Revolution #211, September 12, 2010
Views of those who contribute to "Bear Witness" are their own and they are not responsible for views expressed elsewhere in this newspaper.
The following was submitted to Bear Witness...
Getting a Piece of the Proverbial Pie While Dragged into the NYPD DragNet
I was 22 and full of hope about my future. As a recent graduate from Howard University and a NY Teaching Fellow, enrolled in City College, I thought Harlem was the best place to start my adult life, filled with express trains and crosstown buses to whiz me to masters classes and leisurely destinations on time and in style. In fact I would often sing the jingle of the Jeffersons' "Moving on Up," the lyrical apex of black assimilation, while moving to Harlem soon after Bill Clinton did, into one of the first renovated "luxury" rentals on 129th and Malcolm X Blvd (or Lenox Ave). Kitten heels and keyless entry, walking through a faux marble foyer with a chandelier and a smiling doorman was a good balance for a hard day's work as a literacy teacher for special education students in the Bronx.
One night in August of 2002, on the eve of the MTV Awards show, my friend and I got invited to an "industry party," but of course with a Cinderella caveat—chariot—"free before 12." We got dressed up and were very excited. We packed our little purses with lipsticks, perfumes and IDs. However, in an effort to prevent mice, despite the rush, I insisted on taking out the trash before heading downtown. Since the building was "new," it did not install a trash receptacle so I had to put the trash in the garbage can at the corner of 129th and Lenox. My friend realized that she forgot her cell phone so she went back inside and I waited for her at the corner. She soon came back out and we walked down Lenox looking nice and smelling fresh. We chatted about typical 20-something fodder and also our life goals as educators. Suddenly we were startled in mid girl-talk by something we were not expecting. Something very scary for two young girls to witness at 10:37 pm in a less crime ridden, slightly gentrified Harlem. An unmarked navy blue van drove down 127th Street and pulled up in front of us on the sidewalk, preventing us from even being able to walk any further.
Needless to say, we were startled, confused and scared. We didn't and couldn't see who was in the van or why they were driving so erratically. Were they gangsters, kidnappers, pimps? We didn't know. Then the doors began to slide open and we saw at least four men inside. Men dressed in dark colors in a dark van with dark windows as we walked down dark streets on our way to a nightclub. Great! What would I tell my mother? What would I tell my fellowship, students, friends, etc.
Was my life going to end at the hands of these men?
"We need to see your ID. You were walking out of a building known for suspicious drug activity." Oh, and so the plot thickens. We saw their little computers, two-way radios and padded bosoms due to bulletproof vests. "Are you from the NYPD?" "Yes, and let's see some ID." "But why officers, we were not doing anything wrong?" By this time my friend began to get very angry. "Ain't gotta do nothing, for what, why, you can't force me, my cousin is a cop, what precinct are you from, I'm about to call my cousin, I can't believe this, just because some white people move up here, all of a sudden, I can be stopped at random, for what, what did I do? I give you my ID and you run my name through the system? Does my name stay in that system? I'm calling". "Ma'am, you could make this easy or hard. If you don't give us your ID now, we will take you down to the precinct and it will take a much longer time." "We saw you two ladies doing something suspicious, you walked out, walked back in and you waited at the corner. This building is known for drugs, please show us ID." "But sir, I am a teacher, it's a new building, I am the first tenant, that building was abandoned for ten years, there's no way for it to have drug activity if I'm the only tenant. She went back inside to get her cell phone. We didn't do anything wrong, we are grad students."
Throughout this entire exchange we were getting wet while standing outside in the cold rain while they were inside their warm and dry van. Armed with quotas and intimidation, they had all the power and we were ripe with angst. Our blood was boiling while they remained cool and calculated. We were in a crisis while they were simply "doing their job."
Out of sheer frustration and need to get out of the rain, I gave them my ID. I wanted to get on a train and go away, anywhere at this point, maybe not even the club anymore. I felt violated and despite my education, I couldn't navigate this labyrinth of legal lies.
My friend was still in a self-imposed stalemate. She refused to show ID and also refused to get into the van. Neither option seemed palatable so we continued to stand outside in the rain as she became more irate. Perhaps in an attempt to divide and conquer, the cops told me I was "free to go," however, I was not going to leave my friend in this predicament. After about five minutes of waiting for her fury fueled flurry of phone calls to be returned in vain, she relinquished all hopes of winning this American Revolution and gave them her ID. After about three minutes of running her name through the "system" she was also told "You are free to go".
Free. This word is often bandied around when discussing the beauty of being in America and being an American. Many of our most cherished name brands use some notion of "America, land of the free and home of the brave" in their brand strategy to conjure up notions of patriotism to "the great U.S.A." and their brand by default. AmWay (American Way), American Eagle, American Express, Bank of America, American Apparel, etc. to name a few. Yes, you are free to spend your money on clothes, save your money in a bank or watch movies like Independence Day. But there are some more fundamental "freedoms" that are being eroded or violated on a daily basis. Unfortunately despite being a teacher and researcher with degrees and honors, my "freedom" was not honored. As Martin Luther King stated in his oft romanticized "I Have a Dream Speech":
"...it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'"
Perhaps my 2002 escapade was a "freedom" overdraft and showing my ID was the fee. But I suspect this incident continued to shape me eight years later into an elementary teacher, unafraid to discuss social justice issues with young students in urban areas and craft artistic yet potent political responses to the status quo.
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