By Lanre Akinsiku
In undergrad, I drove a ’92 Ford Taurus that just hulked, tank-like, up and down the streets of Berkeley. The thing was conspicuous, an ocean liner. I was pulled over all the time, once or twice a week at one point. Often I’d see a squad car following me and just pull to the curb to get it over with.
An officer would walk up to the car, one hand on that little button that secures the strap over his gun. He’d ask for my license and registration. Some inner voice would remind me that this was the time to point out I’d done nothing wrong; I’d ask for a badge number, I’d take a stand. But black boys are supposed to know better.
So what I would do was: I would slip my college ID over my driver’s license. The officer’s eyes would light up. Not your college ID, he would say, amused. Then he would go back to his car and dally a little, pretending to check on things, before handing my license back with some mock-heroic advice about staying out of trouble. The story ends right there. I remember feeling vague anger afterwards, although I was probably feeling something a lot closer to despair.
Every time I used the college ID trick, it bred in me a kind of survivor’s guilt, a guilt about a life that feels as if it’s being protected weakly, through cowardice. Because what I was really doing was saying, Yes, some of us deserve to be shot in the street, but this ID proves that I’m not one of them. I used the little plastic card to secure my status as One Of The Good Ones, and I always drove away ashamed, always. At best, I was reducing my humanity –my right to not get shot by a police officer –to a giveaway received during freshman orientation. At worst, I was just delaying what is now starting to feel inevitable.
Mentally-speaking, what happens when you hear about another unarmed black teen killed by police/police-like officers? For me, it goes something like this: First, anger, a kind of 360-degree, completely unfocused, completely diffuse anger; but since anger is a fairly cheap emotion it fades, and sadness settles in; and then I get that familiar helpless feeling you get when you realize what you’re doing is utterly rote, almost Pavlovian, but you don’t know how else to deal. To put it another way: For reasons I’m still trying to parse out, I’ve realized that simply mourning the deaths of other young black men isn’t good enough anymore.
I don’t mean for this to sound melodramatic, because my emotions don’t really matter; or, they matter less than a murdered black boy whose body was left in the street. But what I’m trying to describe here is something real, a sinking-in-quicksand feeling familiar to anyone who is tired of the terror – which is the only really truly appropriate term – police officers exact on young black men.
When an unarmed black boy is killed by a police officer, again, and some loud-talking reporter is interviewing the boy’s mother, again, and you can see his mother’s shoulders slumped until they can’t slump any more, and she’s been crying so much she’s gotten to the point of simply not bothering to wipe the tears away, and you watch her as she tries to look into every camera and speak into every microphone, and watch her as she suddenly gets the spectacle of all of this, and starts listing all of the good things her boy ever was, so that everyone can remember him the way she’s remembering him right then, in that moment—when will we decide this is not okay?
This is probably a good time to backtrack a little and talk about fear. To be black and interact with the police is a scary thing. The fear doesn’t have to come from any kind of historical antagonism, which, trust me, would be enough; it can also come from many data points of personal experience, collected over time.
Almost all black men have these close-call-style stories, and we collect and mostly keep them to ourselves until one of us is killed. You know how the stories go: I was pulled over one day and the cop drew his gun as he approached my window; I was stopped on the street, handcuffed and made to sit on the sidewalk because the cop said I looked like a suspect; I had four squad cars pull up on me for jaywalking. We trade them like currency.
And it almost goes without saying that these stops are de facto violent, because even when the officer doesn’t physically harm you, you can feel that you’ve been robbed of something. The thing to remember is that each of these experiences compounds the last, like interest, so that at a certain point just seeing a police officer becomes nauseating. That feeling is fear.
We all know there’s nothing necessarily wrong with fear, since it’s just a really effective survival mechanism, and there sure as hell isn’t anything wrong with surviving. Legitimate fear can save your life; it makes sense that many of us are scared of heights and rattlesnakes. But a constant state of fear, being afraid, makes you a special kind of tired, in the same way a bully or bad boss makes you tired. This is no real way to live.
OK: Imagine you know of a guy who occasionally walks around your neighborhood with a gun. Imagine you don’t really know this guy, so you don’t know how he feels about you, whether he sees you as friend or foe. You do know that he holds his gun a little tighter when he walks past your house. You also know that if he shoots you, there’s a good chance he’ll get away with it.
That’s how all of this feels.
What I’ve seen of the Ferguson Police Department and their tanks, AR15’s, flash-bang grenades, tear gas, laser sights, helicopters, and military-style detachment makes me believe Michael Brown was tired. Maybe he’d been harassed by a police officer before, maybe he was tired of being tired.
So when Darren Wilson tried to bully him, Michael Brown said no. And maybe it was the “no” of someone who’s been pushed around, which is a more beautiful “no,” since it is so clear and absolute. That a police officer then shot him dead and left his body in the street is, historically, the kind of thing police officers do when black men stand up for themselves.
And so for the last week I’ve been feeling that helpless feeling. All that’s left after helplessness is fatigue, right? Aren’t we all tired yet? We know that what happened to Michael Brown was not a unique incident but part of a larger phenomenon—and that it will happen again, soon. Which means we know an even deeper truth: that to be black in this country means constantly paying a tax on your life. Some of us pay in dignity, some of us pay in blood. What I’m trying to say is this: Never again will I pay with my dignity.
Lanre Akinsiku is a fiction writer pursuing his MFA at Cornell University
(Illustration by Tara Jacoby)