Guest: I grew up black in St. Louis. Here’s why I left
As a black teenager in St. Louis, I experienced constant police harassment, writes guest columnist Ace Robinson.
Special to The Times
For the past two weeks, I have not been able to get much sleep since learning of the shooting death of Michael Brown in broad daylight in a suburb of St. Louis called Ferguson. The murder of this unarmed black teen hit too close to home.
Being born and raised in St. Louis and surrounding suburbs, I felt no choice but to flee, for reasons that are now self-evident. I ran away from my hometown because I was sick of police abuse, constant harassment, and what felt like nonstop surveillance.
Fifteen years after I left, in 2012, my cousin died at the hands of the St. Louis Police. After being attacked in a hotel by a group of men because he was with a white woman, he ran toward Bridgeton Police responding to the disturbance. Bridgeton is the suburb bordering Ferguson.
The police officers assumed he was the perpetrator and forcibly restrained him in a manner that constricted his breathing. He died alone while in custody and was in full rigor mortis before they even checked on his well-being.
As a teenager in St. Louis, I, like many of my friends, experienced constant harassment from the police. The week after I got my driver’s license, I was pulled over after dropping a friend off at his apartment with another friend in the car for absolutely no reason. All three of us were black.
There’s a term for this: It’s called Driving While Black. The police verbally berated and demanded to know why we were in that apartment complex, where the tenants were predominately white. I went home and told my mother, a public school teacher, what occurred. The result: I listened to my mother cry herself to sleep after we filed an official complaint, knowing that nothing would come from it.
As a teenager, I never drove without a tape recorder in the car. When I experienced my weekly — often biweekly — police pullover, I would place it on the dashboard and hit record.
When the officer walked up to the car, I would say: “Good afternoon, Officer (Insert name),” announce the date and time, and ask why I was being stopped. This script might have saved my life more than once. After Rodney King, black men learned police may be held responsible when their actions are recorded. And even in Los Angeles, that was not guaranteed.
I used academics to get away by attending college on the East Coast, in the same way that my mother used education to flee the Jim Crow South 35 years prior to my birth.
My cousins in St. Louis, unfortunately, did not escape. At family reunions, we laugh — ’cause crying hurts too much — when my aunts tell the stories of borrowing their sons’ cars only to be pulled over immediately on their way to work because the police think that they are their sons.
My unrelenting anger will not be quenched even if the officer who shot Michael Brown, Darren Wilson, is actually brought to justice. Many black people in America doubt that will happen. See George Zimmerman: acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin.
My oldest nephew in St. Louis is almost 12 now. I saw a picture of him a couple of weeks ago and he is beginning to look like a teenager.
My first reaction was sadness. Why? He is about to experience unending police harassment. More closed doors to opportunity and more open doors to the criminal-justice system.
I have many nephews and godsons who are growing up black. For many of them, I am their big tough uncle who can protect them from anything whenever I am around. My job is, and always will be, to be their mentor as they grow into adult black American men. I promise them that I will support them with anything that they dare to dream.
But what I cannot promise them is safety from the police. I will not lie.
Ace Robinson is a board director for Avielle Foundation and director of health education for the Seattle nonprofit Lifelong. He has a master’s degree in public health.