- Posted March 23, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Black Men and Civil Rights: An Endangered Species
It is the first day of spring in the cozy confines of the Elk Grove, CA suburb. Dozens of residents have taken the liberty of starting their spring training workouts, with visions of losing their layers gained during the winter months. Because the weather has been unusually warm for weeks now, some have developed a relatively strong routine of walking or jogging daily to expedite attaining their goals.
Such was the case with me. Having committed to losing the winter bulge I set out today to complete a 5 mile walk.
My wife and I have resided in Elk Grove for over 5 years now. We purchased our home shortly after getting married in 2009. Previously, we resided in South Sacramento, she in the Pocket Area and myself on the outskirts of Hollywood Park. While we love our home, I would be remised if I failed to mention that Elk Grove as a community has never felt like home. The social vibe and uneasiness of interaction amongst the locals has continuously undermined the “home sweet home” feeling we all long for.
Never was this more the case than on this first day of spring. Unbeknownst to me as I chugged along Whitelock Parkway at approximately 11:43am, a 16 year old had allegedly reported being “groped” in close proximity to my location. While it should not matter, I have to mention that the girl is white.
This newsflash was all relayed to me by Sacramento County Sheriff Phillips as he put me in the backseat of his vehicle stating I was being detained for “fitting the description” of an alleged perpetuator as I attempted to make my way back home.
What is my description, you might ask? Ah, the devil is always in the details, isn’t he? Just your typical 41 year old 5’10 stocky, man wearing a cap (to protect himself from the UV Rays), comfortable shorts, walking shoes, a 2 foot long walking stick in clear view (the result of a previous dog attack), and a weighted vest (to increase the intensity of my workout). While it should not matter I must also include that I am a Black man. One should not mistake my identifying my race as an attempt to pull the race card. Rather, I am simply stating a fact. While it should not matter, RACE DOES MATTER. It always has and in America, it always will. As to whether or not this fact played a significant role in what would follow I will let you decide.
It should be noted that I had noticed him going up and down Whitelock Parkway before he pulled to the side. Like many men of color, (even those like me who had never had any negative interaction with law enforcement until now) we are conditioned to become uneasy when in close proximity to any branch of the law. Growing up Black in America, you learn at an early age that you have to conduct yourself in a way that you do not appear threatening or pose a threat or fit the stereotypical “thuggish” Black man.
Sheriff Phillips motioned for me to come toward his vehicle after pulling his car off the side of the road and turning on his lights. He motioned for me much as an adult would a child who has been caught red handed acting inappropriately. As I comply, I see him constantly patting his holster which houses his firearm, non-verbally reminding me of the potential consequences of non-compliance. As if this was not enough to set a provocative tone to our interaction, he then aggressively put my hands behind my back and stated he was checking my person for weapons. My walking stick, according to him, was suddenly a weapon and he immediately confiscated it.
To say that I was mortified and overwhelmed with paralyzing shock would be an understatement. The sheriff failed to communicate why he has the right to detain me yet he proceeded to lock me in the backseat of his car. I’ve done nothing wrong. Doesn’t he have an obligation to clearly articulate his right to detain an innocent man? Or does he feel the mere fact that he has a badge and a gun gives him the right? Is there an agenda to provoke me to escalate this incident to the point of no return, regardless of whether or not I am the culprit to the alleged crime that has been committed? Every action committed by the sheriff up to this point highly suggests he has approached me with personal motives rather than trained protocol. He seems prepared for an altercation. I cannot give him that pleasure. My life depends on it. Instead I must begin to disarm him with the sincerity of my inquisition.
I was walking. In the middle of the day. I have lived in this neighborhood for over five years and because a 16 year old says a man who, according to Sheriff Phillips, shares a similar description I am now the subject of a criminal investigation and I am being detained. Let’s face it, I’m being arrested. I am disgracefully placed in the back of a Sheriff’s vehicle in the middle of a busy intersection and told to wait until I can be identified by the “victim”.
But at this moment, once Sheriff Phillips made a decision to involve me in this matter there is a new victim. Another person has been victimized by a perpetrator and stripped of their civil rights and left to endure one of the most demoralizing and emasculating ordeals one can ever experience.
I am now a victim. Keep in mind I was only walking, which as far as I know is not a crime. Even for a Black man in Elk Grove. But in an instant, Sheriff Phillips turned the clock back to Django Times by asking me several times for my name, address, and phone number. This evidently is the 2014 way of asking, “Nigger, what are you doing on this side of town”. I am forced to sit in the back of a Sheriff's Vehicle with no leg room, with the windows up on an unseasonably warm day, having done absolutely nothing wrong.
I ask repeatedly if I have rights in this situation. “Can’t I call an attorney? Isn’t this racial profiling? Why is it necessary for you to close me into the back of your car? I have an iPhone with GPS which will track where I’ve been for the entire day…look at it!” Sheriff Phillips response?:, “ You fit the description and I will take your phone and you can wait in the car. You’re starting to annoy me with all your questions because I’m talking very loud!” Really? I’M STARTING TO ANNOY HIM?!??!? Amazing. A pitiful state of affairs with me pleading as a grown man to a complete stranger to study my GPS to prove my innocence. Is this what being a Black man in America has come to? Furthermore, Sheriff Phillips, seemed hellbent on this ending horribly from the onset. His hostile conduct set the stage for an awful outcome. He removed my shades but kept his on. He failed to specifically identify the purpose of my detainment until I was in the vehicle. All he offered was that I “fit the description of an ongoing criminal investigation”. Quite simply, he treated me like I was a criminal on the basis of my appearance. An appearance which included an Eddie Bauer sun cap and brand new jogging shoes with fluorescent accents. I was not trying to hide. My pants were not down to my knees. I do not have the smell of weed emanating from my pores. I used proper English in my interaction with him and my tone, given his animosity, was respectful. In other words, common sense, in my opinion was not utilized prior to my detainment. There was no attempt on my part to elude the police presence at any time. I offered to allow the officer to review my GPS. I tried to, even in my innocence, work with the Sheriff. His effort seemed to be focused on criminalizing me because in his mind and from his mouth I “fit the description”. One shivers to think that this conduct is endorsed by the Sheriff’s Training Academy. Where does it state that creating a hostile environment and constantly patting your firearm is a preferred detainment component? Or is this the uneasiness associated with a suburb which seems to be plagued with a racial tension as it grapples with an ever increasing diverse melting pot? In 2000 Elk Grove’s population was comprised of nearly 65% of White residents. As of 2013, that had dropped to 58%. One can only hope that maltreatment of minorities and racial profiling is not written into the city charter as a means to promote/maintain gentrification. Neighbors of African-American descent have acknowledged being stopped repeatedly by the Elk Grove Police Department for frivolous purposes. I have heard of the ramifications often associated with Driving While Black (DWB) but I guess that has evolved even further to include Walking While Black (WWB).
To make matters worse, my wife and I are contractually obligated to pay Mella-Roos. For those of you unfamiliar with Mella-Roos, a Mello-Roos District is an area where a special property tax on real estate, in addition to the normal property tax, is imposed on those real property owners within a Community Facilities District. These districts seek public financing through the sale of bonds for the purpose of financing public improvements and services. These services may include streets, water, sewage and drainage, electricity, infrastructure, schools, parks and police protection to newly developing areas. So yes, the additional funds that we are obligated to pay in this district are financing this acrimonious situation at this very moment. Five years of paying Mella-Roos and a trip to the back of a Sheriff’s vehicle normally reserved for murderers and rapists is all I have to show for it.
One by one, officer by officer arrive on the scene for the next 40 minutes. One by one they peer through the window and their blue and hazel eyes stare at me as if I’m the new Panda Bear at the Sacramento Zoo. Except their look wasn’t one of awe or admiration. Rather, their looks say, “We got em’!” You would have thought they saw me commit a crime with their own eyes. You would have thought they caught me red handed. My Mella-Roos has enabled 2 Sheriff Vehicles and 2 Elk Grove Police Cars to show up and study my response to being locked in the back of a car. No less than 5 officers representing two jurisdictions peered into the window and watched me momentarily, studying me. Three of the five officers asked me for my name, address and phone number. Again, perpetuating the new Jim Crow laws which I now concede is the 2014 way of asking, “Nigger what are you doing on this side of town?” And quite honestly, I’m starting to wonder that myself.
But more importantly, I’m starting to consciously check my self-control plan. If I begin to overreact, I can become a casualty. Whereas I left my home 45 minutes prior to this with a clean slate, if I begin to respond to this tragic episode in a way that some of my Black peers would in a similar instance, my slate would no longer be clean and it could be a helluva long time before I make it back home. If Sheriff Phillips and his cronies decide that there is no way I don’t have a record after checking my information, things could go from ugly to horrid really quickly. And yes, they also said they were going to run my name to see if I was on parole. If the 16 year old is delusional and decides that any Black man today fits the description of her alleged attacker, my goose is cooked. In the midst of my plight, I have to maintain my dignity and remember that above it all, I know who I am. I am God’s child in this valley of the shadow of death. And yes, He is with me. It has been said that He will be a lawyer in the court room if you don’t have one. Well in this case, I didn’t have one. I am by myself waiting for a 16 year old to be brought to the scene where I have been detained and stripped of my rights. At this moment I am on trial without representation. I don’t know any of these people surrounding me. I have no idea who this 16 year old girl is they keep referring to. My jury does not include my peers and Sheriff Phillips is standing under a nearby shade tree showing his phone to one of his peers and laughing as if they are at a picnic or modern day, high-tech lynching. The walls around me are literally closing in.
What if I didn’t have as good a self control plan? I’m thinking to myself, “I have to be at work in 90 minutes!” I begin to sweat profusely. I can’t help but think of all the other Black men who may have been in a similar predicament. I think of Trayvon Martin. Not for the sensationalism of a story but because at this moment, I am Trayvon. I am the victim of the racial profiling which triggers the commencement of criminal profiling of a completely innocent man who’s only crime is being overweight and walking in an area where apparently a girl claims to have been groped. Walking in an area evidently too affluent for a man like me who “fits the description”.
What are the laws of detainment? If Sheriff Phillips is following the appropriate protocol, then on behalf of all the citizens of America let me declare that the protocol must change! An innocent person should not be locked in a law enforcement vehicle against their will…ever. Allow me the decency I deserve to remain unbound and free. Bring the victim to the sight while I remain outside. There should be detainment without containment. I thought I was innocent until proven guilty in this country. Is this true until a white girl accuses a Black man of a crime?
She is finally brought to the location of my detainment and I am told to exit the vehicle. I am told to put my hat back on (her attacker evidently had a hat on). An Elk Grove Police Officer motions for me to move two steps forward and take two steps back. Again, I’m having to endure a ridiculously insane ordeal and I’m being directed to adhere to commands as if I am Pit Bull training for the Westminster.
There were no apologies after the girl nodded “No” to the officers question of “Is that him”? My walking stick (which I was initially advised was a weapon) was returned, along with my phone and shades. One lady officer condescendingly offered, “Ah and he was only trying to get his workout on” Sheriff Phillips upon being asked for his identification business card stated he had none and scribbled his information on a notepad.
I still had questions. Is my stick indeed a weapon, as stated earlier? Sheriff Phillips this time asked his cronies and the officer stated that it wasn’t as long as its out in the open.
Last question. “I walk every day or try to. What if someone alleges they’ve been groped tomorrow?” Am I going to have to go through this every day? When does it end? Another officer’s response: I’m sure you know these things don’t happen everyday.”
At this point I am sure of nothing. I am afraid to walk in my own neighborhood. I’m afraid that the next Sheriff Phillips will shoot first and ask questions later. This possibility alone is traumatic to me and there has been a constant mental anguish since this incident took place. Something that I’ve worked for, something that we all work for has been taken and stripped from me: The feeling of being safe in your own neck of the woods. I am angry because no man - Black, Mexican, Asian, or White deserves to be treated like a criminal if he is not. I fear for the safety of my nephew and his generation because things are so much more complicated now. On one hand they see the most powerful man in the universe, the President of the United States, Barack Obama. But on the other hand they see Black boys being shot in the street without retribution like wild animals. There is a vast gap to bridge in terms of knowledge of self and dealing with the superiority complex to which some people feel compelled to perpetuate. I asked before about the rules of detainment. Maybe a better question for men of color is, “What are the rules for engagement when confronted with the hostility of racial profiling?” Are Black men with respected civil rights truly an endangered species? My hope that in writing of my ordeal I can spark the conversation that leads to better practices among the ranks of law enforcement. True, their life is on the line every hour of their shift, every day. They sign up for the position knowing this. But they should not patrol our streets thinking that every Black man is a potential sexual deviant, thief, gang member, or murderer. They must make nano second decisions with consequences that could mean the difference between life and death. My fear is that their decisions often originate from the predisposition of prejudice of men like me who may “fit the description”. Their rationale is handicapped by racism. I hope to awaken the consciousness of my brothers and sisters and I hope they develop and utilize a self-control plan if they are ever in the position I was put in. If you are right, don’t allow the darkness of racial hostility to overtake you. Stay right and stay free in your darkest hour. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Things could have spiraled tragically out of control had I responded with the anger that I deserved to have, given my innocence. An innocent man’s death more than likely overshadowed and embellished with the lies the media tells when it relays the righteousness of our brothers and sisters who put their lives on the line when they decide to make it their life’s work to “serve and protect”.
Walking down the street is one of the most innocent activities a man can do. Is this true unless you are a a Black man? Are we back to the days when it’s not safe to walk or drive alone?
As I try to regain my stamina and walk home, I have one last request to Sheriff Phillips. I ask him, as I circle my face with my index finger, to remember my face. I tell him, “I’m one of the good guys”.