The night Obama won his first term, I was living in Tallahassee, working towards my BA at FSU and in the midst of applying to grad programs. I remember that night perfectly for a couple of positive reasons (first time I’d seen anybody who looked even remotely like me in the office of highest power in the nation I call home) and one particularly negative one.
I was dating a white girl at the time (promise her race is relevant to the story). She and I had been a thing for almost a year at that point and were basically living together in my apartment a couple of blocks from campus. That evening, after Obama’s win was announced, we climbed into my blue Scion and headed out to a CVS down the street to grab some beers, come back and celebrate.
Before we got there, we stopped at an intersection in front of a bar—karaoke bar right across the street from my place, forget the name, with the upstairs flooring that bounced like a trampoline when it was packed—and my girlfriend and I observed a number of people outside of this bar with signs up, congratulating Obama.
Right when the light turned green, one of the celebrating guys—anybody who knows Florida State and this particular bar can imagine the condition he was in—stepped into the street, in front of my car. I had to slam on my brakes, and I tapped my horn reflexively. The guy looked embarrassed, waved at me with a sheepish grin. I waved back then tapped my horn again (promise it was a tap, I’ve never been a long-winded honker, liable to get you shot in Miami) and threw a fist up in solidarity (or a thumbs up more likely, I’m waaaaay cooler in my memories than I actually am in real life). A few seconds later, my rear view mirror lit up with flashing red and blue lights.
Now, everybody knows the feeling of seeing those red and blue lights in your rear view, regardless of the color of your skin. And I’ll admit, the version of me that existed in 2008 hadn’t yet woken up to the reality of his existence.
Like……my asshole clenched up real tight when I saw those lights, sure. But not as tightly as it would’ve clenched up today.
In other words I’d dealt with cops enough to know I pretty much needed to shut up, nod and follow their lead, but not enough to know that those actions sometimes still might not be enough.
The cop approached the driver’s side and the moment I rolled my window down, there was a flashlight in my face. I squinted and held my hand up, and the officer switched the beam to the passenger seat. I could see his face then, white guy with pink cheeks and a Smokey the Bear type hat. He shined the light on my girlfriend for a moment. Then he asked her if she was “in any distress.”
I didn’t even notice the words until later on, just sat there thinking there was something in his tone that I didn’t like. Something accusatory. My girlfriend was maaaaad confused like 🤨 but she just nodded and said yeah, I’m fine.
The officer turned the flashlight back on me and smiled, pretty sure he winked too (don’t quote me). Asked me if I was out here celebrating Obama’s win “like the rest of them” (you can quote me there). I just shrugged and said yeah, nothing over the top. Knew enough not to get goaded into THAT conversation. He nodded and did the license/registration routine. I handed them over and he studied them then looked at me and asked me why I was honking right before he pulled me over.
So, I’ve always thought myself a sort of scientifically-minded person. As in, I believe in the scientific method, and the lessons we as a species have learned as a result of it. In this situation, the evidence was presented to me in real time. The number of seconds that elapsed between
1) me honking my horn at the guy stumbling in front of my car, and
2) this state trooper flashing his lights in my rear view,
were a single handful—five at most—which only stood to reason that he’d been behind me during the entire encounter.
So I explained to him what he’d probably already just seen. And he told me that I was in violation of local noise statutes. Because it was after the cutoff point (9pm/10pm, can’t remember which). I said okay and he walked off to his vehicle. A few minutes later he came back and explained to me that he was only going to give me a warning for the noise violation, but he’d have to give me and my girlfriend tickets for not having our seat belts on (I promise I’ve gotten better about that).
I signed it and he gave me my copy, did the same with my girl then he left and I drove off and continued to CVS for our original purpose: beer. At some point—after a couple of complaints from me about the injustice of the entire stop, much less the tickets—my girlfriend told me I should have said something, told the cop he was out of line.
Which I laughed at, of course.
The point of this story isn’t what happened to me that night though, not in the slightest. The point is what I eventually found out—over the next decade or so—could’ve happened to me. If I was a different person.
My parents are immigrants, came to Miami from Jamaica in the early 80s right before I was born. Strict Christians, so I was (with very frequent protestations on my part) raised in that value system. My father’s a product of straight up abuse and neglect but also a very educated individual, which gave him a firm belief that education is the only real way to escape your conditions when your conditions are sub-par.
As a result, education was not just A priority for me growing up, it was THE priority. I did pretty good in high school too, but as any person with Caribbean parents like mine can vouch, there was always another level you could reach in their eyes (love you muma and pa ✊🏾). I spent the first eight years of my life living with my parents and younger sister in a tiny apartment in a dilapidated neighborhood off Caribbean Blvd in South-South Miami before they saved up enough to buy the house in Perrine they currently reside in, the house I’m destined to inherit.
Which is to say, on the spectrum of black existence in the United States, I grew up privileged.
I never had to worry about where I was going to sleep.
I never had to worry about not seeing at least one of my parents at some point throughout the day, much less both.
I never had to worry about drive-by shootings, or eviction notices, or gangbangers or close family members in prison or my next meal or shoes or clothes.
I never had to worry about much really, except staying out of trouble (fail), being home by dinner and the aforementioned grades. I’ve been through my fair share of hardships, but they’re mostly side effects of life. The type of stories you toss out when everybody else is airing their dirty laundry at 2 am and you get that weird urge to outdo each other in the “who’s childhood fucked them up more?” conversation.
So even though I spent much of Obama’s initial-inauguration-evening bitching about a slightly weird encounter with a state trooper, the experience didn’t linger outside of that feeling of wrongness, like I’d slipped into the Twilight Zone for a moment there. I paid my ticket and my girlfriend paid hers and we went on about our business of getting the 🤬 out of Tallahassee as soon as possible.
The keywords for me in the above paragraph are “I paid my ticket.” If I had not been me—the type of person who grew up with parents who would never let him starve, who would never let him seriously need, who would never let him encounter a state trooper without at least SOME preparation for the Dance with Law Enforcement—
—If I was somebody lower on the spectrum of black existence in America, basically—
—My future/current position might be very different. I might not even be writing this right now.
There’s a podcast on NPR called Serial I got into a couple of years ago (like a lot of other people who are into good journalism). It studies how the justice system treats certain cases, starting season one with a thorough exploration of a murder trial that—due in part to Serial‘s coverage—has since led to a retrial for the accused, Adnan Syed. Season two covers the disappearance of Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan in 2009, and both seasons are amazing from a journalistic standpoint.
But my favorite season, by far, is season three, where the podcast’s investigative team tackles not just a single case but the entire local justice system in Cleveland, Ohio. Per the website’s description:
“Inside these ordinary cases we found the troubling machinery of the criminal justice system on full display. We chose Cleveland, because they let us record everywhere — courtrooms, back hallways, judges’ chambers, prosecutors’ offices. And then we followed those cases outside the building, into neighborhoods, into people’s houses, and into prison. We watched how justice is calculated in cases of all sizes, from the smallest misdemeanor to the most serious felony.”
It was during this season that I started to really understand the detailed machinations of a system that I’d always thought was a little bit awry, even though I never really understood why I felt like that. In the first episode of Serial season three, producer Sarah Koenig discusses the case of a woman going by the pseudonym “Anna.” For the purposes of speeding things along I’ll spare you the lengthy recap and just provide a video of the encounter that led to Anna’s arrest (Anna is the one getting smacked on the butt):
Along with a quote from Cleveland.com’s recap of the episode:
“The video shows the woman [Anna] talking to a man near the bar. She turned toward the bar, and he smacked her behind. Without turning around, she patted her own behind twice in response.
Another man seated nearby smacked [Anna] again a few seconds later. She wiggled back at him. The men continued smacking her, but she clearly grew irritated with it. She twice turned around, including once to give a half-hearted kick, and then, after the seventh time the men smacked her, got close to the man’s face. That’s when another woman who was sitting a few stools down stood up, walked directly in front of the 21-year-old woman and started yelling in her face.
Both reached for one another at almost the same time, and the fight broke out. The officers in the bar did not immediately get involved, and the fight turned into a scrum.
At one point a third woman, who was talking to [Anna] on the stool, appears to kick the 21-year-old woman while she was on the ground. A man grabbed that woman from behind and held her back.
When the officers finally came over to break up the fight, the 21-year-old got back up and threw punches while several people tried to restrain her. That’s when a punch landed on one of the Gill’s jaw. They took [Anna] down to the ground.
Police put [Anna] in the back of a police car while they sorted out the situation.”
Now, how this incident plays out is baffling enough on its own. But the eventual outcome of the entire situation for “Anna” is particularly interesting:
“[Anna] was taken to the city jail, where she sat for four days before she appeared in Cleveland Municipal Court for arraignment on a felony assault on a police officer charge, which carried a maximum sentence of nine months in prison. She was not charged in connection with the fight with the woman.
She pleaded not guilty and was released after she posted a $5,000 bond through a bonding agency.
A judge appointed attorney Russell Bensing to represent her. He and assistant county prosecutors got together and worked out a deal to bypass the grand jury and agree to be charged by information, which usually comes with an agreement that the defendant will plead guilty.
The case was then assigned to Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Jennifer King, who had yet to see the video […] King eventually offered a deal for the woman to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault. Bensing and the woman rejected the deal.
The case came upon the original trial date of June 12, 2017 with no plea deal in place. Judge Maureen Clancy pushed the trial back a month, and on the two sides reached a deal on the morning of the second trial date.
Prosecutors dropped the assault on a police officer charge and she pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. Clancy imposed no jail time, fined her $200 and ordered her to pay court costs that equaled the cost of her prosecution, which according to court records worked out to $782.50.”
Putting aside all the injustices “Anna” went through during this encounter, and putting aside the injustices she went through in trying to seek justice for this encounter, I’m focusing on two particular aspects:
1) the fact that Anna is white, and
2) the end result of this entire case.
Ultimately, Anna’s cost for defending herself was a $5,000 bond, four nights in jail with the threat of nine months more, a $200 fine and an additional $782.50 in court costs. And this happened to a white woman.
Now…most people I know don’t have that type of money lying around to just throw at criminal charges.
Which brings me back to my encounter with that state trooper in Tallahassee the night Barack Obama was elected.
Because sure, I was able to pay that seat belt ticket. I was able to pay that ticket and move on with my life, and I am now an “upstanding citizen” with a career and motivations to succeed into the future. Largely because I grew up in the privileged portion of that spectrum of black existence in the United States.
But what if I hadn’t?
What if, as a child, I had had to worry about where I was going to sleep?
What if I had had to worry about not seeing at least one of my parents at some point throughout the day?
What if I had had to worry about drive-by shootings? About eviction notices? About gangbangers or close family members in prison or my next meal or shoes or goddamn clothes?
What if I had gone through all that and still made it to Tallahassee, only to meet up on that state trooper and receive that ticket?
What if I hadn’t had the disposable income to pay for that ticket, or the support from family just in case?
Let’s run through the hypothetical, eh?
Let’s say I’m working paycheck to paycheck for tuition and expenses, as many people I knew in college were. Let’s say I don’t have the disposable income to take care of that ticket I just received, and I don’t have the safety net of a family with their own income to help me out. Let’s say I have no discernible option other than to just let that ticket sit there and fester, like a severe wound on a person without health insurance.
What happens next?
Simple. Eventually, my license gets suspended. I might not even know about this either, it’ll just be suspended, just like that.
A couple months after Obama’s election, I was pulled over again heading back to Tally from Miami on I-10. Pulled over for speeding, and yes I was speeding. Not by a lot but yes, my bad. The cop—a black guy—checked my license then came back and told me to be careful, then let me go with a warning. Told me his CO was waiting in another state trooper vehicle ahead a couple of miles so I should slow down. It was a pleasant encounter.
Getting back to our hypothetical though…imagine I hadn’t paid that seat belt ticket. And imagine, now, my license was suspended when that cop pulled me over for speeding on I-10. Per Florida statutes, the first conviction of driving with a suspended license is:
“…a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and a maximum of 60 days in jail.”
Imagine now that hypothetical version of me—dude who had had to worry about where he was going to sleep growing up, had to worry about not seeing at least one of his parents if not both at some point throughout the day, had to worry about drive-by shootings and eviction notices and gangbangers and close family members in prison and his next meal and shoes and fucking clothes.
Imagine now that that guy is spending a few nights in jail, because a cop didn’t like how he honked his horn.
Imagine he has a job, and he’s now lost it. Because he couldn’t show up to work on time while he’s locked up in a jail cell. All because a cop didn’t like how he honked his horn.
Imagine he finally gets out of jail and can’t afford that $500 fine. Imagine that this leads to more run-ins with the police, and more and more shit piled onto his shoulders, until his life is entirely ruined because of this initial encounter with an officer who didn’t like how he honked his horn.
Imagine the country then turns around and tells him they don’t care. He should’ve honked his horn differently.
Imagine that for yourself. Then tell me.
Would you feel like being peaceful?
It could’ve happened to me like this easily, I’ve seen it happen to many others. That quick shift to the lower end of the spectrum of Black Existence in the United States. I’m glad it didn’t.
But that don’t mean my privileged black ass ain’t got stories to tell too.
And it don’t mean that I don’t know exactly how everybody out there protesting feels.