When I was growing up, if anyone would ask me what I wanted to be or do for a living, until around the 10th grade or so, my response would’ve been to be an attorney, specifically a defense attorney. Many people were quite surprised to discover that at such a young age I had even narrowed my scope of practice. In retrospect, I think many of my life’s aspirations were shaped by the needs of my community. When I was about 10 or 11, I was accused of taking a football card by a friend’s brother. His brother accused me of taking it from his collection in his room. There was no way I could have taken it because I was not present on the day it was determined missing. After some investigation into the issue, it was determined that I could not have taken the card and was falsely accused. That was the day I decided I wanted to be a lawyer.
Fast forward a few years. I’m a teenager and people are being accused of things far more severe than taking football cards. In my hood people are being imprisoned on all types of trumped up charges, falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, or because they fit a vague description of a “5’8″ black male with a medium build.” Dirty cops dropping drugs in the vicinity of loitering teens and arresting them for it. Witnessing these kinds of injustices solidified my aspiration to become a lawyer. When it came time to decide what magnet program for high school, I chose a school that had an emphasis in law. I vowed to defend people like those from my neighborhood that were innocent of crimes they were accused of.
Before my run in and beat down by Officer Cunningham and his goons, I hadn’t been accused of any crimes by a police officer. For those who knew me then, I was probably one of the least likely to be caught or accused of anything. Not because I didn’t do anything wrong but because I had a reputation of being friendly (not Mr. Rogers friendly, but a term that means scared to fight and a pushover) and smart. I made good grades in school, and typically only participated in the normal teenage shenanigans as a follower, hardly ever as the lead. Due to how I was perceived, I was also hardly every suspected of much, even if I was guilty. Also, before the Cunningham situation, I hadn’t been profiled, racially or otherwise. After the incident, however, it happened a few more times before I graduated high school.
It was the end of junior year. Our school was preparing for our annual Junior Candlelight, an evening celebration for high school juniors that is a rite of passage for rising seniors. The attire for the event was formal black, which meant black slacks and black dress shirt with a tie. I didn’t own any dress clothes at the time. Dressing formally was not something I had to do when I was a teenager. We were not going to church much around that time, and when we did, a pair of nicely ironed pants and a polo were all that was required. I was making plenty of money during those years with my various hustles so I figured I would just go to the mall to buy something.
When my girlfriend and a teammate found out I was headed to the mall, they asked to join me. So, we hopped in my slab (car; a black big body 1985 Buick LeSabre) and made our way to the mall. It was about 5 p.m. When we got to the mall, each of us split up for a second to go look for items for me to wear. Within a few minutes, my girlfriend found a black dress shirt and I had found my slacks. I took my items to the men’s dressing room to try them on while my teammate and girlfriend waited outside the dressing room area. When I finished, I took the items to the register to pay. My teammate was gone. I asked my girlfriend where he’d gone, to which she informed me to look at clothes.
“Cool,” I said. “We can catch up with him after I buy these clothes.”
As we walked to the register, we noticed a cop watching us.
“What the hell is he looking at?” I inquired.
“You already know!” she replied.
We ignored him and proceeded to the register. As I was paying for the items, my teammate reappeared.
“Yo, I think this cop is watching us,” he said nervously. “I think we need to bounce.”
“Bet. Let me get my change and we gon’ be out.” I said.
The cashier bagged my items, gave me my receipt and change, and we turned to leave. As we made our way to the door, we figured the cop would stop watching us, but he didn’t. He started following us.
“Fuck, man!” my teammate exclaimed. “He’s gonna fuck with us, watch.”
“Naw, we’re good. Just keep moving, we didn’t do nothing. I bought my stuff,” I said.
We made it out the door and as we approached my car, the cop bolted out of the mall doors yelling,
“Hey, y’all three, get over here now!”
We all froze. We turned around but no one moved toward him.
“Did y’all here me? Get over here now!”
Reluctantly, we made our way back to the cop.
“What’s in that bag? Let me see it,” he demanded.
“Man, its just the stuff I just bought,” I snapped. “What do you want, man?
“I was watching y’all, and I think y’all may have taken some stuff you didn’t buy,” he declared.
He grabbed me and my teammate, and demanded my girlfriend come too.
“Shoplifting is what kids like y’all like to do, and we won’t be having that,” the cop said. “Not on my watch. Not on mine!”
He escorted us to a small corridor that led to a small room. In the room were monitors for security cameras, a small bench, and a desk. There was a man sitting at the desk in front of the monitors. He tossed my teammate and I down on the bench and handcuffed us together, one of each of our arms in one set of cuffs. He then patted us down, removing the cash and receipt from my purchase. He took my car keys and my school ID.
“Man, this is bullshit,” I yelled. “You see I have money and a receipt for the stuff I have. Why do you got us in here?”
“Yea,” my girlfriend added. “And if you thought we took something, why didn’t you stop us in the mall before we walked out?”
“Don’t worry about that,” he quipped. “Just sit here until I prove y’all stole something.”
“Man, let me go. You have nothing on me,” I said.
He walked away from us for a while. He talked to a person sitting in front of the monitors. He came back over to us. He grabbed my arm that was cuffed to my teammate, removed the key from his pocket and removed my wrist from the cuff.
He threw all of my items in my lap. “You and the girl can go but he has to stay. We’re not done with him,” he said coldly.
He looked at my teammate. He had a blank stare on his face. I don’t know and don’t ever think I will know what was going on in his head. He didn’t say anything. I started to protest but my girlfriend grabbed my hand.
“Let’s go, Marcus,” she said softly. I was confused. I didn’t want to leave my guy in a dimly lit room with this cop and the quiet man at the desk in front of the monitors, but I didn’t want to make it worse for myself either. Self-preservation is strange like that.
“Yo man,” my teammate started. “Call my mama, bro. Tell her to come get me now.”
“I got you,” I said quickly.
We walked out of the room slowly. When we made it back to the car, I grabbed my phone to call his mom. I felt helpless. I had so many questions. What did the cop say to the man at the desk? Did he actually steal something, and we didn’t know? What was going to happen to him?
I told his mama what happened, and she frantically assured me she was on her way to get him. She told me to take my girlfriend home, and that I would see him tomorrow.
I didn’t see him the next day. Or the day after, or the day after that. I didn’t see him at the Junior Candlelight Ceremony. He didn’t graduate with our senior class, and I wouldn’t know if he came back to school at all our senior year because shortly after the start of that year, I was sent to an alternative school to finish my senior year of coursework. I will talk more about that in part 3. I didn’t see him again until several years later when I came back home to visit from college, and it was in passing. We didn’t speak or shake hands. There was no joyous recollection of our high school basketball games or our senior prom. Just a head nod and we kept it moving.
In When They See Us, the young men had to sit in a holding room after being interrogated and coerced to admit to a crime they didn’t commit. They were isolated from their families. They felt alone. They were scared. I felt like that when we were in the little room with the monitors, a bench, and desk with a man who never said anything audibly. I can only imagine what my teammate endured. Fortunately for me, for whatever reason, I was released with no charges or official arrest… for the second time. Maybe because I had evidence of my purchase or I had money in my pocket. Maybe they didn’t want my girlfriend to witness anything and decided to let me go since I was driving. No matter the reason, my friend was not so fortunate.
There were over 30 teens running through the park the night of April 19, 1989. Only five were detained. Only the fate of five would be forever changed in such a terrible way. I don’t know how much that day at the mall changed my teammate’s life. Maybe one day I will find out. What I do know is that we were profiled that day because “shoplifting is what kids like us do.” Kids like us are always being profiled for crime, and kids like us never get treated like kids. We aren’t afforded the opportunity to have our parents called before we are apprehended, or a lawyer present before we are interrogated. We don’t get the luxury to just hang out without the suspicion of doing something wrong. We are assumed to be up to no good just for being in certain spaces, even if we had the freedom and right to be there. I was beginning to see that kids like my teammate, my girlfriend, and I, and other kids like us from my hood, would never be seen as just kids.