I wish the moment had been filmed, because it felt like a movie, when four big men, dressed in dark sweatshirts and jeans, jumped out of a plain, black van and came straight for us.
Everything happened so fast. We, four young women, were quietly talking and laughing on the stoop of my cousin's house in Harlem, just like other folks on the block were doing. It was 1:30 a.m. on a warm, summer night.
"You and you, come here!" The men barked, as they crossed the street towards us, pointing at two of my friends.
I don't know why, but we immediately assumed these men were NYPD, although there was nothing to indicate that. My friends got up slowly, to comply. I stayed seated, but asked to see their badges.
"You don't need to see shit, shut your mouth" one of the men said.
I repeated myself and my friends echoed me, "You have to show us your badge; Let me see your badges..." Ironically, we had just come from a "Know Your Rights" rally, held in Harlem that night, to protest the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, so I felt prepared to stand up against unjust activity.
"If you don't shut the fuck up," one of the other men yelled at me, "your friends will get arrested 'cause of your big mouth."
I stopped speaking. I didn't want to be responsible for getting my friends arrested, or worse. At this point, I realized, we still didn't know if these guys were really police officers. But we could see they had guns. "Who are they? What do they want? Are they gonna shoot us? Are they gonna kidnap us?" I didn't move but my mind was racing. I was not prepared for this.
My friends raised their hands, in the universal sign of surrender, as they approached the men. "We're trying to cooperate. We don't want any trouble," they pleaded, and one of them added again, haltingly, "Will you please show us your badges?"
At that, finally, two of the men took out their badges, though they wouldn't show them to me. I heard one of them mumble something about not having to show me anything because I wasn't being questioned. I was annoyed, but still, I calmed down immediately. Until then, I wasn't sure they were actually cops. Now, I figured, the worst that would happen is we'd all be arrested. "Whew."
I should add here that I am white. My friends are not. One of them told me afterwards that she was more afraid when she found out they were cops. "I just saw Oscar Grant happening all over again," she said. Note: This incident occurred last summer, when "Fruitvale Station" had just come out in theaters, detailing the murder of a young, Oscar Grant, shot while in handcuffs, by Oakland PD. Since then, countless other black men & women have been killed by police, namely Eric Garner of NYC, Mike Brown of Missouri & Ezell Ford of Los Angeles. Eric Garner died, begging police to stop choking him ("I can't breathe"). Mike Brown died with his hands up. Ezell Ford was shot in the back, while lying on the ground.
The men - the cops - started asking lots of questions. "Who are you?" "Who lives here?" "What are you pretty young ladies doing, hanging out on the stoop, at this hour?" They said there had been a shooting earlier, a few blocks away. They said that they didn't care if we smoked weed, but that we shouldn't be doing it outside. They rambled on with their interrogating small talk.
Eventually, they apologized. They apologized for refusing to show us their badges. My friends tried to explain to them how scary the situation was, not knowing who they were or what was going on. One of the cops asked, "If you were so scared, why didn't you run?"
The question was infuriating. Run?! Why should we run? We weren't doing anything. Where could we run? We were sitting on a stoop. And who runs from cops? Everybody knows not to run from police. Our goal was not to get shot. Our goal was to get out of this alive. Our goal was to protect ourselves and each other. No, running was never a thought.
Afterwards, I wondered, "What kind of cop asks a question like that?" And if they were investigating a shooting, why were they wasting time with us? They didn't check us for weapons or anything. They didn't even check us for the marijuana they assumed we were smoking. All they did was terrorize us. And by terrorize us, I mean those four big men scared the shit out of us. Other victims of police brutality may challenge our use of the word 'terror' with much more heinous descriptions of violence.
While I was always opposed to New York City's stop-and-frisk policy, and in general, to the NYPD's racist regime, I had never been so directly affected by it. I know my rights, as an American citizen, and as a human being, and I tried to assert them in the peaceful, lawful way I was taught, but what's the point of having freedoms and rights, if under the guise of the law, it clearly doesn't matter? Cue light bulb moment #2, when you realize, this might be what it's like to be black or brown skinned in this country.
The NYPD's mission, according to their website is, "to enhance the quality of life in our City by working in partnership with the community and in accordance with constitutional rights to enforce the laws, preserve the peace, reduce fear, and provide for a safe environment." Ironic, since most people I know, seem to have the complete opposite experience with New York City Police.
In August of last year, a mere ten days before my encounter, Judge Shira Scheindlin of Federal District Court found the New York City Police Department violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments in the way they have conducted stop-and-frisks. Shortly thereafter, The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit removed Judge Scheindlin from the case, based on the view that she violated the judiciary's code of conduct. The three-judge panel have accused Judge Scheindlin of not following the rules. Hypocritical, don't you think?