12/09/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What You May Not Know If You Have Never Been Accused of Being a Drug Mule

This post is a break from my usual musings on urban design, architecture, and architectural culture. Consider this a sort of virtual die-in.


Often when I tell white Americans about my experience with police, their response is one of incredulity. This may be one reason I don't tell them often. In fact, I don't tell the stories much at all because there are other things going on in my life, and I am basically a privileged person with nothing to complain about.

I imagine I am not the only person who has this attitude, just as my dear white friends and colleagues who respond with incredulity are not the only ones to do so. It strikes me that after the events of Ferguson and Staten Island, perhaps we are doing ourselves a disservice by not sharing these stories and not being open to hearing them.


The first time I was arrested was at the age of 21 in Bermuda. I was a Harvard student at the time with an expired Harvard College ID that I didn't bother to update because the magnetic strip still opened all the doors on campus. Generally when someone is arrested, the first question is "What did you do?" As in, what was your crime? This can be a long complicated question to answer, especially if what one did was effectively look suspicious to a racist system. A more succinct question might be, "What were you charged with?" My friend, a Yale undergrad, and I were held for a day by a narcotics squad with a warrant for our arrest for suspicion of drug smuggling. What you really need to know is that I had an afro at the time, and we arrived in Bermuda in such youthful leisurely haste that we hadn't bothered to book a hotel room.

Here's what you may not know if you have never been accused of being a drug mule, nor been surprised in your bungalow rental by the invasion of half a dozen narcotics officers with a warrant for your arrest. You will be given two options: 1) Submit to a medical screening to ascertain the inside content of your intestines; 2) Submit to police custody for the amount of time it would take to convince your custodians that you have shat out the entire contents of your intestines. Whether your bags, cellphone, and travel documents will be searched is not an option. If you are in Bermuda, the man in charge of such an operation will possibly be named Sergeant Reginald Smalls. Certain aspects of this experience will be unforgettable, not in a soothing way, not what Nat King Cole sings about, for example. (In everrry wayyyy...)

When you are given these options, you will likely ask questions. For example, if I submit to medical screening, will I be touched? I don't want any of you assholes to touch me. What you may forget, at the time, is that these officers are under no obligation to tell you the truth about anything.

Here's my advice, from experience. Choose option two. It may take longer in custody. But someone will, at least, be required to inspect your feces.

A couple years later in Manhattan, I was stop-and-frisked on my way to a black lesbian dance club. This time I was sporting cornrows and a bandanna.

In between I had lived in California, where I once had my car illegally searched by police that called for backup when they saw me driving in Silicon Valley with a fellow financial analyst in the passenger seat. He was South Asian and recently graduated from Yale. At that time I had corn rows without the bandana.

Are you noticing a pattern? Indeed. Yale sucks! Ask them the last time they won the Game. Just ask them. They'll know what you're talking about.

The officers explained to me, after the search without permission, that I should be careful about gesturing from the driver's seat because it might look like I was throwing something, like a gun or drugs, out of the window. You know, as Silicon Valley types do.

The only time I got locked inside a jail cell was in New York City at Union Square MTA station, below ground. Many people respond to this with the incredulous, "There's a jail cell in the subway at Union Square?" Two, actually. One for men, one for women. On that occasion I simply had the audacity to say "No." No to the unconstitutional bag check. When the female police officer arrived hours later to pat me down she told me that liberals were the problem, that liberals were ruining New York City.

To be Black in America is to live in a lawless, brutish country.

[From Wikipedia on the Underground Railroad: Under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when suspected fugitives were seized and brought to a special magistrate known as a commissioner, they had no right to a jury trial and could not testify in their own behalf. Technically, they were guilty of no crime. The marshal or private slave-catcher needed only to swear an oath to acquire a writ of replevin for the return of property.]

That's what you are,
Tho' near or far