Amid the current turmoil across the US, it is easy to believe that all is sour and gloomy, especially if one has to base his judgment on what is going on on social media and the mainstream media. We have been bombarded by all kinds of information that has painted to us an image of a divide between the American police on one side and the American people on the other side. A perception that portrays police officers in the US as the bad guys in search of the innocent people that you and I are, but my experience yesterday proved me wrong. As a black man (African living in the USA), I had my moment facing a police officer, a white police officer for the matter, an experience that I will never forget.
For a brief background, I just moved from Massachusetts where I graduated with a master’s degree to Ann Arbor in Michigan in search of employment for my Optional Practical Training (OPT). Doing errands here and there, knocking on doors and requesting opportunities to volunteer my time and be useful to society, on August 18, 2020, I was driving to a place that I had never visited before. As every good driver of my generation, I had to rely on the Google Maps App on my phone to find my way around. From Ann Arbor, I was headed to the city of Ypsilanti, in Washtenaw County in Michigan. I intended to meet with the person in charge of volunteering opportunities at the Hope Clinic in Ypsilanti City.
A few feet away from my final destination, the sweet lady from Google Maps indicated that I needed to take a right turn at the lights, which I did and suddenly realized that I was driving on the wrong way. I was going in the opposite direction on a “One Way” road. If I recall well, while stopping at the lights, I didn’t see any sign showing that right turns were not allowed. This happened so suddenly that my mind started going too fast. I put on my hazard lights when suddenly, in front of me there was a Police Vehicle flashing lights. I presume this must have been a Ypsilanti Police Department vehicle.
Oh my! God knows what went on in my mind within those few seconds. I stopped my vehicle a few feet facing the police vehicle. Then a young policeman, white, tall, and dressed in their normal dark uniform (is it black or dark blue?) came out of the vehicle towards me. My heart started to pump so quickly, not only because I recognized that I did take the wrong turn but mostly because images from the media started flashing in my mind about the fate of black men in the hands of white police officers. I whispered a prayer to God and managed to cool down. As the police officer, with his face mask on, drew near my vehicle, I put on my mask and lowered the right-side mirror. What followed is a mystery! At least to me and it is the reason why I needed to write this piece.
The police officer so politely greeted me to which I responded, “Hello, Sir. I am doing fine. I am sorry, I took the wrong turn following the instruction I got from the App (showing him my phone), but actually, I am looking for the Hope Clinic.”
I could read the officer’s smile through his face mask when he replied with a very calm voice, “No problem, Sir. Please make a turn, I will control the traffic for you as you do it”. And he even took the time to give me the direction that I needed to take. He then intercepted vehicles on that lane of the street as I made the turn using the closest driveway I found. I got in the right direction of the road as the police officer drove passed me and waved at me smiling.
You won’t imagine the joy that I felt at that moment. It felt like getting a release bail, minutes before a capital punishment execution time. I wish I had asked his name because for sure, he is proof that it is possible to be safe as a black man in the hands of a white police officer.
Sitting back today and reminiscing that moment, I questioned myself. What if, out of fear, I had reacted wrongly or said something inappropriate? What if, out of fear, the police officer took a wrong move that would have endangered both of us and consequently add fuel to the blazing fire around race in the country right now? Looking back at that situation, I am reminded that, police officers are just as human as ourselves with fear, joy, frustrations, hopes as ourselves. The way we want to feel safe and secure is the same way they expect from us that safety and security. Was he not reassuring through the actions he took when he came towards me, I would have lost my mind and maybe act or talk inappropriately? Bottom line, I don’t think we should just keep on placing the blame on police officers, whether black, Hispanic, or white. It is also our responsibility as individuals to recognize our wrong and allow those that are mandated to do their work, do it appropriately and with care.
I don’t mean to say that all police officers are good, nor can I assume that the rest of us are angels. In the mildest of the debate of whether or not to defund the police, I believe as a community, we also need to play our role, which is to educate ourselves and our people to respect the rules, to honor those in authority over us but also to communicate appropriately with those in charge of securing our lives.
I am neither Democrat nor Republican, I am just a believer in the fact that no matter the color of our skin, every human being has the right to respect, love, dignity, and life. And please, remember to keep all driving safety measures and show your appreciation when you can to the brave police officers out there and very specially to the Ypsilanti Police Department in Michigan.