Guilty Innocence

“But you must have been doing something suspicious…why else would they stop you?” My husband looked at me and although his body language was calm, his tone was much sharper: “Danielle, they pulled me and Tremayne out the car. They threw us against it, took out their guns and started asking us what we were doing.”

His voice is very tense and mellow now as he recounts the events leading up to his car being stopped by the police.

“We won our football game and one of the parents had promised us that if we won the game, they would pay for our meal. We were on our way to the restaurant. I was driving Mom and Dad’s car.  I saw the blue lights and I knew I wasn’t speeding so I was sure the cops had made a mistake. I pulled over and started to open my door so I could get out the car.  Thinking back, that was dumb to try to open my door.  I just didn’t know what to do.  I had never been in that situation before.  They came over and pointed their guns in our face and yelled, “Don’t move. Put your hands on the steering wheel.”  They opened my door all the way and Tremayne’s door, and told us to get on the ground.  They came over and handcuffed us and drug us over the road and sat us on top of the hood of their car.  People were driving by looking at us as if we were felons.  I was 17. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew we hadn’t done anything. All we were doing was going to get something to eat.”

I’m still incredulous at this point so I keep asking questions the way a women can ask those nagging questions that tears a man’s nerves up. “So did you get a badge number? Were you scared? What did else did they do?”

I know I’m nagging, but I had a hard time believing that the cops would pull over two teenagers and hold guns to their heads. We lived in eastern North Carolina. We didn’t live in the projects or the hood or any other suspicious neighborhood. Things like this didn’t happen, or so I thought.

“Danielle, they were pointing guns at us. I wasn’t thinkin’ bout no badge number. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to be scared. We were driving. I saw blue lights. I pulled over. Next thing I know, I’m being handcuffed and dragged out my car. They are pointing guns. They asked for our IDs. They un-cuffed us, and they looked at us and said we fit a profile description. They didn’t apologize. They didn’t say anything else. They told us to get back in the car. We did, and then we left. I didn’t say one word to Tramayne. He didn’t say one word to me. That was my senior year of high school. I was 17 years old.”

Silence follows. Richard continues driving. Our 5-month old son, Richard III is sleeping in his car seat in the back, and my mind is going a mile a minute. I keep secretly thinking about what Richard might have done, to make those officers stop his car. The mother in me, had to know. If I could just find out what triggered those officers to pull my husband over, I could make sure my son was raised differently so it wouldn’t happen to him.

The only provocation is the color of their skin
Richard and Richard III

I couldn’t even allow myself to imagine  that one day some police officer could pull over my sweet, baby boy, drag him out of his car, and hold a gun to his head. I needed Richard to give me a way to make his story make sense, but I knew he couldn’t. He hadn’t left out anything. There was no other provocation on Richard’s part besides being a black male who fit a profile description. For those two officers, that is all the provocation they needed.

I can’t express to you how that makes me feel as a wife and mother to know that at any given moment, any given day, my hard-working husband and my baby boy, regardless of their character, can be criminalized due to no fault of their own. If they drive in the wrong neighborhood, wear a hoodie, wear the wrong hairstyle, dress the wrong way, look menacing, appear belligerent, fit a description, or crash their cars, they could be pulled over, arrested, searched, seized or shot multiple times. It does not matter that they are innocent.  They are guilty simply because of the color of their skin.

To add injury to insult,  because I am admitting in a public space that racial profiling really does occur, it will be perceived by some people that I am throwing the race card. It will be perceived that I don’t want to accept responsibility for my actions and I’m looking for someone to blame. It means I am making  the job of police officers more difficult by painting them in a negative light. Therefore, some people want me to stop talking about race.  They want me to  forget about the past and move on.  If only it was that easy.

What would you do in my shoes?  My husband is recounting his first run-in with the law, while my baby sleeps in the back seat.  Am I suppose to just sweep what Richard is telling me under the rug, and ignore the implications that it suggests for Richard III?

I guess we could strive to become the most hard-working, educated, well-traveled, articulate, wealthiest, and most powerful individuals in the world, but that does not mean we will ensure that me, my husband or my son escape racism or racial profiling.  Take a stroll on the Internet and read some of the articles and comments made about Our President.  Count how many times someone refers to him as a ‘nigger’.  What happened to Oprah when she shopped overseas?  The sales clerk wouldn’t even show her a purse because she didn’t think Oprah could afford it. Neither her fame or her fortune could protect her from racism.

Remember what happened to esteemed Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. a few years ago? This former Yale and Cambridge graduate, was arrested at his own home near Harvard Square because the police thought he was an intruder. He showed them his driver’s license and his Harvard identification card, but they refused to believe him.  Dr. Gates has received over 50 honorary degrees, but none of those degrees protected him from the police.

Jonathan Ferrell was working two jobs.  He had attended college and was saving money to return.  He had never had a run-in with the law.  He wrecks his car in the wrong suburban neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C. however, and rather than become a victim of a car accident, he becomes a possible suspect.  A white police officer shot at him 12 times.  10 bullets hit his chest and arms.  Yet, to speak about my husband’s experience, is to play the race card.  Really?

I wish I could say that Richard had no more run-ins with the law, but I can’t. A few years ago, before we were married, he was pulled over again. At the time he was 28. He’s graduated college. He’s had a brief professional football career, playing in the NFL and overseas. He works in the teen ministry at his church. He mentors young males. He’s doing everything the media and so-called experts are suggesting black men do to stay safe.

It’s the middle of the day. Four cars surround my husband’s car. One car is unmarked. The other three cars are police vehicles. A white, police officer comes to Richard’s door. He accuses Richard of not wearing his seat belt. Richard insists he was wearing his seat belt. The officer ignores him.  Another white officer begins to try to question the other passenger, a teenager named Johnny. Richard instructs Johnny  to remain silent. Another white officer gets out his cell phone and begins taking pictures of Richard’s car and Johnny. The officer chides Richard about not being at work. Richard tries to explain that he’s a college graduate and he has a job. The officers don’t listen.  Richard is given a ticket for not wearing his seat belt.  The officers get in their cars and leave, leaving behind my husband to explain to Johnny that all policeman are not bad.  Do you think Johnny believed him? What do you think 17-year old Johnny told his friends about his incident with the police?  Can you blame Johnny for not being convinced that the police are there to serve and protect him?

I really wish we could all just be the human race, and once and for all tear down the social constructs of being black or white, but until I stop hearing stories like my husband’s, until I stop watching videos of men and boys being choked to death and shot down in the street, it behooves me to remember I am a black woman, married to a black man, and together we are raising a black son.  As much as I would like to forget my skin color, the police seem to find ways to remind me.



6 Comments on “Guilty Innocence”

  1. I shared a similar story about my father a few months ago. I don’t know the answer, but I do think there is another side to this story. I was telling a friend of mine that I think white people are afraid of black men especially when you look a certain way …the way most black men tend to look. I can’t deny the fact that I believe some of their fear is understandable. I’ve seen black people use their race as a weapon to intimidate white people.

    • I have too, Percevial. I also think the media plays a huge role in how black men are perceived, although that is debatable considering black men have been depicted as menacing and threatening long before the television was invented.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. What is the answer? I have two sons that look completely opposite …completely but they have both experienced being pulled from vehicles with guns pointed at their heads. Really …what is the answer?

    • I don’t know. I am in the process of conducting interviews with police officers. I am finishing up my first with a friend who is a sergeant with the NYPD. She has a lot of passionate responses and I am just as passionate. I am trying hard to listen and understand as I think this is part of the problem. I will share my conclusions after I finish my interviews.

So...what do you think?

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