- I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in a predominately Black neighborhood but was bused to a school in a predominantly white suburb.
- After a school dance when I was in the fourth grade, a cop stopped my friends and I — all Black kids — with his gun drawn. He said he was looking for suspects after a robbery at a local mall. I was 12.
- It’s no wonder Black men are exhausted and angry. We carry the memories of encounters like mine with us every day of our lives.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
After the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests over police brutality, a lot of people have asked me how I’m doing. The fact is I’m exhausted. And angry. And I’m ready for something to change
While many people are just now waking up to the realities of police violence in the country, as a Black man I’ve lived with this reality all my life.
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1980s, in one of the most segregated cities in the country. I was born and raised in the inner city of Milwaukee, a socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood, a rough neighborhood, an all-Black neighborhood.
The schools, like the neighborhood itself, had been and still are historically underserved. I was part of a program that allowed kids from some of these neighborhoods in the city to be bused to the suburbs to go to school. So I went to an all-white school from first grade until I graduated from high school.
My sister, my brother and I got on the bus every morning and rode an hour to school. An hour each way.
The school was in Whitefish Bay, a suburb of Milwaukee. It’s right on Lake Michigan. It’s an affluent neighborhood with very good schools that are well-funded. We were some of the first Black students to be in that school. I was the only Black student in my class for first, second, and third grade.
I was not made to feel welcome. In third grade, a girl in my class called me the n-word. That was a rough moment. I was seven.
A cop pointed a gun at me and my friends after a school dance. We were 12.
By the time fourth grade rolled around, there were a few more Black students there. When we were about 12 years old the school held a dance. It was in the school gym. At the time, it was a really big event for me and my friends. So we arranged to stay the night at a friend’s house who lived in the neighborhood rather than make the commute back at night. My mom certainly wouldn’t let me be out late. After the dance, around eight o’clock, we began walking down the street away from the school.
There were four of us, all Black kids, walking down the street in the evening.
We could hear the cop car in the distance, coming down the street. We turned around as the car came to a screeching halt. A police officer jumped out of the car, pointed his gun at us and said, “Freeze. Stop. Get on the ground.”
We sat on the ground.
I’ve had lessons from my parents and grandparents, from uncles, aunts. I knew exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re a Black person and a cop tells you to stop. Don’t move your hands. Don’t put them in your pockets. Don’t do anything. Even at 12 I was well versed in this. I knew exactly what to do.
In totally respectful voices, we said, “What did we do?” We weren’t angry. We weren’t yelling. We weren’t screaming. But we were absolutely terrified.
The officer got onto his walkie-talkie and pretty soon he came back over and said, “Well, there was a robbery at the mall, and we thought you guys were the suspects, but it sounds like you’re not.”
So he let us go. He was a white cop. He did not apologize.
The incident lasted less than five minutes but the memory has stayed with me for a lifetime.
I remember, after the police left, my friends and I acted tough. We were kids from the inner city. We were all pretty tough. We talked about it a little, as we started walking away, but the conversation faded quickly.
We didn’t tell anyone. We didn’t talk to our teachers. We didn’t tell our friends. We didn’t tell the principal. We didn’t walk into the police station, which was five blocks away. We didn’t tell anybody.
I remember crying later when I wasn’t around my friends.
When I told my mom as an adult, she almost lost it. She was just so upset that we didn’t tell anyone.
That night follows me to this day
As I’ve gotten older, that night has stuck in the back of my mind as I’ve gone through my life.
The killing of Ahmaud Arbery — shot by a white man who saw him jogging on the street — got to me because I go running all the time. When my wife and I moved to Prince George’s County, which is a predominantly black neighborhood outside of Washington DC, in my 20s, I used to go running at night, with my hoodie over my head, because I like to work up a sweat.
I would be followed by the police sometimes when I ran. They weren’t right behind me. But you can tell when somebody is checking you out. So after a while, I decided I was not going to run with my hood on any longer. Pretty soon I stopped running at night, altogether. Because of my skin color, immediately I become someone who looks suspicious.
That was 19 years ago.
It didn’t really dawn on me until I was in college, that I could have died that night in Whitefish Bay. At 12 years old, I was a second away.
Over the years, probably half of my Black friends have been pulled over in our cars by the police when there was no remotely reasonable or accurate or warranted cause. Every single one of us. Some of us have gotten in trouble for speeding or whatever. But we have also been pulled over multiple times, every single one of us, for no reason at all. It’s seen as normal.
And a sizable number of those people have also had police point guns at them.
For Black men, those are what the odds feel like in an encounter with the police: 50-50. It’s a coin flip as to whether the cop pulls a gun. You’re only a second away.
It’s no wonder we’re tired. We’re exhausted and we’re angry. We want an end to systemic racism and police brutality. We want equal enforcement of the law for black and brown people so that we can live without fear, go running at night, and trust that our children will make it home safely after a school dance.
In the short amount of time since I started working on this story, Rayshard Brooks, another Black man, has died at the hands of police. How many more will die by the time you read it?