On June 22nd the Portland City Council had a public meeting with local police officials regarding their handling of a Black Lives Matters protest. At a certain point Councilor Belinda Ray asked the police if they had received any complaints from the protestors. The police said they had not. She repeated the question a few times. The continued, infuriating response from the police was “No.”
For a moment let’s pretend that people actually know how to file a complaint against the police. And let’s forget that up until recently the only way to file a complaint against the police required requesting a form from the police at the police station. While we’re at it, let’s also pretend that it’s perfectly acceptable for the police to ignore the shockingly obvious fact that the protest itself was the loudest kind of complaint imaginable. Let’s ignore what we all see. Let’s ignore the videos showing police across the country brutalizing everyday citizens. And let’s ignore the other videos of police brutalizing everyday citizens who are protesting police brutality. Let’s ignore the origins of police as the hunters of people escaping enslavement, as union busters, and as other violent agents of the wealthy. Let’s pretend all of that doesn’t exist and ask the question:
Why wouldn’t someone complain to the police about mistreatment by the police?
Well, it’s about trust, isn’t it?
When I was a child, my father gave me The Talk. If you’re unfamiliar, The Talk is an explanatory warning often given to Black children by their parents about how to navigate the police. But for the sake of the story I’m about to tell, let’s do some more forgetting. Let’s forget I was ever given The Talk. Let’s also forget that Black people are much more likely than white people to be stopped by police, or incarcerated, or killed by police.
I’ve been stopped by police 39 times. I’ve been stopped driving. I’ve been stopped walking. A couple times in the 1990s I was even stopped while rollerblading. But, let’s forget about 37 of those and focus on two times I was stopped by police — both while I was standing completely still.
I live in Portland in a nice neighborhood. And by “nice” I mean gentrified. There are million-dollar condos all around me and, because of this, the neighborhood is not policed. I see a police car on my street once or twice a year at most, which affords me a certain amount of safety.
One summer evening a few years back, my white girlfriend and I were returning home from a nice dinner out. As we approached our apartment she took out her keys to unlock the front door. She walked up the steps first. I stood behind her waiting. We weren’t arguing or yelling. We weren’t even talking. She was standing there unlocking the door and I was standing completely still behind her. This is important because right then we were suddenly illuminated by a police-car searchlight.
“Hey! What are you doing? Miss, are you alright?! Miss! Are you alright?!” an officer shouted from behind the light.
Being completely alright, my girlfriend turned around startled and confused. I was also startled, but being the only Black person in five blocks, I was not confused. I was angry. It is infuriating to be reminded once again that the police so often see the color of my skin as a signifier of crime. In this case, potential robbery or perhaps attempted rape.
I do not have words to express the frustration and rage I feel knowing that even though I am not living in the 1800s and not running through the woods escaping a plantation, I am nonetheless, in this moment, held to account for my presence by white men with searchlights and badges and guns because they view my skin color as a threat to a white woman. Again.
I stayed silent. My girlfriend told them she was alright. They drove off. She cursed after them. We went inside. I felt lucky.
About a year later I was returning home from a run. It was mid-afternoon on a hot summer day. I got to the corner of my street and saw a white friend I hadn’t seen for a while. We were standing there talking when a car pulled up across the street. The driver called me over. As I got closer it became clear that he was a plainclothes cop who thought he was more undercover than he was. He tried to buy drugs from me.
Now, here’s a little fun trivia about me: I’ve never taken any drugs. I’ve never smoked a joint. I’ve never even had a drop of alcohol. I know, it’s weird and unlikely on its own. He couldn’t possibly have known how completely stupid it was to specifically ask me for drugs. He couldn’t have known that he’d actually have a better chance of purchasing drugs by dialing a random number on his phone. But he could have easily figured out that I’m not a drug dealer. He could’ve just looked at my running shoes and my running shorts and the sweat covering my entire body and the very popular running path directly behind me and, well, let’s just say it shouldn’t take a detective to figure it out.
I told the officer he’d have a better chance with any random white person and he went on his way. And I was left with another reminder that my skin signifies crime.
About a year later, I woke up one morning to find my vehicle had been broken into. There was damage. In order to file a claim, my insurance company needed a police report. Do you think I called the police? Before you answer, remember we’re forgetting the entirety of American policing history as well as 37 of the 39 times I’ve been personally stopped by police. We’re going entirely on my experience with whatever random officers just happened to see me on my own street.
You can probably guess that I did not. Instead I went door to door and told all my neighbors what happened. Many of them asked why I didn’t call the police. I didn’t respond by telling them about the history of American policing. Nor did I tell them about any of the 39 times I’ve been stopped — not even the times I was standing still. Instead I explained that calling the police will result in more patrols. These patrols will be looking for someone who appears to them to not belong in this neighborhood. And since I am a musician who comes home late at night and is often unloading things from the back of my vehicle and, you know, the only Black person in five blocks … None of my neighbors needed me to finish that sentence.
In the end, yes, it is about trust, and like my father and his father and his father before him, I trust that the police will see me as a threat. The reality is that I cannot forget the history of American policing any more than I can ignore the 39 times I have been a part of it. If these protests have shown us anything, it’s that none of us can afford to pretend otherwise any longer.
Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.