As a child growing up in New York City, I often got conflicting messages about the police. On the one hand, I was told by my teachers that they were here to keep me safe, on the other, hip-hop groups that I looked up to such as Public Enemy and NWA told me “911 is a joke” and “F@$k The Police.”
My experiences also contributed to this paradoxical understanding of the police. I witnessed them working to keep our family safe when my aunt was a victim of an attempted robbery. But I was also scared by the police detaining me as an 8-year-old for allegedly stealing candy that I hadn’t.
Today, I’m a social worker. I work with young men of color traumatized by violence. Many of them have contentious relationships with the police. I normally speak with them about best practices in communicating with law enforcement. I’ve done this with the belief that if you do the right thing, the police will be a force for good.
A recent incident is making me question that view.
In mid-February, my brother Kevin and I were spending a typical Saturday night together when he decided to go visit a friend in the South Bronx. He put on his black Cornell University hoodie (Kevin is an MBA student and will be graduating in May) and his black do-rag. My brother ordered an Uber cab, we said goodbye, and he headed uptown.
Suddenly, an unmarked car turned its siren lights on and pulled the car over. While he sat in the backseat, three white police officers stepped out of their car and approached the cab. One officer told my brother they pulled the car over for a traffic violation. Kevin continued to sit in the back to let the police do their job, because that was one of the lessons we were given as children. Let the police do their job, because they are here to help us.
One of the officers asked my brother where the cab was taking him. My brother cooperated with the officers. At this time they had still not identified themselves, keeping their shields concealed. The cops then told Kevin to step out of the car. As he did so, he was viciously grabbed by his collar and slammed onto the side of the car.
“Do you have any guns or knives on you?” the officer said to my brother. The officers, threatening to lock him up still did not identify themselves. Despite Kevin’s immense fear, he managed to memorize the license plate of the police car. When they figured out what he was doing, one officer slapped him hard, to divert his attention. The thought that these officers would hurt my brother this way hurts my heart in ways many wouldn’t understand.
At some point during their questioning, the officers’ tone shifted. Suddenly, as Kevin lay with his head against the hood of the car, the officers began to discuss what a “good guy” he was. Their level of respect hadn’t increased; but the officers realized Kevin was an Educated Black Man armed not with a gun, but with an Ivy League education, which changed their narrative of him.
Are all unarmed black men “good guys” when their faces are pushed up against the hood of a car? Do they become suddenly “good” when they present with a formal education?
Here, I would add that Kevin asked again for their badge numbers and the cops agreed and sped off. Thankfully, my brother came away physically unscathed from this encounter, but the emotional scars and the trauma will remain with him.
Kevin and I grew up poor with intimate contact with many bureaucratic systems in New York designed to deal with low-income families. That I, a social worker, and Kevin, who has spent over 10 years working in finance, have led successful lives despite the odds is irrelevant. When my brother stepped out of his apartment and into that Uber, he was just a thug.
Saddened and angered by the treatment my brother received at the hands of law enforcement, my first thoughts were about the many black men who were not as lucky as my brother. Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford and Tamir Rice. They, too, were unarmed men of color treated by default as threats to society. Each situation is slightly different, but the common theme was excessive force tied to prejudice, an implicit statement that black lives matter less.
And I began to think more about what I tell the young men I work with. My brother managed to maintain his composure throughout this incident. Kevin has never been arrested and does not have a contentious relationship with law enforcement, unlike the young men I work with. He has access to resources that my clients lack.
How do I prepare my young men to navigate a world where they can be harassed and abused by the same people who are supposed to protect them? I could put together a “know your rights “ training, but knowing your rights and having your rights respected are two separate issues. I have to figure out a way to give my clients tools that will increase the likelihood they will be safe, since unfortunately there is no guarantee what can happen in these police interactions.
How can I trust a system that I have to work with to improve relations between law enforcement and the community?
Thankfully, my brother has not been added to the list of dead unarmed black men shot dead by police. We can continue to have our Saturday nights together. But these days I’m less conflicted than I used to be — those old Public Enemy lyrics speak loud and clear.
Kenton Kirby has a Master’s in Social Work from New York University. He provides individual and group therapy to young men of color who have been directly and indirectly impacted by community violence.