Henry and I were chilling in the park when the bike patrolmen rolled up on us. It was the end of a lovely Chicago day in early spring. We lost daylight shooting for his film project, so we walked over to Grant Park. In the heart of the city’s South Loop, we got into a deep discussion after a nice session. I don’t remember much of that night. Somewhere in the exchange, I told him: “Whatever you feel in your heart is real, everything else is just temporary.”
I was posted on the staircase with Henry, circling the steps around the Greek monument standing erect in Grant Park near Lake Michigan, waiting on the Metra train. It was 9:20. After a botched day of shooting for Henry’s class project, we wrapped the day discussing life and death, and Henry’s near death experience.
WHATEVER YOU FEEL IN YOUR HEART IS REAL, EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST TEMPORARY.
In summer 2009, Henry was involved in a hit and run accident. Almost a week later, I found out that Henry was in a coma. Henry told me when that he regained consciousness, he tried walking out of the room! After nearly getting killed in a car accident, the only thing he remembers from his traumatic experience was being trapped in his hospital room, with his colostomy bag stuck to his bed.
“I don’t remember what happened that day,” Henry said. “The only thing I remember is my mom dropping me off at the train station. I don’t remember anything.” He didn’t have any metaphysical realizations. No stories of angels and demons—nothing.
“Would I have missed any of this? I mean I love my mom, and you, my brother, but I probably would have said fuck this.” I really didn’t blame him.
From a distance, I saw two bike cops looking at us on the steps. Just over my shoulder, I saw a man speaking to his comrade. I noticed a young man and woman, probably around our age, across the other side of the park steps. We were in the middle of our conversation and didn’t notice the two on the opposite side of the park. Suddenly, the two cops were stepping off their bikes approaching us with LED flashlights beaming in our direction.
“What’s going on tonight gentlemen; where we from?” the male officer said.
“80 and Ellis,” said Henry.
“Matteson,” I responded.
He was shorter than both of us, with broad shoulders, swarthy and husky. I felt he was more aggressive than his partner.
UP UNTIL THIS MOMENT, I HAD NEVER BEEN IN HANDCUFFS. UNTIL THEN, I WAS CAREFUL NOT TO GENERALIZE OR MAKE QUICK ASSUMPTIONS—THIS WAS A WAKE-UP CALL.
“Let me see some ID.” I go for my wallet and start searching for my ID when the officer hones in on my aroma. “Why do you smell like weed?” I looked at him, but I didn’t respond. He asked me again in a booming voice, “Hello? Why do you smell like weed?” He was getting impatient. While the female officer only questioned my friend, this officer was more assertive. He grabbed my arm, and I tensed up as I felt a confrontation arising. Two black males in Grant Park searched by two bike patrol officers: a Latino male, and Caucasian female. I was sick with suspense over the circumstances.
“Why do you smell like weed?” I didn’t know what to tell him; I just stared at him. My silence was indignant to the officer. As I motioned my ID in his hands, he grabbed my right arm to detain me.
“Hello? Why do you smell like weed?” Up until this moment, I had never been in handcuffs. Until then, I was careful not to generalize or make quick assumptions—this was a wake-up call. I was at a loss for words with this experience and for the first time, I was no longer in control of my feelings. I tried to maintain composure, but how I felt mattered little to the bike patrol officer.
While in handcuffs, he suddenly snapped me by the neck with his hand.
“Lift your tongue.” I could hardly open my mouth as he clamped down on the back of my neck. I dance my tongue across the roof of my palate to allow him a look at my mouth. After satisfying the officer, I closed my mouth as he released his grasp. He then started ripping out my pockets, patting down my pants, and removing my shoes and checking my socks. He gave Henry a hard time as well.
I NEVER FELT THE SAME AFTER THAT NIGHT. SOMETHING STAYED WITH ME FROM THIS EXPERIENCE. IT WAS REMINISCENT OF AN EXPERIENCE WHERE ONE SHUDDERS FROM RECOLLECTION. HUMANITY WAS LOST—THE FEAR OF NOT KNOWING WHAT YOUR PLACE WAS OR IS IN SOCIETY.
“80 and Ellis, you know the deal boss.” He motions for Henry to get up. Henry was cool as a fan. He didn’t even flinch when the cop started patting him down. Henry stood back and watched the cop try to shake me up and told me later he was proud I didn’t crack. I wasn’t going to crack because I did nothing wrong. I was more concerned about him finding my grinder on the side zipper of my Nike book bag.
Henry joked condescendingly with the officer as he got patted down. The indignant remark made the patrolman cringe a little. Even today, Henry says his partner laughed at his joke. The patrol officer confiscated his ID and told his partner to run a check on Henry. He was a bit sore from that last comment Henry made.
“You got any warrants, boss?” He looked over at me.
“No,” I answered sternly. “I haven’t been arrested before. I don’t have any felonies or misdemeanors. I don’t have any weapons or drugs on me either.” Technically, the officer could check my bag, find the grinder, and classify it as drug paraphernalia.
After I responding to his questions, he replies, “Cuz, you a good boy.”
Most people wouldn’t understand how this experience affected my personal interactions with law enforcement. In light of recent news stories about people being detained, beaten, or killed, I couldn’t tell you if I had anti-authority sentiments. However, I get uneasy when questioning community relations with law enforcement.
Henry starts getting harassed by both officers. The female officer interrogated him about a warrant they claimed was under his name. “You need to get on, man!” Henry snaps. This was turning bad. I knew Henry had never been in trouble as they were claiming.
“You know your friend was a pedophile?” the female officer said.
I turned to her partner to see if it was okay to put on my shoes. He took his time looking through my bag. He must have checked every crevice of my Nike backpack to come up with nothing, but he wasn’t finished and started searching the side panels for more evidence.
“Those are just glasses,” I call out. He opens my case to no avail. The left pocket would reveal my grinder. “I got paraphernalia.” He takes the grinder and shakes it like he caught me red handed.
“What’s this I have here?” He examines my grinder, shakes it a few times—clink clink. He could hear the scraper at the bottom of the grinder.
“What is this?”
I was a bit deterred because anything I said could be used against me. I knew that his plans were to catch me in some lie crafted from the jump. He knew that I didn’t have anything on me, but he wanted to ‘investigate’ the incident after finishing his cavity search.
I thought about every story I heard from my father and the countless others who were harassed by police. I had their experiences to share as a reminder that outside of being a college student, in his mind I was just a ‘nigger’. Now, the word itself didn’t offend me, but what it represents to small-minded people often carried the greatest consequence. At least, this is how I felt I was being treated.
“You see this badge? Don’t get confused and think I’m some bike cop—I paid my dues.” He was a well-decorated cop, possibly high-ranked—whatever respect he wanted from his position. I overheard Henry arguing with the female cop, something about his name being in the system. They tell Henry to take a hike because he was clean. He hesitantly walks away. I knew he wouldn’t leave without me.
IF THIS WERE A MOVIE, I WOULD PROBABLY PLAY THE VILLAIN. HE LOOKS AT HER, GLANCES BACK AT ME, AND TELLS ME TO GO HOME. I FIGURED HE WANTED RESPECT. MAYBE HE WENT ABOUT IT THE WRONG WAY? PERHAPS IT WAS MY FAULT?
“So what are we going to do boss?” He had ID and everything he could take from me. I knew that he wasn’t about to arrest me for a grinder—would he? My change was scattered from him searching my pockets. I stared down at the gold coin, while his LED light bulb danced around the dark asphalt searching for more evidence.
“Where’s the bag?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I didn’t get a chance to speak before he started interrogating me. He reaches down and picks up a coin.
“You got finals this week?”
“I got finals this week and next,” I mumble.
“What’s your major, son?”
April 29, 2010 changed my perspective on equality—I thought about the kids across the other side of the park. He never looked in their direction. “There are more people in the park; you don’t mess with them!” I snapped.
“Yeah, but they were smart enough to walk on,” he retorted.
“Whatever you feel in your heart is real, everything else is just temporary.”
“All I want is peace,” Henry told me five minutes before being detained.
“Now, all I want is mercy,” I remember thinking.
“OK, boss. Heads or tails. Call it in the air, if you miss it you go to jail.” He flips the coin—I called out ‘heads’—and it lands on tails.
“You go to jail,” he says casually. “Now I have to handcuff you to my handlebars.” As I’m rising to my feet, he glances at his partner, who stood silent for most of the encounter.
“What do you think?” he glances at his partner. If this were a movie, I would probably play the villain. He looks at her, glances back at me, and tells me to go home. I figured he wanted respect. Maybe he went about it the wrong way? Perhaps it was my fault?
I never felt the same after that night. Something stayed with me from this experience. It was reminiscent of an experience where one shudders from recollection. Humanity was lost—the fear of not knowing what your place was or is in society. I didn’t feel anything but hatred for the officer involved. I tried pitying myself. I haven’t felt any peace recalling that night, nor attempting to reconcile the situation. Heading back, looking across the Chicago skyline, I thought for a moment, and shared an acknowledging glance with Henry, and we walked to the train station in silence.