Two years ago, I was riding my bike through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. As I was picking up speed on the downhill slope, a police car swerved in front of me. Only one of my brakes was working and so I had to veer sharply to the left to avoid a full-on collision. I was very confused. It was late morning. No cars are allowed in the park at that time. At that hour on a balmy summer day in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the park is inhabited by cyclists, rollerbladers and those consummate over-achievers, the baby-stroller-pushing joggers. Two police officers jumped out of the car and one of them began shouting at me at top volume. “Get off the bike! Get OFF the bike! Ma’am, I NEED YOU to take your bike and lay it down.” I stood there, straddling my bike, at an utter loss. Why was he screaming at me like that? A bike is not a gun, and this was not a TV show.
The shocking video of Sandra Bland’s altercation with a Texas state trooper earlier this month brought back memories of my encounter with the New York Police Department, whose officers did their best to escalate a “routine bike stop” into a full-blown confrontation. But in Texas, the situation was far more tragic. There, the officer who stopped Ms. Bland for failing to use her turn signal, ordered her to get out of her car for no reason, threatened to Taser her if she failed to comply with his commands, and then arrested her on a trumped-up charge after stage-managing the whole ugly scene. The video didn’t just bring back my own bad memories, but reminded me of a once deeply-held but apparently erroneous conviction.
I am, like most others, aware that black people in the United States are systematically targeted by those charged with “honoring and serving” the public. Police across the country have a shameful track record when it comes to unjustly—and too often fatally—assaulting black men. The Sandra Bland case reminds us, however, that black women can just as easily become victims of policemen on a power trip. I learned this lesson loud and clear from my own interaction with police on that day in Brooklyn.
When I refused to get off my bike, the shorter of the two Asian American policemen increased his volume, apparently thinking I was deaf. “I SAID GET OFF YOUR BIKE NOW!” he shouted. “LAY DOWN YOUR BIKE!” Not quite believing what I was experiencing, I stood my ground. “Why? Why should I?” The taller, calmer policeman said: “Ma’am, you’re riding your bike the wrong way. Please get off the bike and lay it down.” The shorter, aggressive one kept yelling: “You were riding your bike at full speed. It’s a dangerous weapon.”
I wanted to laugh at the thought that a policeman might be afraid of a bike but I was also getting angry. “You know this is a park, right? There is no traffic now so I don’t see how I can be going the wrong way. Also, this is a bike. I would hardly call it a dangerous weapon. The only dangerous thing that’s happened is you swerving in front of me and almost causing me to crash!”
We stood there under the hot sun shouting at each other. Just like a bad TV show, they played good cop, bad cop. The good cop kept telling his colleague to calm down. I, however, was totally enraged by this point because I still don’t agree that riding one’s bike the wrong way in an empty park is cause for harassment. They couldn’t even tell me what law I had broken. Like Sandra Bland, who merely tried to defend herself using logic and common sense when confronted by the police, I felt that my rights were being violated. When the police demanded my ID and then locked themselves in their air-conditioned car for almost half an hour as they called their headquarters to see if there happened to be any outstanding bench warrants for my arrest, I was fuming.
But as I sat sweltering on the curb next to an idyllic meadow where a group of black men were playing touch football, Michel Foucault’s famous notion of “governmentality” came to mind. Wasn’t this the very weight of state power bearing down upon me? But then, much more helpfully, I thought back to my dissertation-writing days, a period where I binged on Law & Order marathons (a very useful, underrated dissertation-writing aide, I should note). I jumped off the curb and banged on their window. “Officers, I want your badge numbers. And what’s your…where’s that place…your home base or whatever. What’s it called? What’s your precinct?”
Later on, when I would write a letter to their commanding officer and make a formal complaint to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, I did so because as I sat there getting sunburnt, I was thinking that if I were a nineteen-year-old black man, things would have ended very differently. I was certain violence would have ensued. But as Sandra Bland’s unjustified arrest following a scuffle with the state trooper tragically reminded me, being a woman is no protection.
Perhaps because I didn’t grow up in this country, I didn’t know that then. So in the moment, I took advantage of my supposed protection, and exploited my middle-class cultural capital and stood up for myself. Many media commentators—most infamously, CNN’s Don Lemon—have castigated Ms. Bland for standing up for herself when it was the officer who was clearly out of line. The logic here seems to be that she should have simply submitted to the harassment and then raised a stink afterwards. But this is nothing more than victim-blaming. Under no circumstances should verbal disagreements with the police lead to an unwarranted arrest, imprisonment for three days, and subsequently death, as in Ms. Bland’s case.
Should I count myself lucky then? Perhaps. I didn’t stop scolding those police officers and as they handed me a summons, I handed them another long lecture about their unprofessional attempts to escalate the situation. Then I asked them, “What is a summons, anyways?” I was told I would be expected in court to plead guilty or not guilty for riding my bike the wrong way in Prospect Park. As I picked up my bike to leave, one of the men playing touch football looked at me ruefully. “Bad day to have locks.”
When I appeared for my court date seven weeks later, I learned another lesson about the American justice system. Of the fifty people or so who had also been hauled into court, only two were white—a daredevil Australian couple who had been caught riding their bikes in Prospect Park at three in the morning when the park is closed. Mostly, though, the room was filled with black and Latino men, mostly low-wage workers who had to take off of work (and thus lose a day’s pay) only to be told that their summons would be dismissed if they took a class on “community.” This was the option presented to me, as well— one that I took. This is how my story ended.
Sandra Bland’s ending was much more tragic. After three days in prison, she apparently committed suicide by hanging herself. Her death is still being investigated, but the chain of causality leading to her final hours begins with a policeman intent on escalating a minor traffic infraction into a full-blown confrontation. That is criminal. The onus of preventing escalation falls squarely on the police officer. Nor is it incumbent on black people—men or women—to simply lie down and take it. As we’ve learned repeatedly, though, prostrate obedience and irate self-defense can both cost a black person their life at the hands of American law enforcement.
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in the International Institute at UCLA. After earning her PhD from New York University, she was a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Cape Town. At UCLA, she teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and the International Development Studies interdepartmental program. Most recently, she is the recipient of a Fulbright-Nehru research grant. For links to her other work, please visit www.homosumhumani.com.