Weekend mornings in my house are family time. Our 2 daughters, ages 9 & 7, run around making breakfast themselves or helping my wife and I with meal preparation, while my 1-year old son looks for new ways to climb up on (or eat) anything in sight. Though our morning engagements can sometimes be brief, I always look forward to talking about our week or what’s coming up for all of us. The comfort of one Sunday morning was shaken, however, when my 7-year old walked up to me and said “Daddy, why did you record the police?” Everyone else continued like it was business as usual but my heart sank as I tried not to look like my brief moment of bliss had not just been shattered by my daughter who just happened to see video on our iPhone Photo Stream that I forgot to delete.
Rewind. It was a hot Monday afternoon. I went down to Virginia Beach to meet with a Grammy Award-winning music producer about possible collaborations. In addition to my work as an educator, I am also a musician with seven albums to go along with my seven books. I love making music and so I was looking forward to this meeting. The session was fabulous and since I live in Washington, DC, I wanted to leave as soon as our meeting finished so I could avoid as much traffic as possible on this three hour drive to get home in time to tuck my kids in to bed and tell them one of my legendary freestyle bedtime stories. I filled up on gas and hit the road and though my tank was full, the air in my lungs was punctured when a police officer appeared on the right rear side of my vehicle. I told myself what I always tell myself as a coping mechanism when police are near me: “It’s all good O. They’re not gonna pull you over. Just relax man and stop being so paranoid. You’ve done nothing wrong and you have nothing to worry about.” I repeated it a second time as he pulled behind me. I said it a third time as his sirens illuminated, and a fourth time when I was pulled over.
As the officer went into his routine before he emerged from his vehicle, I went through my black routine. This could be a routine for all races, I don’t know. I just know that in “the hood”, learning what to do when we encounter the police is probably a more comfortable conversation for parents to have with their children than the birds & the bees. Sing along if you know the song:
1. Windows down
2. Pull out license and registration
3. Place all items on the dashboard
4. Hands on the steering wheel
Recent events of encounters gone tragically wrong with the police have led many in my community to add another verse to the song:
6. Pull out your phone (always keep it charging in the car for situations like this)
7. Send a message to someone to let him or her know that you are recording so that if your phone is retrieved after you’re killed and there is no video there, something shady happened to it
8. Repeat step #5
Why was it necessary for me to record my interaction with the police? The answer is simple: I can’t trust American society to paint a balanced picture of who I was in case the officer kills me. If I was a violent individual who shot and killed the officer, the media would be ripe with stories of the heroics of the officer…and that’s how it should be. I look at anyone who goes into law enforcement as a hero first and foremost. If however, I was the one killed and the story happened to make the news, I have learned that some in the media would attempt to cover what objectively happened while most will pontificate over why I deserved to be killed. Someone will tell viewers to just look at my size and how the officer should have been afraid. I’m 5’10” and weigh less than 190 pounds. Someone else will find out that I took some martial arts classes at some point and remind them that the officer had to defend himself (as if the officer would have known that). Someone else would find out that I’m also a rapper and blame hip-hop without actually listening to my own curse-free motivational lyrics such as “Only you have your dreams they were given to you/to bring it out to the world don’t let them die with you.” Someone else will post a picture of me with my locks and turn me into some weed-smoking addict who was aggressive though I’ve never smoked a day in my life. Someone else will blame the absence of black fathers for my death, without researching the fact that I was raised by both my parents who have 9 academic degrees including 2 PhDs from Harvard. It must be my dad’s fault I was shot because (say it with me now) “72% of black families don’t have a father in the home” (though the CDC reports that black men actually spend more time with their children than other groups).
Am I being paranoid here? I don’t know. What I do know is that Trayvon Martin was criminalized and murdered while walking in his own neighborhood and some in the media posted photos of someone twice his age and tattooed (rapper, The Game) to help justify why he posed a threat to the man who chased him down and shot him. What if he turned on his video camera instead of talking on the phone before he encountered George Zimmerman? What if Danroy Henry had his own dashcam when a police officer jumped on to his car and fired incessantly into his vehicle? What if Sean Bell or his friends had hit record the night they left his bachelor party? What if? Well, the fact is that in the eyes of mainstream America, it would not have made much of a difference. We have video of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Ezekiel Ford, Walter Scott, and others being killed unnecessarily by police and they are still blamed for their own murders. If Eric Garner was not overweight he would have survived right? If 12-year old Tamir Rice never had a toy gun he would not have been shot less than three seconds upon arrival of the police right? If John Crawford didn’t pick up a gun that was not real in a Walmart he would still be here right? If Walter Scott did not run from the police (or owe child support) he would not have been shot at 8 times in the back right? And even though Sandra Bland was not killed in the dashcam video in Texas, if she would have just kept her mouth shut she would still be alive right? I have learned my lesson.
I have learned that if I am killed by law enforcement, I must have done something in the eyes of too many people so why even record in the first place? Because I know that the media will not portray the man that has been devoted to his wife for over twenty years since they were junior prom dates. They won’t show the man who actively co-raises his children. They won’t see the man who taught his girls how to read. They won’t see the man who took his kids to ballet or Tae Kwon DO or swimming throughout the week. They won’t see the man who was there for the delivery of all of his children or the man who brought them to the ER when sick. They won’t see the man that The State Department calls on to teach leadership to youth in countries overseas to help them avoid joining Islamic extremist groups. They won’t see the American University professor. They won’t see the man who co-owns 3 yoga studios with his wife and helps people reach their fitness goals. They won’t see the man who cries as he rocks his son to sleep in fear of what the media will say about him if his son is not old enough to know him before being killed. In short, I record because I cannot expect the media to tell my story properly. I record so that my children will know that, even up until the very end, their father was a good man and a law abiding citizen, regardless of what anyone says, but how do I tell all of this to a 7-year old?
By the way, it turns out that I was pulled over because my Virginia inspection sticker that was placed on my windshield by the dealer expired. Remember though, I live in DC and have DC tags and a DC inspection sticker that is current through 2016. I told the officer this and showed him my current registration and he clearly saw my DC license plates. The officer decided to ignore all of those facts and still gave me a summons to appear in court or pay a fine. After spending two hours on the phone with his superiors, the officer was told to call me and inform me that he was sorry for his error and was going to dismiss the ticket. Though I always give officers the benefit of the doubt when pulled over, I was happy to know that I was in the right and should have never been pulled over in the first place, but as we see with the late Sandra Bland, the smallest interaction with police can sometimes end horribly.
So what did I tell my daughter in the end? We have talked about racism and other issues for years but I thought I would have to wait another year or two before going into #blacklivesmatter and the challenges we still face as African Americans in The United States with law enforcement. I simply told my daughter…well, it doesn’t matter what I told her. The real question is, if I was killed during that interaction and you met my daughter, what would you tell her?