OAKLAND, CA—Freddie Gray died a year ago today, and it’s got me thinking about my own relationship with law enforcement. Like a lot of young black men, I get anxious when I see the police. It wasn’t always this way.
When I was eight-years-old, police officers paid a visit to my second grade classroom. They told us about the promising career we could have patrolling neighborhoods in squad cars—custodians of our community, sworn to protect and serve. It was my first introduction to law enforcement, and it left an impression. The officers seemed to really care. I felt comforted knowing there were people whose sole purpose was to keep me safe.
Unfortunately, that sentiment was short lived.
A few years later I was walking home from my middle school when an officer stopped me and began asking questions like, “Where are you headed?” and “Can I see what's in the bag?”
I was confused. I thought my appearance—brown slacks, a collared shirt, and an oversized backpack heavy with books—made it pretty clear that I was a student. I denied his request to search my bag and, luckily for me, the interaction didn’t escalate. The officer backed off, and I went about my day.
But all the way home, I wondered what he’d seen in me. Surely the officer believed he was carrying out his duty to protect and serve, but what made him think the community needed protection from me? For the first time, I felt vulnerable. Maybe the police weren’t there to protect me, after all.
However subtle and insignificant the interaction may seem on the surface, my feelings about the police shifted that day, to one of blatant mistrust.
It’s easy to assume that every day, young men like me are having similar interactions with the police. In Oakland alone, black youth account for nearly three-quarters of all juvenile arrests, although we make up less than a third of the city’s total population. And Oakland isn’t all that different from many other cities across the country.
The fact that more black men receive their GED in prison than graduate from college pretty much speaks to the frequency of our interactions with law enforcement. They may not involve shootings or the types of brutality that make news headlines, but they’re moments that generate mistrust that can last a lifetime.
I was curious to hear from other young black men about their earliest personal experiences, defining moments so to speak, that have shaped their perceptions of law enforcement. So I hit the streets of my hometown, Oakland, and began asking.
Jeffrey Enebly, a 26-year-old student at Laney College, recalled being in the 7th grade when a fight broke out on the bus: “The police handled it as if we weren’t children. They completely beat a [classmate] as if he were a grown man and there were three of them. They were literally stomping this kid’s face into the ground.” As a result, said Enebly, “I feel like I can’t trust the police to handle anything important regarding my well being.”
Galvin Mathis, 25, currently lives in Oakland but his current perception of the police was shaped as a boy growing up in South Los Angeles, where he said officers always seemed to be in the neighborhood when you didn’t need them, but nowhere to be seen when you did. “They would just roam around the neighborhood, circle around, maybe stop for a little bit… [but when] we needed them, when my neighbor's house had been broken into and we called the police, they didn't come until the next day.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Jonel (who only gave his first name) said he believes there are good police officers who try to do their job responsibly. Nevertheless, he recalled being about 15-years-old, hanging out on the porch of a friend’s house with his classmates after school when a police officer approached them. The officer gave the group a speech about respect, and when Jonel motioned to one of his peers, pointing out a scar on the officer's neck, he said the officer “took all his anger out on me, dragged me down the stairs, [and] threw me in the back of the car.” Jonel said the officer later justified his actions by explaining that he “sometimes has to choose the biggest guy out of the bunch and make an example of him.”
One moment that stuck with 18-year-old Senay Alkebu-Aln happened when he was a 4-year-old and his father was walking him to school. The police, he said, were tending to a shootout that had taken place that same morning in his neighborhood. As his father was giving him a banana, said Alkebu-Aln, an officer pulled out his gun, pointed it at his father and told him to “step away from the kid” before asking him what he was holding. Today, Alkebu-Aln said he has paranoid thoughts about the police. “I do have reoccurring dreams about our house being raided by the police. That hasn’t happened, and there wouldn’t be any reason for it to happen, but just the thought of it is definitely traumatic.”
William Varner, 20, said he and his brother have been pulled over and questioned by officers on the assumption that they are doing something criminal. Those experiences, he said, affect his mentality on a daily basis. “For myself as a black man [I’m] always thinking, is something going to happen to me? I just feel like they don’t understand where we coming from. I feel like a lot of police out here, they’re not even from Oakland. They don’t understand the situation of what we go through on a day-by-day basis. If we had people that really understood the situation and really understood the people it would be much better.”
Hearing stories like these, it’s tough to stay optimistic. But in a surprising way, speaking with other black men about a shared experience felt cathartic. I guess there’s something reassuring about knowing you’re not the only one.
So, I’m holding on to that. I’ll keep using my voice and encouraging others to do the same, in the belief that eventually we will get to a better place, one where black children aren’t robbed of that wholesome notion that police exist to protect them, not to harm.
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.
Myles Bess is an aspiring filmmaker and writer from Oakland, California. Prior to joining Fusion as a Rise Up: Be Heard fellow, he worked for Youth Radio in Oakland where he reported on juvenile justice, education, and community organizing issues, and his stories have appeared on National Public Radio, Marketplace and The San Francisco Chronicle. As a fellow, Myles hopes to explore how gentrification and police brutality are changing the cultural landscape of Oakland and the greater East Bay, and how these changes are impacting the overall health of the community. With plans to transfer to San Francisco State University in the fall of 2016, Myles looks forward to expanding his knowledge and understanding of multimedia in the coming months while delving into community health issues that hit close to home.