This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Aaron Ellis:
Before answering this, I just want to say that I love being black, I love America, and I love being black in America. Most of the time, I am just another person in this great country. But, in the recent words of one of my close friends, “Every now and then, you get a reminder that you are black in America.”
I got a reminder just two weeks ago, on Christmas Eve. My best friend, who was in town from Atlanta, wanted to go to a local mall just to hang out. He invited me and another good friend to meet up with him.
So that’s the setting: three clean-cut, college-educated black men in their 30s at a nice outdoor mall the day before Christmas. We were dressed fairly conservatively, wearing sweaters, jeans, and dress shoes. We were all done with our Christmas shopping, so we were just strolling around the mall to be around people, enjoy some snacks, catch up with each other, and just feel the winter air.
After a few hours, we decided to leave. While walking out, we noticed that people were standing outside one of the businesses as though something had just happened. Mall security was busy taking witness accounts. We went in for a closer look. We overheard a witness say that a man was beaten up. Tragic, but honestly, it’s the kind of crime that is common around the holidays, especially in malls.
We headed to the parking lot. I arrived at my car first, so I said my goodbyes and they walked towards their cars. But before they could go 30 feet, several police cars sped in and surrounded us, lights shining bright on our faces. We had no idea what was happening. An officer started barking orders at us. “Turn around!” “Hands up” “Show me your hands!” They made us come over.
They then started giving us conflicting orders. One officer would say, “Put your hands up.” We put them up. The other would say “Put your hands down.” We put them down. But then one would say “Who told you to put your hands down?! Get your hands up!” Back up go our hands. I felt like I was doing the Hokey Pokey dance.
They asked us questions about where we were at a specific time. We had an alibi: We were at the Yard House and had the receipts to prove it. But that wasn’t enough. The questions continued. We asked if this was about the assault that happened. The questioning officer then acted as though our knowledge that a crime had occurred was an admission of guilt. He threw accusations at us and began a very aggressive line of questioning, hoping to get us to confess to being involved or catch us in a lie.
They repeatedly made us show them the front and backs of our hands. The idea is that if we had been in a fight, our hands would have been bloodied or bruised. Our hands were clean. But that didn’t stop them from making us show our hands several more times, as though the blood and bruises would suddenly appear.
After an unnecessarily long questioning, they finally left us. No apologies. No “Merry Christmas.” Just gone. That was when one of my buddies, shaking his head, said, “Every now and then you get a reminder that you are black in America.”
I later shared this story on my Facebook and told some friends and family. The reaction to this was surprisingly insightful. Without fail, my white friends heard the story of our harassment and they were all upset and outraged. They felt that we should file a complaint with the police. My black and Hispanic friends weren’t surprised at all and just shrugged it off. And this is a simple difference in the experiences of races. My white friends have never had to deal with police harassment, and most never will. My black and brown friends, unfortunately, are all too familiar with police harassment. In a few cases, they have experienced police brutality. Something like this happens to me maybe once a year. If ever a crime is committed and the witness description turns up the words “black male,” every brother within 20 miles will have to answer for the crime, regardless of age or specific appearance.
Harassment by authority extends beyond the police. In a post-9/11 world, it’s pretty well-known that anyone who looks remotely Middle Eastern will get harassed by TSA when trying to board an airplane. What most people don’t realize is that pre-9/11, it was black people who got that treatment. Every time I tried to get on an airplane, I was the one who got “additional screening,” sometimes to the point I felt kind of violated. I had no criminal record, but this was a regular thing. I thought I was alone until I ended up on a flight with a college friend and the same thing happened to him. He told me how he had experienced the same thing since he was a teenager. He rang off an endless list of friends who went through the same thing on a regular basis. It was depressing, but I guess it was also good to know that I wasn’t alone.
I want to make it clear that I don’t hate the police or any other branch of law enforcement. I find that most police officers are just decent people who have a tough job. But man, it would be nice if I didn’t have to hold my breath whenever I see a police cruiser with its sirens on. Most of the time it will pass me by. But every now and then…
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