When They Saw Me: Stories of Police Injustice from My Adolescence Part 3: “You Punks in a Gang?”

When They See Us Yusef taken
Actor Ethan Herisse plays a young Yusef Salaam. In this scene he is being escorted to the precinct, innocently unaware of the fate he will encounter. 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” has to be the single most asked question to kids in school. It’s a loaded question that most people never fully live into, even as adults. As former FLOTUS Michelle Obama rightly asserts in her recent memoir Becoming, “Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child… As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”  I obviously didn’t become the lawyer my younger self dreamed of, and as a pastor who thought he would become a lead pastor of a medium-sized congregation at my current age yet now happily engaging in college ministry with PhD aspirations, I couldn’t agree with the FLOTUS more (who actually did become a lawyer).

By the end of my junior year in high school, shortly after my encounter with “Top Flight Mall Cop of the World” (Craig!), desiring to operate on that side of the law became less attractive to me. I hadn’t witnessed the law benefit anyone in my neighborhood. Before my senior year, most of my friends had been incarcerated, either received court-appointed lawyers or money-hungry lawyers, both of whom left my people with the short end of the justice stick. Also, our commitment to the hustle was too strong to think about being a lawyer. As Jay Z raps, we were not “businessmen, we were a business, man!”

I still had hopes of college but my aspirations had changed, considerably.

High School Pic
(Pictured top left in the white jersey) Picture from high school. Always throwing up the VOP! Still do in most casual pictures…

Hustling was the order of the day in my hood, and kids as young as 10 year-old would serve anyone trying to “eat!” I entered my senior year with a new car, a new wardrobe, and plenty of cash… Couldn’t tell me nothing. Couldn’t tell my homies nothing either. I came to school gassed up (high on marijuana) more, I skipped class more, and quite frankly, I did whatever I wanted to do those first few months of school. Well, almost anything I wanted. My run-ins with school police became more frequent, almost daily. My grades started to slip, and by “Fair Day” (a day in October where all Dallas ISD students are given a day off from school to attend the State Fair in South Dallas (now called the gentrified name of “South Dallas-Fair Park” to appeal to white citizens and tourists)), graduation was looking like a no-go, let alone college.

One day as I walked through the metal detectors, “elevated” from my pre-school activities, I was apprehended by campus police.

“Are you high again, Jones?” Coach Kelly barked.

Coach Kelly was one of the athletic coaches famous for shaking down students with campus police. He was actually pretty cool but his Charlie Murphy-like attitude was obnoxious at times.

“Come on, man! You’re going to make me late for class, man!” I complained.

“Oh, you’re not going to class today. How many times I tell you about coming here like that?” he declared. “Take him down to the room,” he directed one of the other officers. “Jones needs a three-day vacation!”

“Damn, man!” I exclaim. “Come, on Kelly, man. I can’t get suspended. Let me go to class?” I partly ask, partly demand.

“Should’ve thought about that before coming into my building smelling like an onion basket!” he retorts. “Sorry, Jones. And I’m telling Jean-Louis!”

Jean-Louis was the head basketball coach. I played basketball my junior year but after an argument with the coach at the end of the season that had me removed from the team, I was hoping I could get in Jean-Louis’ good graces so I could play my last year on varsity.

“Fuck, man!” I yell.

“Oh, with that language, you know it’s a wrap, Jones!” Kelly says.

Well, I did get suspended. And to make matters worse, because I had been apprehended numerous times, I was going to be sent to an alternative school that would delay any possible chance of graduation. Not that I really considered my future much during those days, I was bummed at the possibility of not graduating on time. I don’t think I had considered my actions either. Young, wild, and free… and about to be kicked out of school!

Thankfully, due to some decent SAT scores, favor with an amazing counselor (who I would later learn is a lifelong member of the large Dallas church were I served as youth pastor) and a great principal who wanted to see me succeed, I was sent to an educational center for “at risk” students in hopes to finish my senior year.

But this school, for what it was, didn’t provide the best learning environment. Although I was on top of my classwork, played on the school’s basketball team, and even continued to work my part-time job, it made hustling and other activities just as easy. It wasn’t long before I was back in the mix. It also wasn’t long (unlike the build up to this part of the story) before my next run in with the cops.

I wish I could remember these officers’ names as vivid as I remember Cunningham and his goons. Perhaps because I didn’t get a good look at any of their badges, and Cunningham was a regular in the hood. I can only recall their races: one black, one white, and one Hispanic. As you can see by now, as much as there is tension between black people and white cops in our current news, my encounters were of the “diverse racial nature,” indicative of the racial system of policing that criminalizes black and brown bodies.

A few of us who were on the basketball team decided to walk away from campus before practice to grab some snacks and cigars before practice. About a block from school, there was a little stoop where a house used to be but only the concrete porch remained, and we would often hang out there. Sometimes we would smoke on the stoop before school, but it was such a secluded area, hustling there was pointless. It wasn’t ten minutes passed before the squad car with two of the officers drove by on the street directly in front of the stoop. They drove past, then whipped back, and threw on the lights of the squad car pulling up in front of us.

“Hey, get y’all ass off that stoop!” the black cop yelled.

We didn’t respond. We just looked at him.

“Y’all can’t hear?” he questioned.

“Get your asses off that stoop, now. Or I will drag your asses off of it!” he threatened.

“Man, lets go.” one of my teammates petitioned.

“Fuck that bro!” another proclaimed. “We ain’t doin’ shit but chillin’. We not trespassing, not smoking, so we good. Fuck them!

“I don’t have time for the bullshit,” I say. “Let’s bounce.”

The Hispanic cop gets out of the car.

“Stay right there! Don’t move!” he yells.

We all freeze. They approach us and escort us to the center of the street near their car.

“What the hell y’all doing over here?” the black cop asks.

“Just hangin’ out, chilling, before basketball practice,” a teammate says. “We go to Metro.”

“Get against the car!” the Hispanic cop demands.

Just as we put our hands on the back of the squad car, the white cop approaches in another car. He gets out and talks to the black cop while the Hispanic cop searches us.

Fuck! I have a pack of Black & Mild cigars in my inside jacket pocket. Inside the box is a rolled up sweet for after practice. I’m 18 years old, which is old enough to buy cigars but I know if they find them, this will cause them to open the box and find the sweet. I remain cool. Thankfully, he doesn’t find them.

The white cop and the black cop search our backpacks.

“Ain’t nothing we need to know about in these bags, is there?” the white cop asks. “Guns, drugs, knives, anything?

“No, sir.” we all say at once.

I glance over to see the black cop removing my binder from my backpack with “Village Oaks Tru Kats” and “VOP” marked all over it. He motions to the Hispanic cop, and this is where shit got real. The Hispanic cop storms over to us,

“You punks in a gang?” he demands.

“Naw, none of us is in a gang.” another teammate says.

“Who’s shit is this?” he asks, holding up my binder.

“That’s mine.” I say.

He rushes me, then slams me onto the car on my chest.

“He’s definitely about to search me and find this sweet,” I think quickly.

“Are these some gang tags? Where are you from?” he demands.

“Man, that’s my neighborhood, man!” I screech. “Village Oaks Apartments. It’s not a gang, just what we call ourselves. Let me go, man!”

“I’m over the gang unit and I know gang tags when I see it!” he proclaims.

He grabs his cuffs and throws them on me. “Damn!”

My teammates just stare. Frozen.

“Wait here!” he instructs.

He gets into his squad car and looks up my information on the computer. The other cops move my teammates off the car and give them their backpacks. They all just stand there waiting for the results of the Hispanic cop’s computer search. After what seems like forever in the wrist-clinching handcuffs, the cop gets out of the car and darts back to me.

When he approaches, he whispers in my ear, “You better be glad I didn’t find anything on you! You’re lucky!”

I wanted to cry but I was too mad to do so. All of this aggression, and for what? To prove to my teammates and I he was tough on gangs? Slamming me against the car. Was that really necessary? I could see if he found the rolled sweet in my pocket but he didn’t. Not sure if he really wanted to. Maybe he was on some “I bet they’re gang members” shit the whole time. The more I thought about the interaction, the angrier I became.

He removed the cuffs, handed my binder to me, leaving my backpack on the curb, gets back into his car with the black cop, and drives off. No report. No arrest. No apology for just searching us without cause. Just dipped.

I walked over and snatched my backpack. I told my teammates I would catch them at practice. I needed to fire something up. I walked to the nearby transit station, popped a squat on a far away seat, and fired up the sweet I had tucked in the Black & Mild box inside my jacket pocket. I knew my teammates wanted in on it but I could tell they knew I was better off alone.

I replayed the cop slamming me against the car over and over in my head. I kept asking myself if I’d deserved it, after all, I did have a blunt on me. “Hell, naw” I concluded. After a few more drags, I put it out, and hopped on the incoming train to go to practice. When I arrived at the gym, my teammates asked me if I was straight. I was. The buzz and the train ride allowed me to realize I had reason to be thankful. I could’ve gotten arrested. Or worse. But once again, I got to go on my way. I made it to practice that afternoon, and back home that evening.

Metro Grad Certificate
Letter to my high school upon completion of my coursework at Metropolitan Educational Center in May of 2002.

I would eventually finish my coursework at Metro in time for graduation with my high school class. I often reflect on my time at Metro. I had fun. I was a star on the rag-tag basketball team, I met some cool people, many of whom were older than me, and the school’s college-like approach with short, adjustable schedules, relaxed counselors, and chill atmosphere, helped to prepare me for college, which was a summer away. But I will never forget that day on the stoop. It’s sealed in my psyche with all of the other encounters. Some pleasant, others not so much.

It proved to be a long summer between graduation and my departure to college, because my next encounter with the cops that summer didn’t fair so well for everyone involved…



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