Just Tryna’ Get Home: Black Man. Black Cop.
“Nigger no read. Nigger no write. Nigger don’t be caught after dark tonight.”
When the sun goes down, dark bodies go up.
There were more than 4,000 racially motivated lynchings in Southern states between 1877 and 1950, and I thought those words reflected that seventy-three-year-period.
One day in 1987, however, my father saw these thirteen words of racial terrorism on a sign hovering over his head while working in Alabama.
Twenty-three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Twenty-two years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Legislation did not equal racial reconciliation. The deadly presence of racism lingered in the Yellowhammer State.
Or maybe someone forgot to take the sign down…
. . .
My father served in law enforcement for more than thirty years in Alabama. His stories are endless. But not every detail is picturesque.
Retired, now. I sat down with him at a kitchen table to discuss the work of a law enforcer. His experience depicts how the work of a police officer can be rewarding but troubling — even deadly.
Lamentably, death is what brought up the conversation of my father’s work — specifically the death of Black people at the hands of police officers.
With the recent killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, policing has become the talk of the nation. The conversations are both exhaustive and exhausting.
Accountability. Change. Defund the police. Police reform.
What is supposed to be a conversation on “Where do we go from here? The Police and The People” feels more like a fledgling war.
People protesting. Buildings blazing. Fires destroying. Rubber bullets piercing. Tear gas contaminating.
Gas masks. Shields. Batons. Linear formations. Standoffs.
If a war is not already tipping over the Melting Pot, it is certainly brewing. The combatants of the war, however, are unclear.
The police versus the people?
The people versus systemic racism and racial injustice?
The people versus the police and systemic racism and racial injustice?
People across the landscape of American Life are in the streets, shouting “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice! No Peace!” Freedom songs championed during the civil rights movement, such as “Let Your Light Shine” and “We Shall Overcome,” reverberate into the spacious skies, over purple mountains, and through fruited plains.
The untimely, unfortunate deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and a number of Black bodies too grotesque to digest have asked whether, and how, systemic racism and racial injustice continue to condemn Black people to the grave.
I turned to my father to get answers.
. . .
Sitting in front of me, my father began jogging down memory lane.
“Every morning I would wake up, and at some point during my morning routine — usually when I was putting on my gun belt — I looked at myself in the mirror and made peace with the fact that I may not make it home that night.”
Sitting stiff, these are the first words to come out of my father’s mouth in what would become an hour-long conversation.
“You — as a police officer — have to come to realize that you took on a job that can cause you to not return home.”
In 2019, seven police officers in Alabama did not return home while on duty. The possibility of dying while on the job became their reality. Their deaths cause me to wonder what their morning routine was like the day they left home for the last time. Police officers do not wake up and go to work hoping death will numb their limbs, never to move, live, or breathe again. And Black people do not leave home hoping an encounter with the police will lead them to the grave. Black people want to live, and most officers live to help.
“I became an officer to preserve the integrity of the job and see if I could make a difference in the Black community,” dad said.
Cognizant of the systemic issues in policing, my father, like most Black cops at the offset of their career, sought to strengthen the relationship between the community that resembles his pigmentation and the police — striving to be a bridge-builder in the name of justice.
“I lived in a community that looked like me — majority Black. And while it was challenging to be both Black and a cop, I was able to build respect amongst people who were not just cases or constituents to me; they were — and are — my neighbors, my brothers, my sisters.”
The tension between law enforcement and the Black community exists because of a nuanced misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is not only occupational or social; it is systemic. The people’s perceptions of the persons in blue are unequivocally linked to a dark history of slave patrols, stop and frisk policies, and mass incarceration. Additionally, environments produced by systemic oppression open the gates of injustice, which tramples onto the humanity of Black people across the nation.
Where there is poverty, there is crime. Where there is pain, there is crime. Where there is economic and social vulnerability, there is crime. This, however, is not only present in Black communities but White communities too. Each community speaks a language, exudes a social and political dialect, possess an unspoken code of respect — a code few White cops are able to crack in Black communities.
“The average White cop comes from a rural area — that cop was most likely socialized to believe that there is a nigger out there. He most likely graduated from a White school. He comes to a big town and then becomes an officer. Now, he has a badge, gun, and power — a terrible combination for someone who does not speak the language of the community (or communities) that officer patrols,” dad said.
When White officers are patrolling and policing an area that does not reflect their linguistic codifications or cultural expressions, friction is inevitable. And what becomes an abuse of power is actually a value gap between the two parties involved. The value gap is a belief that one’s life is more valuable than the others (See Eddie Glaude’s Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul). My father had an experience with a white partner who failed to recognize that value gap during an encounter with the Black community.
“In one case, in particular, I wrote up a White partner for abusing his power. I did not agree with the way he handled a situation with a Black person and spoke up about the situation on the spot, in front of everybody out there on the street that day. He was irate. When we got in the car, he asked why did I speak up in front of all the Black people on the scene. I told him, ‘I don’t care how you feel about me confronting you in front of everyone. I am going to correct you wherever we are because I am Black. And [you] don’t live in the neighborhood I live in. I will have to come home and face this music. If you talk to them that way, then that is what you think of me behind my back.’”
This music my father spoke of was not hip-hop, rap, R&B, or gospel. It was the music of Black voices shouting in indignation at the sight of a traitor. It was the sound of a bullet piercing his back or skull for being a coward. It was the sound of his voice screaming amid an ambush of angry neighbors. It was the music of death.
My father tells me how he always sought to speak up when necessary to avoid hearing the sounds or feeling the beat of death from his own people — his own neighbors.
“Once, we were in a country part of Alabama. Pulled up on a scene. I was in the passenger seat of the patrol car, and the senior officer took the lead on the scene. My partner confronted this young, ex-military guy. The ex-military guy challenged the officer and made some quick move on him, causing the officer to hit the ground hard. I took my baton and hit the guy on the back of the leg. He stumbles, and I get him to the ground and begin putting the handcuffs on him.
The white officer, upset, jumps on top of the guy, and starts hitting him. By this time, there is a crowd. He is punishing the guy. [The ex-military guy] is not totally handcuffed. I yell, ‘Stop!’ He is already on the ground, there is no need to keep abusing him. It is the heat of the moment. But the senior officer was excessive. We get back [to the police department], and I write it up. Now I am a ‘teller.’ We didn’t have body cams then. Police abuse has been around since the beginning, body [and phone] cams have made them come to light more and more.”
The line between needed and necessary force versus abuse of power is sometimes difficult to define. Body and phone cameras have made police encounters with the community more visible, more questionable. Cameras, however, should not be present for the spirit of friendship and accountability to exist between the police and the community.
“Good officers know how to balance friction with friendship. You — as a police officer — are a part of the community after all,” dad said.
Cameras allowed millions of people to see George Floyd say, “I can’t breathe,” as a White police officer’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. A collective consensus exists among law enforcement throughout the country that says the actions of the officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota were wrong.
“When Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe,’ the officer should have come up off his neck and let him up. All that weight on [Floyd]. Your chest can’t expand. Let him up. He is not doing anything. The problem with law enforcement is that it has used excessive force too much. Excessive force is not necessary to constitute an arrest. You [as an officer] are trained to complete an arrest in minimum expenditure of energy, and as quick as possible. Now, cops go on and on.”
With the protests happening across the nation, the regional and national media has shown its viewers how excessiveness has made its way into peaceful protests. For a second, my father branched off to Buffalo, New York, illuminating a situation that happened between an old White man and riot patrol.
“Like the situation of the old white man — seventy-five years old — in Buffalo, New York. The man is trying to talk to the police. But they push him down. He is bleeding. And look at how many officers walked by him. Folks hollered, ‘Help him! Help him!’ Someone should have helped him. Nobody did. You know, for some reason, some cops think and feel invincible.” Speaking as if the nation’s cops were in the kitchen, he interjected, pointing his index finger towards an empty chair, “’You are not invincible.’ Police are human beings, just like the public.”
Continuing on the story of George Floyd, “They had him handcuffed on the ground. Big man! But they had control of him. All they had to do was grab the middle of the handcuffs and pull him up or communicate with him to bring his leg under him and bring him up. But to hold him down like that is not police work. That was hatred. There was something in the milk we don’t know about. And if he knew the man like reports suggests, something happened before this incident we are unaware of at this time.”
Thinking about other cases, my father began recalling recorded calamities that led to the death of a Black person at the hands of law enforcement.
“Like the incident with the young man shot in the car with the baby in the back and fiancé in the passenger seat.” He was talking about Philando Castile. “The cop was already scared before he walked up to the car. Most officers are. You take a gun away from some cops, and you can beat their butts because they are very scared people. Castile lets [the cop] know he has a gun in the car. The police heard ‘gun’ and went to shooting. The cop reacted the wrong way. When people tell me they have a gun, I say, ‘Okay! Can you do me a favor? Keep your hands up on the steering wheel. Where is the gun?’ They tell me where the gun is, and then I say, ‘Leave it there. I don’t want it — glad you let me know.’ Now, if the gun is on the seat, my senses — my antenna — has gone up. And I am more cautious. But I am going to do everything in my power to not make a deadly decision, for the sake of my life and the lives of the people around me.”
Continuing his examination of the cop who killed Castile, my dad said, “The guy panicked. In training, you go through shoot and don’t shoot scenarios all the time. That shooting was unjustifiable. Scared cops produce dead people.”
Wow. Scared cops produce dead people.
These words shook me to my core.
Police are not machines. They have emotions. They possess fears. A number of thoughts run through their minds like the thoughts that run through the minds of any Black person when they see a police car sitting on the roadside or trailing behind them. For a cop, reality is not like training, just like reality is not the kitchen table conversation Black mothers and fathers have with their children on ways to survive an encounter with the police. No matter how much training, no matter how many conversations, death could be one traffic stop or police encounter away.
My father proceeded to illuminate how training gives life to opportunity while simultaneously produces obstacles between the police and the community.
“The most important thing in law enforcement is training. If you train and practice soft, you will die quick.”
I stopped and asked my father to repeat those words. “If you train and practice soft, you will die quick.”
No wonder cops approach cars with caution and apprehension. Such reality is no grounds for racially motivated verbiage or overly aggressive policing, however.
Dad continued. “In the law enforcement academy, there was this motto that said, ‘Train hard. Practice hard. And live for another day.’ That is true. If you go through the motions — then boom. You never know what is behind a door. In a car. Or wherever. You get a call, and say you have to go down an alleyway. And say it is dark outside. You can’t go down that alley timid. You must be cautious. If you are by yourself — on any scene — it is more difficult. You know, being a cop is no easy task. Next to the military, being a cop is the second most dangerous job in this country. These situations — with Floyd, Taylor, Castile, and even Brown — have just been bad police work.”
Mentioning Brown made me question his thoughts on the situation. The Michael Brown case has both Black and White people on the fence. Some are unsure whether to jump over the fence and demand justice, while others suggest the police officer was justified. I asked my father to explain that case through his lens.
“The cop was wrong. Did he shoot him in the back, or did he shoot in self-defense? The cop said he was scared for his life. Then they say [Brown’s] hands were up. Brown was a big guy, sure. But as I understand the report of the case, the police pulled up beside him — you never do that — asking questions, not unless you know that person and have made some prior contact with that individual before. That was the cop’s most crucial mistake, but as small as they projected the cop to be in the presence of Brown, the cop was still guilty. If he got a call for stealing or something, the cop approached the situation the wrong way. His patrol technique was wrong. Now, everybody will not agree with that assessment. But if it were me, I would have pulled up to a curb at a reasonable distance and said, ‘Hey, you, what is your name?’ He probably would ignore me. But I would let him know why I am asking these questions, illuminating the call about stealing from the store. Doing my best not to make any preconceived notions — despite the description when given the call to respond to the incident. I’d do my best to make contact with him. I’d step out of the car. Stand in a defensive, prepared position. And be ready for anything. This cop let Brown get in his car, it seems. And he was sacred for his life. [But] Brown did not have to die.”
While explaining this story, I remember the words my dad said a few minutes prior, “Scared cops produce dead people.”
Continuing to put cops on kitchen table trial, I listened to my dad finish his thoughts on the Brown case and then he talked about Breonna Taylor.
“The Taylor case is unfathomable. How could they be at the wrong house? Plain clothes? With a no-knock warrant? That entire case makes no sense. When we had a no-knock warrant, we would investigate the area hours — sometimes days — before we hit it. We would leave a marker signifying that this is the house we are going to, and we would check the address multiple times to make sure we had the right house. We would have a door breaker and shield people in place and then go in at a particular time and moment. Kentucky is an open carry state, so I am not surprised Taylor’s boyfriend had a gun in the house. The entire case saddens me. The person they came to get was already in custody. Taylor should still be alive. That entire situation should have never happened.”
Branching off from police encounters, I asked my dad about the Ahmaud Arbery case in Brunswick, Georgia. Arbery was killed by people I call a “delusional slave patrol,” individuals who seek to control the liberty of Black bodies in communities across the nation. One of the persons who killed Arbery was a retired police officer, thus leading my dad to interchange this civilian chaos with policing.
“These white boys decided, ‘Well, he looks like a burglar.’ No! He doesn’t look like a burglar. You haven’t seen the burglar! You don’t know who it is! Could be a white guy. They cornered him. Hit him with the car. Fought him. Shot him with a shotgun? Man…This is the racism we have among society. And cops, too. Racism plagues police departments everywhere. In every branch of government — local to federal. North to South. It is going to be hard to change it. It is almost as if every police department is picking from the bottom of the barrel. These bad shootings and abuses like the ones we have talked about today reflect that reality. And for a long time, police departments have not been able to get Black people to join to help bridge the divide and solve the problem.”
My father asked me questions about how many police officers I know from my high school and college classes. “How many Black people you know from your high school graduation class are cops?” I said, “Maybe one.” He continued, “How many do you know from the college you graduated from?” I said, “None.”
My father rested his case.
“Exactly. Black people nowadays want no part of being a cop. Half have criminal records and can’t be a cop. Key thing I learned about the system as an officer is that you can clean your record. They teach White people that but not Black people, though. White guy been don’ did everything by twenty-five years old. Youthful offender. Folder closed. And now he can become a cop anywhere. Black guy makes a few mistakes in his youth, and his life is over before it begins.”
My father was hinting at the school-to-prison pipeline. Black children are more inclined to suspensions and expulsions because of a value gap between the teachers and the students. Addressing policing means confronting the issues of education, socialization, and indoctrination too.
I asked my dad, “Where do we go from here? Who has to take the initiative to move us forward?” He said,
“Police have to take the initiative. Even the defensive tactics we use — with the riot gear and tear gas — during these peaceful protests give off a negative perception of the police. But then there is the need to protect property and people, collectively, from potential looting and rioting. Where there is police abuse, rioting and looting is nearby. At the end of the day, to avoid these things from continuing to happen, we need better police training. It starts with the type of force we use. When I started back in the early ’80s, they taught us to strike with our batons at the back of the leg or on the thigh unless someone was charging us, and then we had to hit what we could. The gun has always been the last resort, but some folks are trigger happy. It then comes down to community relations. Police need to be more in tune with their district and the people around it. They have to put themselves in a position to understand the people because we work for them…The great majority of cops mean well. But when you put the things cops deal with in their personal lives, with racial socialization that fails to value Black people, with willful negligence on the job, and with the bad experiences Black people have had with law enforcement, things will inevitably go wrong. I do not think the guidelines for police protecting themselves is entirely wrong, but I think the way some [cops] respond out of impulse instead of calculated risks, credible experiences, and trained knowledge has led to a further chasm between the police and the Black community.”
“Will things get better? I know they will. I know they will.”
. . .
Traitor. Black Bastard. Uncle Tom. Coward. Nigger. Nigga…
Some believe more Black cops will lead to better relations between the Black community and the police.
But to be Black and a cop is to be the walking dead.
As a police officer, my father felt the verbal bullets of Black rage often because he wore a uniform that sends many of his brothers and sisters to jail, or to the grave.
Simultaneously, he was pulled over by the same system he worked for — a system that, to some, sees color before credentials.
“Even me back then, as a Black man riding at night, in different sections of town and places, I had to be careful. Number one, I was a big Black man — still am. And if I am riding and get pulled over, they gon’ treat me just like they treat the rest of Black people. Ruthless. Harshly. And I let them get away with it for a bit before I say, ‘You should check my credentials before you continue.’ And then, boom — they find out who I am and then change their tone. Inflections in their voice shift to a more friendly demeanor. But before then I was just another Black man on the road. [The cops] would say to me, ‘Take it easy. Slow it down.’ And then, I’d say, ‘I was going the speed limit, You just picked me out.’ So, this thing we have now with some of the racial blindness, insensitivities, and police negligence has been going on since the beginning of time.”
Troubled, I asked my father, “Why would you say they are just picking you out?”
“Because I am black, on the road, at night. They were profiling.”
“Is it because you know the system as well?”
“Yes. And different cops have different agendas. But the majority of officers — Black or White — are there to do their job: protect and serve. At the end of the day, most of us just want to make it back home — alive and well.”
My dad’s last words convicted my spirit, and it should convict all of us as we discern where we — as a nation — should go from here with the police and the community.
Ironically, the last time a cop pulled me over, he asked me, “Where are you going?”
Heart racing. Palms sweating. I said, “Just trying to get home, sir. Just tryna’ get home.”
I wonder what community relations with the police would be like if the police responded back to the people in a similar manner.
As morning comes and night follows, all of us have a common goal:
We want to make it home.