My Aunt Margo pulled out a pack of the worst tasting cinnamon rolls and poured a glass of milk inside her second story kitchen on Detroit’s west side.
Then she called me to meet her. During big moments in my life Aunt Margo called me up to her kitchen to lecture me. Sometimes it was about girls, sometimes about money. She even gave me a lecture before beginning a summer job as a heavy cleaner at The Detroit Free Press.
I was confused why I was getting a lecture this day. I was 13, had no job, no girl friend that she knew of and nothing important was coming up.
This was the lecture every kid in my neighborhood got.
How to survive a police stop 101. Even in the 1970’s we feared that a police stop might be our last one in life. Margo wanted to make sure I knew what to do so that I would return home safely.
The issue of police shooting an unarmed black male came up again this week as Kenosha, Wis. police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back leaving him paralyzed. Our country was all but shut down following the George Floyd murder at the hands of Minneapolis police.
During my youth police shot unarmed black males more often than they do today. My aunt did not want the same thing to happen to me. So she told me to sit down, shut up and listen as if my life depended on it.
I began munching on the nasty tasting cinnamon rolls and drank my milk.
“The police don’t really want to shoot and kill you. But they will. Your life is not as valuable as a white kids. If you get stopped I want you to treat it as a job interview. Your job is to get out of that situation as quickly and as safely as possible. That officer wants to go home to his wife and kids as badly as you want to return to our house.
“And do you know why y’all get shot? Fear. The police and black men are natural enemies. They fear black men. Black men fear the police. For whatever reason y’all start acting a fool around each other. I want you to do me a favor. Remain calm. Do not yell. This is a job interview. Even when they are wrong, they are right. Yeah, they might call you a nigger, but you got to let that roll off your back. Do you want to swallow your pride or be put in a wooden box?”
I got the lecture because gun violence ran in the family. My father was shot and killed by a white police officer. An uncle was gunned down and seriously wounded. Aunt Margo wanted the streak to end with me and my children. She even lectured me about not hanging out with the wrong crowd and how to wiggle out of the clutches of a neighborhood thug who’d bust a cap in my ass as easily as a cop.
These are Aunt Margo’s rules of engagement with the police. Warning. Some of these might be outdated. I got my lectures 45-50 years ago.
- Treat it like a job interview.
- Cooperate even if the police ask you to do something demeaning. If he says lay face down in mud, do it. If he asks you to juggle four baseballs, do it.
- Do not yell. Talk as calm as possible. Yelling gets everybody excited. Violence is more likely to happen when everybody is on edge. The police don’t stop you with the intent of harming you. But they are more likely to do so when they are nervous.
- Humanize yourself. Many in society view black people as sub human. Tell them what church you attend, what school you go to. Tell them about our family, what your future dreams are. It is more difficult to shoot somebody you know than a total stranger.
- Do not reach for something in your car without permission. And if you do tell the officer what you are trying to obtain and assure him there is no weapon in the car.
- Do not point at the police. They can always say they thought you had a weapon even if you didn’t.
- Do not run or walk away from the police. It is a move that agitates.
- Do not show fear.
- If you are outside a vehicle do not attempt to go back inside.
- Find a way to lighten the mood. No one will shoot you if they are having a good day.
My moment of truth came at age 18 as I walked to work on West Fort Street toward the Detroit Free Press River Front printing plant where I worked summers as a heavy cleaner.
I noticed a police cruiser slow down and two police officers eyeing me as I approached the main post office. A few hours earlier a black male robbed a downtown bank and escaped. I was waking down the street with a canvas money bag my grandmother used to pack my lunch in.
The short burst from the sirens startled me, but I quickly got it together as I approached the police cruiser. The officer on the passenger side got out of the car and asked me to step inside.
They told me about the bank robbery and I they noticed my bank bags.
“What’s inside the bag,” one officer asked.
“I have two honey loaf sandwiches, chips and a chocolate chip cookie,” I said. “You can have one of my sandwiches if you let me go.”
The men laughed.
We spoke for a few minutes longer. I told them I was going to work as a heavy cleaner, but one day I was going to work at the Free Press in the sports department as a writer.
They laughed again.
“No,” I said. “I’m serious. You will be reading me in the paper some day.”
They wished me luck and told me to have a nice day as they released me to finish my walk to work. They even showed me a photo of the suspect. One guy asked my name again so he’d know what by line to look for in the paper.
“You do know this is racial profiling,” I told them. “I look way better than this guy. Besides, he’s really fat.”
I knew I was safe when they laughed again.
“Hey what about that sandwich,” one of the officers said.
“I was just kidding,” I said. “I get hungry at my job. I’m keeping the sandwiches.”
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