Feeling unsafe in America: The emotional toll of police shootings and violence on the black conscious
I was pacing in the parking lot outside the New Haven Register in August 2014 with my white co-worker and I was in a panic. Eric Garner and Michael Brown had recently died at the hands of cops in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri. Their alleged crimes didn’t matter, the use of force, the state-sponsored killings of those men did. It was a reminder that as a black man in America I was not safe. I kept repeating “I don’t feel safe” to the young woman who had stepped out with me after she noticed that anxiety had briefly overtook me.
It wasn’t the first time, and regretfully, I say it won’t be the last time I and other black males will be reminded of how unsafe we are in America.
Early in my journalism career in Los Angeles, I got in the habit of carrying my press pass with me when I walked to the store. I was living in Panorama City, a Los Angeles neighborhood impacted with gangs, drugs and guns. My wife at the time asked me why I carried my L.A. County Sheriff-issued press pass to buy beer at the store. My response was rehearsed, learned from not from “The Talk,” as black folks call it, but from many such talks about the danger that surrounded me. “I don’t want the cops to let me bleed out like just another black kid in the neighborhood,” I told her.
I have little privilege as a journalist, but what I do have, I have used to keep myself alive.
In California I was stopped for a busted tail light, like Philando Castile was in Minneapolis. I was two blocks from home in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. After I handed the officer my license, which clearly showed I was close to my apartment, but before the officer told me why I was stopped, I was asked whether I was on probation or parole, whether I had explosives or a gun in the car, and whether I was carrying drugs. I had a car seat for my newborn baby in the back seat along with milk and bread. He gave me a warning to get the tail light fixed and let me go home.
I was stopped by police on the way to a public pool with my family in the car and the officer asked whether I “even had a license.” When he saw my press pass in my wallet, he didn’t bother to ask for my license and let me go.
I was stopped by the cops outside my apartment complex, this time I was in Baton Rouge blocks from where Alton Sterling was killed. I was followed home from my job by the cop, who said I matched the description of a suspect in a burglary nights before at the building where I worked. Only an LSU faculty ID, I was teaching journalism there at the time, saved me from a long stop and explanation of why I was in a neighborhood where few people looked like me. Again, the little bit of privilege I have was exchanged for basic survival and to avoid humiliation. I asked my co-workers and building maintenance about the alleged burglary and no one had heard about the incident the cop used as his excuse to stop me.
When I tell the stories of my police encounters to my white friends they are outraged. My response to them has always been the same: “I made it home.”
And to the families who have lost their loved ones to police shootings, I believe they would say the same thing to me if I told them about my police encounters. Because Eric Garner didn’t make it home, Michael Brown didn’t, and neither did Kendrec McDade, Ramarley Graham, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
When the Baltimore riots exploded in April 2015, I rushed to the flash point of the uprising, the intersection of Pennsylvania and North avenues. The protesters, the rioters left me feeling unsafe, but so did the National Guard and the cops with sniper rifles pointed at the crowd. I returned to Baltimore in the months following the uprising and spent weeks trying to unravel why the city’s homicides had spiked in May and July. I interviewed the locals, but in a city where killing black men and boys is almost a daily occurrence, I never felt safe.
During New York Police Commissioner William Bratton term as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, he told a gathering of black journalists, including myself, that he was safer in a black neighborhood than us. His words were a sober reminder of how unsafe all of us, especially black males were. And not just because of the epidemic of so-called black-on-black crime (crime, especially violent crime, like American society is largely segregated), but because of the disproportionate rate at which cops kills black people and because it’s likely my homicide at the hands of another black person is unlikely to summon the same response from law enforcement or be solved with the same efficacy as would the killing of a white person (Kevin Sutherland and the Savopoulos murders in Washington, D.C, offer some proof to that perverse fact, but if you want more on the topic read Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside).
I’m writing this from the leafy suburbs of Maryland. It’s largely white, but more racially diverse than many affluent swaths of America. Still I can’t ignore how unsafe I feel. It’s not the high intensity anxiety like I felt that night in 2014, but a constant sense that I need to be aware of potential danger.
Each morning when I take my routine walk — part exercise, part gathering of my thoughts for the day — I look at each car that passes to check whether it is a police cruiser, or a neighbor who might call the police because I look out of place. This might sound like paranoia, but ask any black male and you’re likely to hear the same feelings expressed, the same stories recounted.
All of this becomes tiring. Like my white coworkers, I have a career to manage, a child to help raise, rent to pay. But added on to my day is a necessity for hyper-vigilance, both in poor black neighborhoods where I have often spent hours reporting, and in more affluent white neighborhoods where I have often lived.
My white co-worker on that night when panic and fear briefly overtook me listened. She understood that someone living under those conditions would grow tired of being hyper-aware as a tactic for basic survival.
When we as black people say #blacklivesmatter, we are not just talking about the deceased and the imprisoned. We are talking about all of our lives and the totality of our lives. #BlackLivesMatter, our sense of security matters. It will take some time to convince all of America that we matter. For now, please just do what my coworker did that night — listen.