For Kalief Browder...
They handcuffed me, slammed my head onto the front-end of one of their three police cars, patted me down, and stuffed me into the backseat. Frozen in a state of fear, anger, and confusion, I sat in the uncomfortably tight and hard back of the police car, praying to God for forgiveness and to get me out of this, because I only had a few more weeks left in Detroit.
Summer 2008 was absolutely insane for me. I had just graduated high school, was preparing to leave for college and attend The University of Michigan, was in the middle of some deeply rooted drama that caused me to leave my home church, and my home, moved in with my dad like we were Tre and Furious from Boyz in the Hood, had an internship with a major software company named Compuware, gas was $4.50 a gallon, and I had just begun what I thought would be a summer fling with a girl I reconnected with from middle school named Faith. Needless to say, my life was a tornado of change, and at 17 years old, I thought I was ready to take these things head on.
A bunch of my boys and I grew up together in church, and remained very involved until the end. These dudes were my brothers, and we did everything together. Maybe it was our mothers’ way of keeping us in something positive and out of the streets. Maybe as devout Christians they wanted us to see the world through a different lens. Either way, we were heavily active in various ministries, and even had our names printed in the back of the bulletin as junior deacons. Our favorite ministry of all was mime, organized by men that were more like uncles to us than mentors. We called ourselves The Yahweh Brothers. We’d performed mimes at churches all over metro Detroit, and even across the country at Baptist conventions. Our style was more conceptual drama than dance, with actual stories and situations that could serve as music videos for gospel records if recorded.
Our favorite gospel song to perform to was “I Need You to Survive” by Hezekiah Walker. The concept we designed involved a father overcome with grief and depression while dealing with issues like debt, cancer, and death. He ultimately decided to commit suicide; our job was to convince him, via the song and props, that his son needed him, we needed him, and that God wouldn’t put more on him than he could bear. It was truly powerful and our message of perseverance and grinding through the struggle reached many men across the region.
One Sunday morning, towards the end of the summer, I was making the long 30 mile drive from my dad’s place in Canton, in his red Pontiac Grand Am GT, complete with chrome wheels, to the east side of Detroit for a mime performance. I was dressed for church – light blue dress shirt, tan slacks, brown shoes – appropriate considering the heat and the fact that I’d be changing soon anyway. We alternated carrying the mime bag for each performance; since it was my turn to carry it, I put my clothes for the performance in it. The large black duffel bag we used for mime contained my black Dickies outfit, black gym shoes, white t-shirts, white make-up, white gloves, some make-up remover wipes and towels, and a black toy prop gun. (Looking back, this description does sound like what Larenz Tate and crew used in their attempt to rob the Loomis truck in Dead Presidents) While on my way, I got a call and was told to deviate my route because the Pastor wanted to grab breakfast not too far from where the church was, in a small suburb called Eastpointe.
As I make my way there, I get stuck behind an old man doing 25mph. The speed limit was 30. When I saw an opening, I took the opportunity to hit the gas and darted around him. Just as I was passing a major intersection, on Gratiot Avenue passing 8 Mile Road (8 mile is the literal northern boundary the separates Detroit from adjoining suburbs) and entering Eastpointe, I see a police car do a complete 180 on the other side of the road and fly up behind me with his lights flashing. I check my speed, and think to myself, “Thank God, I hadn’t even gotten to 40mph yet.” Having gotten a speeding ticket in the previous month, I was aware that going 10mph over the speed limit was an additional fine. I’m calm as I pull into a Mobil gas station, armed with the strategies I’d rehearsed with one of my aunts if I were to ever get pulled over:
“Always be respectful and nonconfrontational.”
“Keep your hands on the steering wheel and do not move them, under any circumstances, until they tell you to.”
“Know where everything they ask for is, so your movements will be quick and short.”
“Let them dictate the conversation.”
As I pull into the gas station, to my surprise, two more police cars zoom up, perpendicular to my front end and blocking me in, with the cop pulling me over still in my rear. I’m not so calm anymore.
Officer 1: “License, registration, and insurance please.”
Me: “Yessir.” (Slowly reaches in glove box)
Officer 1: “The hell are you doing boy!?”
Me: “Reaching for my paperwork, like you asked.”
Officer 1: “Alright, but do it slow. No monkey business. I’m watching you boy.”
I felt that second boy pierce my ears like a javelin, and I was suddenly very afraid this would not end well. See there was this guy named Sean Bell who…….never mind. God wouldn’t let that happen to me. I hand the paperwork to the officer, who snatches it and walks back to his car. An officer from the 2nd car in front of me gets out and approaches me:
Officer 2: “This your car?”
Me: “No, it’s my dad’s.”
Officer 2: “Where you going?”
Me: “Ummm, on my way to church.”
Officer 2: “Sure, yeah church. Right.”
(I think to myself that it’s Sunday morning and I’m dressed up. Where else would I be going?”)
Officer 1 emerges from his car: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
Me: “Wait, what? I was going 3 miles over the speed limit. I’ve never been in trouble before. Surely this is just a misunder-”
Before I could even spit the rest of the word out, Officer 2 had reached into the car via the rolled-down window, unlocked my door, opened it, and yanked me out. They handcuffed me, slammed my head onto front-end of one of their three police cars, patted me down, and stuffed me into the backseat of Officer 1’s patrol car. Officer 3 has now gotten out of his car, and the three of them have popped the trunk, opened all the doors on my dad’s car, and literally emptied out every single thing in the car: basketball, weight gloves, oil change receipts, jumper cables, everything. All on the ground. They get to my black mime bag. They look at each other and then to me and I remember saying aloud, with tears streaming down my face, “Oh s**t.”
Officers 1 and 2 are laughing as they go through the bag. I hear one of them mention something about evidence and that they finally had their man. Officer 3 wasn’t convinced though. He walks over to the car I’m in, takes off his sunglasses, and takes a long look at me. He then suddenly opens the door, pulls me out and onto my feet, and points to the bag.
Officer 3: “You have 1 chance to explain yourself. These officers think you meet the profile of a Wanted Man who’s hit several establishments in this area over the past few months. What’s with the bag?”
I try my best to conceal my emotions and shakily articulate why in the world I have makeup, gloves, a gun, and a change of clothes in the bag. “I’m not a robber, it’s for a church mime,” I mumbled. After about 2 minutes of me choking out my story and literally sweating through my clothes, Officer 2 reached for his weapon with one hand, and with one hand on his hip and my shirt in the other, yanked at me and made me swear I was telling the truth. I did, crying, yelling, and praying to myself, and Officer 3 demanded he stand down and uncuff me. They walked to their cars, told me to slow down on their streets, and drove off. I picked up everything off the ground they took out of my dad’s car, blasted the air conditioner, and sat there and cried for about 5 minutes. I’ll never forget the shame I felt. The anger. The fear. I didn’t get any of their names or badge numbers, I was too focused on staying alive and not going to jail.
None of that mattered though.
Officer 3 had saved my life.
I wouldn't have been to afford bail. I would've lost my scholarship and chance to go to college. I'd be a number in the system, stripped of my humanity, because of racial profiling.
R.I.P. Kalief Browder