White men can’t jump, but Black people can’t run (without being shot)
Recently, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered in Brunswick, Georgia while innocently jogging in broad daylight; sixty year ago, I, too, encountered a similar experience involving racist white cops, probably like many other black and brown people in America. The difference is that, while I was terrorized, I lived to talk about it. Here is my story:
It was January, a dreary and cold Friday evening in Detroit, Michigan, where I was born and raised. I had just finished delivering The Free Press to the loyal customers on my paper route, some of whom had paid their balances due from the previous week’s deliveries. I was carrying twenty bucks, or so, mostly in change. My best buddy Tyrone, who was seventeen, two years older than me, had somehow scored a bottle of MD 2020, a cheap red wine made especially, in retrospect, for mischievous adolescents trying to act grown.
Tyrone and I lived in a neighborhood that was another version of what must have looked like The United Nations: most of our friends were from first generation immigrant families from everywhere, or at least that’s how we viewed our diverse lower East Side community in 1960. Many of us attended St. Catherine Catholic School and were considered normal adolescents who got into occasional scrapes with one another as young boys do. We sometimes had issues with the nuns and priests, but never anything serious enough to call in law enforcement. Generally, we were all good kids; and cops, we thought, were mostly good people.
My paper route customers were good people, too. One of the new customers on my route had a family of several stair-step young sisters around our age, all of whom were attractive, as Tyrone and I could not help but notice. So, on the Friday evening in question, he and I decided to stop by the sister’s house, hoping their parents weren’t home, so we could share the wine Tyrone had scored.
After hanging out with the girls, Tyrone and I decided to head on home, which was just a few blocks away. Since the sisters couldn’t put the empty wine bottle in the trash for fear their parents might notice, we ended up taking it with us. Walking home, neither were we certain what to do with the wine bottle. But the pitch-dark alleyways provided us a foolish option: heave the glass bottle down the cement ally, then run like hell so the neighbors would never know who spattered glass all around their garage driveways.
Here’s where my personal story — -a story about two black teenage boys running — -begins to juxtapose itself with the Ahmaud Arbery murder in Georgia; here’s where I first became aware of what ‘racial profiling’ was all about, and it almost cost me my life. I was only 15 years old.
In the 1950’s and 60’s in Detroit there was an elite crime-fighting undercover police squad known on the streets as ‘The Big Four’. The units were comprised of four white cops who roamed black and marginal neighborhoods in unmarked Chrysler Imperials. Their stated goal was to ride herd on black youth, harass, question, get identification, and learn where they were going. They were trained to frighten, brutalize, and intimidate. When excessive measures didn’t work, they had no qualms about pulling their weapons and shooting their victims. Here is another description taken from an article in the Detroit Free Press in 1962:
“These 4-man units frequently stopped youths who were driving or walking through black neighborhoods. They verbally degraded these youths, calling them “boy” and “n****r”, asking them who they were and where they were going. Most of the time, black residents were asked to produce identification, and having suffered their requisite share of humiliation, were allowed to proceed on their way. But if one could not produce “proper” identification, this could lead to arrest or worse. In a few notable cases, police stops led to the injury or death of those who were detained. Such excessive use of force was manifested in the 1962 police shooting of a black prostitute named Shirley Scott, who was shot in the back while fleeing from the back of a patrol car. Other high-profile cases of police brutality in Detroit included the severe beating of another prostitute, Barbara Jackson, in 1964, and the beating of Howard King, a black teenager, for “allegedly disturbing the peace”.
Those are the cops who chased me and Tyrone down as we fled towards our homes on that frigid January night after tossing a wine bottle down an alleyway.
Never had I been in a hide and seek situation with the police but realizing that we were being hunted by this group of cops simply because we were running in our neighborhood was a sobering thought. Tyrone ran one way, me another. I cut through several backyards and made it to my block, my house just a few doors down. Breathless and drenched in sweat after traversing a neighbor’s picket fence, my heart stopped as I encountered a tall white man standing only ten feet away in the dark shadows. He had a gun and it was pointed directly at me “Stop, police!” he shouted.
To this day, I believe it was only an act of Providence that kept him from pulling the trigger. Given the reputation of this notorious police squad, I sighed in relief that I was still alive. Nevertheless, I was thrown to the ground, cuffed, and taken to an idling, waiting, unmarked Chrysler police Imperial where Tyrone and I were reunited; he had been captured too, alive, but shaken.
After questioning us about the twenty bucks worth of change in my pockets, insinuating that we must have been involved in a robbery, they pushed me into the back seat, Tyrone in the front, both of us still cuffed with our hands behind our backs and straddled on both sides by two mean and brutal-looking white men. True to form, they drove us around for the next hour-and-a-half, questioning, threatening, and insulting us.
As a final indignation, they released us into the winter cold, five miles from where we were picked up. I still have the image in my head of the four of them laughing arrogantly and joking as they removed the handcuffs and let us go, by remarking that if we were too far from home, why not use some of my paper route money to catch a bus!
Ahmaud Arbery’s brutal murder, as well as the continued mistreatment of black and brown people in America, is a cautionary reminder that not much has changed in the land of the free from sixty years ago, when running while black was, and still is, a life and death proposition.