Day #130: ‘Twas the night before Christmas, a racist police story
With all the excitement around here, I almost forgot to tell one of my favorite stories! Okay, not a favorite, but a good example of why racist cops are… well racist. Let’s set the scene, it was seriously the night before Christmas and it was the first time I dealt with a police officer, it wouldn’t be the last time, but it was certainly the most memorable. Especially when my name got thrown into the mix, let me explain…
I was a younger man at the time, just finishing high school, prior to my enlistment in the Marine Corps and even before I cut my family out of my life. It was a difficult time, I had moved out on my own and into a sort of halfway house run by the state. The program gave people in my situation the freedom of living alone before you’re actually old enough to be living alone (under 18 years old). I attended high school, had a low-paying (see: minimum wage) job, and I had bills. While the housing was subsidized by the state, I was still forced to live paycheck to paycheck.
Overall things were stable-ish, for my life anyway. I had plans to spend Christmas with my family. I was going to come over the night before to have Christmas eve and Christmas day with them. This meant I needed to buy and wrap gifts before I went over, simple enough if I had money, but I made it work even with the little I did have.
As I was wrapping my gifts my roommate showed up (again state subsidized so we had to have roommates and a counselor person that helped us manage our bills and what not, per the rules of being in the program). He explained that there were police driving around the complex looking for someone. I don’t recall what the person they were looking for did; nevertheless, the police were roaming the complex looking for the guy.
An hour or so later, my gifts were wrapped and I loaded them into my 1984 pontiac trans-am. I loved that car and I would probably still have it if life were more stable. In any case, this sets up our story which we can start off like all the great stories.
Twas the night before Christmas, with my gifts all wrapped and loaded into the back of my car I was going to see my family. As I was leaving, I passed by one of the patrol cars. They were still looking for the guy apparently. I thought things were fine, but on went the cars lights. I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot.
I pulled over to the side of the driveway and two police officers exited the patrol car and came to greet me. The typical license and insurance request followed and I handed over my ID and my insurance card. I had done nothing wrong, so I was good… right?
The officer looked at my ID and a minute later asked me to exit the vehicle. I was then told to put my hands behind my back, asked if I had any weapons, was handcuffed and placed in the back of the patrol car. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas…
A side note, I have a very Mexican last name. I’m not very dark, after all I’m “only” half mexican, however the last name is a dead giveaway. So how do I know my last name had anything to do with the way I was being treated? Well dear reader, the story continues.
While in the back of the police car, the officer who handcuffed me and placed me in the back of the car started running my license. He proceeded to ask my if my car was insured and my tags were up to date (both questions he already had the answers to), that wasn’t the issue. What he said next has stuck with me my entire life. After I explained that yes, my tags were current, my insurance was not fake, and my ID was real he said it.
“Well Mr. (insert stereotypical mexican last name here) the problem is, there are a lot of very bad people with your name.”
To say I was caught a little off guard would be an understatement. I had never dealt with racist police before, I had never dealt with police at all. This was new and I was not sure how to handle it. So I did the only thing I could do to prove my identity. I offered up my social security number to show I had no criminal record. He wasn’t amused. He continued to question me and my intentions as if I had done something wrong or had the desire to do something wrong. Did I own a firearm? Was I in a gang? Did I have a criminal record? Was the car stolen? Were the tags stolen?
After about an hour of sitting in the back of his car, handcuffed, on Christmas eve, he finally let me go. It was one of my more surreal experiences. The police — I was taught — were there to protect you. They were there to keep bad things from happening to you. They were your friends, people you could trust. I was told this in school, by the news, hell even by television shows. What happened to me wasn’t something I was prepared for or was taught how to handle.
In the end, I’m not sure even now how I could’ve handled it differently. I was a kid, literally. I was just trying to survive in a world that didn’t seem to want me in it. This incident didn’t help the feeling of isolation that I had. I think it’s stuck with me so long because it was my first realization that racism wasn’t something you read about in a book like it was history. It was something current, something you lived through, and something I would have to deal with as I clumsily stumbled through my life.
In a lot of ways it was a fourth wall break from the reality I had been living in, one that I didn’t appreciate, but something I was going to have to learn eventually. So that’s the story, one I don’t share often, but since I’ve been in a sharing mood I figured it wouldn’t hurt to tell. I’m sure I’m not the only one. In fact I know I’m not, I’m just one of the lucky ones. I’m someone who lived to tell the tale.
Before someone, “not all cops” me. Sure, you want me to say it? Not all cops, but definitely that guy.