Chronicles of a Police Survivor
Trying to get by as a black man in this world.
Like most black people, I was born guilty without the right to a fair trial. I was born black, so I have never experienced what it is like to be 100% free.
Sometimes it is difficult to know where to belong. Not just because I’ve grown up in many cultures but also because, as a black person, by forced necessity, I had to develop social perceptiveness to discern non-verbal communication from others. I am originally from Colombia, but have also lived in France and the US, where I live currently. I do have stories! I could tell you about what it was like growing up in Colombia, experiencing a daily confrontation with racial invisibility and segregation. Or the exclusion from the US Latin experience because apparently I cannot be both black and Latino (btw, how many black faces do Telemundo and Univision have at the corporate and client-facing level?).
I’ve got stories about segregation in Paris, France. I lived in a prominent area called Le Quartier Latin. I was virtually the only black person around. Initially I thought there were no blacks in Paris. Then, I found out about The Othered Paris, the black neighborhoods that are stigmatized and neglected.
As well as how I got beaten up in Chicago in 2008, because apparently black people were not supposed to enter certain bars in the Wrigley Field area. Not my fault they forgot to display the “Whites Only” sign.
But the worst experience was what happened a few years ago in Glenside, a suburb of Philadelphia.
Understand: for someone who is a black man in the US, regardless of his socio-economic status, the most terrifying experience he fears is an encounter with police.
It was the winter of 2015. I had just moved to Glenside to be closer to work. After spending the evening with some friends, I returned home and decided to ride my bike to a local bar and grab a drink. On my way to the bar, a police car pulled up behind me. I thought they were doing a routine police patrol until they activated the siren. I never imagined I could get pulled over while riding my bike. I stopped and told myself that I had to remain calm and cooperate at all times. Besides, I had done nothing wrong.
A white police officer got out of the car and asked me what I was doing in the area. I told him I had just moved there and was heading to a bar. He asked me to tell him my home address, which I did. He requested my ID, which I gave to him. I knew he would not find any bad records about me. I have no criminal records. At that moment, another white police officer showed up in a different squad car. Cop 1 asked me what I did for a living. I was almost certain they had never met a black man with my professional background, so I thought of the simplest way to help them understand. I said, “I am a scientist and I work for a biopharma company,” which was true. Cop 2 stared at me while Cop 1 said, “Yeah, I’m a scientist, too. Now tell us the truth, what are you up to? Your bike riding behavior is suspicious. Have you been staying out of trouble?” At that moment, I could see on his face that he was annoyed with my very existence and maybe frustrated by the fact I had no criminal records. I realized I was in real trouble and that any poor choice of words or body movement could get me killed.
I was terrified and I thought I was going to die.
I remembered how Freddie Gray had been taken away by cops and tortured to death. At that moment, I had already decided they would have to kill me outside the car, because I was not going to get into their car. I didn’t want to be tortured to death. I told them I could show them another ID from my time at Harvard, which I did. Cop 1 said, “that isn’t you.”
Then, when I thought nothing worse could happen, Cop 1 said, “You have an accent. Where are you from?” I thought everything was going to hell. When I said, “I am from Colombia,” Cop 2 put his hand on his gun while Cop 1 said, “What is in your backpack? Do you have any weapons?” I said, “No weapons. You are free to check my backpack.” At that moment, after about 20 minutes out in the cold, I realized that there was nothing I could tell them to satisfy their “needs.” So, I decided to speak up firmly and knew it was going to make or break the situation. I told them, “This profiling is not good! You two already saw that I am clean. Why am I being stopped?!?” Cop 1 responded, “Behavioral profiling has nothing to do with racial profiling.” Cop 2 said, “He is not racially profiling you.” My response: “He has been profiling me the whole time for no reason. And you know what? I am not just a scientist. I am actually a doctor of biotechnology that has been trained at some of the best universities around the world. And now I am working at one of the largest biopharma companies in the world doing research for drug discovery. When I do my job, I hope it can benefit all people, including people that look like you.”
For a few moments after, which felt like an eternity, I thought I was going to die.
Fortunately, Cop 2 was more reasonable and apologized. Finally, I saw remorse on the face of Cop 1. He never apologized, though. All he said was, “I have never met a scientist or a doctor before.” But I knew what he meant:
“I didn’t know black people could be scientists or doctors with no criminal records.”
I don’t bring up this case to relieve the emotional torment I went through (I already did). This case is emblematic of much that is wrong with the policing process in the US and elsewhere. Cop 1 never shared with me reasonable grounds for pulling me over. He never mentioned that I fit the profile of a suspect he was investigating. There was no probable cause. As a result of these kinds of actions, millions of black lives — regardless of their education or social status — have been destroyed, and there has been a loss of public trust in police.
I like to joke with my US black friends: “You are JUST black! Me, I am black, I am Colombian, and I am an immigrant. So, I have a higher probability of getting screwed”.
I get it. Racist, evil people will never care about black oppression. Putting that aside, I believe that the world has more good people in it than evil people.
Yet, I have to ask a fundamental question:
In order to be a believer, why is it that good people need to have video proof of dehumanized cops killing a neutralized black man begging for his life?
I didn’t have any video proof about my case. Some people did not believe my story. A white woman at my former company, a member of the diversity and inclusion (D&I) committee, heard my case and commented to a friend of mine, “What’s wrong with the cops doing ‘their job’? They would have done the same to my son.” I doubt that! The point is she never cared to reach out to me to get the account of the situation from me. Yet, she was quick to justify the unjustifiable. And think about this for a moment: she was a member of the D&I committee. If she thinks that way, what can we expect from people who don’t care about diversity and inclusion?
In many places around the world, society puts a knee on black people’s necks and then criticizes us for not being able to take that knee off our necks. As such, we have to breathe in any way we can, keep our heads up, not get angry, smile, and deliver three times more to be appreciated. This has got to change!
Dr. Hugo Caicedo is an expert in biotechnology and digital technology. He serves as a practitioner, scholar, speaker, consultant, and advisor for both local and global organizations.
Dr. Caicedo is currently an innovation and strategy fellow at MIT. With work experience in the biopharmaceutical industry, he has completed postdoctoral studies at Harvard University, a PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Electronics Engineering at the Universidad del Valle (Cali, Colombia).