Milpitas, California was a strange place to grow up. With a population of 50,000, it was a small town by Bay Area standards. It’s located just north of San Jose and depending on traffic; it was forty-five minutes from San Francisco.
It used to be a factory town. But, the Ford plant had closed years before my family moved there, leaving a host of environmental issues in its wake.
What was once a white town had become a multi-ethnic melting pot. A Vietnamese family lived next door to us. Across the street was a Filipino family. There were several Indian and Hispanic families on our street as well. There was also one African-American family, a handful of other white and Asian families on our block.
As far as I knew, there weren’t any racial tensions in our neighborhood.
Most of the white people I knew growing up thought that racism was an artifact of a different time and place. It was something from Nazi Germany or from the Jim Crow South. Racial tensions might exist in Oakland or parts of LA, but in multi-ethnic Silicon Valley, we were too chill to have race issues.
But, I knew something most of my white peers didn’t. Racism was alive and well in Milpitas. There was a seething hatred of black and brown people that was hidden from polite white society. There was also a casual racism that once you were attuned to it, was everywhere.
I had, what one friend’s mom called, a southern-Mediterranean complexation. I have dark brown eyes and hair. Back when I was a teenager, I spent all summer outside swimming, biking, and camping. I never sunburned, and my skin took on a deep bronze color.
My complexion gave me a certain racial ambiguity. No black or brown person ever mistook me for anything other than a white boy. Certain suspicious white people sometimes puzzled over my origins.
When walking alone, angry white dudes, and it was always white dudes, would yell at me out of their car windows to go back to whatever country they thought I was from — usually Mexico or India. Once someone threw a glass liquor bottle out of the car towards me, but they were too drunk for the bottle to come close to me.
On several occasions, white store managers would follow me around as I shopped. Twice I was asked to leave by white retail workers if I wasn’t going to buy anything. Nothing like this ever happened if I was with my white friends or family.
As a teenager, it was mostly a joke to me. I laughed at the ignorance of people. I would play games with anxious workers by picking up more and more expensive items off of the shelves and seeing if they’d fit in my pocket before putting them back on the shelves. I loved watching their eyes get big as their suspicions were confirmed, only to be disappointed when I didn’t try and steal anything.
I was privileged. The racism I experienced didn’t affect my psyche because it was too isolated from my normal experience. I knew I was white and that the racists were making a mistake about my identity. My experience had almost nothing in common with the racism black and brown people face every day. For them, it is about their identity. They can’t retreat into their whiteness and laugh about the indignities and dangers they face just because of their skin color.
I may have been more aware of the realities of racism than my white peers, but I was still woefully ignorant of the existential dangers of racism in Milpitas that my friends from other backgrounds faced all the time.
In October of 1993, the days were still hot enough for shorts, but the evenings brought a brisk wind from off of the Bay. The nights reminded us that fall was coming and that our extended summer was almost over.
On a Friday night, I was waiting for my friends to come pick me up so we could travel to some other high school to cheer on our friend Robyn who played on the varsity girls’ basketball team. She usually played only a handful of minutes a game, but she was our friend, and we were determined to cheer her like she was an all-star.
Mom asked me to take out the garbage. I went out back only to discover that my brother had failed to return the garbage cans to the backyard like he was supposed to. I opened up the gate and took the garbage cans back myself, depositing the kitchen garbage in the can along the way.
I tried to go back in the house through the sliding glass door in the backyard. It was locked. The door was crap, and it had probably locked itself, it did that all the time. But, one of my siblings could also have been pranking me. They loved to lock me out of the house. It gave them a little power over their older brother.
I banged on the door like a crazy person, but nobody came to my rescue.
Irritated, I opened up the gate and walked around the front of the house. It was darker than usual because Daylight Savings Time had just ended. Only one car was in the driveway, our dark gray Chevrolet Astro minivan because Dad was working late again. I was between the van and the garage door when a spotlight was shone on me, and someone yelled for me to freeze.
I put my arm over my eyes and try to see what jackass was trying to screw with me. I couldn’t see anything.
The voice screamed at me to put my hands down and lie down on the ground, or they would shoot. I heard something click.
I laid down on the ground.
The man came up slowly behind me and placed his foot on my back. I heard him talk into his radio.
“I found the Mexican piece of shit. I’ll bring him to you.”
He grabbed me by the back of the zip-up hoodie I was wearing.
I twisted, and he punched me in the kidneys.
“Who are you?” I asked.
I was scared but trying not to show it.
“I’m the fucking police wetback.”
“I live here,” I explained as he picked me up by the back of my hoodie and got me to my feet. “I have my license in my wallet. You can check the address.”
Another punch to the kidneys.
“Shut up. Don’t move your hands.”
He twisted the back of my hoodie tighter. I felt the zipper cut into my neck.
“You’re choking me.”
“No, I’m not.” He laughed and twisted the material tighter so that the collar and zipper cut deeply into my skin.
I couldn’t get any air in or out. I tried to twist away and got hit again in the back. I couldn’t get any words out. I thought I was going to die.
The officer marched me across my front lawn and into the street where another police officer was waiting. I had seen him before. He was Filipino. He’d talked to us about drunk driving at our school a few weeks prior.
“Here he is.” The officer choking me said.
The other cop shined his flashlight in my face.
“This kid’s white.” He said. “What’s your name?” He demanded.
I made some grunting noises. Despite the light, my eyes were beginning to go dark. I was desperate for air.
“Let him talk to me.” The officer said to the man holding me.
He loosened his grip, and I felt a rush of cold air fill my lungs. I coughed and sputtered. But, the officer still held onto me as I was going to run away any second.
“What’s your name?” He repeated.
I told him my name and that I lived in the house behind us. I explained about my license in my pocket.
I was shaking.
“Give me his wallet.” The Filipino officer ordered the officer holding me.
The one holding me, ripped out my wallet and handed it over to his partner.
We were still standing in the middle of the street.
He examined my license and asked what I was doing.
I explained that I was taking out the garbage and that someone had locked my back door.
“We’re looking for someone who’s been slashing tires and hopping fences in this neighborhood. You see anyone?” The officer asked while handing me back my wallet.
I shook my head.
“No. I was just taking out the garbage.”
“This isn’t the guy we’re looking for. This kid’s white, not Hispanic.”
“You sure. He looks Mexican to me.”
“He’s not let him go.”
The officer holding me released me. I half turned to get a look at his face or name tag. He turned his flashlight on in my face.
“Go inside and stay there. You shouldn’t be out here. We have work to do.”
He shoved me, and I jogged across my lawn and into my house.
It felt like I was outside for hours. But, I’d barely been gone a few minutes. Nobody had missed me. I thought about telling Mom what had happened, but I knew that would make her paranoid and she wouldn’t let me go out with my friends.
When my friends showed up half an hour later, I walked quickly to the waiting VW Bus, scanning the area for cops.
I told my friends the short version of the story. They thought it was another funny story about Jason getting in trouble for looking Hispanic. They thought it was another story about Milpitas cops taking their jobs too seriously and harassing teenage boys for no reason.
But for me, the experience forever changed the way I viewed race and law enforcement. I couldn’t help thinking that if I hadn’t been white, that cop might have choked me to death. I definitely would’ve been arrested for something I didn’t do.
I never filed a complaint because I was a teenager. I didn’t know either officer’s name or I wouldn’t be able to describe them. Plus, I doubted anyone would care about my story.
Not all law enforcement officers are bad. Most are good people doing their best to protect and serve. But, from being a law clerk in a district attorney’s office and working as a criminal defense attorney, I also know that the number of bad cops is much higher than most white people think.
I also know that many police officers, even good ones, have too much confidence in their own judgment and not enough humility to face their biases.
Policing is a dangerous job. I respect people who are willing to serve. But, I also know that poor training and lack of accountability make policing more dangerous for police officers and for the black and brown people they encounter.
I had an ugly encounter with a racist police officer 26 years ago. It still affects the way I view interactions with law enforcement. It also makes me realize that when it comes to race issues and law enforcement, not much has changed in most cities in the past two and a half decades, and it’s making the world more dangerous for all of us.