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Police Officer with Arms Folded

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A s long as I can remember, I’ve been instructed on how to act if I come in contact with a police officer. But the language changed as I aged. “If you’re in trouble, find the police,” turned into, “If the police come at you, be as calm as possible.” My grandfather served 28 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, and his advice about interacting with his brothers in blue still echoes in my head. “Always take a mental note of badge numbers from the beginning,” he’d tell me. “Say what you’re required to, and be proud but not arrogant. You’re a man first before anything.” Black children are all seemingly taught the same course on how to portray our innocence with police from birth, but it seems like nothing works.

I remember being surrounded by four squad cars during my senior year of high school. I remember seeing hands on holsters, hearing, “Put your hands up! Don’t move!”as if I was really going somewhere in that moment. I remember being slammed on the hood of a police car, the heat of the engine burning my face as I was told that my football teammate and I fit the description of two guys who had robbed a kid at gunpoint minutes earlier. We were wearing football pads. Then, as quickly as we were guilty, we were deemed innocent. We were let go, but not before one of the officers told us that we “better win the Pub’ this year.” It was traumatizing, but we’re the ones who got away with our lives and our freedom.

Now at age 30, I look at the police in an entirely different light than the superhero that I painted my grandfather to be. I enter any potential interaction with law enforcement with the understanding that it could easily flip me from a victim to being called an assailant. We can rattle off the names of countless Black women and men who have been assaulted and killed at the hands of those who are supposed to “protect and serve.” Las Vegas officers threatened to shoot Michael Bennett. Wyclef Jean was mistakenly identified as an armed robbery suspect and was detained by police in Los Angeles.

At this point, we often find ourselves taking what once would be considered extreme measures just in case something goes wrong. Chance The Rapper was in the car when his child’s mother was pulled over in Chicago. With his daughter in the backseat, Chance went on Instagram Live to document the incident, “just in case things get out of hand.”

Black lives are seemingly always in danger when we find ourselves in front of those who are supposed to be our protectors, and no matter what we teach our children, we don’t seem to be able to change that.