Why Black People Must Be Informed And Empowered About Their Rights With The Police
This post originally appeared on Blavity.com.
To this day, I have not been able to watch the whole video of George Floyd’s execution by police on a Minneapolis street. Nor can I bring myself to view the countless other recordings of Black and brown people who have been unlawfully killed by those sworn to protect and serve the public. I start having flashbacks about my own traumatic police encounter that happened when I was 16 — a still vivid memory 11 years later. I’m reminded of how easily I could have ended up as another name chanted in the streets during Black Lives Matter protests.
It was a winter night in 2009. I was driving my 2000 Volvo sedan home after my high school basketball game. About 4 blocks from my family’s home in Inglewood, California, I heard police sirens behind me. I got pulled over right after I turned onto my street. I had no idea why I was being stopped, but I did the proper procedure my father had taught me. I rolled down my window and positioned my hands at 12 and 2 on the steering wheel, careful not to make any sudden movements.
Two officers approached my car, with their hands on their guns. They told me to turn off the engine and throw the keys out the window. They said they had pulled me over because my front headlights were off. It was a manual control and I realized I had forgotten to turn them on.
I was terrified because I’d never had cuffs on me. I felt ashamed and dehumanized, not understanding why I was being met with such aggression for a traffic violation that should have just led to a ticket.
One of them took me out of the car. He said I wasn’t under arrest but that he needed to handcuff me for his safety. Then he claimed there was a report of a stolen car in the area and that they needed to search my vehicle to make sure it wasn’t the one. All they had to do was check my license and registration against my ID and they would have seen that the car was mine.
Instead, they asked me a barrage of questions including, what gang I was from. The sad irony is, I had on the polo shirt my father insisted that I wear whenever I was driving. He had thought that a collared shirt would help keep me safe because I would not look like a “criminal” or someone who was involved in a gang.
I was terrified because I’d never had cuffs on me. I felt ashamed and dehumanized, not understanding why I was being met with such aggression for a traffic violation that should have just led to a ticket. I also knew that even though there was nothing illegal in my car, they could plant something, and things could only go south from there.
One officer sat me down on the curb, with my hands still cuffed behind my back, while the other searched my entire car. I didn’t know as I do today that it was my constitutional right not to consent to a search of my car. The only thing I knew was that I was scared. So, I cooperated. As I write this, I think of all the Black and brown people who, like Breonna Taylor, were killed by the police without ever having the chance to even decide whether to assert their rights.
They put me in the back of a police car, still in handcuffs, while they proceeded to rifle through the trunk. My phone started ringing in my pocket and I knew it was my mom wondering where I was. I should have been home by then.
After more than an hour, they finally pulled me out of the police car and told me I could go. I was shaking as I drove the rest of the way home. It dawned on me how blessed I was to come out of that situation without dying or going to jail. I wondered, should I tell my mother? I decided not to. I didn’t want her worrying about her only son with the worries she already had about me navigating through society as a Black male. In fact, I told no one at all and it would be many years before I finally opened up to my parents about the incident.
My rage over the injustice of what had happened to me, for no other reason than my skin color and the neighborhood I lived in, would become the fuel that motivated me to go to law school and aspire to become a civil rights attorney. Today, I am a police practices/criminal justice associate at the ACLU of Northern California, where I work on police reform through legislation, organizing and public education.
My own early and frightening encounter with law enforcement has shaped how I approach this work. Before my arrival, the ACLU had created a Know Your Rights guide to teach people their constitutional rights during encounters with law enforcement. But I quickly realized it did not adequately address the unique experience of Black and brown people who get stopped by law enforcement more often than whites and have a far greater likelihood of being harmed, if not killed outright.
My rage over the injustice of what had happened to me, for no other reason than my skin color and the neighborhood I lived in, would become the fuel that motivated me to go to law school and aspire to become a civil rights attorney.
When racial profiling is rampant, it is not enough to just tell people what their legal rights are, when exercising those rights can lead to acute injury or death.
With that in mind, the ACLU of Northern California recently created a special Know Your Rights Guide for Black and brown people that lays out in detail a person’s legal rights if they’re stopped while on foot, in a vehicle or are being detained at a police station. Most important, the guide stresses the need to read a situation realistically. If a police officer is behaving in an aggressive or threatening manner — which is far more likely to happen if you are Black or brown — it might not be safe to assert your rights in the heat of the moment. You might need to wait and file a complaint when you’re no longer in a potentially harmful situation.
It is my hope that these Know Your Rights materials will help to reduce the fear that Black and brown people understandably feel when they are stopped by the police. At 16, I didn’t know my rights, but I was fortunate to have my father’s training. I want all Black and Brown people to be educated, informed and empowered about their rights, and, have the knowledge and training needed to exercise them safely.
Marshal Arnwine is a Police Practices & Criminal Justice Associate at the ACLU of Northern California.