Garnette Cadogan first writes in this essay about learning to walk in Kingston to avoid an abusive step-father at home. Then again as a college student in New Orleans. Now he's in New York, having gone back to Kingston to visit his dying grandmother just before Katrina struck. An aunt in New York dissuades him from returning to New Orleans and to come to New York first. It helped she gave him the airline ticket. So now he's learned the rules of walking while black in New York, but he gets careless and, late to meet friends, runs to the subway station.
"After a sumptuous Italian dinner and drinks with friends, I was jogging to the subway at Columbus Circle—I was running late to meet another set of friends at a concert downtown. I heard someone shouting and I looked up to see a police officer approaching with his gun trained on me. “Against the car!” In no time, half a dozen cops were upon me, chucking me against the car and tightly handcuffing me. “Why were you running?” “Where are you going?” “Where are you coming from?” “I said, why were you running?!” Since I couldn’t answer everyone at once, I decided to respond first to the one who looked most likely to hit me. I was surrounded by a swarm and tried to focus on just one without inadvertently aggravating the others.
It didn’t work. As I answered that one, the others got frustrated that I wasn’t answering them fast enough and barked at me. One of them, digging through my already-emptied pockets, asked if I had any weapons, the question more an accusation. Another badgered me about where I was coming from, as if on the 15th round I’d decide to tell him the truth he imagined. Though I kept saying—calmly, of course, which meant trying to manage a tone that ignored my racing heart and their spittle-filled shouts in my face—that I had just left friends two blocks down the road, who were all still there and could vouch for me, to meet other friends whose text messages on my phone could verify that, yes, sir, yes, officer, of course, officer, it made no difference.
For a black man, to assert your dignity before the police was to risk assault. In fact, the dignity of black people meant less to them, which was why I always felt safer being stopped in front of white witnesses than black witnesses. The cops had less regard for the witness and entreaties of black onlookers, whereas the concern of white witnesses usually registered on them. A black witness asking a question or politely raising an objection could quickly become a fellow detainee. Deference to the police, then, was sine qua non for a safe encounter.
The cops ignored my explanations and my suggestions and continued to snarl at me. All except one of them, a captain. He put his hand on my back, and said to no one in particular, “If he was running for a long time he would have been sweating.” He then instructed that the cuffs be removed. He told me that a black man had stabbed someone earlier two or three blocks away and they were searching for him. I noted that I had no blood on me and had told his fellow officers where I’d been and how to check my alibi—unaware that it was even an alibi, as no one had told me why I was being held, and of course, I hadn’t dared ask. From what I’d seen, anything beyond passivity would be interpreted as aggression.
The police captain said I could go. None of the cops who detained me thought an apology was necessary. Like the thug who punched me in the East Village, they seemed to think it was my own fault for running.
Humiliated, I tried not to make eye contact with the onlookers on the sidewalk, and I was reluctant to pass them to be on my way. The captain, maybe noticing my shame, offered to give me a ride to the subway station. When he dropped me off and I thanked him for his help, he said, “It’s because you were polite that we let you go. If you were acting up it would have been different.” I nodded and said nothing."I first became aware of 'walking while black' in the summer of 1967 when I visited my Peace Corps roommate from the summer before (on my way to the second summer of training) at the University of Missouri and he pointed out all his escape routes and the people he needed to escape from. I wrote about that in a post about the University of Missouri football players speaking up about racism on campus last November.
I've had heard numerous examples like these over the years of how the United States looks very different to blacks than it does to whites. Cadogan talks about these issues more elegantly than most.
One more thing. Did you notice this line?
"None of the cops who detained me thought an apology was necessary."I can understand cops stopping suspects and being nervous. But when they find out they made a mistake, why wouldn't they apologize? Because they figure he's guilty of something else and deserves this? Because they enjoyed getting their aggression out on him? Because they think they don't have to?
When I did grievance work, I found that most people who were abused, simply wanted an apology, and if the offending supervisor had just said, "I'm sorry" the incident(s) never would have been elevated to a formal grievance. I think African-Americans might be more sympathetic to cops if their encounters with them weren't so random, so demeaning, and if they were given an apology afterward. Only the captain in this case acted with any decency at all. After he'd been humiliated and mistreated and eventually was clearly not the person they were looking for. The only thing he had in common with the suspect was his skin color.
And I'd strongly recommend reading the whole essay. Walking down the street in most US cities without thinking about being stopped by the police is one of the privileges white people have that blacks don't. This essay richly riffs on that theme.