I have a confession to make. It may be hard to believe, but your humble writer ain’t no angel. I’m far from perfect. I have made mistakes and missteps and I have had mishaps when dealing with employees in the law enforcement system.
There have been times when I was dead wrong. I broke the law. No major laws, but still, I have indeed broken the law. Let me share some of the details:
After my father died in 1996, I was required to participate in the probate process to deal with matters related to his estate. I represented myself. The DC Superior Court probate judge, Jose Lopez, had a very nasty attitude towards me. Though I took it personally, I later learned that the man was generally a mood-swinging, rude person. He did not have a good reputation around the court. It was rumored that he had intimate relations with a young female member of his staff while he was married. This allegation caused fellow judges and attorneys to look down on him and question his integrity. Also, his snide remarks and cold-natured demeanor earned him a derisive nickname. Attorney friends who had represented clients in his courtroom told me, “We call Lopez, ‘Lope-Ass,’ because he’s an asshole.”
Lopez was appointed to the bench by George H. Bush in 1990. Judge applicants are evaluated based on: “Judicial Temperament (e.g., ability to treat everyone with respect; willingness to listen with patience and courtesy; collegiality).”
Apparently, Lopez had not been able to maintain that standard over the years.
On my first appearance in his courtroom, when the probate case was just getting started, I told him I was not clear about what he was asking me regarding the timeline for filing my answer to the claim. He responded, saying, “Let me try in some other type or form of English.” I took offense. To me it sounded like he was insinuating that I did not understand English. Why this judge insult me? I had spoken to him respectfully and said nothing out of line.
Later during the long probate process, I wanted to file a motion challenging the judge’s decision to allow my father’s belongings to be taken out of his house and thrown away. I strongly objected to this. I stated my objections in a motion. I was in a hurry to get to the court, because I had something important to do. When I appeared in the probate clerk’s office to file it he reviewed the motion. The clerk’s friendly demeanor turned sour as he read the critical remarks I was stating to the judge. “Are you sure you want to file this motion?”
“Yes,” I replied. Then I silently wondered, why he would ask such a silly question. Of course, I wanted to file the motion. That’s why I’m here!
The clerk shrugged his shoulders, counted the number of copies I had given him and stopped cold. He said I needed one more copy to ensure all of the parties received one. This was normally treated as a small technical issue that is commonly overlooked when family members come to court to deal with probate matters without a lawyer. However, the clerk refused to make copies as a courtesy to me, which I had seen him do for others on a previous visit to court. I had seen him take motions to the back of the clerk’s office and come back with all of the required copies. Apparently, the clerk was biased against me. But this situation was my fault. I thought I had brought the number of copies I needed, but obviously I made a mistake.
OK, no matter, I could make my own copies. “Where’s the copy machine?”
“We don’t have one that the public can use. There is one down the hall. The machine only takes coins.”
I did not have any change at all. That was my second mistake. Have you ever had a dream that you were stuck in quicksand? Yeah, well this was no dream. I was stuck and sinking fast. I had to think faster than I was sinking.
I was disappointed and frustrated for sure. Deeper than that though, I was mad as hell because I did not have enough time to run out the courthouse, get some change and get back to the courtroom. As I stated earlier, I had something else important to do that morning. I had a plane to catch. I was all set to fly to Trinidad and Tobago, where I was going to vacation on the beach and enjoy the company of the party-loving Caribbean people. My taxi was waiting outside the courthouse with my luggage in the trunk and the engine running. I had told the taxi man, “I’ll be right back. Stay right here. All I need to do is file this motion and that’s it.”
A wonderful plan, if all went well, which obviously did not.
So, there I was on the fourth floor of the courthouse, looking at this white guy sitting behind a glass wall, discriminating against me. I thought of my taxi waiting, ready to whisk me to Dulles Airport, some 25 miles outside the city. My impulse was to jump back in it and skedaddle.
But my court motion was too important to me to let the matter go. I could have easily justified forfeiting it. Well no one else wants daddy’s stuff, why should I? But that would have bought me a lifetime of guilt and regret. (My father’s belongings were part of his legacy to be cherished and preserved, especially the volumes of documents he had assembled during the course of his very interesting life—which included being involved in a Supreme Court case against Paine Webber, a large investment company. His story was that of a black man from the racist South, who marries his lovely high school sweetheart, my mother, raises three kids, joins the Army and then brings his family to the nation’s capital where he would become successful—his own man. He encouraged me to keep rising to the top. “You can write your own ticket in this life.” I probably had the closest relationship to him in the family and his property and mementos would always help me keep a part of him alive in me.)
No, I would not part with the estate property so easily.
My mind searched out a plan. I would cancel my flight, walk back to the taxi like a dog with his tail between his legs, and dejectedly pay the poor taxi driver sitting out in the sun and in possession of luggage belonging to a stranger. I am sure it crossed his mind that the luggage might contain a bomb.
I would remove my luggage, drag it to the nearest bank, then drag it to the courthouse, where I would wait for my turn to go through the metal detector, and then make copies of my motion and give them to the jerk clerk for filing.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around that plan. I needed to save my father’s property and go on vacation.
My mind searched out an alternative plan. Finally, I had an ah-ha moment. I would go to the judge’s courtroom and deliver the document directly to his personal clerk. I had seen many times how persons with matters before the court would quietly walk along the wall closest to the clerk and then reach the clerk, have brief whispered conversations, drop off documents and then go back out of the courtroom—all this even while a case was being heard. I smiled as this backup plan played out in my mind. Yes, I can walk into the courtroom, quietly approach the clerk, hand him my motion and be out of there just like that.
I reasoned that this approach would ensure that the judge would be aware of my interests in the property, despite the clerk’s rejection of my motion. Hopefully, the judge would not allow the property to be destroyed, if he knew a family member wanted it. Clutching my motion, I jogged to Lopez’s courtroom and peeped through the windows on the doors. Sure enough, a case was being heard. There was hardly anyone in there, though. I looked for the path I would take to get to the clerk. Oh no, there is no path! This particular courtroom the judge was using that day was smaller than normal. There was no path along the wall providing access to the clerk’s cubicle. I would have to walk through the well of the court to reach him, which is never supposed to happen when court is in session.
So, what can I do?
I entered the courtroom, quietly took a seat and prayed that there would be a break in the case so I could cross the well and reach the clerk.
So, I now am sitting, praying and waiting, with my head bowed. After a few minutes, the judge ceased the proceedings and ordered me to leave the courtroom because the case was closed to the public. He snapped at me. His combative vibe made it clear that what he really wanted to say was: You! You get the hell out of my courtroom. I was stunned: First of all, the proper process for a closed hearing is to lock the doors of the court so that no one can enter. So, I am thinking this judge is a joke because he did not follow the simple customary process for protecting the privacy of individuals appearing before him in cases where such protection was necessary. Secondly, I was in no mood to be pushed around. I did not have the energy to jump through any more hoops. I was fatigued, having stayed up all night packing my luggage, finishing my motion and dealing with parenting matters. I burned my last bit of patience dealing with that obstinate clerk. Basically, I was about 99 percent burned out. So, when the judge spoke to me, I did not react right away. I sat there, with my eyes cast downward. I’m thinking, is he actually speaking to me? I was hoping he was speaking to someone else in the courtroom. After all, he knew my name. By now I had appeared before him several times and I had written motions in the past that he reviewed.
He spoke to me again, this time angrily threatening me. “Do I have to call the marshals?”
“Yeah, you do,” I defiantly retorted, raising my head and making eye contact.
I was so sick of this type of treatment from employees in the law enforcement system. This time the obnoxious aggression was coming from an employee at the highest level of the system—an “honorable judge.”
After a few moments, I took a deep breath and rose from my seat. I would leave the courtroom as he ordered, but not directly through the door. Determined to drop off my motion, I walked towards the judge, entered the well of the court, slanted to the left and reached the clerk, finally. I gently handed the motion to the clerk and quickly pivoted and walked back towards the door. As I exited the well of the court, I looked towards Judge Lopez and explained my actions. I told him that the clerk in the main office had refused to accept my motion, so I had to bring it to his personal clerk. He said I should not have done that, and he was fuming. His eyes were bulging and he was shaking his head in disgust. He looked like he wanted to jump down into the well of the court and assault me.
I continued walking out of the courtroom. With my back towards the judge, I told him that he ought to lock the courtroom door, since it was a closed hearing. He rapidly responded “You ought to lock your mouth!”
I could not believe what happened next. A famous fighting word fired out of my mouth, like a missile.
As soon as I said it, I regretted it. Damn, why in the hell did I say that? The word shot out of my mouth like a bullet from a misfired gun. I have had similar moments while driving a car and some obnoxious driver cuts in front of me without signaling. Road rage. That is how I felt at that moment leaving the courtroom. Call it court rage. Sergeant Vanderfill’s debasing “asshole” taunts during my brutal encounter with him and his gang of cops often come to mind when I am angry. I believe this has made it more reflexive for me to say “asshole” when I get angry than would be the case if I had not had that traumatic experience.
I walked out of the courtroom, turned right and walked about 20 yards down the long hallway that led to the down escalator. As I stepped onto the moving stairs, two US Marshals stepped off the up escalator, which was on my immediate left, and jogged towards Lopez’s courtroom. I am sure the marshals were told that an unruly person needed to be snatched out of there and locked up. One of the marshals had glanced at me as he hurried by. He made eye contact with me, but kept hustling towards the court. I was calm and in no hurry, so he had no reason to suspect that I was the unruly person that had caused the disturbance.
After I reached the lobby and exited the glass front doors of the courthouse, I quickened my gait. I was careful to not walk too fast. I did not want to risk standing out amongst the small crowd of folk milling about the courtyard and going in and out of the courthouse. I saw my taxi waiting across the street. A couple dozen more strides and I could release the tension that was churning inside my stomach.
The driver’s side of the taxi was facing me. I opened the backdoor and remembered I had placed my carryon bags in the seat behind the driver. So, I had to circle around to the opposite side. As I opened the other door, I glanced towards the courthouse. I saw two men wearing dark blue US Marshal suit jackets surveying the crowd. They seemed to be looking for someone.
The taxi driver took off towards the airport as soon as I got into the backseat and shut the door. My adrenalin was still activated by the drama I had experienced in the courthouse. I sat quietly as the taxi whisked me away from trouble. He turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue and headed towards the 9th Street Tunnel, which led to the 14th Street Bridge and into Virginia. The driver said he should be able to make it to the airport on time.
As I rode through the darkened, dimly-let 9th Street Tunnel, I began to relax. It felt like I was waking up from a terrible dream. The sunlight kissed my face as the car exited the tunnel.
I took a deep breath and muttered to myself, “I cannot believe I just called a judge an asshole.”
The driver looked at me in his rearview mirror and slowly said, “You called a judge … an asshole?”
“Oh, boy. Why did you do that?
“He pissed me off.”
“Well, he’ not going to like that. He will try to punish you for that. How did you make it out of there without them taking you away?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t have a marshal in the courtroom. Thank God for that.” Customarily, a marshal is stationed in a courtroom that is in session. Anyone who has ever watched the Judge Judy show knows that.
“Yes, my friend you are very blessed.”
For the rest of the ride to Dulles the taxi driver and I did not speak. Soothing soul music from radio station 102.3 FM played in the background. I kept shaking my head in disbelief. I wondered what was going to happen next. Would the judge tell the marshals to catch me at the airport? No, he does not even know where I am going. Good. Would I be able to re-enter the country without being arrested? Now, that I wasn’t sure of. Customs may have been alerted by then. There may be a warrant out for my arrest. I did not know what to believe. At any rate, I took my vacation in the Caribbean and had such a good time, I forgot all about the matter.
When it was time to go back home, I remembered what had happened and I became concerned again. Thankfully, there were no issues and I got cleared through customs. But when I got home, I found in my mailbox a white envelope with the return address: “District of Columbia Superior Court.” Inside the envelope was an official order for me to report to court immediately so the judge could send me to jail for contempt of court. His order stated that he had issued a 10-day sentence. If I failed to appear, he would issue a warrant for my arrest.
My mouth dried. I thought, What am I going to do now? I called a lawyer I had known for many years, Attorney Donald Temple. He contacted the judge and arranged a hearing to discuss the matter prior to putting me behind bars.
Before the hearing, I sent the judge a long letter apologizing profusely, letting him know that I had not planned to insult him, though I felt that he had insulted me. I told him that I was so perturbed and physically spent, I lacked the energy to restrain my emotions. At the hearing, I was contrite. I truly regretted my behavior. My attorney asked the judge to show mercy and leniency. He requested that in lieu of incarceration Judge Lopez should instead order me to do community service. I had no criminal record, despite previous arrests, and I could contribute to the community rather than sit in a cell, Attorney Temple pleaded.
The judge did not budge. He ordered me to jail.
My lawyer asked Judge Lopez to stay the sentence until we could file an appeal. The judge agreed. So, I would not have to go to jail unless I lost the appeal. We were certain that the judge had mishandled the process.
After the appeal, the matter was dropped. I did not have to serve one day in jail. I was very thankful that in this instance, in the final analysis, the justice system worked on my behalf. It was costly and embarrassing and stressful, but it was over now and I was able to move on with my life. I was sure that I would never make such a mistake again.
However, there was indeed another occasion when I got caught up on the wrong side of the law—but I did not lose my cool.
As I said, I am far from perfect. I have made errors in judgment and I’ve paid the price for them. But should I be held more accountable for my mistakes than white people who make the same exact mistake? I have seen and heard of white people getting away with crimes without getting even a slap on the wrist, while blacks receive the full weight of punishment for doing the same thing. I am sure you heard the same as well.
Why do whites so often get a pass when it comes to crime? This is not to say they never get arrested and sent to jail. But in a racist law enforcement system that favors white skin and is best negotiated with high-priced lawyers, whites are their incarceration numbers do not come close to being proportional to their population numbers. Are we to assume the numbers are not higher because whites are
White people know they are given a pass. I have spoken to many of them who have acknowledged that they are not as likely as blacks to be watched with suspicion or mistreated. White boys can look like hippies, carrying bulging sacks of weed in their pockets, while sporting scraggly beards, long unkempt hair and dirty old faded blue jeans, and walk right past a cop and not be stopped, interrogated or frisked. Now, you take a black guy looking like that, but with dreadlocks. He walks past a cop, and he’s stopped. He may have a single joint in his pocket.
No matter. Clink. Right to jail.
One day around dusk, I was strolling past a park located just two minutes from my home. There was a picnic table crowded with young gentrifiers new to the neighborhood and having a lively and loud party. Food and wine bottles were on the table. A police officer patrolling the neighborhood approached the group. I said to myself, Oh, oh, no one is allowed to drink liquor in the park. The cop is going rudely order them to pour the wine out and throw the bottles away. Hell, he might arrest them.
I had seen cops do so in the park several times when black men drank there. But what I saw next that day amazed and angered me. One of the white guys at the table offered the cop a drink. The cop smiled at him and said, “Thanks, but not on the job, but I may come back when I get off.”
The table of whites laughed as did the officer. And then he got serious, but lenient: “You’re not really supposed to drink that in the park.”
The white man apologized. “I’ll get rid of it officer, we didn’t know.”
The cop said, “No, you don’t have to throw it away, just put it down so no one can see it. If I see it, I have to do something about it, if I don’t then I won’t have to.”
“OK, officer thanks. Next time we’ll know not to bring the wine … unless you are here after work to join us!”
All of the white partiers laughed.
The officer laughed, too.
I got pissed.
What in the hell is going on here, I wondered. Then, I thought about it and smiled. Wow, things have changed around here. The police have relaxed the drinking laws since the gentrification invasion. You can drink in public around here now. Cool. Thanks, white folk!
I filed this revelation in the back of my mind for future reference.
A day did arise sometime later when I felt like having a glass of vodka and orange juice. It was about dusk. I poured a mild drink into a wine glass and took a sip. It tasted good and had a slight kick, just enough to help me unwind.
The glass was about three-quarters full. Carrying it in my left hand, I locked my apartment front door with my free hand. My unit was on the second floor, so walked down two flights of stairs and exited the building. Then I walked down another two sets of stairs, reached the sidewalk and turned left towards the park. I was in a great mood and was looking forward to enjoying the new freedom from strict law enforcement that white gentrifiers had brought to the neighborhood.
I was sure that if the police saw me, they would treat me just like they did those loudly partying white people who were drinking wine and having a great time.
I reached the end of my block and paused at the cross walk, which was diagonally across from the park, to my left. A dark unmarked car drove up and stopped at the cross walk. The driver motioned me to cross the street. Once I reached the other side, the driver asked me, “Sir, what’s in the glass?”
“We’re police officers. What’s in the glass?”
“Nothing,” I replied, thinking that all they wanted to do was make me empty the glass.
The driver put the car in park and she and her male partner, both black, exited the car and approached me.
The male took the empty glass out of my hand, smelled inside of it and dropped it on the grass. He asked me for my ID. Always cautious to not scare the police, I said, “It’s in my back pocket. I’ll get it out real slowly and show it to you.”
“You’re good, go ahead,” the male cop said, smiling at me. He stood very close to me, less than an arm’s length, but he was very relaxed. The female was standoffish and suspicious.
I showed them my ID. The female took it and returned to the car. The male told me that he needed to frisk me.
“What’s going on here? I’m headed to the park. You want to stop me and frisk me for carrying a little drink? … I thought you guys were tolerant with people drinking in the park. There were some white folk in the park drinking wine and an officer told them it was cool, just put it down on the ground.”
“That was that officer. I have nothing to do with what he did. We’ve had reports of people walking down the street drinking and getting drunk. That’s against the law. Spread your legs and put your hands in the air.”
How embarrassing. Here I am in my own neighborhood. A few neighbors walking on the other side of the street gawked with judgmental eyes.
As I was being frisked, I talked to the officer: “You know you guys are overdoing this. I poured the drink out. Isn’t that respecting your authority? … Why are you taking it to this level? Why not let me go like the other officer let the white folk go.”
“Like I said, that was on him.”
“I don’t appreciate this. Don’t you all have more important things to do … It’s 9/11 and everyone knows police are all over the city looking for possible terrorists.” It happened to be the eve of 9/11/2011.
“Step over to the car while we check your ID in the system.”
He and I stood behind the car while his partner ran the check over the radio. While standing there, he jammed his hand partially down the seat of my pants and gripped my belt. I felt humiliated—a grown man being treated like a wayward child. I turned my neck so I could see his eyes. He smiled and said. “I have to do this. Sometimes we stop people and then they run off.”
“Do I look like someone who would run away from a cop?”
“You’d be surprised. All kinds of people get in this situation. No matter who you are, you might run.”
“This is crazy,” I replied.
His partner was taking a long time to get back out of the car. While we waited, the male cop and I engaged in a lively discussion about how police treat black men. He laughed at my sarcasm and I laughed at his responses. I felt relaxed talking to him, because he kept his cool, was respectful and I felt he was being honest.
His partner came back out of the car and told him that I was free to go. The male officer acknowledged her. I said, thank you. I continued to jibe him about how black men are so harassed.
‘We’re just doing our job,” he said.
“Oh, come on man, you know you all treat black men differently than you treat the white boys. Come on admit it.”
“Just doing our jobs.”
“Man, I don’t know what to say. This is just a trip the way you all handled this.”
Apparently, the female officer took offense at what I said. She shouted: “OK, that’s enough let’s take him in.”
I said, “You must me kidding. He and I were just talking … Why are you taking me in?”
“You talk too much,” she said.
I looked at the male cop. “Are you all serious. Let me go, man. She already told you to let me go.”
“She’s the boss. She’s in charge. If she says you are going to jail, there is nothing I can do about it.”
I spent the night in jail for a little cocktail. Unbelievable. When the cops stopped me, I was respectful. I was sober and I poured the drink out immediately. None of that mattered. I got locked up for holding a conversation that a cop did not like. She had the power and she abused.
I was now locked inside a dark, dirty cage. A dog would be treated better than this.
The police report that the female officer, Sgt. XXXX, filed stated that my glass was filled to the rim. It further stated that I appeared intoxicated.
As I stated, the drink was about three-quarters full. And check this: How in the world could my glass be filled to the rim after walking down four flights of stairs?
Four flights of stairs!
This was another instance of excessive, selective and corrupt law enforcement. I should have known better than try to be as free as a white person.
I spent the night in the cell, dreaming with my eyes wide open. Dreaming that justice would pay a visit to Lt. XXXX in a swift and terrible way.
I was taken to court the following morning and pled no contest in what the system called a forfeiture, which meant that there was no admission of guilt and the case would be closed.
After a few years, I could petition the court to have the matter expunged from the court records.
Such are the hassles that trouble the minds of countless black men in America, courtesy of our nation’s “finest.”
Not in My Front Yard
In July 2002, D.C. police officers came to my front door and assaulted me in my own front yard—two days before Independence Day.
My big brother, Ivan, and I were joint owners of a house on Sargent Road where we lived off and on with our father at various times over the years. Our father was now deceased. I lived in the house alone for a while and then decided to rent it out.
Having a house on a street with the same name as my family name was just a coincidence, albeit an entertaining one, especially when that awed look would appear on friends’ faces just before they hesitantly asked whether our family was so prominent that we lived on a street named just for us. Their reactions proved time and again that often when people are caught off guard, they don’t pause to think. It only takes a moment of reasoning to surmise that if we lives on a street named for our family, our house would be the biggest damn house on the street.
The house was a medium-sized, three-bedroom, semi-detached, beige brick, single-family dwelling. So, no, Sargent Road was not named after anyone in my family or anyone my family knew. It was just a quirk of fate. It was a nice house, a good investment and it just happened to be on Sargent Road. (My father did admit to me that when he bought the house he thought it was pretty cool that his last name matched the street name. I agreed. It was cool. The street sign, “SARGENT ROAD,” was directly in front of our house. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.)
Sargent Road is a classic American street—tree-lined, with attractive houses and hard-working, financially steadfast, middle-class neighbors. Most people on Sargent Road are friendly, mind their own business and expect everyone to keep their yards up. Sometimes, a property owner decides to rent out his or her house or rent a room to someone trying to better their lives. For instance, a federally-subsidized, Section 8 family rented the house next door, and someone who rented a room in my house earned $8.50 an hour and had previously lost her home in a fire. She was desperately looking for a place to stay when she met me, after answering an advertisement.
I had been investing in and renting out residential properties in D.C. for about 15 years by the time we met. This new renter was named Janice. Though she was technically a roomer in the Sargent Road house, she had the run of the entire fully-furnished place. A black, middle-aged, single woman, she was nice and trustworthy, or so I thought.
After a short while of renting to her, it became obvious that she was a deadbeat. I would have given her a notice to vacate for lack of rent, but I did not have to, since my brother and I decided to sell the house, which meant she had to move out, anyway. I informed her of the impending sale and after a brief conversation about logistics, she agreed to leave. “No problem,” she said.
I had no vacancies in other properties at the time. I felt badly for her. But she said she would find another place to live.
Everything was going swimmingly on moving day, July 2, 2002. About 5 p.m., I left my job at a Virginia defense contractor, where I was editing a proposal for the design and manufacture of technology to combat terrorists’ weapons of mass destruction. About 6 p.m., I arrived at the Sargent Road house, along with Brenda, a female colleague, to help Janice carry out her last boxes of clothing, unaware that Janice had planned her own bit of destruction.
She had a pleasant demeanor as I moved boxes into a car belonging to a black male friend of hers that was parked in the driveway. As I moved out the final few boxes, Janice in an amazing reversal, flipped the script on me.
Instead of completing the peaceful move, she secretly called the cops while she sat in her friend’s car. She lied to them, claiming that I was committing a burglary.
The police quickly showed up and just as quickly learned that her 9-1-1 distress call was a hoax. Her real motive was to get me served with a court order to appear at a hearing based on allegations that I was using “self-help” to “evict” her instead of the standard legal process for changing locks and removing tenants from rental property. In Washington, D.C., local laws give renters a wide range of power to tie up landlords in red tape in order to protect themselves from underhanded landlords.
Janice’s manipulative plan did not work. There was nothing underhanded going. Within a few minutes, the police realized that I was the owner of the house, not a burglar. The cops informed Janice that by law they could not serve me with the court notice—unless I was in the courthouse and participating in a court proceeding. She would have to hire a private process server to handle her allegation. There was nothing left for the cops to do, except charge her with filing a false police report, which I asked them to do. They refused.
While two patrol officers, one black and one white, interviewed Janice and discovered the real story, a third officer, a white supervisor, handcuffed me and placed me in the back of his squad car, which was parked in front of the house. Their justification for shackling me? I complained when they demanded that I show them my ID. I did not appreciate their treating me with suspicion. Their intent was blatant and insulting. They wanted to see whether I had any outstanding warrants against me. This false imprisonment was unnecessary because they had already determined that Janice had lied to them and thus there was no reason to hold me in suspicion. Yes, put the black man in cuffs for any reason at all—or for no reason at all.
This knee-jerk Gestapo tactic has become an all-too-familiar characteristic of American law enforcement when it comes to people who look like me. If the cops don’t like what we say or how we say it, out come the cuffs. Sound familiar?
The supervisor got into the driver’s seat of his squad car and called the police dispatcher. After hearing the dispatcher confirm that there were no outstanding warrants against me, and unable to find any legal reason to keep me shackled, the supervisor told me I was free to go back into my house. He said it so sadly and begrudgingly, as if he was actually disappointed that he found no legitimate reason to take me in—just like the cop who tested my breath at that alcohol checkpoint in Maryland.
The supervisor got out of his seat, came to the rear right passenger door and opened the door so I could get out. Then he uncuffed me and informed his two underlings that I had been checked out and there was no reason to hold me any longer. But as I left the squad car and headed towards the narrow walkway leading to the front door of my home, instead of the situation de-escalating, it got worse.
D.C. Police Officer Mark B. Shedrick,
Badge No. 3539
A Bad Cop
One of the underlings on the scene was not ready to leave for some strange reason. His name was Mark B. Shedrick, a young black cop wearing a crisp blue uniform. A good cop would left immediately. This cop walked from the driveway where he was talking to Janice and stepped onto the narrow walkway, blocking the path to my front door. And then he just stood there in front of me.
Officer Shedrick seemed to have found some kind of personal connection with Janice, who had teared up as he talked to her in the driveway while I was shackled in the squad car. Shedrick had nodded repeatedly and smiled at her as she recited her sob story. Clearly, he sympathized with Janice as she claimed that she was going to have to move into a homeless shelter. Janice had also told him some terrible fictional things about me, I learned later. Seems she was on a liar’s roll that day.
I asked the diminutive, sprightly built and weirdly acting cop why he was still on my property, since there was nothing left for him to do.
I politely asked him a half dozen times to evacuate the premises.
“Sir, please get off my property … Officer, I would appreciate it if you would you please move out of my way … Officer, please step off my property …”
He continued to stand there, slightly smiling, looking to his left, then to his right, and finally casting his eyes towards the ground and fixing his gaze there.
The situation was getting stranger and stranger. I could have just walked inside my house, but as I said, he was blocking my path. To get around him, I would have had to step off the pavement, and walk on the grass. But that was not the main issue. This was a matter of principle, basic respect and the exercise of my rights. There is no law—there could never be a law—that required me to kowtow to what was an obvious act of intimidation and excessive force by the government. Not here in America.
To fully appreciate this point, consider the rules governing police conduct. According to federal guidelines, excessive force is not only what you may have seen in the ugly videos that have been broadcast around the world in recent years. According to the FBI:
Excessive force: The breadth and scope of the use of force is vast—from just the physical presence of the officer … to the use of deadly force. Violations of federal law occur when it can be shown that the force used was willfully “unreasonable” or “excessive.”
Through the force of his stubborn body blocking my path, Shedrick committed a federal violation. And I had every right to tell him to move.
In America, unless there is consent, an emergency, a crime being committed or an authorized legal process being conducted, no one—no one—has a right to walk onto your property and just stand there, especially after you order the person to leave.
The responsibility to protect property falls first to the property owner.
Americans have long maintained that a man’s home is his castle and that he has the right to defend it from unlawful intruders.
I repeated, “Sir, please get off my property.” Then, I asked Shedrick, “Why are you still standing on my property? This whole thing is over. Your supervisor told you it’s time for all of you to go. So, why are you still here?”
Finally, he looked at me and responded. I guess he was just waiting for me to pop that magic question—Why are you still here?—so he could tell me: “I can stand anywhere I please.”
I noticed a mischievous look in his eyes. He stood about five-feet, two-inches tall and he had a devilish grin on his face. He actually looked more like a teenager than a fully developed man. But it wasn’t just his size and his grin that gave him an impish air. It was mostly his shifty eyes, which suggested that he thought like an unsure juvenile instead of a grown man.
The two other officers remained standing a few yards behind me, holding their positions, watching their colleague violate my rights. I turned towards them and said, “Would you please tell this officer to move? Why are you all still standing around? You know you don’t have anything else to do on this call.”
They just looked at each other and said nothing. The Blue Wall of Silence, incarnate.
I peered into the eyes of the supervising officer. He shook his head and looked away. He too appeared to be growing impatient with this standoff. Perhaps he was wishing Shedrick would just walk away voluntarily, so he would not have to embarrass the fool by ordering him to do so. Through the supervisor’s failure to act responsibly, he aided and abetted Shedrick’s dirty behavior. So now, all three officers, two white, one black, in their decision to give a black citizen no respect whatsoever, were exhibiting the racist policing that so many in our nation are demanding be brought to an end.
The race of the cop does not matter; it is his racially-charged actions or inactions that define him as being racist. An officer does not have to call you “nigger” to treat you like one.
The Sargent Road stand-off continued.
And Mr. Sargent was becoming majorly irritated.
Get Off My Property!
I turned back towards Shedrick, who seemed to be fulfilling a childish need for validation, attention and power. This scene had become just a bit too stupid for me to handle.
I wanted this bully to understand that I was tired of his asinine game, so I escalated my request to a demand. Looking him dead in the eye, I raised my voice and demanded that he: “Get off my property!”
I know. I stated earlier that I would never again rebuke a cop after that intense incident at the Exxon gas station years ago. But, this was different. I wasn’t on a private lot owned by an oil company. I was not on public property. I was on my property! My basic human dignity was being treaded upon. I’m supposed to let someone block me from walking up my own walkway?
The laws of the United States justified my reaction.
In a landmark legal case known as Terry v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court held that random and sudden close encounters with the police that leave members of the public feeling put upon and insulted are more than “petty” indignities. The Court held that such experiences constitute “a serious intrusion upon the sanctity of the person, which may inflict great indignity and arouse strong resentment, and it is not to be undertaken lightly.” (392 U.S. 1, at 16–17)
My forceful verbal demand for Officer Shedrick to leave my property was a one-man, instantaneous protest against inappropriate and illegal police activity. In reacting to Shedrick’s obstinate behavior, which was clearly, in hindsight, intended to provoke me, my words came straight from my gut.
And, yes, I said it again, this time even louder: “Get the f—k off my property!”
Perhaps my reaction was part of post-traumatic stress syndrome from previous negative encounters. Perhaps I had simply had enough of bad cop crap in my life. Or maybe I was just way too tired and hot on that July day to take any more mess from this ridiculous cop, who should have been giving that sneaky Janice a hard time, not me.
I had pointed my right index finger towards Shedrick when I made my demand for him to move. After I spoke, I kept my finger pointed at him, perfectly still. There was about a two-inch space between my fingertip and his shirt. I must’ve looked like Uncle Sam telling the cop, I want YOU … to move out my way.
Then Shedrick did the wierdest thing. He intentionally leaned towards me. His crisp, blue, government-issued shirt touched my fingertip ever so slightly. But that tiny bit of contact was more than enough for him.
He now had his trumped up and twisted prima facie cause to charge me with assault, though technically it was he who “assaulted” me by forcing his shirt to make contact with my fingertip, as insane as that sounds.
Glad that he had made physical contact, his eyes lit up like he had hit the jackpot on a slot machine. “That’s it!” the officer shouted. “You’re going to jail.”
Attached to his waist was a black, slender baton that was made of steel and wrapped in leather. It was about 18 inches long and officially called an Armament Systems and Procedures (ASP) baton. It is commonly called a nightstick. He yanked it out and yelled: “Don’t you ever touch a police officer!” Then he proceeded to beat me.
He swung the nightstick wildly and viciously with all of his might, like a slave breaker wielding a whip. He hit me repeatedly, starting on my shoulders. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! As he swung at me, I raised my hands defensively and moved off the walkway and onto the grass. I backed away from him and shifted my body towards my front door. I thought, “Get in the house and shut the door!” He charged after me, swinging his stick. I kept my hands raised, my palms towards him.
The fierce blows caused severe pains. This was police brutality. But, it felt like war to me: man-to-man combat.
Shedrick kept swinging his weapon every which way like a sadistic orchestra conductor. He swung low towards my left side, then to my right, then back to my left, then to my right again as he kept trying to land a solid blow against my body, which he did multiple times: WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!
I was in shock—shock and ow—as Shedrick beat me.
I glanced towards the people witnessing this beatdown. Brenda, Janice and the other officers were all frozen. My front yard was now an eerie spectacle, a battlefield swirling in a mix of the real and the unimaginable.
No One Stopped to Witness
Sargent Road is a very busy street during rush hour. Cars were rolling by steadily, northward and southward. However, no one stopped or even slowed down to witness the police violence being played out less than 15 yards away from the street. It’s not every day that the public sees police brutality, for it is one of the most hidden government activities in America. Yet, clearly, the potential witnesses who drove by that day didn’t really want to see what they saw. I believe they were either too scared or too satisfied with their assumptions that the black man being attacked was guilty of doing something that warranted a beat down. Why else would the police be beating on him, if he did not deserve it?
Now, if the tables were turned and it was the black guy beating down the cop, someone, I am sure, would have done something. Someone would have at least slowed down.
The insane scene melted into the macabre. Cars casually rolled by. The law enforcement attack was in full swing, literally. Brenda started yelling at the police to stop brutalizing me. “Stop hitting him. He is not resisting! Oh my God! Stop!”
I continued trying to dodge Shedrick’s blows while keeping my hands up. Suddenly, his baton hit flat against my right palm and paused. My fingers closed on it reflexively. Apparently, the officer was tiring, slowing down. I had caught his baton without even really trying as I attempted to protect myself.
The oddity of the moment deepened as he jerked the weapon with two hard tugs, vainly trying to yank the weapon from my grasp. Then he used both of his hands and jerked his end of the baton several more times. I held firm to my end, still using just one hand. As I came out of shock, I looked at him in disbelief and disgust, amazed at how weak this little cop was—so weak he couldn’t free his weapon from my injured hand.
His eyes widened in fear. Clearly, he sensed my strength and he felt punked. I could see his courage fade as the child-like man realized his own frailty.
Though I felt that I had disabled the cop, in truth I hadn’t totally disabled him, for he began to reach for his other more powerful weapon—his loaded Glock semiautomatic handgun. And it wouldn’t take much strength for him to pull its trigger.
In a panic, Brenda yelled at me: “Ed, let go of the baton! He’s going to shoot you! LET GO!”
I did not need her to tell me that. Thank God I had the presence of mind to think practically despite the violent chaos and confusion of the moment.
As Shedrick reached for his gun, I could see exactly where this train wreck was headed—another fatal police shooting. A worn out police statement would ensue: A DC Police Officer shot and killed a man who was resisting arrest.
No, I couldn’t let that happen.
So, rejecting every natural instinct to protect myself from getting hit, I instead focused on the reality that getting shot would be worse. I opened my hand, releasing Shedrick’s baton.
After he regained control of it, he stopped reaching for his gun. Then he raised his baton high in the air and ordered me to turn around.
I turned around.
Then, panting, nearly out of breath, he said, “You’re … under … arrest.”
Then he hit me in the back of my head with that blasted steel stick.
Thankfully I did not suffer a major injury to my skull. The fatigued cop could not muster a full swing. Nevertheless, my head throbbed with pain.
What kind of man would tell another man to turn around, then watch the man comply with his order, and then whack a steel baton against the back of his head?
There are rules of war—wars that Americans fight abroad—that prevent the mistreatment of prisoners. We demand and profess that our fighting men and women hold fast to their honor and obey those rules. However, here at home, America’s law enforcers have shown that when it comes to black men, they believe there is no need for honor and there are no rules they are bound to obey. Anything goes—19 bullets to the body, a night stick shoved up the rectum, multiple Taser jolts, deadly choke holds, whippings on the sides of the highways and surreptitious trailing in unmarked cars followed by sneak attacks and in-the-back shootings. Anything goes when a racist cop—black or white—encounters a black man in America.
After Shedrick belted me in the back, I turned back around. We were now face-to-face again. He was breathing hard, sweating and shaking. Yet, he kept his stick raised to shoulder level, like a hoisting a baseball bat. The stick was shaking, too. He had started this madness and now I could see he wanted it to end, for he didn’t have much strength left. After all, it takes a lot of energy to beat a man.
Our eyes locked dead-on. I asked him plainly: “Why are you doing this? This is my property. Tell me why I cannot walk into my house?”
“You are under arrest,” he replied, still out of breath. “Turn back around.”
“Stop swinging that stick at me and I will turn around.”
And then as if snapping out of a trance, he paused and slowly dropped his hand to his side so that the stick was now pointed downward.
I then slowly turned back around and placed my hands behind my back.
Suddenly, the other two officers who were standing back watching the scene unfold came running towards me and tackled me. Their combined weight forced me to fall forward and then to the ground. I landed near the bushes beneath the front window of my house. On the other side of the window, in the kitchen, was the table where I used to eat meals with my father while he and I chatted about life and politics. There were times we talked about ugly incidents involving the police. He had had his run-ins with overly aggressive cops as well, once while in a park enjoying a picnic with a lady friend on a lovely spring day.
What would he have done, if he had been alive and in that house, at that table, near that window as he watched these cops beat down and manhandle his defenseless son, who had done no wrong and broken no law? Would he have grabbed his handsome .357 Magnum and started firing down on the enemy to protect me?
Now, as I lay prostrate, with two cops on my back, grabbing at my hands to cuff them, Shedrick resumed hitting me with his stick. I thought to myself: These guys are just too freakin’ much. There was nothing professional about them. They were clowns dressed as cops and they had snatched me into their violent circus.
Arrest is instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.
— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I was cuffed, put back into the supervisor’s squad car and taken to jail. It was around dusk when the squad car passed through the control gate leading to the parking lot of the Fifth District police station, located a stone’s throw from the loud traffic along New York Avenue. Inside the station, a large and jovial black female officer took my mug shots. As she was taking them, she asked me, “What did you do to little Shedrick? I heard someone say you got into a fight with him. Did you hurt my little Shedrick?”
I replied: “You must be kidding. He attacked me. I can’t believe you would even ask me that. Is this supposed to be a joke, officer?”
“I’m just asking. He’s so little, you know. I’m just concerned about him. I don’t want nobody beatin’ up on my little Shedrick.”
After that lousy bit of stationhouse levity, I was taken to a small, darkened cell.
I spent the entire night locked inside of it. I didn’t sleep. Not because I did not want to, for I was quite tired, but because my mind could not rest. I lay on the top slab of the steel bunk bed, my back against the grungy, bare surface, but inside my body feels like a log burning red hot in a fireplace. I was so angry, I sweated and my throat became scratchy, like sandpaper. I kept thinking: How can I make these fools pay for what they’ve done to me?
My anger gradually formed a knot in my stomach and my thoughts journeyed into a dark place, a place where I came upon a horrific awakening. For, within that dark place, it became clear to me exactly how a man learns to hate the police so much he could kill them.
I believe I felt the rage of a cop killer. Abused. Violated. Totally disrespected. Fantasies of justifiable retaliation consumed me.
I was taken to court the next morning. It was the day before Independence Day. I was formally charged with simple assault against a police officer and then released after I pled not guilty. I went to the hospital for X-rays and treatment. Bruises remained on my body for a very long time. I continue to experience pain in my hands after all these years.
Months after I was assaulted and arrested, I went to trial, represented by an attorney. Neither Shedrick nor his partners showed up for the trial. The prosecutor, lacking the support of the arresting officer to substantiate the charges filed against me, complained that she was therefore not prepared to go forward. The black male judge gently chastised the prosecutor for not being prepared and then dismissed the case.
The official record reflects that the charge was “dismissed for want of prosecution.” This means Shedrick’s fraudulent charges not only cost me personally, in more ways than one, but they also made for a fine waste of taxpayer money on unnecessary court time.
After All of That, Let’s … Play Golf?
The judge in the case, Robert R. Rigsby, happened to be a friend of a friend of mine named, Dwain Harrell. Quite by coincidence, Harrell, whom I have known since college, would later invite both of us, the judge and me, to play golf.
The three of us belonged to the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. We played nine holes. Not once during the entire game did I remind the judge, my newly-discovered frat brother, about my day in his courtroom. He apparently did not remember that I had appeared before him. I guess I was just another black man on the conveyor running through his courtroom.
Not wanting to complicate what was a very simple, friendly and relaxing round of golf, I did not tell him how the cops had violated my rights and thrown me in jail on false charges, and then did not even bother to show up to explain their actions.
No, I did not mention any of this while Judge Rigsby, Harrell and I played golf at an Andrews Air Force Base golf course. (Rigsby and Harrell were old military buddies, an Army colonel and an Air Force chief master sergeant, respectively, and both had access to the golfing facilities.) I did not want to bring up any troubling issues that might ruin the nice, relaxing game we were enjoying on that warm and sunny day. However, silently I wished I could somehow sway the judge to be tougher on cops like Shedrick. I wanted to ask the judge why he was not upset with the officer for failing to appear in his courtroom. A defendant is not given leeway when he does not show up for court in a criminal matter, though the system is supposed to treat all parties equally.
When a defendant “fails to appear,” he is, by law, punished with an immediate warrant for his arrest and automatic incarceration when the cops track him down. What about a cop who fails to appear in his own case? Shouldn’t he too be punished by law? These are questions that would have made for some interesting conversation with the gregarious and astute judge, whose mother was a judge as well.
But it just wasn’t the right time and place. And it hardly ever is when it comes to a black man talking about the travails of racist policing. This is a critical part of the problem of racialized law enforcement. Speaking openly and in detail about encounters with racially corrupt cops is never an easy thing for a black man to do. Talking about negative encounters with police can be painful, embarrassing and seemingly futile.
As I touched upon earlier, a black man can have a hell of a bad night as a result of police harassment, and then the next day go right on living his life. No one would know what happened to him as he imperceptibly manages his rage.
Such has been my story.
Each black man has a law enforcement story to tell. The more truth he shares and the more revealing his story is, the more power he will gain.
The solutions for reforming law enforcement are in the stories of black men.