Admittedly, I’ve waited a while before expressing my thoughts on the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police, and, in particular, the killing of George Floyd.
Perhaps it was because all these deaths had left me too exhausted.
And what of my white colleagues and friends? Had they too become too exhausted to ask me how I was handling everything that is happening in this country? I don’t know. It hasn’t come up. Instead, there’s just been a lot of well-meaning tiptoeing around me, as if asking how I was feeling might violate some unspoken right to personal anguish. Finally, two weeks after George Floyd was killed, a lifelong white friend admitted he “was scared to ask,” so he hadn’t.
I asked him why and he said perhaps because he didn’t want to make me relive something traumatic ― that it was my private experience not to be shared unless I chose to. “Perhaps,” he said, “I tell myself that so I can avoid the subject.”
My sense is that my friend, like a lot of my colleagues, is afraid to find out that somebody close to him has also been victimized by the police because knowing that truth pops the bubble of his perception of our shared reality.
After all, most people might describe me, like the few other African American men I work with on staff, as affable, intelligent, even generous — the same adjectives that were used to describe George Floyd by those who knew him best. And I believe most people want to believe that people with such qualities enjoy pleasant, police-encounter-free lives.
“It’s OK to ask,” I told him. “If I don’t want to share my share of the regular indignities American Black men suffer, I’ll say so.” So he did.
That’s why I’m speaking up now.
“My sense is that my friend, like a lot of my colleagues, is afraid to find out that somebody close to him has also been victimized by the police because knowing that truth pops the bubble of his perception of our shared reality.”
There’s an old Swahili saying, “haba na haba, hujaza kibaba,” which literally translates to “little by little, the container gets filled.” It could mean water in a jug or it could refer to little indignities that gradually fill up a soul.
Little indignities like when my parents moved our family into an all-white, upper-middle-class, Northwest Washington D.C. neighborhood after my sixth birthday and five little white boys greeted me, my twin brother and my 8-year-old sister by calling us the N-word.
Or little indignities like that time in seventh grade at my Catholic school in that same neighborhood when Ricky Lee called me the N-word as we lined up to return to class after recess. The only reason I didn’t get sent to the principal’s office for punching him in the face was because many other students had heard him.
Or that time in 1981, when I presented cash to a bank teller and asked her to issue me a cashier’s check made out to Harvard University, and she returned it made out to historically Black Howard University ― twice.
Or later that same year, while crossing the street near my Harvard dorm, when a white woman in her car locked its door when I walked past.
The indignities continued and grew when I moved to Los Angeles in 1989. There were the two times cops pulled me over on one of the city’s freeways ― once in 1990 and again in 1991 ― for “speeding.” And by “speeding,” I mean I was barely keeping up with traffic in my 1981 Mazda station wagon hoopty. Unlike white drivers I’d witnessed getting stopped for speeding, who had the luxury of receiving their citations in the comfort of their cars, I was ordered out of my vehicle and forced to stand against the freeway’s concrete barrier, arms straight, palms facing up while my car was searched.
Then, in 1992, the police pulled me over for “failure to yield on a left turn.” Again I was made to get out of my car, made to stand on the curb. But this time, they threatened to handcuff me. I negotiated my way out of being cuffed, but not out of having my plates run, having my car searched or being publicly humiliated.
In February 1993, I was behind the wheel of a brick-red, four-door 1955 Chevy Bel Air ― a behemoth that looked like those yellow, old-timey New York City Checker cabs. I was alone and dressed in a suit as I was headed to my engagement party. As I motored past a gas station on Lincoln Boulevard, I noticed a cop car pull out and duck in two cars behind me. When I made a left on Ocean Park, he made the left too, and then he lit me up with his lights and sirens.
I pulled to the curb under a streetlight and placed my wallet, driver’s license and registration on the dashboard, as I’d done previous times I’d been pulled over by the police. Then I raised my hands and palmed the car’s ceiling. A second cop car pulled up. It aimed its spotlight on my rear-view mirror. The other spotlight was aimed at my side, so I was blind to my back and side. Nobody approached me for 20 minutes.
My arms, shoulders and back hurt from keeping my hands raised but I didn’t move. Finally, the spotlights turned off and I saw a cop standing at my driver’s side window. Six patrol cars and a SWAT team also surrounded me. I was instructed to exit the vehicle and step to the curb. When I got there, one cop reached for his handcuffs. I told him I would not allow him to cuff me ― that I would keep my hands where he could see them ― and I demanded to know why I’d been stopped. He holstered his cuffs and kept his mouth shut.
The entire street was blocked off. I counted 13 cops and six SWAT members. Ten more silent minutes passed before a sergeant approached me. I repeated my question. He told me a red sports car with two Black men inside was seen fleeing the scene of an attempted carjacking of a white man in a Porsche. When I pointed to my large, nearly 50-year-old sedan and then mentioned I was the only person in that “not a sports car,” he responded that somebody might be hiding in my trunk. By then, I was about done, so I reached for my car keys and took a step toward the back of my car. Every single cop drew and pointed his gun at me. “Freeze!” somebody yelled.
But they didn’t have to. There’s a distinctive sound made when that many hands slap holster leather and armored SWAT members yank their long guns level. It stopped me cold. I shot my hands skyward.
“There’s nobody in my trunk,” I said. I remember it sounded more like a plea than a statement. The sergeant grabbed my keys and approached the trunk. All weapon barrels moved off me and trained on it. The sergeant unlocked my trunk and threw it open. Empty.
Moments later, SWAT, police and the bystanders who’d gathered around the scene all quietly receded into the dusk. The sergeant handed me back my keys without a word, ducked into his squad car and drove away. No apology. Nothing. Again I was left alone to gather myself, drive to my fiancée’s house and explain why I had just missed the engagement party.
I cannot recall anything from the rest of that night or from the next few days. I shared this encounter for the first time recently with my twin, who has his own police experiences. He seems to think I may have post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These few stories I’ve just told you are only a handful of the countless little indignities that I have experienced as a Black man in the United States ― and I promise you they are not unique to me.”
Whether I do or don’t, I cannot say. What I can say is that these few stories I’ve just told you are only a handful of the countless little indignities that I have experienced as a Black man in the United States ― and I promise you they are not unique to me. Affable, intelligent, maybe even generous ― many of the Black men you already know likely have similar tales. Most of us are willing to share. It helps relieve the psychic pressure from those indignities ― that “haba na haba, hujaza kibaba” of our souls.
My white friend expressed outrage, disgust and despair after listening to my police encounters. I knew those feelings so I let him steep in them for a while. Several quiet minutes later, I admitted to him that despite the inconceivable on-camera killing of George Floyd ― and all of the Black lives that had been taken by the police before him ― this time I felt cautiously optimistic about true change occurring in this country.
“Why now?” he asked.
May 1963 shocked the conscience of this country. The naked brutality of water from firehoses slamming people into walls; German shepherds attacking children, decent women, stalwart men. The momentum of the civil rights movement really accelerated once the nightly news aired those images from Birmingham, Alabama. No longer could white people wonder how true the stories really were, no longer could they wonder if maybe “those Negroes might have been exaggerating just a bit.” Yes, the stories were. No, Black folk hadn’t.
In May 2020, it happened again. I believe it is the unrelenting way that Derek Chauvin stared into the unwavering lens of the camera phone as it recorded him killing George Floyd for the whole world to witness that just might catapult us into a new and permanent era of police reform, just as that grainy footage of people being mowed down with firehoses and attacked by police dogs 57 years ago pushed civil rights to the forefront of the American psyche. No longer does the world have to wonder if these stories of police brutality are really true ― or wonder if maybe Black folk might have been exaggerating just a bit.
No longer can any respectable white person sit idly by and live with the indelible image of the stark evilness of police brutality and not feel compelled to act. As horrific an act as that was on that Minneapolis street corner, I find strength in the peaceful protests that rose up in its wake because it’s no longer just us Black folk on the front lines. I see good white Americans who are, I believe, awakening, who are coming to the aid of their fellow countrymen.
Jeffrey James Madison works at American University in Washington, D.C., and is a host on WAMU 88.5. He is a former airline pilot and current published author. He is a well-regarded aviation safety Human Factors expert. He is also co-founder of Veteran Compost Residential Food Scrap Services (vcresidential.com). His latest projects include the scheduled launch of TheClimate.org and the podcast “Climate Woke?” (climate-woke.org) this summer.