“Tron, these police will mess us up… When the police want what they want, they will do anything. They will lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us!”
By now, many have seen Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, a four episode mini-series on Netflix chronicling the wrongful conviction of five teenage young men in 1989, who became known as the Central Park 5. These young men were harassed, beaten, and coerced by New York police to admit to raping a white young woman who was jogging through the park around the same time they were horsing around with about 25-30 other young teenagers one night in 1989.
If you have not seen the Netflix mini-series, there will not be many spoilers here. Well, that’s not my intention, anyway. I will only reference the series as it pertains to the horror I witnessed while reliving traumatic experiences from my own past with police officers when I was just a teen, either the same age as the young men being portrayed in When They See Us, or slightly older. When I heard the quote above while watching When They See Us, it shook me to my core! This is the first of my own four part series of stories from my teenage years when I experienced brutality, racial profiling, and injustice at the hands of police officers who offered my friends and I more punches than protection!
For those new to this blog, I am a college-educated licensed United Methodist pastor, but I was raised in the hood. A large complex of apartment homes in South Oak Cliff, an area in Dallas, Texas. I will not gentrify my upbringing and the place I grew up with politically correct terms like “urban, impoverished, and troubled.” Mainly because while many of us in the hood were poor, and we did a bunch of stuff we probably shouldn’t have, and most of the time the apartments were raggedy as hell, it was home. My hood is my family… in the words of heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder, “Til this day!” I still talk, visit, kick it, and pray for many of the people I grew up with. This probably comes as a big surprise to many who only know me as a pastor and family man who loves sneakers. Below is a picture of me at 15 years old with some of my friends, who were also between 14 and 17 years old. This picture was taken in front of City Hall during a trip sponsored by an outreach ministry from a Dallas megachurch who planted a few ministers to serve the youth in our complex.
By this time in my life, I’d seen plenty of raids, kick doors, and other police action in the hood. They would swoop in, we’d catch out (run), and pray no one got caught or hemmed up (roughed up). Most of the time we weren’t really doing anything that warranted any police attention on our part. Not during early teen years. Maybe a fight or two here and there, or shooting dice on the stoop, but many of us were pretty clean early on… for the most part.
For a number of years, we had some police officers who patrolled the area every evening. I don’t remember if they were sent there by the department or just doing security for extra bread, but either way, they were legit and made sure we knew our place and their authority. One officer in particular was a tyrant and a bully who we knew as Cunningham. Cunningham was a mean, ruthless cop. Him and his other big goons would stomp around the hood, charging us up for the small things: “Get out of that breezeway!” “Break that shit up, ain’t no hanging out today!” Or a phrase I will never forget, “Where the fucking dope at?” Goddamn Cunningham!
One night, a bunch of us were shooting dice on a stoop in a ducked off section of our complex. This area was good for a dice game because it was not visible from the street and had a sizable hole in the fence bordering the complex behind it that led to a street of houses on the back road. There were about 6 of us, betting .25 cent a shot. Shoot a quarter, bet a quarter. Harmless little game of craps in a back breezeway. No more than maybe $30 between all of us. A whole lot of coins. I was 16. I remember I was hitting ’em hard at the time (maybe I wasn’t but I did have a lucky hand back then), with a pot of about $4 dollars worth of change. I can’t help but laugh thinking about how it looks in my head: six teenagers, a bunch of coins, shooting like we are at Vegas trying to break the casino!
What happened next isn’t funny. Out of nowhere, Cunningham and his goons swoop in from every direction, including the hole in the fence that is the escape route!
“Oh, shit! Goddamn Cunningham!”
Everyone scatters, and everyone gets away… except me! Mainly because I was chubby, as you can see from the picture above, but also, I wasn’t going to leave my $4 dollars in change on the ground! I scoop up the coins, throw them in my shoe (of all places) and sit up on the stairs where I was kneeling, and try to act cool. I had on some red basketball shorts with no pockets, a pair of Carolina Blue Air Jordan 15s, and a grey hoodie.
Cunningham grabs me by the hoodie, ripping the hood halfway off of the sweater, and throws me off of the stoop. I hit the dirty ground hard. He picks me up by my armpit,
“Where is the fucking dope? I know you young punks back here with the dope.”, he says.
“Man, I ain’t got no dope,” I whimper.
The bigger, blacker goon cop, comes over and busts me in the thigh with the huge, black flashlight.
“Quit bullshitting, where are the drugs? Y’all ain’t back here for nothing!”, he scolds.
“We were not using drugs, we were just shooting dice,” I yell, grabbing my thigh. “I promise, you can check me.”
Cunningham drags me back to the stairs, pushes me down on them, and says, “Well, which one of them that ran had it.”
“I’m telling y’all, nobody had any drugs. We were just shooting dice for quarters.”
Bang! “Stop lying!” he yells at me as he hits me on the right elbow with the flashlight.
“Get yo’ ass up, come on.” he says as he yanks me up and leads me to the front office where they camp out during the night. They never put cuffs on me, just leading me by my hoodie.
“How the hell you get some Jordans anyway? You sell drugs?,” one of them asks as we walk.
“My mama bought them,” I lie. I had a job as a cashier and bought them myself, but I wasn’t going to tell them that. It was easier to lie and say my mama bought them than to say I had a job. They would most likely assume I was talking about hustling. That came later. More on that in part 2.
I limped to the office, leg and elbow throbbing. Even after mentioning my mama, they didn’t even ask where she was or attempt to call her. I was terrified at this point. Was I going to jail? Were they going to be beat me up? I had heard stories of them beating up people who didn’t do what they wanted. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Once inside, they made me sit in a chair and began to ask me again who had the drugs among those who ran.
“I told you, nobody had drugs.” I pull off my shoe that is full of change and killing my foot, and pour the coins on the floor.
“See, nothing but change from shooting dice,” I said. “Can I call my mama?”
“I will call her,” Cunningham quipped. “And tell her yo’ ass about to go to jail!”
I start to cry.
“Ma’am, this is Officer Cunningham. We have your son…,” he pauses. “What’s your name boy?”
“Marcus,” he continues, “in the office. We caught him with some other boys who ran off when we came doing something. He claims just shooting dice but we think its more to it than that. You need to come up here now!”
As we waited for my mother they told me that I could go to jail for lying to the police, that kids like me were not going to be shit but criminals and dope heads, and that if I didn’t tell them who was with me, they would take me to jail. I just whimpered until my mama got there.
As soon as she came in she… Never mind. Many readers know my mama. Let’s just say she wasn’t too pleased about the situation. I knew she would react the way she did, but I was really hoping she wouldn’t. In retrospect, she played right into what seemed to be their plan. They used her aggression against us both.
Cunningham began, “Ma’am we have been trying to get him to tell us the name of the other guys with him and he would be free to go, but he is just sitting there crying, swearing that all they were doing is shooting dice.”
“Yea, all he has to do is tell us what they had and who had it, and y’all can go home,” the big black cop chimed in.
In When They See Us, it was the father whose fear provoked a son to admit to something they didn’t do. For me, it was my mama. My dad (if he is reading this) just found out. Fortunately for me, we were not at a police station, I was so scared all I could do was cry, and after about 15 minutes of my mother trying to convince me to snitch on my friends so that we could go, and with me just crying, I guess it was enough to convince them that we were not doing anything worth messing up the rest of the night by taking me to jail in hopes for a bigger crime to solve.
They told my mother to keep a better eye one me, told me to quit shooting dice, and told us to go home. When I told my mother they kicked my ass, she popped me in the mouth for cussing. I wouldn’t dare compare my night in the front office to what happened with the Central Park Five, because at the end of the day, I went home: with no record, no jail time, released to an angry mama, but sent home nonetheless. And while it didn’t fully stop me from putting myself in uncompromising situations, as I will write about in the next three blogs, I will never forget that night. Those cops were black, and maybe in some weird way that saved me. However, it cemented an anxiety I have yet to shake around any police officer, regardless of race, to this very day.
They say you never forget your first. I haven’t yet. And unfortunately my dealings with crooked cops didn’t end with Cunningham. I don’t know where he is today, and if he is still a cop. I don’t care. I didn’t turn out like he said I would; I became better, even though it took a while for me to get over it, and before I was 18 years old, only two years later, I would have a few more unforgettable run ins with police that are forever seared into my memory.
Stay tuned for Part 2…