Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn seven years ago. My date, a Nigerian-American man, is driving me home from a nice dinner. We’re driving down Court Street, turned left on Union Street and he whispers to me. We’re being followed. I dart a strange look at him because he’s known for being a bit dramatic. I say, “Aight whatever”. He says again now in a thick accent because he’s a bit pissed “I know what I’m seeing”. Sure enough two seconds later the sirens go on and he eases the car to the side of the road. Immediately I’m a bit freaked out because he didn’t break any traffic violations – I’m sure of that. Both of us had good careers so I knew he wasn’t in trouble with the law. However, I did look at him for a split second with accusatory eyes before I faced the reality of our current situation – “driving while black”.
Two officers exited the car. My date and I stayed in the car with our hands in clear sight. We started exchanging talking points, “Don’t instigate”, “Don’t be rude”, “Don’t talk back”, “Don’t make eye contact”, “No sudden movements”. We were acting like nine year old kids in trouble with our parents. A police officer approached the driver side and asked for driver’s license and registration. I had already started reaching for the glove compartment to pass the papers over to my date when a flash light beams into my face. That was the announcement of the other police officer of his presence. I observed his hand cocked on his holster and looked away. I passed the papers to my date and resumed the hands and thigh posture as the officer continued to scrutinise me with his flashlight. The scene played out more like a scene from Jurassic Park when the hunter was trying to capture the raptors less so than a routine traffic stop.
The officer mentioned to my date that his license was about to expire. My date agreed that it was and he needed to renew it soon before it expired. The officer asked him why he was in Brooklyn with a Long Island registration. Long story short, his parents paid insurance for all the family cars. That’s not rare and it’s quite normal for suburbanites. But this ended up being a 15 minute exchange where I started to lose my cool. My date was smart enough to hold my hand reassuringly because I really had some opinions to beam back at both of these cops.
After a good modern day “Jim Crow” inspection, the cops let us go without charge and told us to be careful. I was pissed, my date was pissed and we ended the date soon after the altercation with the cops. This scenario would reoccur throughout the years that I lived in New York. The experience would always leave me feeling a bit defeated and I often wondered if my dates didn’t feel la bit emasculated.
Fast forward to December 2016, I was walking along the streets of Leicester Square in London with one of my new London friends talking about this or that political issue when my train of thought was interrupted by police sirens. He kept talking and walking but I stopped to observe. A police officer had pulled over a car. By the make and model, it was a working man’s car. I would say Honda but I’m still not used to the European car brands so I’ll say it looked like a Honda. A brown man jumped out of the car and started walking to the rear of the car. I’ll refer to brown as everyone that is neither white nor black. He looked angry. Seconds later the police officer exited his car and started walking towards the gentleman. At this point my friend had stopped walking and talking to himself and came back to where I was standing. I was waiting for something to happen, had my phone ready to start filming the scene. My friend looks at me a little bewildered. “What are you doing?” I say, “Somethin’s about to go down”.
To my surprise the police officer and the brown man shake hands and start talking. WTF, I shook my head and collapsed into myself in disbelief at what my eyes were seeing. The two men started having a conversation. The police officer didn’t seem imposing on the driver even though the driver was a much smaller man and looked a little jumpy. The driver after receiving his 10 second explanation consented and …. Wait for it… shook hands with the police officer and returned to his car picked up his paperwork and went back to the rear of the car and continued the conversation with the policy officer.
I was so conditioned into seeing cops behave differently towards all people of colour. My black British friends explained that the scene that I witnessed was a regular occurrence and it would not have been different if they were stopped. I was of course sceptical. But less than a week later I heard accounts of London “stop and frisk” and the unlawful killing of young men in East London. It’s all not clear to me why these things keep happening. It is clear that racism in the UK is not the same as racism in the US. However, what appears to be similar is the oppression and disenfranchisement of poor youth. I’m still discovering the socio-economic structure of London so I’ll continue to write about my observations.