I was walking down the street to work. My attire consisted of black running shoes and socks, khaki slacks, and a long-sleeved sky blue shirt that was, in whole, my uniform. I noticed a police car go down the street opposite to the direction I was walking. Before I got much further the officer had come back around and turned into an entryway of a gated community. This halted my walking progress by directly barring my path.
This was my first experience with police. A schoolmate had an officer father that also oversaw the D.A.R.E. program at our school, and I could only remember perhaps once when any of my parents dealt with police. I do not explicitly remember being spoken to on how to navigate police encounters, so I followed my instincts. Or, more rather, I did the opposite of what they said to do. I took a deep breath, stood up straight, but visibly relaxed. I kept my hands open and out a bit further than I would naturally. I purposefully faced the police care staight on, ensuring the a majority of my body could be seen all at once.
While I have no formal training in any martial art, I spent my life around people who had to various levels. I also grew up in a place that held a repuation for violence. In my daily life I prepared and presented myself as much as I could so that I could navigate these spheres. I now had to actively make myself non-threatening, which caused my instincts to scream ‘Idiot!’
The officer exited the vehicle. I marked that his hand was on his weapon. He maintained a solid distance from me as well. I marked this as his maintaining optimum distance for using his firearm which did not calm me down a bit. Wise move on his part, no doubt. Our exchange went something akin to the following.
‘Good afternoon. Can I ask where you’re going?’
‘Work’ I replied. I developed a habit of always answering questions as exactly as possible. I prided myself on using no more or fewer words than absolutely necessary. I was suddenly worried this would backfire.
Fortunately, I overthink at a rapid pace, and the officer followed up swiftly enough. ‘Where do you work?’
I found myself a tad dumbfounded at the question. As I said, I was wearing my work shirt. It had the logo large over my heart. I looked down to the logo and back to the officer as though answer was obvious, but stated the name of my employer anyhow.
‘And where is your job located?’
My inner monologue, being classically unhelpful, piped up. ‘Seriously? Take where I said I am working, the direction that I am walking, and assume that that is where I am heading!” Aloud I merely answered the question, stating that it was in the strip mall no more than a third of a mile away.
It was difficult for me to read the response of the officer. To me, the questions he asked had obvious answers, or at least not large leaps once a few details were given and observed. Additionally, he maintained his distance and remained primed. My surprise and curiosity at the whole situation mixed with something else, and a question jumped out of me. “Why did you stop me? Is there something wrong?”
At this the officer faltered, a crack in his professional projection. I did not know what to make of it as he answered. “We got a call of someone matching your description in the area.” He paused.
I looked to him waiting for something more exact, or perhaps some determination he had reached. The few seconds seemed very long to me. “O-kay…?” I asked, trying to get more information rolling.
He added, “I just wanted to make sure you were not who we were looking for. Do you have any idendtification on you?”
I stated I did, and that my wallet was in my back pocket. Even though I turned my body so he could see the outline before I pulled it out I noticed his grip tighten on his gun.
I know it seems I fixated, but this was the first time I held an exchange opposite someone who openly brandished a firearm while being uncertain about me.
In any case, I withdrew my wallet and the identification therein. The officer took it with his left hand and walked backwards to his cruiser watching me and keeping his hand on his weapon. I stood there on the busy street while he ran my information.
As he did so I wondered about his expressed reasoning. My clothing was more “ordinary” than what I normally wore. Additionally this was an area in which khakis and polo shirts were standard style. I tried to logic out all the information I could, but found myself lacking.
The first hang up was my apparent age. I look young now, and looked younger still back then. I was fresh out of high school and clean shaven. Except for my height I could have been in middle or high school. It happened to be that I was between a middle and a high school building. Granted, kids can cause trouble, but enough to get the law involved seemed odd. Though nicer neighborhoods call the police and actually have them show up. I was not used to that.
The second was the time and place. I had not been in the area but for maybe two months at this point. It was my first month of working. I had seen many people jogging and running for fun. Everyone from high school track and cross country to elderly men would go on tears around the neighborhood in naught but jogging shorts, running shoes, an MP3 player on an armband with headphones, and sometimes a tacky headband. I had seen students walking home without a care. I had also witnessed child carriers connected to adult bicycles. All this is to say that this area had substantial pedestrian traffic.
The third was that the officer had passed me once. I was walking with only the clothes on my back. Granted, one may not gain much in passing. But I was not skulking. I was not pausing and taking pictures of the houses or loitering. I was on the sidewalk walking. And I didn’t get buzzed, having them drive around and watch me. He felt the need to stop me, and uncertain enough for his hand to not leave his weapon.
I was left very confused. Could I have matched a description? Certainly. But to be a pedestrian in this area, walking down a primary throughfare in the middle of the day, in regular clothing, obeying all pedestrian laws I just could not see why I was stopped. And while I was eembarrassed standing on the sidewalk while people drove and walked past, I remained patient.
Eventually the officer returned and handed my ID back to me. He told me to get an ID with my new address and returned to his car. And that was the end of the exchange. This left me with a leisurely stroll to work, albeit about half an hour late now. As I was to be the night relief, the manager was at the register in my stead. Being “the new guy” having to explain that the police saw fit to stop me did not fit good and was met with raised eyebrows from all my coworkers in earshot. When my manager asked why I was stopped, I gave him the only reason I was given. I ‘matched a description’. He scoffed, and whatever reprimand I had been due was negated.
This was a jarring experience for me. As I said above, all my life I had followed the rules. While my regular attire put me in suspicion, which I understood, my work clothes were very mundane. This was my first experience with law enforcement in my adult life, and to this day I do not understand why I was stopped. In context with later events I have suspicions, but no clear reason why.
Remaining calm did me a world of good that day.
Due to the “not really black” commentary from my youth I was ill prepared for this. In my communities I wasn’t black. But I was in a new place, and knew no one. First impressions were mostly visual, and at this point I had to come to terms with The World. This meant being seen and treated as “Black” even if I thought nothing of it.
My experiences like this, because there are more than one, combine to house a point I try to convey. When people say “They wouldn’t have been stopped by the police if they had been obeying the law”, I know that to be false firsthand. I have been stopped for flimsy, canned reasons multiple times. It has become a joke that “I have a tendency of ‘matching descriptions'”, but it is rather serious. Every time I have been stopped walking, this is what I have been told with some modification. “There was a call of someone matching your description walking through the neighborhood.” Giving the officers the benefit of the doubt proved trying the second time, let alone the instances after that.
The place I lived when this story took place had some diversity. However, I could go the better part of a month without seeing another obvious minority. I lived and worked in the same one mile loop. I did my grocery shopping and casual outings in this place. And, from my job to the store to my daily walks to and from work, I was still the only obvious minority I would see most of the time. Granted, I can’t be everywhere to see everyone. But with this being the case, “matching a description” became a hard pill to swallow. If I didn’t look in a mirror, I could go whole days without seeing anyone that looked like me.
It may not be true in your life. I, however, can be stopped for no reason at all at any point in time. Abiding the law or not. And if I ask why? Well, I probably match a description.
There were changes I made after this day. The first is that I began carrying my wallet and keys in my front pockets. I also went from wearing loose attire to keeping to more form-fitting clothing. Both of these were because, if stopped or otherwise confronted again, I wanted someone to be able to look at me and tell I wasn’t hiding anything on my person.