Why I fled St. Louis at 18 years old and fear for my boys that I left behind:
For the past week, I have not been able to get much sleep since learning of the killing of Michael Brown in broad daylight in the suburbs of St. Louis. Clearly the killing of this unarmed Black boy hit too close to home. Being born and raised in St. Louis and surrounding suburbs, I felt no choice, but to flee St. Louis for the reasons that are self-evident today.
I ran away from that city due to police abuse, constant harassment and seemingly non-stop surveillance more than 15 years before the St. Louis Police were responsible for the death of my cousin in 2012. I ran away before I had to drive his children 600 miles to bury their father who experienced the type of daily mental torture at the hands of police -- from his teenage years till his death -- that the majority of Black boys and young men experience in that city when they choose to step outside. I ran away before I could fully grasp why I ran without ever looking back and began to strategize how I could keep every Black male that I love out of that town. I was the boy who constantly was harassed by the police. I was the boy who felt safer walking near gang members at the mall than near the police. I was the boy who watched his mother cry herself to sleep after we went to the police station to file an official complaint after my first Driving While Black experience: Stopped and harassed one week after getting my driver's license for the crime of dropping off my friend at his apartment after dark while having another friend in the car. Yes, all three of us were Black.
I was lucky. I used my academics to get away. In the same way that my mother used her academics to flee the Jim Crow South 35 years prior to my birth. My cousins, unfortunately, did not escape. And with each visit to my hometown, I was reminded through their stories that St. Louis is still not a safe place for a Black man as long as a policeman is nearby. At family reunions, we laugh -- cause crying hurts too much -- when my aunts tell the stories of having borrowed their respective sons' cars only to be pulled over immediately on their way to work because the police think that they are their sons.
My unrelenting anger at all that police stand for in this country comes from the perspective of a Black St. Louisan. It will not be quenched even if this killer is actually brought to justice. Nearly all Black people in America doubt that will happen (see: George Zimmerman for a well-known reference.) My oldest St. Louis nephew is almost 12 now. I saw a picture of him a couple of weeks ago, and he is beginning to look like a teenager. My first reaction was sadness. Not because he is no longer the 5-year-old that I would spoil with each visit, but because I know what he is about to experience: countless and unending harassment, and more closed doors to opportunity and more open doors to the criminal justice system.
This past Saturday evening, I celebrated the nuptials of two friends. At the dinner, without knowledge of what had just happened in St. Louis, I engaged in a conversation at my dinner table with Nigerians and White Americans about how dangerous this country is for Black American boys, especially in places like St. Louis. I detailed what actions I learned to protect myself from the police. For example, as a teenager, I never drove without a tape recorder in the car. When I experienced my weekly and often bi-weekly pullover, I would place it on the dashboard and hit record. When the officer walked up to the car, I would say: Good afternoon, Officer Insert name here, announce the date and time and ask kindly why I was being stopped. This script might have saved my life more than once. One thing that Black men all learned from Rodney King, the police are only held responsible when their actions are recorded. And even then, civil disobedience may be necessary even when police abuse is as clear as day.
Today, I have many nephews and godsons who are growing up Black in cities that are notorious for the abuse of Black boys: St. Louis, Los Angeles and my current city of Seattle. I'm just scared. For many of them, I am their big, tough uncle who can protect them from anything whenever I am around. My job is, and always will be, to be their mentor as they grow into adult Black American men. I promise them that I will support them with anything that they dare to dream. But what I cannot promise them is safety from the police. I will not lie.
My truth is based in my experiences, and those of the St. Louisan boys that I accompanied into manhood. The first time in my life that I felt safe from the police as I walked the streets was when I moved to South Africa, four years post-apartheid to do study abroad. I was able to go for a jog during the day or night, hang out with a group of similar-looking friends, drive a fancy car, walk around a mall in peace or even drop a friend off in a wealthy neighborhood. I learned to do all these things without fear of the police. It was such a freeing experience.
Now I am tired. I'm tired, and I fear for the day that my nephews cannot walk the streets of St. Louis together without my fear that a policeman may be nearby.
I'm tired, and I'm scared.