Black People Feel Lucky To Walk Away Alive From Police Harassment
By Hope Wabuke
Last month, my father went for a walk down the street in front of his home in Arcadia, California. A few minutes in, he was stopped by police. This was about a hundred feet away from his house. The police got out of their squad car, hands already un-holstering their guns. They asked my father for identification. They asked him what he was doing there. They asked him where he lived.
To understand this story it is important to know one simple thing: My father has lived in that house for almost thirty years. He was the first Black man to move his Black family into that neighborhood. He did it for us, his children, so that we would have the best education possible at one of the best public school systems in the state. In fact, all five of us went to the neighborhood schools and graduated from Arcadia High School. Senior year, my eldest sister served on the student council as Student Representative to the Board of Education, interacting regularly with the city government; her picture hung on the wall of the Arcadia city hall. My youngest sister holds various school records in track and field and was instrumental in years of victories for Arcadia High School. The three of us middle children had varying degrees of success — orchestra and choir honors, basketball championships and more school athletic records, Honor Rolls, academic awards, and scholarships to college.
But this is respectability politics. None of this should matter. Our lives matter, no matter how much — or how little — we have given in service to the community.
What did matter that day to the police was this: They were white. My father is Black. To the Arcadia Police Department, my Black father did not fit. He did not belong in that space. Not a single one of my father’s white and Asian neighbors has ever been stopped while walking around the neighborhood. The police singled out my father because of the color of his brown skin.
They asked their questions, guns ready. My father did not understand what was happening. Why, he thought, are the police pointing guns at me as I walk down the street in front of my house? The police yelled louder, their fingers inching closer to triggers.
Four years ago, my father developed a life-threatening illness called progressive supranuclear palsy. Not much is known about it other than that it is degenerative and comes on later in life, with symptoms that are a mix of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. There is little treatment. Due to his illness, my father has lost over one hundred pounds and a foot in height and now weighs less than I do, with my stomach and hips still carrying the baby weight I have yet to lose three years after giving birth. My father’s doctors gave him a finite amount of time to expect to be alive — four years, to be precise. As of this year, he is living on borrowed time, and he can no longer bear the small indignities of everyday racism as well as he used to.
So my father refused to answer the cops’ questions. He said, simply, that his address and other information were private and none of their concern. My father turned his back and continued on his way, shuffling slowly, as he can barely walk for very long. He spends most of his days resting in bed except for this single daily walk in which he attempts to make it down to the next street and back. On his bad days — which are many — he has to stop in his driveway and rest for an hour before giving up and going back home.
But I know my father’s illness, age, and disability are no defense. If they had felt like it, the police officers could easily have killed him for “resisting arrest,” as they have done to so many people over these past few years, people like Tyrone West or Bernard Monroe or Eric Garner — other harmless Black grandfathers just like my father.
When my father told us the story afterward, we, his children, were just thankful our father was still alive after this encounter with racial profiling and police eager to use their guns for no good reason on people who look like us. We remember Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy gunned down by police while playing in the park. We remember Aiyana Jones, the seven-year-old girl shot by police in her own home while sleeping in her own bed. We remember Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot by a white man twice his age who was acquitted of all charges by the justice system in the state of Florida. Each week, each month, a new name to remember, a new unarmed Black dead body to mourn.
For my family, this was not our first personal experience with racial profiling, police harassment, or violence. When I stayed with my father at his house in Arcadia shortly after my son was born, police cars slowed and followed us on our daily walks. Decades ago, when my father took me shopping at the Arcadia mall for my junior high school graduation dress, the store owner asked us to leave the store. She said: “Your presence is making the other shoppers uncomfortable.” When I was in high school police stopped and questioned me several times as I walked across the street to my after school job at the public library because I, too, looked “suspicious” in my Black skin. They couldn’t believe I worked at the library. They couldn’t believe I went to that school. They couldn’t believe I lived in that town. They told me, over and over, that I must be up to something that was no good. My white classmates called me “nigger” more times than I could count.
In the Midwestern town where we lived before moving to Arcadia, the police cars followed my father on his daily commute from home to school at the University of Minnesota. There was one that just sat and watched our house. Our Midwestern neighbors tossed rocks through our windows, rocks that barely missed hitting the tiny bones of my older sisters, just older than my three-year-old son is now. We remember the words they screamed: Niggers get out. We remember how my mother plucked the shards of glass from their skin with tweezers. We remember how my aunt cleaned up the broken window glass. We remember how the police, when called, never showed up.
We remember all of that and so much more.
No one wants to live in a place where one is hated, where one is harassed daily. Where one is denied the rights of regular citizens. Being made to defend one’s right to exist is stressful. It is inhumane.
Coming from Africa in the 1970s, desperate to escape genocide and a dictator who had put their names on his kill list, my parents were not sensitive to the particularities of American racism. They assumed that the white people in America would have the same ideals as the missionaries who came to visit them in Uganda, talking only of Jesus Christ and love. My father, when looking for places for us to live, was thinking only of safety: Nonviolent neighborhoods, green healthy spaces, and good schools. These things, he felt, would give us the best chances in life. He took for granted the psychic strength he gained from growing up around all Black people in Uganda — people who looked like him — the entirety of his life, and didn’t think twice about the ramifications of being the only Black family in our town. He did not think, despite the deeds to the house he bought that said it was illegal to sell to Black people, that this was the actual state of things.
Today, more than forty years after my parents arrived in America, racial justice progress is recent and incomplete, much of it in name only. Institutional racism is very real and solidly entrenched. Political and legal policies, both written and unwritten, remain firmly anti-Black, as Supreme Court Justice Scalia reminded us just a couple of months ago when he suggested Black students would fare better at “slower-track” colleges.
Over the years, so many Black boys and men, girls and women — whether they be children, middle-aged, or elderly — have been shot after being stopped for no reason by police. Oftentimes there is no warning shout or chance to surrender, but just a sudden hail of bullets. Police officers shot Tamir Rice immediately after jumping out of their squad car.
What draws this into even sharper effect are the many armed white men who police rarely shoot, who always manage to be taken alive. The Bundy brigade. Dylan Roof. Too many to remember.
My father did not foresee — none of us did — the crippling effects that growing up absent anyone who looked like us would create throughout our lives; the effects of the constant, virulent racism and sexism; the particular intersection of racially gendered violence that we, his four daughters, were subject to living in predominantly white, non-Black spaces as evinced, yet again, by the choice of Officer Daniel Holtzclaw to specifically target only Black women for rape and sexual assault; the decades-long journey to free ourselves from the internalized self-hate learned from our peers, our friends, our teachers, our community, and our society as a whole.
Luckily for my father, when he turned to walk away — and kept walking away — the police did not shoot. But my father could have been shot that day. This was all I could think when he told me what happened. This is what it means to be Black in America right now. This is our reality.
My father does not go for his daily walk anymore. He says he is too tired. I do not know if he means physically or emotionally. I think, perhaps, if I am honest, it is the latter. Something broke in him after that encounter with the police. I think, after all this time, he believed things would be different.
I want to tell him to try, keep trying. But I do not want him to feel ashamed for his weakness. My father is very proud, very African. I can at least leave him that.
So I do my part in working towards a world where I do not have to be afraid for my father if he chooses to take a walk around his house; where I will not have to be afraid for my son if, like Tamir Rice, he chooses to play with his toys in the park. I teach my son what I wish had been given us: No matter the hatred of the society around us, take joy and pride in your beautiful Blackness. Be strong. Do not let their words break you. Love yourself. Do not be afraid.
This article originally appeared at STIR Journal. Reprinted with permission.
Lead image: Some of the many unarmed Black men, women, and children killed by police in recent years. For more information, visit Mapping Police Violence. Image courtesy of STIR.