Nshera Tutu

From first grade until fifth grade, every morning on my way to school, I walked past a parked police car. My young self always made sure I presented myself well, making my posture perpendicular to the ground my eyes focused on. My own internalized fear of police existed before I knew of its name or existence. I knew how shaky and unsettled I felt when my family would see a police car behind us on the highway, but I did not understand why. No one ever told me those feelings weren’t normal. In fact, the media, my teachers, and a lot of people I knew told me the police were good people. As a result, I also felt that way. The world I grew up in, a sheltered Bronx neighborhood with few disturbances and even less violence, gave me no reason to fear police officers. There were definitely police officers I could trust. My friend’s dad is a police officer. There’s a police precinct four blocks away from my house, and they are incredibly nice people. However, I just could not manage to shake the feelings I felt.

Things began to change when I was nine. Suddenly, I had reason for my fear. In early February 2012, a police officer at our local precinct chased an unarmed black teen named Ramarley Graham into his house, where the officer shot and killed him. I did not know what had happened until a few weeks later on a cold Saturday morning a few weeks later. I was standing across from the precinct, waiting for my school bus to pick me up for a program. A man riding a bicycle came and stood outside the precinct and begun to scream “murderers!” Confused, I turned to my mother and asked what was happening, why that man was calling these people, who I had been raised to see as good, such a bad thing. My mother thought for a moment, then flashed an uncomfortable smile and tried to reassure me. “Don’t worry,” she said, “we’ll talk about it at home.”

            The entire day, I felt discomfort and unease. I was nervous about what my mom was going to tell me. When I came home, she sat my older brothers and me down in the living room. Since my older brothers and I were the ages twenty-two, thirteen and nine respectively, she tried to frame it in a way that would not startle us. “Recently, an unarmed black boy in our neighborhood was chased into his house and shot in the bathroom by a police officer. I don’t want you guys to be scared, but I also want you to stay aware.” No matter how hard I tried, it was impossible not to be scared. The thought of someone marching into my house, looking one of my brothers in the eyes and pulling the trigger horrified me. However, as I grew older, the specifics of the story began to blur. It was not distinct from the stories we hear on the news now. The police officer thought that the unknown black man was armed, the police officer claimed to fear for his life, the police officer shot the man, and the police officer faced no significant repercussions.

            That event only amplified the effects that later notable cases of interactions with police had on me; whether they occurred in my own personal life or on the national scale. Twenty-four days after Graham was shot, Trayvon Martin was shot. For the next few weeks, the thought of my brothers, uncles, cousins, friends, anyone that I loved being subjected to police violence haunted me. When I looked at them, I saw the amazing people that I cared about who could not possibly be a threat. But I knew when the world saw them, whether it was the officer “carrying” out the law or the media plastering negative images of them, they would only be viewed as the unnamed Black man who threatened authority.

            As of now, I have not had many interactions, neither good nor bad, with the police. I still respect them and their authority and am appreciative of the good work that they do. However, I’m still scared that someday, I’ll be in this situation and they won’t see me for who I am. Neither my age, nor my gender, nor my associations negate the color of my skin, and that is something that I have to live with everyday.

It’s scary to think that your existence could be subjected to the whims and values of another human being, but that is what Black people in America often face when interacting with the police. In the unjust eyes of some, there is no redemptive quality great enough to outweigh one’s blackness.