Close calls: Race in America

Race in America is a topic that has never gone away. As a black person living in America, it’s been tough to stand back and watch. I firmly believe that every single one of us has something that we can offer, and all of us have much more to offer our world in terms of progress.

I want to share a story that happened to me involving the police. This isn’t necessarily a judgment of the police, but a story that I can share to hopefully help people understand the perspective of a black man in America.

I truly believe that even my closest friends who know this story do not realize the full weight of the event on my mind. I didn’t even tell my mother about it after it happened because I didn’t want to scare her.

It was summer of 2013, and I was still living in northwestern PA. My job at the time, as a DHHR caseworker, required me to work late at night.

One night, as I was driving around, I received a work call along the way. It was starting to get dark, so I stopped my vehicle in a residential neighborhood to answer it. I took down the information and began to finish the call, when all of a sudden, I saw red and blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror.

It did not even occur to me that it involved me, since I was parked. I dismissed it as an accident or some other event behind me. I was getting ready to drive away when I heard a mechanical voice instructing the driver of the vehicle (me) to get out of the car.

Confusion set in. This must be a big misunderstanding, I thought to myself. The voice repeated itself. GET OUT NOW! It told me to roll down my window, which I did. As instructed, I reached out the window and opened the door slowly from the outside with my left hand while keeping the other outside the window.

Next, I was told to exit my vehicle and walk backwards with my hands in the air. I started to tremble with fear. What had I done wrong? Had I hit someone earlier when I was driving? Is there something wrong at home? Did something happen at work? 

It was at this point I knew something was amiss. I kept thinking, I’m one of the good guys. I’m a social worker, and a parent.  I help save lives and I pay my taxes. This should not be happening to me.

Soon, people came out of their homes to watch the “show” that was me, in all my glory, walking backwards, lights flashing and the white light of the car behind me. As I finally made my way to the voice, it gave me one final set of instructions: to place my hands behind my head and interlace my fingers.

In my mind, I saw his gun pointed at the back of my head if I motioned in any way. As I felt the cold steel handcuffs being placed on my right wrist, it felt undeniably real now. This was not a joke. There I was, hands cuffed, a black man in rural America, without a clue what was going to happen to me.

If you think this story ends badly, thank goodness, you are wrong. I did not end up a statistic or a news headline. Luckily, the supervising officer arrived on scene and was able to point out that I was not the suspect they were searching for.

A woman came running up from behind screaming how the police had stopped the wrong guy. As it happened, when I had pulled over to take the work call, a lady saw my vehicle and thought I was her ex-boyfriend who had been threatening her. He had remarked that he would come back to hurt her that evening. Coincidentally, he happened to be African American, like me.

Later on, I learned that he was a felon and had escaped from jail in prior years. I had stumbled into the one situation I never thought would happen. I was from Bridgeport, West Virginia, one of the safest communities on the planet!

It was all a case of mistaken identity. Relief washed over me after I was finally let go. I was asked by the supervising officer if I wanted to make a complaint, and I said, “No.” I was happy to just be alive. The officer told me he was sorry. It had been a felony traffic stop.

After being released, I did what anyone would do. I kept working that night. And I went to work the next day.

In the following weeks, I had safety training, and I told the trainer what happened to me. She stood in disbelief. My supervisors did not know how to react to it, either. No one there had ever been stopped like that before.

One evening later on, while working, I had an anxiety attack. The realization that I could have been accidentally harmed was nerve-racking.

I believe in law enforcement. They are often the biggest helpers on my job. I also believe in accidents and misunderstandings.

Everyone had walked away in good shape that night, a thought that made me extremely happy. What would my wife and kids do if something ever happened to me? My mother is an excellent woman; what would she do if I had been hurt? Would this officer have shot me if I had not complied? I will never know.

I could not possibly compare what happened to me to the countless other people of color who have been shot and killed by the police. All I can say is that I have been stopped and I now know what that moment feels like. It was embarrassing, it was paralyzing and it was terrifying. All the words I wanted to say were stifled. All I wanted was to get out of the situation alive.

I feel fortunate to be here to share this story. I tell it because it’s important for people to know that not everyone who gets stopped by the police has done something wrong. And not everyone makes it out alive to share their story.

It would be nice if more people were given the chance I was given to share their story, and I hope that the growing awareness of incidents like this will help both sides to understand the other.