The Day My Mother Yelled ‘Don’t Shoot’
I knew what happened to people of color who stood outside of nice houses for too long
My mother had changed the lock on the front door. I’d have trouble with the old one whenever I’d visit; the bolt always seemed to catch splinters of wood before struggling into the notch. So it was only a matter of time before she changed it. Maybe if I’d visited more often, I would have gotten the new key. Perhaps if this visit had been planned, she would have remembered to leave one for me. There were a lot of things that could have happened differently that day.
I had just gotten off a graveyard shift that morning. New York City had been at the height of rush hour when I’d hopped aboard the train at Penn Station. Bodies chafed against each other, purveyors of free newspapers communicated in exaggerated shouts, and the garbled voice of the train conductor sounded grated through the speaker. Walking through Manhattan on a weekday morning can feel like walking through a scream. But standing in front of my mother’s house, the quiet was unsettling. More unsettling was the silhouette I cut against the suburban backdrop. Garbage cans sat in neat rows at curbside. Gigantic oaks gently swayed in the breeze. And when my mother’s neighbors looked out of their windows, they saw an unfamiliar silhouette clad in a bomber jacket and white tee, braids peeking from beneath a Yankees cap and a durag.
History has taught me — and most men of color — that’s what you do in the presence of the police. You freeze because your body no longer belongs to you.
I was tired. I felt exposed. I knew what happened to people of color who stood outside of nice houses for too long. Henry Louis Gates had been arrested outside of his home around this time in 2009. I wanted to get inside as quickly as possible. I followed the driveway around back and checked the rear door. It was locked. On my way back around, I quickly checked the side window, also locked. Out of options, I called my mother from the driveway. She picked up on the first try and apologized; she told me there was a spare key in the garage.
My mother is always apologizing to me. It’s like she can never sew the world up neat enough, never clear away enough of life’s inconveniences to rid herself of the nagging truth: that some things will always be outside her control. That the children cut from her flesh will eventually find themselves at the mercy of a world much bigger than their mother’s love. As I made my way toward the garage, something told me to look over my shoulder, a feeling of eyes grabbing hold of my body. When I did, I came face to face with a squad of police officers, stalking up the driveway, their guns pointed directly at me.
I cannot explain to you how surreal it was, the moment I turned to face them. The birds chirped serenely in the trees, and the wind caressed the branches with chilly drafts. Everything seemed muted. And yet, I had not heard the officers’ cars pull up, or their doors open and shut as they exited. I didn’t hear their footsteps on the cracked asphalt, but I felt them. And though I cannot be sure, it is my honest opinion that, had I not turned at just that moment, had I gotten startled and succumbed to the flight instinct we are all wired for within our bodies, I would have met the same fate as so many young men of color over the years.
Instead, I froze. History has taught me — and most men of color — that’s what you do in the presence of the police. You freeze because your body no longer belongs to you. It belongs to officers who have their guns trained on you, the officers who have been trained to fill sheets of paper with holes grouped around center mass. You do not move until they tell you to, and when they do, you do as instructed. It’s instinct. In the same way that deer have learned to become wary of the men that hunt them, Black and Brown men have learned to be wary of the police, for they are the hunters of men.
“Get down on the ground!” An officer shouted at me, although I couldn’t make out his face, I heard his voice loud and clear.
My hands were already moving toward the patch of sky above me. I yell into my phone that I am being arrested. I can only imagine what my mother must have looked like on the other end of the receiver, at work, powerless to do anything but scream, “Don’t shoot him!” over and over again into her phone. She didn’t need to see what was happening to know that the officers had their guns drawn. Again, it’s instinct.
I lay down on the floor, placing the phone down next to me. Mama’s screams had gone all tinny, distorted by distance and shitty reception. The officers walked over and stood me up, face against the side of her house. I told them I lived there. They asked me to produce ID. We all ignored the woman screaming through the cell phone on the floor as they handcuffed me.
Most people who have never been handcuffed don’t realize how awful it is. They don’t realize how much it hurts. Your arms twist behind your back in a forceful, unnatural way. The cuffs, depending on what kind of officer administers them, can cut into your wrist so much that the cold metal feels like it’s cooking over an open flame. With your hands behind your back, your balance is compromised, and you have no way of adequately defending yourself or fleeing if things take a turn for the worse. It is complete helplessness, unrefined, and cruel.
Eventually, I convinced them to pick up the phone and speak to my mother as I sat handcuffed in the driveway. She explained the situation, and the officers let me punch in the code and pick up the key. I didn’t fumble when I entered the code. The key entered the lock with no trouble. Before I knew it, I was behind the safety of a locked door, the officers on the other side. Then came the knock.
The officer who shouted minutes before stared at me apologetically. The first words out of his mouth were, “I’m sorry.” There was a sheepishness to it that most of us grow out of as we age, as our apologies begin to mean less. The officer meant it. I think he understood that his mistake, regardless of whether he was doing his job or not, could have cost someone their life, and cost another mother their child. When someone’s life is on the line, there is no margin for error. But he also apologized because the ordeal was not over. For them to leave me alone, I had to produce proof of some connection to the owner of the house, some link to my own mother — a picture.
You can imagine that there are not that many pictures of me in a place where I don’t live. Nonetheless, I found one of my mother and me dancing from her wedding albums. The officers left after that. This is a situation Black and Brown men find themselves in all too often, staring back at officers walled off behind lifeless metal and uniform, walled off behind protocol and “just doing their job.” Meanwhile, our bodies are contorted by restraints meant to protect those who have always held power. Restrained, we jump through hoops to provide responses and identification to justify the simple act of being. And for some, it ends in a far worse place.
I am lucky to be able to share this story with you, to share the details of what it is like to look down the barrel of five police-issued pistols that can, but for a flinch, leave a person-shaped hole in the lives of loved ones. In all this, my privilege is not lost on me. I am lighter-skinned on the spectrum of Black and Brown; I can smile and speak English really well.
I cut my braids and now keep my hair cropped tight to the sides of my head. I’m more likely to wear a suit or slacks these days than baggy jeans, using the privilege of my ethnic ambiguity to make it through the day. I’ve learned what my father and mother tried to teach me when I was younger: that a suit can be your armor. That it can keep you safe, manage people’s expectations of you.
And yet, for some, a suit will never be safe enough.