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Police Brutality: An Unfortunate Rite of Passage

Blacktino.net, Commentary, Dan Tres Posted: Jun 01, 2008

Editor's Note: The verdict in the Sean Bell police brutality case exposed the memories many blacks and Latinos share of abuse at the hands of authorities. One commentator says speaking about his own childhood trauma helped him connect with his community, including the police.

While on Blacktino.net, I had the opportunity to find a good number of the responses, blogs, editorials, and opinion editorials on the Sean Bell verdict.

Like many readers and members of the BNN community, the verdict was not surprising, but still hurt me spiritually and mentally. Before I thought about writing a response to the verdict, I had the opportunity to build with people at barbershops, stores, performances, and almost any social situation, that allowed some form of discourse. The running theme in every one of these conversations was the experience all of us had with police brutality. I am not talking about the disrespectful police officer during a traffic stop. I am talking about complete and total examples of police brutality. Growing up in NYC and being stationed in various Naval Stations in the south, the trend was the same. Almost every Black and Latino male I know or have encountered has a story to tell.

My first experience with police brutality occurred when I was just nine years old. As a youngblood living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I used to frequent the Pitt Street Boys Club. Back in the early eighties, the building was surrounded by several abandoned buildings. Some of us would leave the Boys Club early and hang out in those abandoned buildings. We would play tag and have rock fights. Some of us would bring cans of Krylons, to place tags on the hidden walls. Of course, heroin addicts used to frequent those abandoned buildings. At times, they would chase us out. Other times they would be too high to even notice us.

One day as my man Anthony and I were practicing on our letters with a red can of Krylon we found, we heard some commotion. We turned around to find ourselves facing two police officers. I remember them being so tall. We tried to run, but both officers quickly reached out to grab us. I struggled and felt two hard open handed slaps smash across my head. It took a second for me to feel the pain of the blows. Tears immediately ran down my face. My mother has never hit me that hard. The slaps hurt so bad, that I could not even cry out.

Shut the f**k up! I heard one of them say. My eyes were so watery; I could not tell who said what.

What the f**k are you doing? yelled Anthony. I saw a blur of motions, but I could tell that the other police officer picked up Anthony and slammed him into the ground. I could hear the air flush out of Anthony's lungs. He moaned loudly with pain. I could hear both of the police officers laughing.

Please, man, I pleaded, let us go. We ain't do nuthin.'

At that, I felt a hard punch to my face. Immediately, I felt the blood gush from my nose. I thought my nose was broken. I began to wail like a baby. The police officer threw me to the ground and continued to laugh. I heard someone shaking the Krylon can and began to spray. When all was said and done, Anthony walked away with the word nigger, on his bomber and I had a bloody nose. To this day, the memory is painful and only brings up feelings of rage and hate.

Yet as a child, my heart would race and my hands would sweat if I heard a siren, or saw a cop walk by. As I became older, I witnessed other friends become victims of police brutality. I, too, had a few more run-ins with police officers. When I left NYC and joined the Navy, I encountered other Blacks and Latinos with similar stories of police brutality. Yet, I would never mention that particular incident. It was just too painful. Ironically, it was in the Navy where I became politically active. I was still young and I channeled my fear into hate. Although I would still have an overwhelming sense of dread when confronting police officers, I masked that feeling with unadulterated hate.

When I had my oldest son, his mother pointed out how I would act when a police officer came around. She explained that, any fear or hatred I have towards anyone can be projected onto my children. I continued to support Anti-Police Brutality events and eventually joined the October 22nd Coalition against Police Brutality and the Criminalization of a Generation. As I became older, I began to encounter folks my age who were Law Enforcement Officers. When I taught Capoeira, many of my students were police officers. A good number of them looked like me or someone related to me. I took that opportunity to learn more about our situation.

While that incident as a nine year old still hurts, I have learned to channel that fear into action. As a matter of fact, I have a few friends who are police officers and I make sure that my children know them and get to understand what they do. Often times, we tend to divorce ourselves and our communities from those who work within them. While it is true that several communities have police officers who live outside of those communities, it is not always the case.

I have realized that as much as we may claim to dislike the police presence, we have become too dependent on them. When our homes are robbed, we immediately call 911. There are several police officers who care about what they do. Mind you, a good number of them chose to become officers because they could not find work anywhere else. This is particularly true when it comes to Black and Latino police officers. Black and Latino males will tell you, it is difficult to find work whether one has a college degree or not. I know several police officers who are outstanding citizens who put in work. I know several officers who speak out against police brutality and discrimination.

This does not however, excuse the behavior of those law enforcement officers in whatever branch they may serve, who only seek to hurt us. I have learned that the power is within the people. We must hold these public servants accountable for their actions. People can make up conspiracy theories about why police departments were created, but it is our taxpaying money that pays their salaries. It is our taxpaying money that pays for police squad cars, equipment, and uniform.

If we are to confront the system and fight against police brutality, we have to be honest with ourselves. Do we want to get rid of drugs and crimes in our neighborhood? Then we must be prepared to put in work. If we refuse to testify against drug dealers and murderers, then we are only making it worse on ourselves. If we refuse to clean up our streets by not littering or causing harm to our environment, who can we blame? At the same time, we demand that our public servants do their jobs. We have to work with what we have. Are we for our communities? Are they for our communities? That answer ultimately lies within us.

It was tough for me to finally tell people about my story. It was a step I needed to take in the process to win back our community. It was a way for me to prevent myself from becoming reactionary. I armed myself with an understanding of the law and how it was supposed to work. Trust me, it has worked. Today, I continue to arm my children with that knowledge. They need to fear no one, especially someone who works for them.

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