By Nduka Otiono
People who have never experienced the dread of encountering some US police officers as a Black person may never fully comprehend the rage of the protesters in the streets of Minneapolis and other cities over the racist murder of George Floyd. The two encounters I have had with them still traumatize me, and I am only just realizing that I had never written about those encounters until now.
The programme had the theme, “The Role of Theatre in US Society.”
Conceived to bring “current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields to experience the [United States] firsthand and to cultivate lasting relationships with their American counterparts,” one of the cities in our itinerary was Louisville, Kentucky. We were lodged at the legendary Galt House, Louisville’s waterfront hotel with spectacular views of the Ohio River, especially from the revolving rooftop restaurant on the 25th floor. I instantly fell in love with the city. The beauty of the city was complemented by the memorable hospitality we enjoyed during our first social night. We had been invited to a private reception at Jack Daniel’s distillery in Louisville. The party was hosted by Owsley Brown II, CEO from 1993 to 2005 and great grandson of George Garvin Brown, who founded the company in 1870 “with $5,500 in saved and borrowed money.” At the reception, we sampled gloriously crafted whisky and bourbon at an evening in the expansive headquarters of the global brand, Brown-Forman company. I even had the privilege of being given an autographed bottle of specially aged and crafted Jack Daniel’s whiskey for keepsake.
On the afternoon after our first social evening, we went to a restaurant in downtown Louisville, still nursing the hang-over from the well-curated evening of socializing with the descendants of Brown-Forman and about two-dozen Louisville VIPs. We were at the restaurant to catch a late lunch before heading to a theatre performance at Brown Theatre in the evening. Between lunch and conversations about theatre and development, the barman, a youthful black man, came with a police officer to where I was seated and pointed at me. The policeman politely asked to chat with me outside. Surprised and unsure how to respond, I told my colleagues that the officer wanted to speak with me outside. I followed him, my mind racing, trying to fathom what I could have done wrong as a JJC (Johnny Just Come) in the US.
Stories of American police brutality against black men in the US flashed through my mind. At the time, I was most familiar with the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department and the riots the incident sparked.
Outside the lounge, I met with two other police officers who introduced themselves and asked for my ID. As I fetched my ID from my sling bag, which I often carried with me as if my life depended on it, I asked why I was singled out for questioning. One of them told me that they received a call that I was disturbing the peace of the restaurant. The allegation agitated me as I handed my IDs to them—my international passport and the small ID given to me and other fellows by officials of the State Department during our orientation programme in Washington DC after our arrival in the US. The police officers took their time examining the identification documents. They asked more questions about my mission in the US and what I did for a living that could have earned me invitation as a guest of the US government. As I explained my work as a journalist and a writer to them, my colleagues trooped out to where I was being questioned, demanding to know what was going on. Apparently, they the had become worried that I was taking long to rejoin the group. Of the seven of us from seven different countries on the U.S. Department of State’s premier international professional exchange programme, I was the only black person. My colleagues produced their IDs in solidarity with me to establish the fact that I was part of the team. Looking askance at me, the police officers returned my IDs and let me go back inside with my friends. The experience so shocked and traumatized me I felt like abandoning the tour of other cities in our itinerary and returning straight to Nigeria. Fortunately, I did not directly have any other encounter with American cops before the end of that fellowship between March 23 and April 13, 2000.
However, I witnessed some other white police officers dealing with back men before my departure. That was in New York City, where we had visited to explore the great theatres of Broadway and Off Broadway as part of our tour. We were lodged at the well-located Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, right at the heart of theater district. Two days after our arrival in New York City, my cousin Tony Okolo, a New Yorker, came to take me to “see,” as he framed it, “the other side of New York, away from the guided official tours that our hosts had arranged for us to see the best of America.” The beautiful coincidence of Tony’s choice of place to take me to eat Nigerian food at an African restaurant remains one of the best gifts of my visit to the US. The place was Harlem, some of whose early inhabitants I had encountered in my studies of African American literature. From Richard Wright to James Baldwin and the other important figures of the historic Harlem renaissance. But it was not the cultural significance that struck home on this visit. Nor the giant graffiti. It was a painful experience of witnessing the police randomly stopping two black men walking in front of the restaurant and frisking them. “That’s the real New York,” said Tony, sarcastically, smiling as we walked past to his car.
Ten years after the above introduction to American police, I was offered a postdoctoral fellowship to work with Professor Chinua Achebe at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. At the time, I was completing my PhD at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. My initial encounters with American police weighed in on my decision to accept the offer or not. But the privileged opportunity presented by the offer outweighed my phobia for the racialized police. Fortunately, my one-year sojourn in the US was uneventful in that regard. Instead, it was six years after my return to Canada’s Capital University, Carleton, that I had another police encounter while visiting the US.
The trip to the United States in November 2018 was to see for the very first time, one of my music idols, Bob Dylan, play at a concert. The concert was in Rochester, New York, a four-hour drive from Ottawa. It was our wedding anniversary. Kika, our daughter, knowing how much I wanted to attend a Bob Dylan concert as I was concluding work on our Dylan book, Polyvocal Bob Dylan, offered my wife and I tickets to the Bob Dylan show as a wedding anniversary gift. Onyi, my wife, and I drove down to Rochester for the concert. On our drive back, we had an encounter with the US police that reinforced the dread Black men experience with white policemen in the US.
We were barely 150 meters from the Canadian border when I noticed a police cruiser with roof-mounted beacons flashing behind me. Being my first experience of such an encounter, I was not totally sure how to handle the situation. The available space to park was within the precincts of the US-Canadian border at The Thousand Islands. I pulled over as required by law and waited in the car. A million thoughts, perhaps more luminescent than the flickering beacon, flashed in my mind. The officer approached our car from behind, walked up to the driver’s window. My mind pounded, unsure of the best way to respond as the officer said I was driving over the speed limit for the zone. I was stunned as I had impeccable driving records since relocating to North America in 2006. He asked a few questions—where I was coming from in the US, where I worked in Canada, etc. Seemingly impressed by my answers he asked for my papers. Although still maintaining a calm disposition, or at least so I thought, I was not sure how to respond—reach for the glove compartment for the papers? To be sure, I did not make any wrong move, I sought the officer’s permission to reach for the papers. He approved and I fetched the vehicle papers. I told him my ID was in the pocket of my trousers and sought permission to get down from the car to get it. He approved. So, I stepped out of the car with hands raised, and asked again for permission to get my ID from my deep cargo pants pocket. He approved. I pulled out my international passport and driving licence and gave him. As he stepped away to his car to check his computer, I raised my hands again throughout the period. Soon, he returned with a piece of paper, a speed ticket. He handed it to me and wished me safe journey.
As we crossed the US-Canadian border in silence, the danger inherent in that encounter with the US police seemed to be the elephant in the car. Dealing with white American police could not be more exhausting, especially against the context of multiple experiences of racial profiling, unjustifiable brutality, and senseless murders. Among other experiences worth recalling, those of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr (Skip Gates) of Harvard University and Steve Locke of Massachusetts College of Art and Design easily come to mind. While Professor Gates was arrested as a suspect who broke into his own home near Harvard in 2009, Professor Locke was profiled as a suspect based on a report by a white woman in 2015. Professor Locke’s reflections on his vulnerability and identity erasure in a racially toxic society underscores the dread that black people deal with in their encounters with American police:
I thought about the fact my word counted for nothing, they didn’t believe that I wasn’t a criminal. They had to find out. My word was not enough for them. My ID was not enough for them. My handmade one-of-a-kind knit hat was an object of suspicion. My Ralph Lauren quilted blazer was only a “puffy coat.” That white woman could just walk up to a cop and talk about me like I was an object for regard. I wanted to go back and spit in their faces. The cops were probably deeply satisfied with how they handled the interaction, how they didn’t escalate the situation, how they were respectful and polite.
Sadly, not all black people manage to escape the escalation of the situation, and to live to tell the tale, as Skip Gates, Steve Locke, and I, respectively have. George Floyd, the most recent victim of such dangerous encounters, did not. The eruption of anger in the streets of the US cities following the gruesome murder of the “gentle giant” in Minneapolis is a spontaneous response to centuries of systemic oppression dating back to slavery. It has spiralled with the incendiary political rhetoric of the current Lord of the White House. Still, there is some merit in actor and singer Will Smith’s observation in a 2016 interview with Stephen Colbert that race relations are not as bad as they were in the 1960s or the 1860s. In Smith’s cynical observation: “We are talking about race in this country more clearly and openly than we have almost ever in the history of this country . . . Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” And one might add, but the dread of becoming another hashtag is getting worse!
Nduka Otiono is a writer, Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University. He is the author and co-editor of eight books of creative writing and academic research. Prior to turning to academia, he was for many years a journalist in Nigeria, General Secretary of Association of Nigerian Authors, founding member of the Nigerian chapter of UNESCO’s Committee on Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage, and founding member of the Board of the $100,000 annual Nigerian Prize for Literature.