The handcuffs are too tight and I don’t know the safety word. This is no Fifty Shades of Grey gone wrong (or right). I’m standing on a city street, hands behind my back, surrounded by NYPD undercover officers.
How I became the center of a cop circle is easily told. After a day of imperfectly freelancing, the workday ends with a walk. A friend calls it a “daily constitutional” and teases I should wear a bowler, accompanied with a dog called Mr. Muggles. He insists this imagined pet be a Jack Russell.
Wasn’t paying much attention on this early evening, a habit and privilege, but was immediately brought out of the mental fog by a plainclothes officer, who happened to be white, placing his forearm in my chest. His actions lacked the drama, and violence, of the undercover who tackled ex-tennis player James Blake.
“Don’t move,” he says.
Went back a few steps, only to be stopped by a fence. Other undercovers join the party. There are keys in my hand (was a few blocks away from home) and they are taken by a Latina officer. The semi-circle of constables are from central casting. All male, minus the female officer, Asian, Latino, and white. Hollywood film producers might want to call the NYPD. New York’s Finest apparently have no problem with diversity.
”Where are you coming from,” the officer asks.
Up to this point I’m silent. Technically I’m coming from nowhere. Keep my own counsel as the pants pockets are felt. The following damning evidence is found: identification, subway card, and discount cards to various drugstores.
The cop repeats the question.
My tone is terse, but there are no curse words. No announcements about rights or how his job will soon be my providence. Not even a “what is the motherfucking problem.” Am I angry for being stopped? Yes. However, except for the tenor of my voice, nothing in my behavior called the officer’s power into question. He said do not move. I stood still.
“Do you have any weapons?” he asks.
The multicultural cast are silent during the interview, only talking to each other. The questions about my whereabouts, reasons for wandering on a week night, and possible weapons possessions are asked again. The answers are the same, but after another weapons query, I turn curt.
“You’ve asked me that before.”
This insolence makes the interrogator irritated and timid.
“You’re making me feel for my safety. Even though you’re not under arrest, I’m putting you in handcuffs.”
In hindsight, this sentence is farcical. The punchline Richard Pryor would use in a bit. An officer of the state is on a well lit street. He’s talking to a “suspect,” who up to this point has not moved or physically threatened anyone. The “suspect” is surrounded, so even if escape was the master plan, I would dart right into the arms of a constable. Everyone, except the “suspect,” is armed. However, my interrogator is feeling fearful.
“Didn’t he know you are nothing but a punk?” a friend teased.
Nothing is gained debating with police. Up to this point I have no idea why I’m a person of interest. However, this is the US of A, and that does not matter. An armed state agent declared, loud enough for a diversity crew to hear, that his well-being was under threat. Therefore, everything that follows has the imprimatur of justice and fair play.
I’m told to turn around. That’s done and handcuffs are put (tightly) on. The rest of our time together is an attempt to explain my existence. Why am I on this corner? What am I doing? Did I stop at a store? Who do I live with? The answers are unworthy and the officer declares they are not what he thinks to be true or real.
After being called a weaver of untrue tales, the officer informs a woman was sexually assaulted on the street I said I was just on. I look like the suspect.
Was tempted to say I’m a quiet sodomite, but doubted that would have mattered.
“You seem agitated,” he notes.
“This usually happens when I’m handcuffed, surrounded by officers, and questioned.”
“Why are you sweating?” he wonders.
“Because I’m fat and out of shape. I apologize for sweating on a city street.”
He points to his Asian partner.
“He’s fat. He’s not sweating.”
Curious how that moment was handled at the end of the shift.
The other officers occasionally direct sidewalk traffic. Pedestrians walk by, a few stare, but no crowd forms. Not surprising. No guns are drawn. There is no struggle. No yelling. Just a nameless man of color, fenced in by police. The only action is talk. No need for citizen reporters to pull out their phones.
“Are you on any drugs?”
All of them are named, from crack to weed. The officer maintains this is just a safety question. He needs to know just in case I am taken to the hospital so subjunctive doctors can be told. This concern for my well-being rings hollow. A minute earlier, I’m a world class fabulist, whose voice pitch puts terror in the hearts of armed men and women. Now we are buddies, and he’s looking out for my best interest. Any “drug use” is not his business and that question goes unanswered. The officer gets credit for letting the line of inquiry pass.
Over one of the police radios, comes a description of the man I am for the moment. Black male, glasses, 30s, with a brown hoodie. My hoodie is blue and 30 is a long time ago.
“You hear that? This is why you were stopped,” the officer explains.
I point to the hoodie color discrepancy, but that is of no consequence.
“It looks brown to me.”
I curse all the officers. I curse their kids, their wives and husbands, parents, and their parents’ friends. I curse the houses they live in and each pet they own. I curse the people they owe money to and the places they shop.
These bloody oaths are internal. If heard, there would have been an arrest.
The handcuffs are hurting but this, like the expletives against the multicultural crew and its fearless leader, is kept private. There are no allies with this bunch, so silence is the only worthy protection.
The victim is to be brought to the corner to make an identification. A marked car eventually arrives. Someone is in the back seat, but the windows are tinted. Being misidentified was not a concern. The contrast between me and the suspect, from clothes color to age, was so disparate I had more faith in a traumatized citizen than a state trained officer.
Was told to face the driver’s side. A light from the car shines; I’m not the one. Suddenly, I’m transmuted into “Mr. Withers.” The cuffs are removed, leaving a mark on the left wrist. The constable of the evening gives me his last name and precinct — he works in the tenth — not out of fear, but to offer me more respect than he thought I deserved.
“Can I have my keys back, please?”
The officer is talking, but I’m walking away. He’s following protocol, trying to explain why the evening constitutional was delayed and why it can return to normal. 15 minutes previously, I was suspected of a heinous crime. My irate voice was causing so much mayhem that restraints were needed. This inflated status is unearned. A warning to stay out of trouble would have been preferable. Why even pretend that with the courtesy routine? It does not erase the first half of our morality play. All that changed from the time we bumped into each other is an unknown woman explaining to a person, with a badge, her attacker remains at large.
“You’re free to go,’ Officer X says.
“So you really needed the handcuffs, huh?” I ask the night air.
There is no response but, to be fair, I’m not waiting for one. Blend back into the sidewalk stream and the officers go their way. I get home and post the tale on social media. The next morning, went to the precinct to file a complaint. The desk officer handed over a form which was filled out and delivered to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. A statement was taken by two investigators, and the incident was assigned a case number.
Being mistaken for a suspect of a brutal crime is not the problem, although maybe it’s time for a national conversation about the metaphysical distinctions between blue and brown. It’s the quick use of handcuffs and the officer’s rapid pull of the safety card. If I lunged for him, or his peers, attempted to run away, publicly cursed him, yelled that I’m not being detained, or yanked away when he wanted me to move in a direction, then handcuffs would have been been necessary.
I complied with his commands, but didn’t obey with an open heart. This is an American sin and the type of attitude that makes politicians, and voters, wail “Blue Lives Matter.” In a 2014 Washington Post editorial, 17-year police veteran Sunil Dutta writes the following: “Every person stopped by a cop should feel safe instead of feeling that their wellbeing is in jeopardy. Shouldn’t the community members extend the same courtesy to their officers and project that the officer’s safety is not threatened by their actions?”
An excellent question, but courtesy was of no use to me. Maybe the only technique that can keep us safe with officers is submissive servility, with no edge.
Compared to what others have experienced when faced with governmental authority, this experience is irrelevant. At least I didn’t die, rasping “I can’t breathe,” like Eric Garner. The officer went home at the end of his shift, and the suspect was eventually caught. I returned to my life, home, and routine (rounded the same corner a few days ago).
The victim who cleared my name was denied that luxury. •