With everything that is going on in the world today it’s easy to forget that African Americans continue to have altercations with the police. They happen far more than they should, and are often unresolved. But most of all you don’t have to get shot or killed to suffer irreparable harm.
Years ago I lived in an apartment in a small suburb of Chicago called Forest Park. I actually lived there for several years. You could be in downtown Chicago within 15 minutes, or you could jump on I-290 and venture into the far west suburbs. The area is an upper middle class neighborhood with single family homes, great schools, and plenty of local dining. In fact on the corner of Des Plaines and Randolph is a sandwich shop called Submarine Tender. Easily the best sandwich shop in the near west suburbs. I’ve been going there for at least twenty years.
The restaurant stays open until 3:00 AM on the weekends, which is perfect for a twenty something year old man who wants a late night bite without having to cook. So one particular evening I drive over to grab a king sized sub so I can come back home and watch a movie like I had done dozens of times. The restaurant was literally one block up, and one block over. I could have walked if I felt like it.
I was driving back down my block and I noticed a police car speeding in the opposite direction with his lights on, but no siren. It was late and there were always a lot of college kids who frequented the bars on Madison Street. I guess another kid was drunk and got into an altercation with one of the bouncers.
Just as I was about to pull into my parking lot I noticed in my rear view mirror that the police car had done a U-turn. I thought to myself, “I better pull over so he can get over to whatever bar he just received the call from on Madison.” Instead of going around me, he pulled right up behind me. And before I knew it I was surrounded by six or seven police cars.
The policemen all jumped out of their cars and pulled me out of my car at gunpoint. I was so confused. I was asking what was going on. I remember a female police officer handcuffed my arms behind me while the other policemen were searching my car. Going through my glove compartment, opening my trunk, looking under my seats, I mean they almost picked the car up off of the ground trying to find whatever they were looking for.
I asked the female police officer why they were doing what they were doing. I remember that she told me that they got a call that someone matching my description had just let Submarine Tender and had brandished a gun. Let me remind you that the sandwich shop was literally a two minute drive from my apartment. Even if I had threatened someone with a gun there was absolutely no way they could have called the police and assembled 7 police cars to meet me coming down my street in less than two minutes.
I was immediately angry. “B-tch take these handcuffs off of me right now!”
“Don’t talk to the police like that!”, she replied.
The absolute nerve. I heard one of the officers yell “All clear!”, or something to that effect. And before I knew it they were all driving away. I told the female officer that I wanted the names and badge numbers of the police officers on the scene. She told me that I could call the police station.
Now you have to remember that this was about twenty years ago. This was long before smartphones and cell phone cameras. This was closer to VHS camcorders and the era of Rodney King. I was absolutely incensed but also mortified. How could they do this to me? I was out buying a sandwich and this happens?
I called the police and asked for the police officer on duty who was in charge. I told him what happened to me and asked for a report, but he told me that there wasn’t a report of my stop. I physically went up to the police station again complaining about what happened to me. Again I was told that there wasn’t a report of my stop so there was nothing that he could do.
Then I was really angry. The next day I called around to attorneys trying to find someone to help me. They were going to pay. After leaving what seems like dozens of messages, I called the ACLU. They would help me. I remember talking to someone and explaining what happened to me. He asked me what seemed like an odd question at the time.
“Did they hit you or hurt you in any way?”
My Moment of Realization
That’s when it finally sunk in that without proof, there was nothing that anyone could do. It was my word against theirs. My rights were violated and I had to suck it up. I was consumed with anger. I kept playing the events over and over in my head until I finally thought, “What if…”
What if a nervous rookie was out there and started shooting? What if while they were pulling me out of my car the aluminum foil around my sandwich caught a glint of light and someone yelled, “Gun!” What if one of those cops decided that I was going to be the person who they planted drugs on that night? What if that was my last night on Earth?
That’s when the depressing reality of being a black man set in. The story in the news the next day would not have been “police wrongfully kill innocent citizen”. All that someone, who didn’t know me, would’ve have known is that another black man was killed by the police under suspicious circumstances.
What was he doing out at 2:00 in the morning? He was going to buy a sandwich? If you’re out that late you are doing something that you don’t have any business doing. That’s what would have been said because it’s been said so many times. You’ve heard it and so have I. And even if we don’t say it, someone else does and the memory of a life once budding with promise is forever forgotten in a cacophony of echoes and whispers of what might have been.
The More Things Change…
Which brings us to Jaylan Butler. Jaylan attends Eastern Illinois University and is the only black member of the swim team. In February 2019 the team was driving back to Illinois from a swim meet in South Dakota when the bus pulled into a rest stop on I-80 near East Moline, Il. Some of the students got off of the bus to stretch their legs on the cold 18 degree winter day. The coach suggested that Jaylan take a picture next to the “Buckle Up. It’s the Law” sign to post it on the team’s website.
While taking the selfie, two police cars sped up with their lights and sirens blazing. Jaylan, following his father’s instructions from childhood, dropped to his knees and put his hands behind his head.
“Get down!” and “Don’t f-cking move! Stay right there!”
An officer held a gun to Butler’s forehead and declared “If you keep moving, I’m going to blow your fucking head off,” the complaint said.
All this happened while Butler was wearing an Eastern Illinois University jacket next to a bus from Eastern Illinois University. And even though the bus driver stated who Jaylan was, even though the coach said who Jaylan was, and even though the other members of the swim team said who he was, Jaylan Butler was arrested.
There’s a lawsuit pending against two “John Does” because the officers wouldn’t provide their names or badge numbers. According to the bus driver Todd Slingerland, the police officers said that they believed that the bus was being held hostage.
I don’t know what’s worse: experiencing what I did alone or experiencing this for a group of people to see. Not all scars suffered by black men at the hands of the police are handcuff marks around their wrists, gunshot wounds, black eyes and bruised bodies. Every story doesn’t end like Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or the countless others who I could mention here.
Some damage is embedded deep in the psyche of a generation of black men who have had a brush with what might have been. That one night that plays over and over until you become numb. That’s why black men of almost every echelon avoid and mistrust the police. Our journeys are different, but our stories are all too often the same.
Maybe police should have to register in a federal database. If they are fired in one city, they can’t simply relocate and get hired in another. Maybe they should carry liability insurance that increases each time they commit an offense. Commit too many and you can’t afford your insurance, so you’re off the force forever. Maybe there should be a maximum amount of time that a police officer can work in the field so that he doesn’t burn out. Here’s a good one. Maybe cities should stop paying police settlements, and start taking settlements from the police pension fund. Then police will police the police. Maybe we better find a solution because maybe citizens are getting fed up.