I never gave much thought to police, that is, until the day I would be forced to think differently about them.
As a youngin’, I grew up on the motto that police were to protect and serve. In an emergency, they were the first people to dial. Our safety was their top concern. In elementary school, a police officer gave a presentation on the D.A.R.E program, which stood for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, a program to prevent the use and abuse of controlled drugs. Students signed a pledge promising not to use drugs or to join a gang.
From then on, I began to identify police officers with the program. I spotted D.A.R.E. stickers on the bumper of passing police vehicles. The branding of police officers as crime stoppers, heroes and good people invoked trust. I trusted these officers, black or white, to do their job and to do it justly. My innocent view of these service men changed at the age of 12 when my mother was arrested for a traffic violation by the Chicago Police Department.
Until I was 16, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, two blocks east of Ashland. Some people considered it the Beverly area, a community home to a large portion of American/Catholic and Irish establishments and where the demographic consisted of mostly whites (58 percent). Because my block and surrounding blocks were 99 percent black and I lived within walking distance of public schools, it was in every sense black. South Winston Ave stretched for two long blocks and both blocks were one-way streets.
The second block on which I lived was a T-intersection. As a shortcut to our home, we’d turn left from the intersection and onto the one-way street and quickly into our driveway. The length from the intersection to our home was about 100 to 200 feet or the equivalent of two houses. On a day when we were eager to get home, it beat driving down lengthy Winston.
It was a summer night when my mother was arrested for violating the one-way traffic sign. She was eager to make it home to me after my sister left out for work. I had not been alone for more than 10 minutes when my mother pulled into the driveway. In her rearview mirror, red and blue lights flickered. The police pulled behind my mother into our property. A white woman with a hard exterior stepped out of the marked vehicle.
“Whose car are you driving?” the officer asked first. My mother drove an s80 Volvo. It was a typical car driven by white middle class families, and we didn’t live in a white middle class area, so in other words, she implied that my mother had no business driving such a car. My mother responded “Whose car you think?” and that reply, though plausible, did not sit well with the officer.
The officer told my mother to step out of the car while she ran her license, and as a shock to my mother, the officer reported her license suspended. The officer attempted to put my mother in custody by telling her to get in the back of the police car. My mother refused. At this time, the officer called for back up. Three squad cars approached the house, their sirens sounding off in unison. The police attempted to arrest my mother.
For a while, they tussled on the lawn. More squad cars were called to the scene. Left and right next-door neighbors sprawl from their homes. The officers told the neighbors if they didn’t go back inside, they would make this a felony. One officer took out a Ziploc bag with what likely consisted of drugs. The others put on gloves following suit. They were setting the scene for a crime. Without probable cause or a warrant, the car was searched and detained. Clearly, I remember reaching my small hand into the Volvo. An officer stretched out his arm before me, saying, “If you touch anything, I’ll plant drugs.”
When they were done searching, they drove the car off the property and to the 111th precinct in Morgan Park. The officers took away my mother in handcuffs and without concern for my well-being, abandoned me on the front lawn. At the department, my mother was chained to a pipe while the officers involved joked about the arrest. Upon release, she was given four tickets: (1) resisting arrest, (2) no proof of license (the license was in the car but could not be obtained at time of search), (3) no proof of insurance (also in car but could not be obtained at time of search), and (4) violating the road sign. All of this for a minor traffic violation. And had my mother been white, at the most a warning would have ensued.
In court, the judge immediately dismissed the case. The tickets were thrown out and she was given back her license. The license that was never suspended.
At 12-years-old I stopped holding the police in high regard. My respect for the authority figures throughout my teenage years waned. These were the same people who stressed the importance of abstaining from drugs through the D.A.R.E. program in grade school, but misused their power in an attempt to make my family out to be drug consumers. These were the same people to whom I made a vow not to join a gang, but who worked together to nearly organize a crime against me.
My mother made a mistake that night going down the street in the wrong direction, and by law she was held accountable. But when police officers commit wrongdoing, especially in the eyes of children, they are slapped on the wrist.
Thirteen years later, I still have anxiety at the mere sight of an officer. Their power and influence is enough to instill fear in the defenseless.
Just as my trust in officers was weakened at a young age, likely the same can be said for the children of Alton Sterling who witnessed their father die a senseless death at the hands of policemen. Police officers then wonder why, when we mature, we run the minute an officer makes eye contact. From youth, we have been conditioned through their actions to not trust police to protect and serve.