FALL 2018

 

It’s well past magic hour and I have to violate my unspoken rule against driving at night. I don’t have a vision problem, but the lack of light makes it harder to evade any cop cars lying in wait.

I leave the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, drive east on Wilshire Boulevard, and cross into Los Angeles proper. City lights becoming flashing lights, and my heart seizes up. The culprit… the flickering blue and red of a police SUV.

A traffic stop is going down on the other side of the median. An I’m-late-for-my-yoga-class look of annoyance is on the driver’s face—a white woman—as the lead officer, with a reassuring grin, returns her license and registration. So it’s routine. Nothing for her to worry about.

Yet my stomach is in knots, and I’ve done nothing wrong.

A few blocks later, the rearview mirror spikes bright. Those unmistakable, high-mounted xenon beams punch inside my car. The cop SUV is close enough to instigate apprehension; no time to take a detour or pretend to park at a meter. A quick mental inventory:

License? Registration? Insurance?

Check, check, check.

My speedometer stays stuck at 33 as he runs my plates—then the cop veers off, and I’m free to breathe easy. I ask myself a simple, but truly silly question: Do whites fear death when the police lights shine?

“Silly” because I know the answer.

 

SUMMER 1978

 

Clint Eastwood’s first renegade cop flick is on the black-and-white Magnavox in the den. My brothers and I watch Eastwood foil a bank robbery. In the aftermath, he strolls up to the surviving Black perp, who’s lying on his back and bleeding out, pretty much no threat. Aiming a .44 Magnum square in the brother’s face, Eastwood taunts him with a quick lick of dialogue. This exchange is subsequently launched into the pop culture stratosphere. You know the one I mean. Did I fire six shots or only five? … Well, do ya feel lucky, punk?

The helpless, hapless, unarmed Black man surrenders, but to service the robber’s curiosity Eastwood’s Callahan pulls the trigger anyway. With an ironic wink, the perp is spared death; the gun was spent. This “joke” is funny to Callahan (and maybe to Eastwood, too). I don’t laugh. I can’t laugh. I cringe. Mainstream culture, however, cherishes that moment… until Rodney King’s mild run-in with LAPD. (Had it happened today, he’d have been shot sixteen times, instead.)

As a child, I didn’t speculate on Callahan’s insolent callousness. Later, when I work in the motion picture industry, I will ask: How many non-whites around the globe, over multiple generations, had this signature image of the perennially criminalized, incessantly dehumanized, and utterly emasculated Black man burned into their psyche? And what role did this four-minute snippet play in underlining an indelible belief that this is how American Blacks should be treated? Deserved to be treated? Are required to be treated?

 

OCTOBER 2018

 

Sarah Koenig’s true crime podcast “Serial” returns for a third season. I listen at night before going to bed. The horrors it unearths fuel my insomnia, and conjure eyes-wide-awake nightmares. Koenig takes a deep dive into the Cuyahoga County criminal courts in downtown Cleveland, the seat of Northeast Ohio’s Anti-Nigger Machine. The relentless civil rights violations that law enforcement operatives deal out to Cleveland’s Blacks are so normalized they’re not even deemed criminal. Shocking? That’s an altogether different story, and what Koenig and her team are there to report.

Cleveland is my erstwhile hometown, so as each ulcer-inducing episode unspools, I recite the same prayers: I am thankful to have escaped the 216 after only minimal interaction with the state’s shock troops; I am grateful no one in my family is still there to be continually victimized. “Continually” being the operative word, because harassment is part of the perverse curriculum for a police officer’s continuing education certification. Let’s review my own minimal interactions with the chumps in blue.

 

FALL 1987

 

I’m driving my family’s spanking-new black Ford Taurus station wagon, off to poison myself with some royal fast food. At this time and place in America’s history, the Taurus’ Syd Meade-inspired curves raise eyebrows. It is therefore too slick for Cleveland, and far too slick for a light-skin Black boy from one of its eastern suburbs to wield its keys.

The cashier in the drive-thru window of the Burger King at Cedar and Warrensville informs me that my order will take a few minutes. It’s near closing time, and the stockpile of quasi-meat under the heat lamps is low. I steer over to a parking spot and wait.

Not long after I shift into “P,” city lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up. The red and blues assault my rear window. I look around, concerned. Is there an armed robbery in progress? Is an act of domestic violence underway?

I jump in my seat when a rude cop “taps” my window with his steel flashlight. He doesn’t give a shit that he’s a few foot-pounds of force away from breaking the glass. I roll the window down. The cop’s light punishes my retinas. His interrogation is immediate.

Whose car is this, boy?

Uh… My mother’s.

Who’s your mother, Goddamn it?

I say her name, but what does that matter? Will you, Mr. Officer, sir, only treat me with a modicum of respect if I happen to be the son of someone who can cost you your job?

(I am not.)

Does she know you’re out joyriding?

Since when did sitting in a parking lot waiting for cardboard masquerading as meat become joyriding?

I have no answer.

My silence is read as guilt.

I am Black, after all.

Your driver’s license and registration. Now.

Everything is in order, but I’m detained until my father comes to escort me home. Seeing how I have my family’s only car, he is more than pissed when he steps out of the taxi. And I never get my meal.

 

SPRING 1989

 

A cheap-ass weekend night during the waning days of high school. Rosie M. is driving us home, racing down Shaker Boulevard, when a blistering shriek grabs my throat. City lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up. My beer-breath is far more potent than Rosie’s, but we’re both guilty.

A flashlight’s beam blasts in the window. When the glass slides down, the word-vomit that starts spewing from Rosie’s mouth startles even me. I can’t tell if this officer plans on shutting her down with a practiced snarl, or if he’s curious to see just how long Rosie’s linguistic gymnastics will continue.

Rosie, who is Jewish, with Portuguese roots, can pass as an oppressor, so she’s an unwitting co-conspirator in this privileged Cleveland suburb. The overseer blinds me with his interrogation-room-bright beam of light, questions my motives for being out at this time of night. My curt answers don’t seem to satisfy, but he relents as Rosie picks up where she left off with a more combative tone.

Decades later, I will watch Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning film Get Out, and what do you think sticks with me the most?

The whites cosplaying as pseudo-liberals when continued exploitation is the true name of their game?

Nope.

The drugged tea scene?

Nah.

What about the “Sunken Place”?

Strike three.

One more swing, for old time’s sake… it’s gotta be the inverted trope of the cop (a Black cop) arriving in the nick of time to save the day?

Close, but no cigar. It’s when, in the first act, Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya get stopped by the backwater highway patrol, and I’m ricocheted back to this moment from my late teens. Fiction “works” when it’s an intimation of life, but what are the odds that the filmic circumstance is exactly the same as my own, right down to the names?

The coup de grace is when my Rosie casually mentions that the mayor’s daughter “is a friend.” The badge-wearing Simon Legree pauses, then relinquishes Rosie’s wallet and sends her on her merry way with a lackluster scolding (never, you might notice, threatening her dignity).

She chuckles with relief as she puts the car back in drive, and off we go… at the same break-neck speed. I don’t make a sound. Not even a word in response to her brazen chortle (the hallmark of white privilege), as if escaping a ticket was a Milton-Bradley game. My house is only a few blocks away, so the length and depth of my silence doesn’t betray my thoughts.

As a Black person, you’re told that justice is doled out differently for you. Yet when you have ocular proof, you don’t get jealous, you don’t conjure bitter words. You manifest fury.

I consider the Constitution’s “equal protection” clause—a joke worthy of prime time at The Laugh Factory—and I vow never to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner again.

In the twilight of Obama’s America, when Colin Kaepernick has his dream wholly revoked for taking a knee, I’m like, “What took you so long, Colin?”

 

NOVEMBER 2018

 

We’re in the middle of a fever dream; the indelible debasement of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s moral standing. The New York Times unleashes an exposé—white supremacists have infiltrated local law enforcement agencies all across the land. The Times’s main source is a Department of Homeland Security report. The twist of the knife is that DHS had been aware of Klansmen sneaking their white sheets under their cop blues for nearly a decade. DHS’s damning chronicle (which also pointed out that police departments have, as a matter of course, turned a blind eye to the surge of white nationalist violence against Blacks) was compiled during Obama’s first term. It was suppressed after the GOP and its foamy-mouthed attack dog, the Tea Party, hemmed and hawed like the unrebuked children of the Confederacy that they are.

This isn’t breaking news. This isn’t a must-read exposé. This isn’t a wide-eyed revelation that will rankle the white readers of the Old Gray Lady, although it’s meant to be. But Trump’s America is America unmasked, basking in its authentic form, twerking with delight that the charade is over.

Those who always exist on the wrong side of a police encounter have known that those who burn crosses for kicks also wear badges; we keep a running tally of every time a cop steals our humanity with an under-the-breath utterance of a six-letter slur.

 

OCTOBER 1990

 

The University of Michigan, sophomore year. After a co-op party, Brian G. and I meander through the residential neighborhood east of campus in my Honda Prelude.

I’m heated because Zoë S. (the feisty New York girl with sandy curls who I was more than enamored with) had invited me to the party, then proceeded to ignore me the whole time. While my mind tosses around what possible mistake(s) I made with Zoë, I roll a stop sign.
And then one of Ann Arbor’s white devils cloaked in blue falls in behind us.

The cops shadow us for two more stop signs. At each one, I come to a full stop, plus two seconds. I demonstrate I am a law-abiding citizen. After I turn the next corner, I drive two more blocks, then turn another corner. City lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up. Serendipitously, my Pioneer CD player cranks out NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police.” I don’t turn down the volume, then I do.

The weighted flashlight’s beam overwhelms my optic nerves. I roll down the widow. With care and contrition, I slide my up-to-date papers into the white cop’s hand before he even asks. His short blond hair is cropped so low you can barely discern where his pasty skin begins.

Then I’m immediately playing defense; denying accusations that I’m drunk (full disclosure, I did guzzle down half a red Solo cup of beer at the party, two hours prior). My denials are rechristened as lies, bold-faced lies. And liars must get the hell out of the car and lie to the officer’s face.

Brian and I clamber out, alarm and its associated angst spiraling up in my throat. The second cop frisks Brian; nothing is found. Indignant, the cop orders Brian to put his hands on the hot car hood. Brian winces in pain from the engine’s radiant heat. Blondie frisks me; nothing on my person either. The porcelain-skinned cop orders me to walk a straight line. I pass with noble pride.

A mistake.

White cops hate prideful Blacks (it’s in the training manual). I know this, should have adjusted for it. Sometimes, being “high yella,” I miscalculate. Many Blacks only reluctantly accept that I am part of the tribe, but the boys in blue don’t make that mistake. Ever.

After a sneer, Blondie shoves me onto the tree lawn, deep within the shadow of a massive oak. Brian’s eyes balloon. He’s about to speak, when he’s shut down.

“Don’t look at him,” the cop overseeing Brian commands. “Look at the ground. I said: Look. At. The. Ground.”

Brian has Roman roots and, at this moment in American history, is seen as white (which wasn’t always the case). But Brian is from the wrong side of Eight Mile. He knows the drill, and knowing means fearing. I see it in his eyes before he breaks contact with me.

The wannabe fascist, irked by my hubris, demands I recite the alphabet… backwards. Before I balk, his .380 service revolver is in my face. The cold barrel taps my left nostril every so often. This disservice weapon looks too much like Eastwood/Callanhan’s tool of taunt. Unlike that fiction, there are precisely six bullets in this gun.

The red and blue lights spike hypnotically, beckon me toward the abyss. Come closer. Just a few more inches. You can make it. One step, that’s all it takes. One misstep.

I take a centering breath so deep it touches the bottom of my testicles, and: “Z…Y…X… W, V, U…T…S…”

The cop’s Joker-esque rictus contorts into a frown, intensifying with each correct letter. When I reach C, B, and A, my fingers tingle, my wet, cramping lower back untwists, and the willpower required to suppress a “fuck you” smile is Herculean.

Boiling, Blondie brands me “uppity.” The grand-wizard-in-training’s partner chuckles, “He must think he’s smart.”

I am smart, though, because I’m not lying in a pool of blood at this blue-eyed bastard’s feet. If that’s not smart, I don’t know what the hell is.

I pay for the display of my humanity. He back-hand slaps me with citations for reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and failure to stop at not one, but two stop signs. Curious no driving while intoxicated.

I’m thankful nonetheless.

 

AUGUST 1992

 

My senior year at U of M starts as soon as I get on the road to Ann Arbor. I make one last stop to get my comic book fix at the Cleveland Heights’ branch of North Coast Nostalgia, formerly known as Kovacs (where I first got hooked), then back home to pack, kiss Mom & Dad goodbye, and off I go.

I hover over this week’s new releases. Milestone Media (the fabled DC Comics imprint) wouldn’t launch for another seven months, so I don’t have Black superheroes created by Black writers and artists to embrace. Nonetheless, I cherish washing up on the far-flung shores of these modern Homeric epics. For thirty to forty-five minutes each Wednesday, the four-color worlds documented on newsprint supplant the outside world, and I don’t worry about whether the girl who gives me wet dreams will laugh (with her friends) at the love letter I sent; or whether I’ll get the job I want when I graduate; or what new micro-aggressions I will shoulder in every space where Black bodies aren’t supposed to show their faces. I don’t think about any of those things as I flip through the sequential art.

In my haste to get back and pack, I stop for only a fraction of a second at a stop sign on South Park Boulevard, just south of the Upper Shaker Lake.

Sirens shatter my reverie. City lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up. Only it’s mid-afternoon, so there are no sodium-vapor street lamps or ambient city lights to be hijacked by the red and the blue.

I sign the citation with resignation that simmers like goose bumps across my entire body, then stuff the moving violation in my glove box.

I’ll pay it when I get up to school.

 

JULY 1998

 

My car window has been shattered; a broad daylight break-in. Right in front of the upscale townhouse I’m renting in a deep corner of the San Fernando Valley.

The console was pried apart to snatch out my in-dash CD player. The removable faceplate, however, languishes in my townhouse, on the stand next to the front door, mocking me. I’m at a loss. What grade-A idiot takes an in-dash CD player without the faceplate? Someone who just wants to do harm. Someone I’m acquainted with, no doubt.

I call LAPD, per GEICO’s protocols to file a claim. I wait in the sticky heat. My back itches from the sweat oozing down my spinal column. As I scratch my back and sop up the sweat, I hear the screech of a police cruiser rounding the corner. I turn to face them—my hand still on my back—and take two steps.

Then they’re out of the car, training their guns on me.

Hands in the air! Where we can see them!

I’m the one who called you.

But for those who put their boots on necks, a Black man is a criminal Black man until proven otherwise.

My hands remain in the air until they finish frisking me. No gun in the back of my waist band. Surprise. At which point I repeat: I called you… remember? Atlas might have trouble containing the spiteful rage uncoiling in my stomach.

The LAPD shock troopers offer smiles, hovering somewhere between impertinent and apologetic. They have the gall to ask how they can be of service. Now? I explain my situation. They do a piss-poor job examining my car. No prints are taken. After handing me a police report a mediocre fifth grader might have scrawled out, they drive off.

They provided the exact opposite of service.

 

DECEMBER 1993

 

It’s a few days after Kris Kringle’s late-night visit. I’m back in Cleveland, and my brother Alex and I are eager to take advantage of post-holiday sales at Beechwood Place and North Coast Nostalgia. A punishing snowfall the night before had triggered a crisis management alert. The early morning snowplows made their rounds but not fast enough, and the wind chill rendered the salt trucks worse than useless.

Alex and I are cavalier about making the jaunt in my Honda, despite the road conditions. I wasn’t about to miss my weekly fix of Marvel, DC, Valiant, and Image, my refuge from the world, where the aberrant law enforcement minions of Wilson Fisk or Roxxon Oil’s crooked executives were just that—bad apples. I’m not good at reconciling whether comics and their mythological heroes are supposed to be a halcyon mirror for reality or a complete distraction from it. But I do see the value of myth-making in pop culture’s then-bastard stepchild, because the marginalized find solace in those “funny pages.” Just look at the demographics of the San Diego ComicCon.

Alex and I creep east on South Woodland Road. When we’re six car-lengths from the Richmond Road intersection, the traffic light turns red. Neither the Prelude nor I are prepared for the extent of the road’s treachery.

With my brake lights blooming, we skid across the crosswalk and into the intersection.
I panic, but fortune favors us; the waiting cars don’t flood the intersection. We come to a rest under the traffic light, where enough cross-directional traffic has worn down the snow. Nothing to do but break on through to the other side.

And that’s when fortune throws a slider. Posted up on Letchworth Road (a tiny, diagonal, feeder street) is a Beechwood Heights pig mobile.

City lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up.

I’m in the wrong, because those blessed with additional melanin don’t get a well-those-are-some-messed-up-road-conditions pass from the cops. If I was a white woman, maybe. Possibly. Probably.

Then the sky falls on my head. I never paid the “rolling” stop sign ticket I picked up 18 months prior, when I was heading up to Ann Arbor.

My bones whisper: There’s a warrant for my arrest. My arrest… for not paying a petty moving violation. My arrest.

Despite being twenty-two, my cardio-vascular system isn’t primed for the high-octane cortisone that floods into my body. I start to feel a little light-headed as I scribble a mental note: Do more cardio in the mornings and evenings. (When I’m diagnosed with a stress-induced inflamed heart sac two decades later, I realize whatever I had been doing wasn’t nearly enough. Maybe no amount ever could be.)

With my hands quivering on the steering wheel, I check for the cop in the side mirror. He hasn’t emerged from his car yet. Irrational thoughts usurp my conscious mind.

I turn to Alex: What if I make a run for it? I can lose them in the woods! (There’s a moderately dense wooded area directly to the right.)

Alex grabs my wrist: Don’t.

But I can outrun ‘em.

I bet that’s what every runaway slave thought. And when they did get caught, toes were axed off or fifty lashes from a whip were applied to a sweaty back stretched across a fence. Or there’d be a lynching. Better yet, a near-lynching, because a cowed survivor provides more fear value.

Alex repeats: Don’t.

Tapping on the driver’s side window. A bundled-up cop with mirthless eyes. I roll it down. With my hands still on the wheel, I ask permission to retrieve my “papers.” He sees I know the drill. A “that’s-right-boy” grin curls across his Saltine-cracker-thin lips, chapped by the wind and devoid of Blistex. He takes my valid paperwork back to his car.

When the emissary of justice returns, he barks: Step out of the vehicle, cites the warrant, and says my car is to be impounded. I plead: Can’t my brother drive it home? The white man’s eyes probe Alex: You old enough to drive, boy? Alex nods. I tell Alex to follow us; I have money for bail in my bank account.

Hands behind your back. The metal bracelets pinch like a son of a bitch. The jowly officer conducts me to his car. In the stripped-down perp compartment (contrary to what you might think, it’s not really a backseat), I must either sit on my hands or on my hip. I watch Alex maneuver into my car’s driver’s seat. He wisely waits until the police car turns the corner before driving off.

The warrant is from Shaker Heights, not Beechwood, so the cops trundle along to the Lee Road station. After processing, I’m shoved into a holding cell. The sound of the cage door slamming shut isn’t unfamiliar; I’ve seen my fair share of prison movies. But the fictional “clang” has nothing on the real thing; the finality of steel kissing, it has the singular power to confine a person to the lowest of Dante’s Nine, never to return unscathed.

A holding cell in an upscale Cleveland suburb lacks the ilk who could harm my body just as permanently as the police; so that is something to be grateful for.

After a while, I wonder where Alex is. He should have been here by now. I ask for my phone call. My mother answers, already aware of my fate. Livid beyond belief doesn’t do her justice, yet she doesn’t destroy my eardrum over the handset. In the background, my father spits out expletives, telling my mother that I should spend a night in jail, to teach me a lesson. As if I haven’t already learned it.

I sit on the stiff pine bench and wait. I think of Hitchcock’s oft-told tale about the incident that infected him with “The Wrong Man Syndrome”; as a boy, his father put him in jail for an afternoon to teach him a lesson. The Master of Suspense would recount the anecdote as the defining moment that shaped his artistic life. I doubt I’ll be able to mine this for good.

When my mother springs me, all I can think is: I didn’t make it through life without being carted off to jail. The odds were overwhelmingly against me, given the color of my skin.

 

MARCH 1992

 

Johnny B. and I struggle to get home after a night drinking at a variety of Ann Arbor house parties. We’re marching the drunkard’s shuffle with a dozen white boys and girls. Not that we’re “with them-with them,” just part of the throng. Johnny, who’s Black, stops to take a piss on a tree lawn, because some white boys are doing it, setting a precedent.

As Johnny relieves himself, city lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up. The red and blue splashes on the two white boys, Johnny, and me. The cops emerge, silhouetted by the menace of the lights. The white boys, with their hats turned backward, get a warning. Johnny is bitch-slapped with a public indecency ticket. I protest.

Big mistake.

The officer—I mean overseer—scrutinizes my identification, then I’m cited for public indecency, too. I say, in these exact words: My dick never left my pants, what are you citing me for?

The overseer barks: Take it up in court. His dismissal’s subtext is, If you, Black boy, can take the financial hit, then you have very little to worry about. But, since you are Black, and your family, like the lion’s share of Black families, has been systematically pillaged since Jim Crow ruled the roost, you probably can’t take the hit. (My father refers to this punking as “The Nigger Tax.”)

Weeks later, I appear early at the courthouse. A bunch of malcontent students, various Blacks, and unconnected whites fill the seats. My attorney protests my citation and the judge dismisses the “crime.” I still have to pay court costs and attorney fees, all the money I made at school that semester. Johnny, I find out, had the public defender. He’s slugged in the gut with a wallet-gouging fine, followed by a community service uppercut to the chin. Community service, as far as I can tell, is a form of indentured servitude, a concept as old as slavery yet applicable to all races, reconfigured as a state-sanctioned penalty: either “community service” or those work-farm prisons immortalized in Cool Hand Luke.

 

SUMMER 2007

 

Christina S. and I are driving to Venice Beach for an intimate party with her substance-abusing, neurotic on-again/off-again BFF Chrissy H.

Christina needs to drop something off at a friend’s house just south of the I-10. I park in the driveway of a shady-looking crib, and she’s in and out in a flash.

A few moments later, as I bob and weave through the traffic, Christina, on her cellphone, reports to Chrissy: “I have an eight ball for Leon and you, and one for me and—” Before Christina finishes her sentence, I explode.

She made a drug buy.

My temper knows no bounds. Christina thinks I’m overreacting. “We’re not going to get stopped” is her paltry defense. She’s an eighth Native American, but passes as white, so when has she ever been stopped “for suspicion”? (“Suspicion” is code for “Let’s stop this nigger and remind him that he ain’t shit.”)

This is half a decade before Black Lives Matter “woke up” whites to the police’s melanin-specific malevolence, when most whites were inexplicably resistant to believing the crimes perpetrated against Blacks by those sworn to protect and serve weren’t just anomalies.

Through gritted teeth, I tell her about this bit from Eric Schlosser’s must-read Reefer Madness, where a white man and a Black man are arrested—together—for first-time cocaine possession. The white dude is tried in California state court and gets a light sentence. The Black man is led in chains to Federal court and gets kidney-punched with years behind bars, per the mandatory Federal sentencing.

The tentacles of justice choke with unequal execution.

She hears me, but she’s not listening.

I’m in a sour mood the rest of the cross-town drive, the vein in my neck throbs something fierce. Within the confines of the block-from-the-beach apartment, I’m extra-cavalier with the amount of cocaine I hoover up my left and right nostrils. Do I chide myself at the irony?

Nope.

I drink triple-straight shots of Jim Beam and flirt lecherously with Chrissy. This irks her husband, Leon, but he’s too much of a chump to make a stink. Furious, Christina demands to know why I’m acting like a complete ass. I pretend not have an answer, shrug, and pour another shot. What I can’t tell her is I am acting out, which is decidedly different, despite what it might seem to the untrained eye.

I’m tempted to let the fuse she lit blow up in her face, but peppering her with verbal shrapnel—in front of her friends—won’t do a bit of good. They’ll label me as the bad guy because of how it’ll look. So another quarter-inch thick, three-inch long rail of white powder disappears up my nose. It’s barely been cut (leave it to Christina to get the good shit) and my nose threatens to bleed. But it feels freeing.

Later, Christina has joined me down the road of excess coke and liquor, and we fumble around on the floor of her living room and strip off our clothes. In an odd burst of passion, pain, and perversion, I channel Young Jeezy’s anthem to aggressive sex. “Making love” doesn’t compute during the reign of terror. When we’re done and she’s asleep, I stand by Christina’s balcony window and let the cool air wash over my raw sienna flesh. I recognize our engagement cannot last. Not when the banality of inattentiveness will be a wedge. I watch the three-strip Technicolor sunrise and recall the subtitle to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous novel, less known but more telling: Life Among the Lowly.

 

DECEMBER 2019

 

Dim sum night with the Persian woman I’m attempting to date. After the meal, I hand the valet his tip and we get in my car. Before I put it in first gear, before I answer my date’s question about where to next, city lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up.

An LAPD car roars around the corner—lights pulsing, siren blaring.

The red and blue lights are the boxing bell that signal “the fight is about to start,” and the prize for lasting twelve rounds is staying alive. And I’m paralyzed.

The cop car does a squealing U-turn, then rockets up the road and out of sight.

Are you okay? My date has noticed my knuckles have turned white from gripping the wheel.

How can I tell her that I’ll never be okay? That while we’re both people of color in this society, and both our playing fields are rigged, mine is tilted a bit steeper?

 

MAY 2020

 

No policeman’s knee has ever knifed into my back while I lay face down and helpless.

No policeman’s baton has ever whacked my knees, my shins, my elbows, or my head.

No policeman has ever bent my windpipe with a “we no longer use these” chokehold, or put a shin against the side of my neck while I plead for my life.

No policeman has fired their service weapon at me.

I remember Chuck D’s ferocious anthem “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” on the seminal Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. He coins a phase, perhaps not new, but new to me when I first heard it:

“This is what I call the anti-nigger machine.”

It never leaves my inner dialogue.

Many times it has caused me to wonder why police cadets aren’t choked within an inch of their lives at the academy, so they can be familiar with the sensation and have some empathy. Another silly question.

But is it?

In the early evening, I step outside of my apartment in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood and walk to the ramen restaurant up the block. I cross an intersection; city lights become flashing lights, and my heart seizes up.

Christopher B. Derrick

Christopher B. Derrick is an award-winning filmmaker and WGA screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He co-hosts a podcast on screenwriting, and his photography has appeared in shows at the Los Angeles Center of Photography, and in venues in Cleveland and Amsterdam. Christopher is currently developing a comic book series. When not writing, Christopher endeavors to brew the perfect cup of French press coffee. His website is www.supersonicbaroque.com.

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One Comment on “Sirens

  1. In the culture and climate of the world were living in and as black men in Amerikkka — a lot has come about since we lost George Floyd not so many weeks ago to such blatant, outright, madness. Now, people close to me (white) are slowly opening their eyes to the truth about our fear of walking or being pulled over by the police and the trauma we’ve lived with for – our – entire – lives!

    This essay goes deep into that systemic trauma and puts you In The Mind of a black man over the course of their life.

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