Dark Skin: A Mobility Impediment

D’Real Graham

A field officer used the infamous spotlight lamp to signal me to stop walking in Normal Park a minute before midnight. I’d not traveled far that cold November night before I was standing in the middle of swirling red and blue lights, with my hands up.

“Turn around,” an officer barked over the megaphone. I turned around, standing several feet away on the sidewalk, before the officer proceeded with, “Do what I say, and we’ll explain everything.”

I stood with my hands up for sixty seconds in cold silence before another patrol car arrived on the scene.

Questions and thoughts ran through my head. What is the purpose of this encounter? Why am I being targeted? Do not incriminate yourself. Prove to them that you’re not a criminal. Will I survive whatever happens tonight?

Remembering that I’d dressed well for an event earlier that day brought temporary relief. With squinting eyes, my hands up, and the patrol car spotlight detailing my barely broken-in jacket and shoes, I’d thought that the officers would have had noticed.

“You don’t have any weapons on you, do you?” The second officer arrived with more questions. “Do you have ID on you?” he asked. Before being patted down, I was told to spread my feet apart. “Do you have a medical marijuana card, by chance?” and “Did you smoke tonight?” were questions lodged while red and blue lights swirled. I produced an ID, kept my hands up, and prepared for more questioning.

Without an explanation, just a causal, “Thanks,” the two officers departed. I returned my ID to my wallet.

I am an almost-thirty-year-old African American. The officers were white. Yes, all three of us survived that November night in Ypsilanti, and the footage of this particular police interaction hasn’t gone social media viral. Why would it when similar scenarios happen so commonly?

The abuse of stop and frisk is a violation of individual rights, but it also poisons police and community relations. As recognized by the Department of Justice, the “experience of disproportionately being subjected to stops and arrests in violation of the Fourth Amendment shapes black residents’ interactions with the [the police], to the detriment of community trust,” and “makes the job of delivering police services … more dangerous and less effective.” —American Civil Liberties Union

I took a breath and walked on home through Ypsilanti—the city where I have lived nearly my entire life and worked hard with other concerned folk to improve.

Late-July 2016, out of some frustration with first responder maladministration, I ran a creative write-in campaign for Washtenaw County Prosecutor. I received a lot of support, mostly because I am not a lawyer. (One does not need to practice law in order to serve as County Prosecutor in Washtenaw County.) For one hundred days, my name, D’Real, filtered through social media and was screenprinted on t-shirts and stickers. Voters across Washtenaw County believed then what I do: it’s time to examine the functionality of civic and municipal offices, as well as how dominator culture affects the public health of its citizenry, including the African-American community.

I’ve used my voice at Ypsilanti City Council meetings, and have helped manage after-school programs in the City of Ypsilanti since 2012. In June 2016, I was appointed to serve as a City of Ypsilanti BLM/Police-Community Task Force subcommittee member, charged with studying human relations across the country.

I don’t tell you this because I am proud of being a team player in Ypsilanti. I tell you this because the officer who questioned me that cold fall night—a few weeks after the election in which I was able to earn 3,500 votes for County Prosecutor—didn’t register any familiarity with me. “Is that how you pronounce your name?” she asked, immediately after having mispronounced it.

Ypsilanti is the home to 20,000 people in about four square miles with a law enforcement agency that has resisted the public outcry to “ensure accountability of the Ypsilanti Police Department.” Imagine what’s happening in communities that haven’t made such a pledge. Can you imagine what happens in larger, more complex cities to citizens less prominent in their communities than I am in mine?

I learned the following week that I had walked near the scene of a reported abandoned car, which the police presumed to be stolen, and that the auto thief have yet to be caught. There is no description of the suspect on file.

When the officers bid me goodnight with “thanks,” they didn’t tell me that I’d walked near a crime scene. Imagine if they would have warned me that an armed thief had entered the area, and that I should remain alert on my way home. They didn’t ask whether I’d seen anything unusual on the street that night. They didn’t explain why they’d stopped me in the first place. They didn’t record the brief detainment in their official logbook—the encounter isn’t part of public record.

The officers did promise that they’d explain if I complied. That would have been a great start.

After nearly ten months of Task Force meetings it was suggested that a subcommittee be formed to examine the role of Citizen/Community Oversight in Police Relations. The Community-Police Relations subcommittee held three meetings—July 11, July 20, and September 6, 2016—with the objective of making a recommendation to the Task Force for consideration in moving toward the implementation of change.

The BLM/Community-Police Taskforce motioned to present recommendations developed by the subcommittee on BLM/Community-Police Relations Commission. It is the subcommittee’s recommendation that City Council launch a Community-Police Commission charged to ensure procedural justice across Ypsilanti proper.

Until the Ypsilanti Police Departments takes responsibility for its day-to-day operations, the responsibility will continue to lie with the community—with women and men of color in particular—to quietly endure interactions like mine and their aftermaths, to comply without explanation in the face of police mistrust, and to wonder whether our names and faces have been marked suspicious on lists we are not permitted to see.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Op-ed Re: First Responder Misconduct | Keep Ypsi Black

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