A COUPLE of, “GOOD MEN” ( An excerpt from a longer piece titled, IT HAPPENS IN THREES)
It must have been about a month and a half after the last event when on around 8pm on a very hot night, I received a call from my friend, Vergil who lived across the street. I met Vergil the summer before when we were cast in a production of the play, A FEW GOOD MEN. Even though we were adversaries on stage, ( me, the soldier on trial and he, the prosecutor), being two of only three African American actors in the sizable theater company, we became buds. So Vergil called and asked what I was doing? I said, ‘melting in my apartment!’ He said the same so we decided to sit outside on the steps of my courtyard building and get some air.
A point I must emphasize here because it will be important later, is that, as we sat outside musing about the acting biz, neither of us were smoking or drinking….anything. So, there we were, two, ‘my body is my instrument’ minded actors, chatting about work when suddenly. Two patrol cars pulled up in front of my building and four police officers get out and start walking our way. My first thought was, ‘wow, what’s going on?’ Which given my two, not so long ago encounters with police, might seem illogical. But, in that moment, sitting on the steps of MY building, on a quiet, hot summer night with my fellow thespian, the thought that WE were the problem, did not cross my mind.
However as they approached one of the policeman told us to stand and then asked what we were doing out there? We stood and I said, ‘i live here’. Another asked if I had any identification. I said, ‘no, but my apartment is right there and I have keys to the vestibule.’ As I said this, one of the officers grabbed me and pushed me against the rod iron fence that enclosed the lawn of the courtyard. He kicked my legs into a wide stance and began patting me down. I would later write that this pat down was not like what I had seen on television. This was aggressive. These were not pats. These were grabs and wrenches…and hurt. The other three officers stood there and watched. After he was done he walked away. I turned to the closest officer to me, who happened to be the lone female officer.
ME: I have keys to the building. Why did he do that?’ FEMALE OFFICER: Well people aren’t always what they say they are. ME: But I have keys. I live here. There was no reason for him to physically accost me like that.
The officer who had approached me now turned back around and walked towards me.
MALE OFFICER: You think I physically accosted you?! Did you go to the police academy? Do you know how to search someone!? ME: No, but I know when I’m being physically accosted.
Then without a word, he did the exact same thing he did when he first approached me. He turned me around again, pushed me against the rod iron fence again, kicked my legs wide again and even more aggressively pulled and wrenched at my clothes and skin as he, “pat” me down. However this time, he handcuffed me and put me in the back of the car. I saw Vergil standing nearby saying, ‘why is he doing that?’ The other THREE police officers stood there and watched. Not saying a word. Not stopping anything. They simply got into the cars with me in the back of one, as I watched Vergil outside the window with his arms outstretched in a gesture of, ‘what is going on?’
In the car, I did not say a word. I couldn’t believe that in a matter of minutes I had gone from talking to a friend on steps of my building to being driven handcuffed in the back of a police car.
At the police station, I was taken upstairs to the officers desks, made to sit down as they fill out a report. As I sat there, the female police officer who witnessed everything, sat at her desk and received a phone call. I watched her as she repeated words from her call and write them down. ‘Okay, bread, milk, what else, okay…’ All I could think was…YOU saw what happened. YOU saw my keys. YOU saw how aggressive your fellow officer was. YOU saw how he reacted when I said it was abusive and YOU saw him do the very same thing again, not because all of a sudden a magic weapon had appeared on my body, but because he COULD and wanted to punish me for objecting. And YOU and YOUR fellow officers chose to do NOTHING. Now, you’re going to pick up groceries on YOUR way home, when right in front of you is someone you KNOW did nothing wrong but is being charged with something and placed in a cell. This one officer is a loose cannon. But YOU, THREE are just as bad in your complicity!
As I sat there two different officers, friends of the one who accosted me came up to his desk and asked what I was there for. He told them.
AGGRESSIVE OFFICER: Oh, this guy! He was drinking a forty (beer lingo for 40 ounces of can) and peeing on the sidewalk in front of his building.
The other two officers began to tease and sneer
OFFICER BUDDIES: What?! Peeing on the sidewalk! In front of your own building!! That’s disgusting!’
The original officer joined in on the joke. I sat there. Silent. I looked straight ahead. One glance at their ridiculing faces had been enough for me.
The officer finished his report and now he and his two ridiculing buddies walked me downstairs to the lockup area. There, we were greeted by two, “lock up” officers. As the the three handed me off to the two lock up officers, they introduced me to the new officers.
AGGRESSIVE OFFICER: Here, take this guy. He’s one belligerent asshole! LOCK UP: Oh, yeah? What did he do?
AGGRESSIVE OFFICER: Drinking from a 40 and peeing on the sidewalk!
OFFICER BUDDIES: Yeah, and right in front of his own building!!
The next thing I see, is the original officer and his two buddies leave as the, “lock up” officers walk me into a cell and lock it shut.
I sat on the mattress-free iron bed. Something had happened a minute ago. I remember standing in the middle of the five officers, not looking at they faces but hearing them talk and laugh about me, and then suddenly I loss my hearing for about 15 seconds. I literally could NOT hear. And then as the lock up officers took me to the cell, I regained it. What was that? A panic attack? The start of a nervous breakdown?! Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. So, I concentrated. What do I remember when that happened? And then it came to me. As they were talking, I began to look at each of the officers. Not at their faces. But at their hands. Wait, not at their hands. At their fingers. No, not fingers. At their RING fingers. I looked at each of their ring fingers and saw they all had on rings which had me presume they were married.
Why did I do that I wondered? I don’t remember consciously making the choice to look for that. What did I care?! However, I believe, my subconscious did care. I believe that some part of me was in a fear or crisis state, and needed some reassurance. What it grasped for was some symbol that conveyed that these people, that were laughing at me, demeaning me, ridiculing me and lying about me….had the capacity for love. After I saw those rings, I seemed to recover my hearing and some degree of equilibrium. But now, here I was…in a cell.
It was about an hour later that they opened the cell and I was told I was being released on an I- bond, having no record. I was being charged with public drinking and lewd behavior and have a future court date.
Vergil and another friend were waiting in the visitors area when I was released. The three of us rode in our friend’s car without saying a word. What was there to say? They didn’t have the words to comfort and I wasn’t in a state to be comforted. I thanked them, got out of the car and went up to my apartment. I stood there for a moment in the dark. Feeling a helplessness I had never known.
The next day and a half, I didn’t go out. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t make any calls. I laid on the floor on my back, sometimes eyes open staring at the ceiling, sometimes eyes closed, but the whole time, imagining. Imagining HOW I could get a hold of a machete! Yes, it had to be a machete. Not a gun, because I didn’t want to kill policemen. I wanted to SLAY policemen. I wanted them to FEEL hurt and pain and anguish…as I had.
I came to my senses. Or rather, came back to myself. I abhor violence. I think my only physical altercation ever was in first grade and maybe lasted 30 seconds. That is not who I am and I was not going to be turned into something that wasn’t my nature because of them. I felt somewhat better. I felt I was coming back to my center. I needed to because today was the day of my friend, Bernard’s wedding. Bernard, another friend and I were driving to the wedding together and I was supposed to meet them on a corner near my apartment.
I grabbed my suit and left my apartment for the first time since the incident. A lovely and sunny day, it felt good to be outside. I walked to the corner of the intersection of Broadway and Buena and waited for Bernard. As I stood on the corner, I saw a police paddy wagon stop at the intersection across the street from me. The light turned green and it drove by. The policemen inside, didn’t even glance in my direction. However, upon seeing the police, I began to shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop. I tried to settle myself by taking deep breaths. It began to subside. I kept taking deep breaths and I thought, what’s happened to me?
The rest of that day, I was consumed with the thought ‘how do I stop this? How do I get this out of me?!’ I don’t want to have this fear inside of me.
It wasn’t until the following day, that I could even talk about what happened? I called a close friend and before I could utter a word, I started to cry. ( I have to tell you, I’m crying now as I write this. I’m crying for the person this happened to and for those it continues to happen to )
Weeks later, I went to face the charges in court. I got a lawyer from a neighborhood law clinic to represent me. I called the ACLU first but was told they had SO MANY cases of police brutality, that they only had the resources to address the ones that involved critical injuries.
When all parties involved in my case were called, I stood in front of the judge with my lawyer, the prosecutor and the police officer/witness. The one who had arrested me. The judge asked the prosecutor if we needed to go forward. The prosecutor said they would be willing to accept a plea of guilty for some kind of service or something. The judge turned to my lawyer who in turn looked at me. I said, NO in a way that caused the judge give me a look that was hard to read. He then said, ‘let’s proceed. Call your first witness.’ The prosecutor called the policeman and he took the stand.
The prosecutor asked: What did you see on the night of….on….street.? The policeman answered: When we drove up, I saw Mr. Wilson lowering a brown paper bag from his lips. I then… “Excuse me”, the judge interrupted. I think all four of us were surprised by the interruption so early in the testimony. The judge asked: What did you say, you saw? The policeman carefully repeated himself: I saw Mr. Wilson lowering a brown paper bag from his lips. Judge: So, you saw him lowering it from his lips. Not drinking? Policeman: Yes, lowering from his lips. Judge: Okay. Thank you. Case dismissed.
The prosecutor, the policeman, my lawyer and I, were all in a stunned silence for a moment until the policeman got off the stand and the prosecutor walked back to his table. I looked at my lawyer and he said, ‘well, that’s it!’
I looked at the judge, who did not look at any of us. But to my lawyer’s opinion, and to mine, he did the best thing he could to remedy what perhaps he had seen far to often. I must admit I was pleased but a bit disappointed. I was fully prepared to finally have a chance to tell what happened. To let others know this IS happening and to be heard. But it wouldn’t be today and it wouldn’t be in this courtroom.
Afterwards, is when I started to write. First and foremost as a way of getting it out of my body: my nervous system. Then It was for the benefit of others. Others that had experience similar things and help them process our shared trauma. And last but not least, for the rest of you…so YOU might understand that even though you’ve never had this experience or anything even close…to know it DOES happen. It IS happening. And it MUST stop. And that NO ONE can continue to stand idly by, like those other three police officers and allow human beings to be treated this way and WORSE as is now evidenced in videos but has been happening throughout our history.
Because COMPLICITY TOLERATES it and ALLOWS it to CONTINUE.