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To Serve And Protect Whom?


To Serve And Protect Whom?

Chet Anekwe

I was cruising down I-675, right outside of Atlanta GA when I saw the police lights behind me.  It’s like they came out of nowhere.  

I had just left a cocktail party, where I had two glasses of wine and was headed back to the house of my college buddy, Shuaib Mahmud, in McDough GA.  It was the first time I had ever been to Georgia.  In fact, it was the first time I had ever been south of Virginia.  

December 1994, I remember driving from my apartment in Jersey City NJ, in my 1993 white Nissan Altima, heading to the NJ turnpike.  When I stopped at the ticket booth to get my toll ticket, because back then human beings gave out the tolls tickets, I shouted happily “I’m going to Atlanta”.   To which the guy looked at me stone faced and said “Good for you”

The drive was long but fun.  It was my first road trip by myself.  It was the first time I was going to drive interstate in the US, since I was a kid going on family trips with my parents. It was the first time I was going to “the South”.

I remember passing Richmond and seeing a sign saying “Atlanta”,  I was so excited.  However that excitement was soon tempered as I began to drive through the southern states of North and South Carolina.  I remember looking out onto the expansive fields, and dense woods, that paralleled the highway and thought to myself, there is not an inch of land, not a speck of dirt, as far as the eye could see, where a black person wasn’t mistreated, abused or killed.  How many strange fruits hung from these trees?

No matter how beautiful the area was I couldn’t shake that feeling.  I began to be a little cautious where I stopped for gas.  I looked for stations that were close to the highway.  I didn’t stop to eat anywhere.  I just bought snacks.  The closer I got to Atlanta, my unease slowly faded away, and was completely gone when I drove past downtown Atlanta.  I was screaming “Hotlanta!!” for almost 5 mins.

All my uneasiness with the south was replaced with joy once I got to Shuaib’s house. And he was like, “Drop your bags we going to the club!”.  This was Atlanta, one of the best cities for African-Americans.  Where, as I was told, women outnumber men 10-1!  And the gender ratio at the club we went to, did not dispel that information.  What happens in Atlanta stays in Atlanta... 

Ironically, a young lady I had met, at that very club, on the very first night I arrived in Atlanta, was the one who invited me to the cocktail party I had gone to.  Shuaib was unable to come with me, but showed me the best way to get to and from the party venue.  He suggested I used I-675, as it was a faster way to get back to his house.

So a little after 11pm, and I am driving on I-675. And yes, I was speeding. 85-90 miles per hour on this dark, under-lit highway, then I see them.  The police lights flashing.  I look at my speedometer, 85.  Shit.

I was already on the off ramp where I-675 rejoined I-75, when I pulled over.  I was acutely aware that I had been drinking not too long ago.  The area was dark with only the lights from the police car illuminating the area.  I swear by all I know, all I could think of was the movie “Mississippi Burning” as the officer came to my window.

“Good evening officer”
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No sir.”
“Do you have a license at all sir?”

I was taken aback by the passive aggressive question.

“I do”
“How many times has it been suspended or revoked?”

He took my license and registration and asked me to step out of the car.  He walked me around to the back of my car and informed me, that he would like to perform a breathalyzer test.  Before I could answer he says

“I would like to inform you sir, that according to Georgia State law, you have the right to refuse this test”

I wasn’t sure of my blood alcohol level, but I thought it best not to refuse and just take the test.  I told him I would take the test.  He walked to his parol car and came back with the kit.  As he unpacked it, he said again

“Again sir, I would like to inform you, that under Georgia State law, you have the right to refuse to take this test”

Ok.  Now he has told me twice.  I got worried and was a little afraid, standing on this dark unlit highway in Georgia, with this police officer.  So I asked

“If I don’t take the test, how does that affect your job?”
He looked at me and calmly said “It does not affect my job at all sir”
Well if that’s the case, I thought then said “Ok, no, I do not want to take the test”
The officer said “OK”, slowly put the kit back in the bag, turned to face me, put his hand on his gun and said

“Sir, you are under arrest for driving under the influence.  Please place your hands on the trunk”

I was shocked!  It dawned on me, that I had asked the wrong question!  I should have asked “what would happen”, if I refuse to take the test.  Instead, he slyly answered my exact question, knowing if I refused, he now had the legal right to arrest me!  He baited me, hoping I didn’t know the law.  He was right, I didn’t... I quickly reverted

“No I’ll take it!”
“Too late” he said as he handcuffed me and put me in the back seat of the squad car.

He then took me to a local hospital where I was made to take the breathalyzer. I passed!   I was not over the limit.  I was not driving impaired.  The police officer in the hospital, who reminded me of the actor Walter Brimley, looked at me dead in the eye, and with that Georgia drawl said

“Why in the hell didn’t you take the test on the road?”

I didn’t say I was thinking about Mississippi Burning, or that it was dark part of this highway, or that I was unsure what these police officers were capable of... I simply said “I didn’t know”...  Even though I was essentially just going to get a speeding ticket, I was still put in a paddy wagon and taken to lock up.

When I arrived, I was being processed at the front desk, where they took all my belongings and logged them.  The cop processing me was a very muscular, jutted jaw, jar headed cop.  Many years later I read an article about cops using steroids.  They were juicing to get stronger, to be able to overpower the people they apprehend.  However they also began to suffer from steroid rage, where they became out of control and were prone to violently assaulting civilians.  When I read that article, I thought back to this officer.

While he was processing my belongings he saw I had a HP Palmtop.  It was the fore father to Blackberry and all the other smart phone technologies we have today.  It was flagship tech item leading the market at the time, ahead of other makers like Casio or Time.

He looked at it, and partially speaking to his partner, brings out his own Casio and starts comparing my Palmtop to his Casio.  He remarked that he would like to upgrade to a Palmtop.  Out of my own sheer naiveté, I decided to chime in on the conversation. 

“They are really cool.  My company gave every employee one for Christmas”, I said.

He looked up at me slowly...  Then turned back to his partner.  And in a tone dripping with sarcastic disdain says

“Yeah, because us back water rednecks can’t get anything, fancy like this”.  

And then he pantomimes spitting into a spittoon.  Complete with sound effects.  Holy shit I thought to myself, where the hell am I?  

I was placed in a holding cell until they came to get me for fingerprint processing.  The holding cells were small rooms with 3-4 other people with a single pay phone inside.  I used this phone to call Shuaib to come bail me out.

As I was being processed I heard a commotion as they brought in a newly arrested person.  A young black male, with his hands handcuffed in the back, was pushed into the area.  He said nothing but he kept his head up defiantly.  Every time he was told to move or do something, he did.  However he’d glared at each officer with defiance.  Not once uttering a sound.  Until Roid Cop...  

‘Roid Cop was fingerprinting me at the time as the young brother was being walked by.  The young brother looked at me, then to ‘Roid Cop and glared at him.  ‘Roid Cop stopped pressing my hand on the fingerprint paper and shouted

“You got a problem boy!!?”
Silence from the young brother, but he never averted his gaze
“‘Cause if you got a fucking problem, I fix your fucking ass!”

By this time ‘Roid Cop had left my side and strode fast to the young man.  The cop escorting him stopped to allow ‘Roid cop to get right up to this young cat and he now was almost nose to nose with him.  The young man, sensing this was one cop he might not want to mess with, slowly looked away, in disgust.  

‘Roid Cop yelled in his face, “I thought so!” 
He then looked at the cop who was escorting him said “Put him in 3!”.
As they began to put the young man in the cell, he then shouted

“Turn off the phones in 3!”

.....Wait!..... What?....

Did they just put that young man, who had said nothing, he had followed every order given, into a cell where the pay phones were being turned off? 

This not something I heard or read about. I witnessed this with my own eyes.  Who would believe him if he told someone what happened? Or me for that matter, if we came out and said police officers violated his civil rights and prevented him from making his phone call.  Who would believe us?  We would be dismissed by many.  Cops would never do that.  The police serve and protect our rights.  Apparently, not for all of us.

I kept my mouth shut the rest of the time I was there.  I did as I was told and made no eye contact.

The only oddly humorous, and ironic, thing that happened that night was, as I sat in the cell for 3 hours waiting for Shuaib to bail me out, an elderly white cop came by.  He said my friend had come to bail me out but I was being processed at the time, so he told him to come back in 20 mins.  But he thinks my friend went to the car and FELL ASLEEP!  The incredulous look on my face almost made the him laugh.

“I’ll get someone to wake him up”, he said.

So with all that I saw and experienced, it was a good cop, that helped me get out that night.  By waking up my sleepy headed friend....

But I never forgot that young man.  What happened to him?  How long was he held without getting to make a phone call? What was even arrested for?  Did he get lost in the system?  

Yes, there is a section of the police that treat people of color differently than white people.  This is a simple fact.

My wife tells a story about her first accident as a high school teenager.  In a snowstorm in Michigan, her car slid into an intersection and she didn’t realize she had hit another car. She simply drove off.  Although oblivious, she essentially left the scene of an accident.  Someone took down her license plate and the police tracked down parent’s house.  When she got home, the cop was sitting in the kitchen, eating cookies, drinking tea and talking with my amazingly charming mother-in-law..  He eventually let her off with a stern warning and didn’t even give her a ticket, the minimum the law requires.

Now would she have been treated differently if wasn’t a beautiful blonde, blue eyed teenage daughter of a pastor and school teacher?  Sadly I am pretty sure she would have been.  She would have been arrested and taken to the station.  And for sure, the officer would not have sat down for tea and cookies, no matter how amazing charming my mother-in-law actually was, if she had been a person of color.

I told these stories to illustrate to anyone that is either skeptical, or feels issues with police misconduct is only limited to lower income areas.  The issues the black community have with the police are real.  It doesn’t matter if you are an IT professional from NJ or a guy just trying to sell CDs in front of a convenience store.  Your life is in their hands.  

What's a black life worth?  

How many have to be killed either by suspicious circumstances while in custody or outright police brutality, till something is done?

Sandra Bland        
Freddie Gray
Eric Garner
Michael Brown
Walter Scott
Alton Sterling
Philando Castile

The names go on and on....  And I fear everyday, that a friend, family member, or even my own, name, could one day, be added to the list.

The evidence is clear, there is something deeply wrong.  And something has to change

 - Chet Bashari Anekwe -