This piece was originally published on January 7, 2015. We believe its message and the author’s perspective are still relevant today.
BY DANIELLE KOONCE
Late one night, driving home, my infant son asleep in the car, my husband told me of a similar night, one on which he feared for his life at the hands of police.
“We won our football game and one of the parents had promised us that if we won the game, they would pay for our meal. I saw the blue lights and I knew I wasn’t speeding so I was sure the cops had made a mistake. I pulled over and started to open my door so I could get out of the car.
“Thinking back, that was dumb to try to open my door. I just didn’t know what to do. I had never been in that situation before. They came over and pointed their guns in our face and yelled, ‘Don’t move. Put your hands on the steering wheel.’ They told us to get on the ground. They came over and handcuffed us and drug us over the road and sat us on top of the hood of their car.
“People were driving by looking at us as if we were felons. I was 17. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew we hadn’t done anything. All we were doing was going to get something to eat.
“They were pointing guns. They asked for our IDs. They un-cuffed us, and they looked at us and said we fit a profile description. They didn’t apologize. They didn’t say anything else. They told us to get back in the car. That was my senior year of high school.”
I had a hard time believing that the cops would pull over two teenagers and hold guns to their heads. We lived in eastern North Carolina. We didn’t live in the projects or the hood or any other suspicious neighborhood. Things like this didn’t happen, or so I thought.
As he told me this story, I kept secretly thinking about what my husband might have done to make those officers stop his car. The mother in me had to know. If I could just find out what had triggered those officers to pull my husband over, I could make sure my son was raised differently so it wouldn’t happen to him.
I couldn’t even allow myself to imagine that one day, some police officer could pull over my sweet baby boy, drag him out of his car, and hold a gun to his head. I needed Richard to give me a way to make sense of his story. But I knew he couldn’t. He hadn’t left out anything. There was no other provocation on Richard’s part besides being a black male who fit a profile description. For those two officers, that is all the provocation they needed.
At any given moment, any given day, my hard-working husband and my baby boy could be criminalized due to no fault of their own. If they drive in the wrong neighborhood, wear the wrong hairstyle, dress the wrong way, look menacing, appear belligerent, or “fit a description,” they could be pulled over, arrested, searched, seized or shot multiple times. It won’t matter that they are innocent. They are guilty simply because of the color of their skin.
What would you do in my shoes? Am I supposed to just accept that my husband and baby boy are destined to be treated like criminals, no matter the makeup of their characters?
And what should I do about the people who, because I am admitting in a public space that racial profiling really does occur, will say I am playing the race card? The people who say I don’t want to accept responsibility for my actions and I’m looking for someone to blame? Some say I’m making the job of police officers more difficult by painting them in a negative light. Some people want me to stop talking about race. They want me to forget about the past and move on. If only it was that easy.
Remember what happened to esteemed Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a few years ago? This former Yale and Cambridge graduate was arrested outside his own home near Harvard Square because the police thought he was an intruder. He showed them his driver’s license and his Harvard identification card, but they refused to believe him. Dr. Gates has received over 50 honorary degrees, but none of those degrees protected him from the police.
Jonathan Ferrell was working two jobs. He had attended college and was saving money to return. He had never had a run-in with the law. But when he wrecks his car in the wrong suburban neighborhood of Charlotte, he becomes a possible suspect inside of the victim. A white police officer shot at him 12 times. Ten bullets hit his chest and arms. Yet to speak about my husband’s experience is to play the race card. Really?
I wish we could all just be the human race, and once and for all tear down the social constructs of being black or white or brown — but until I stop hearing stories like my husband’s, until I stop watching videos of men and boys being choked to death and shot down in the street, it behooves me to remember that I am a black woman, married to a black man, and together we are raising a black son. As much as I would like to forget my skin color, the police always seem to find ways to remind me.