WHEN I was a kid growing up in Chicago in the 1970s, my two white parents told their two adopted black children that the only words we should ever utter if stopped by Chicago Police were “yes, sir.’’ This was not out of some insidious desire to raise black men who “knew their place.’’ Instead, it was a defense mechanism - a precautionary measure to the very real danger that the slightest bit of expressed indignation, even if legitimate, could result in being physically assaulted or worse, if you encountered the wrong police officer.
I remembered that advice all too viscerally in the past couple of weeks as I read about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African-American who was killed while carrying a bag of candy and an iced tea by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain. I tried to figure out why I seemed incapable of doing what I’d successfully done so many times before, step far enough back from an unpleasantness to ensure my role is that of observer, not participant. Then it hit me: I’ve been a participant in this story my whole life.
The first time I remember using my parents’ precautionary measure, I was 12 and waiting for the school bus in front of my house. Instead of a bright yellow bus pulling up to take me to school, a police cruiser pulled up. I was grabbed by my hair, tossed into the back of the car, and taken several blocks to a crime scene. Then, I was pulled out of the squad car, again by my hair, and thrust in front of a white woman who was sobbing hysterically on the ground while being tended to by police and paramedics.
I realized much later that this woman had been assaulted, but I had no clue at the time because I was a victim myself. The officer holding my hair asked the woman, “Is this the one?’’ to which she managed through trembling sobs to respond, “No.’’ I don’t remember much from that day other than the wave of relief that washed over me after I’d been exonerated; the rage I felt when that officer grabbed my hair again to pull me into the car to take me home, where I was dropped off as though nothing had happened; and the confusion I felt after being invaded by injustice and rage for the first time. At no time during this entire incident did I utter anything other than “yes, sir.’’
Over the years, I’ve used this precautionary measure, including as a college student driving my mother’s expensive foreign car, and as a law student walking home late at night from a law library in an exclusive Boston suburb. Most of the time, I was accosted because I looked “out-of-place’’ (a.k.a. black kid in the wrong neighborhood). All the times, I uttered nothing but “yes, sir.’’ As I’ve aged, the use of this deference as a means of self-defense has come at a cost.
First, even as a young kid, I began to realize that having never done anything that warranted the kind of scrutiny I’d get from police made being deferential difficult to swallow, even if it was for my own safety. After all, as with most kids, it was burned in my brain from an early age that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights, including those of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When standing spread-eagle with my hands on top of a police cruiser or handcuffed, I can assure you, I felt that only one of those three unalienable rights existed for me.
Second, I love the law and respect those responsible for enforcing it. It’s one of the reasons I chose to attend law school. It’s also why, even though I tried my best to chalk up each injustice by law enforcement to a few bad apples, I became more and more disillusioned with a system that allows these injustices to occur in ways that are much more widespread than I’d realized as a kid. These costs have resulted in a lot of swallowed pride, lost dignity, bottled anger, and confusion.
And now, I fear, these costs can no longer be contained. In light of the death of Trayvon Martin, I am left to wonder what my response would be to being stopped by some fellow citizen and asked what I’m doing in a certain place at a certain time. It is one thing to have borne the cost of all that swallowed pride and lost dignity and pent up anger deferring, albeit as a precaution, to those who we are all supposed to defer to - police. It is something entirely different if this country now expects me to walk around saying “yes, sir’’ to anyone who thinks I don’t belong on a street or in a neighborhood. There’s no more room inside to swallow any more pride or dignity, and I have found that anger and confusion have become indigestible.
So, here we are. On the one hand, there are those like me whose personal tolerances for unwarranted deference, precautionary or not, have been exhausted and can’t - or won’t - allow themselves to be subjugated anymore. On the other hand, a growing number of states have a “stand your ground’’ gun law, which grants immunity to anyone who uses deadly force if he claims he was acting in self defense, but could be used to allow everyday members of society to rightfully, at least in the eyes of the law, take the lives of those who refuse to be subjugated. These irreconcilable facts lead me to the terrifying conclusion that unless we act quickly, there are going to a lot more Trayvon Martins out there. I fear that one day, I might suffer the same end.
Mac D’Alessandro is a principal at Democracy Partners. He lives in Milton.