I was face down on the pavement. One police officer was kneeing me in the back, while others pulled or punched. They paid no attention to my screams identifying myself as an engineering Ph,D, student at Northwestern University. They just kept punching. One shouted, “Stop resisting!”
The record is on the dash-cam footage: It’s nighttime. I step out of my car, bewildered at being pulled over and surrounded by police vehicles in the college town I’ve lived in for years. I hold my hands up high, shocked to see several guns pointed at me. It turns out a fellow student had called the police to report that someone was trying to steal a car. That someone was me. The car was my own. I had a key.
“I don’t know if I’m, like, racial profiling,” the woman had told the 911 dispatcher. To her and to the police, I was a black man in a hoodie. After the cops arrived, after they tackled me, and after they determined that the car was indeed my own, they charged me anyway.
Resisting arrest, they said. One cop joked to another that I “should feel lucky” he didn’t shoot me.
I don’t feel lucky. Every time I see the video from that October 2015 encounter, I experience fear, anger, and terror. Fear that the color of my skin will make me out to be a criminal when I have broken no laws. Anger at the blatant disregard for human life and rights that the Constitution is supposed to guarantee to all citizens. Terror to have come — perhaps — within seconds of being shot by people sworn to serve and protect.
Amadou Diallo , Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams , Philando Castile . Their stories — like many others — are all too familiar. They all suffered gross overreactions by officers of the peace. Unfortunately, you will never hear their side of the stories, as they didn’t get the chance to speak before being shot to death. But you can hear mine.
My experience happened in Evanston, Ill., a college town that thinks of itself as progressive and forward-thinking. If such rough treatment can happen here, where the police department has hired outside trainers to give lessons on racial sensitivity, and if it can happen to me, with my education and resources, it can happen anywhere.
My life is no more valuable than any of the people I mentioned above. But this shouldn’t happen to anyone. I was minding my own business and driving my own car, my accuser was aware of her racial preconceptions, and the police should have known better. And still I ended up face down for a crime I didn’t commit, fearing for my life.
Now I must face consequences that are not of my own making. There’s an arrest on my record, even though a Cook County judge found me not guilty once he heard the evidence. There’s news coverage and the dash-cam video on the internet, available for any future employer or colleague who might choose to question me or my motives.
This isn’t the story that I expected to be telling at this point in my life, having just received my doctorate from one of the top schools in the country. The bigger story of my life is growing up without knowing my father, losing my mother to illness when I was 8 and becoming a ward of the state.
Many people — black and white — stepped up to serve as mother, father, sister and brother to me. I persisted. The day after my foster mother kicked me out because I refused to join the National Guard, I applied to Stanford University and got in. After four years, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
I’ve done everything in my power to defy the odds. Yet I feel as though I’m forever going to have to explain myself. As for the arresting officers, are they doing any explaining? Will they have to answer for the rest of their lives for their decision to wrestle me to the ground, pummel me and charge me with a crime?
A fellow student’s impulsive action and her hasty decision to call the police have put all of my hard work in jeopardy. The arrest, the charges, and the trial — a scarlet letter to go with the dark brown skin that I will wear for the rest of my life.
Lawrence Crosby is a Ph.D. graduate in materials engineering. He wrote this for the Washington Post, where a version of this piece originally appeared.