get in my car and leave, he leaned in and gave me a fatherly smile. He was much younger than me, but decided to impart some fatherly wisdom: “Look, you’re a young woman driving out here at this time of the night, speeding like that, you need to be careful. You could end up having an accident and killing somebody, worse, killing yourself. Okay? I just want to make sure you’re safe.” I wanted to rip his tongue out.

When I lived in Brooklyn, I often joked that I really wasn’t a citizen of Brooklyn, since I had yet to be pulled over by the cops. I won’t tell that story here. It’s in this poem. But when I look back at all of my traffic encounters with police–in Tennessee, in Michigan, in New York, in Louisiana–I now realize I’m lucky to be alive. Back then, I thought I was just lucky to not be in prison.

It’s strange to think of being alive as luck. As if the person who is not alive had bad luck. The reality is that Sandra Bland, Kindra Darnell Chapman, Kimberlee Randall King were not  unlucky. They were women, Black women, trying to have a life in the U.S. and were (likely) murdered by police. I’ve been thinking, what if these women committed suicide? What if, in a moment of complete knowing, they understood that they wouldn’t come out of these situations alive, and if that were so, they would not die at the hands of cops. Even as I think these things, I understand I’m trying to not think about how I, in fact, have been Sandra Bland, how my mother has been, how many of my Black women friends who are writing about their harassments by officers during routine traffic stops have been Sandra Bland.

I hate sharing these videos, these recordings of violences and murders, but I share this one here, because he we are, Black women in this country who have been violated, whose bodies are treated as disposable objects. I share, too, this video of Marlene Pinnock being beaten by an officer on the side of the road. Despite the video, the ocular evidence, even still, the beating is “alleged”. If a video showing a Black woman being beaten by an officer is not “factual” v “alleged,” how are we to think of how this country views us, as Black women?


4 thoughts on “How it Feels to Not Be Free

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