The Dangers of Walking While Black
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “serve and protect” should apply to everyone.
By Ness White
What crime am I about to be accused of? I asked myself as I watched the squad car turn the corner and slow down as it approached me. Getting some fresh air at my neighborhood park on a cool, cloudy afternoon didn’t seem like it should attract law enforcement. Just to be sure, though, I made it a point not to look directly at the officers, but instead kept walking on the dirt path, steady-paced, eyes ahead and head up — but not too high, not too confident, which they might take as a challenge or perceived threat to their authority.
I in no way want to appear to present a challenge or threat to law enforcement. Like anyone following the news these days, I’ve heard the stories about Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and countless other young Blacks who have died during or following interactions with police officers. But unlike the average American who’s aware of these fatal encounters, I have to be vigilant about how my presence is perceived by police and pray that today is not the day they see me as a threat.
Most of the recent news stories have involved young Black men. I am not a young Black male, but I have often been told that I look like one. I am slender, look younger than my 28 years, prefer to wear looser clothing — when I’m not sporting a tie and button-up shirt — and wear my hair natural in a growing Afro. I may have “girlish” tendencies — like loving the color pink and being super affectionate once I feel comfortable around people — but my gait has a certain saunter to it, and I tend to furrow my brow when lost in thought.
If I had a toy gun like him, I thought, I might already be dead.
Maybe that’s why the police decided to stop their car as I walked by. In that instant, terrified, I half expected to hear car doors slam and the sound of feet pounding the sidewalk before reaching the dirt path behind me, accompanied by shouts of, “Hey, you! Stop and put your hands where I can see them!” I took a deep breath, exhaled and focused on maintaining a steady pace, dropping my head imperceptibly so I could catch a glimpse of what was going on behind me.
The car didn’t move. The officers did not get out. So I kept walking, passing barren trees and fidgety squirrels, wondering if it was now safe to turn and look over my shoulder — or would that be the trigger they needed to get out of the car and pursue me on foot.
I walked on, passing a brightly colored playground, and thought about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot to death by police outside a Cleveland recreation center a little more than a year ago. If I had a toy gun like him, I thought, I might already be dead. I thought about what might happen if I reached into my pocket to pull out my cellphone and call my girlfriend. I thought about what could happen if I started jogging — just because I felt like getting some exercise. Would I make it out of the park, or be arrested, tasered or shot dead?
As I rounded a corner, gazing at the empty baseball diamond and basketball courts in the distance, I took another deep breath and realized I was the only person in the park. It’s located in a residential area surrounded by homes, but that afternoon, there was only me — and the cops. If anything happened, there’d be no one to see it. No witnesses. There would be no cellphone recordings, no viral YouTube videos, no news coverage. There would be only me and the officers, their story and mine — assuming I survived to tell it.
I kept walking. I kept breathing. I kept telling myself that today would not be the day. I would make it home safe and unharmed. I would enjoy dinner with my girlfriend and her parents. I would wake up the next day, happy to be alive, happy to be loved.
I’ll never know if it was something I did or didn’t do, or if the cops simply got bored, but they eventually pulled off. I let out a long, deep exhale and smiled. It was not the day. I had been given a chance at tomorrow.
It’s been a couple of weeks since my surveillance, and I still go to the park. I still dress the same and walk the same, but I don’t feel the same. Instead of a peaceful, relaxing walk in one of the few “safe spaces” I have in my town, I now know that when I venture out, I’m taking caution with me, and carrying the invisible weight of fear on my shoulders.
- Ness White, OZY Author Contact Ness White