By Louis L. Reed, #cut50 Director of Partnerships and Organizing
I am a Black man who has had more than his own share of life’s challenges, some self-inflicted. But I’m more than the poor decisions I made more than 20 years ago that landed me in federal prison for nearly 14 years. I am a leader, advocate, and landlord. I love spending time with family, though my nephews, eight and ten years old respectively, always beat me in NBA 2k. However, no matter how prosocial of a life I live, recognitions I receive or distance I’ve put between my present and my past, there’s a reality I will never escape: Being Black in America.
I’m more than the worst mistakes that I made.
Last Thursday, I went to a property I own in a majority white suburb of Waterbury, CT with my step-uncle to do some handiwork (Waterbury has a sordid history of leading the state in racial profiling. Their City council recently refused to pass a Resolution declaring racism a public health crisis). He planned to fix a broken dishwasher, which was supposed to take about a half-hour. A few minutes after we arrived, a 60-something-year-old white man drove by and made a half-listened-to bigoted comment about the black-and-white Black Lives Matter hat I was wearing while walking to the rear of my car.
Ten minutes later, there was an incessant ringing of the doorbell. I peeked out the window of the front door and found a Waterbury police officer standing at my door. I also noticed that other patrol cars were arriving in droves. After checking to see if any of the four tenants in the house called the police, I opened the door, going through the mental check-list that all Black people instinctively know to do when interacting with the police ( make deference to authority, hands up, try to remain calm, etc). After a brief exchange with the officer at the doorway, where I explained that no one at the residence called and/or needed police assistance, I attempted to close the door. It was obvious their “help” wasn’t needed.
Suddenly, like a vicious pit bull after a rag doll, the officer (Moran) lunged for my neck, kicking the door open wider, choke-slamming me to the tiled floor. He used his forearm to squeeze my carotid artery before handcuffing me. In what felt like an out-of-body experience, I saw him kill me. I didn’t know if he would choke or shoot me, but I knew I would die. I desperately screamed for the tenant to record the incident. The incredulous look in his eyes, as if I had “ some nerve!” told me things wouldn’t end well. In my mind, I knew that officer would murder me, just like they did more than 800 other Blacks in the last 3 years.
I would be them. They would be me. We would be each other. Once here, now gone. All at the hands of cops.
I can’t recall a time in my adult life where someone made me physically feel more embarrassed and ashamed. I can’t remember where I felt less powerless and defenseless. I was subjected to random strip searches in federal prison and I don’t think I felt the sense of indignity I did when that Waterbury officer choke-slammed me.
In America, a snap judgment against a Black man can be a coin flip.
Heads you live, tails you die.
I felt like anything but a human being in that moment. On my property, those officers made me feel like nothing but un-recyclable garbage. Even as I shouted “THIS IS MY PROPERTY!” those five white officers ignored the fact that I was the landlord and owner of the property, even as my white tenants affirmed. They begged the officers to get off me, but they were outrightly ignored. Also, my step-uncle declared that I was the property owner, yet the police shuffled me to the back of a cruiser, as he got ignored. As I asked “why” I was under arrest for “interfering with police,” I was ignored.
“What white folks don’t understand, it’s like that is so telling of how white America views people who are not like them…You know, we don’t exist. And when we do exist, we exist as a threat. And that, that’s exhausting.”
I may have been ignored because, particularly as a Black man, I am seen as a threat, even by trained police officers who only subdue or eliminate threats. I was probably ignored because the plight of Black men and women in America is ignored. Our experiences don’t seem to count or given recognition until the white power structure deems it noteworthy. In other words, unless white supremacy grants permission for Black folks to own property or drive in a particular neighborhood, matriculate through elite universities, shop in high-end stores, or even vote after a felony conviction, there will be consequences and repercussions.
The notion that I could be dressed down in a sweatsuit wearing a BLM hat and “own” property in an area where the incident took place seemed to be absurd. The notion that Black people in this country can be anything less than a threat in the eyes of law enforcement seems to be preposterous. The idea that a person formerly incarcerated could have a destiny greater than his/her history is extremely ridiculous. The thought of a Black person prosecuted by our American legal system getting due process, fairness, and equity under the law is abstract. The idea that a Black person could be a student at a Connecticut Ivy League school and fall asleep without being deemed a “trespasser” is irrational. That officer ignoring my right to exercise my rights — in my property — was a reflection of US Supreme Court Chief Justice, Roger Taney, who declared in 1857 that Black people had no rights that white people were bound to respect. He was observing the social reality of his day that still hasn’t changed much in 150 years.
Working for Van Jones at a nationally leading social justice organization couldn’t insulate me from being thisclose to trending as the next #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Knowing artists, athletes, actors and social justice giants didn’t protect me from police brutality and an illegal arrest. If it can happen to me — someone with access to resources and opportunity — what is happening with other Black men and women who feel voiceless, as if their complaints won’t change anything…who don’t survive these encounters?
Nevertheless, I am not bitter by this experience. I am hurt and angry, but not bitter. I’m disappointed that an “anonymous” caller profiled my step-uncle and I as home-invaders, but not resentful. I still believe in overcoming darkness with light. I still believe that there is good in the so-called worst of us. I still believe those in this generation are re-framers of a new America where, in part, Black people don’t have to live in fear of being shot down by the “boys in blue.” I still believe we can build a bridge of empathy over the stagnant water of apathy in this country. I still believe in human decency. I have no other choice to believe that we will call each other up to our better selves because to doubt is to give up, and to give up is to die.