By PETER ASEBIOMO
The sound of the door slamming behind me echoed in the dimly lit hallway as I walked down the narrow corridor towards my apartment. An officer blocked my path, holding his arm out in front of me as I attempted to walk past.
“Where are you headed?” he demanded.
I tried to remove his arm from my wrist, attempting to walk around him home a few feet away. “Why are you putting your hands on me?” he asked ferociously.
He was a black cop, about 5’7, stocky and in his mid-to-late thirties. I heard my friend Darnell, listening from the hallway, call out, “Hey Pete, stop being difficult!’’
He had left the stairwell moments before me and now stood in front of our apartment. Both the officer and I ignored him.
“I wasn’t putting my hands on you, simply trying to remove your hand from me,” I explained. “Can I go?”
“I need to see some ID,” he retorted sharply.
My lack of deference angered him.
You want to get locked up?” he shouted. “I just got a call of a group of people smoking weed in the stairwell, now I need to know where you’re headed and see some ID.”
His demand shook me to my core. The prospect of wrongly being stopped and questioned due to an ambiguous call didn’t sit well with me. The very principles on which my country was built were now being tested—a pop quiz proctored by the man that currently stood before me. I would issue a test of my own.
“Am I suspected of committing a crime?” I calmly asked.
He again threatened to arrest me, accusing me of disorderly conduct for impeding his investigation.
“Arrest me for what?” I asked again calmly. “Am I under suspicion of a criminal act?”
Otherwise, I wasn’t legally obligated to disclose my identification.
I heard a door in the hallway slam shut and turned to see my mother coming out of the apartment. Her expression shifted from anger, when she heard the officer’s reason for being there, to fear when she saw the tension between us. She pleaded with the officer not to arrest me as she scurried down the hallway towards us.
“See? I live here,” I explained, presenting my license.
But he wasn’t satisfied. He gripped my license tightly as my mother frantically continued her plea for him to not arrest me.
“Arrest me for what? He can’t arrest me,’’ I shouted to my mother.
My words provoked him.
“I’ll call the unit right now,” he declared and began to take out handcuffs.
My mother continued her pleas, performing a sort of curtsy as she begged him to let me go. But he ignored her.
“He wants to act like a man, let him deal with this like a man, ma’am,” he shouted as he rebuffed my mom who now stood between us.
He continued yelling abusively as Darnell and my mother attempted to calm me down, frantically urging me to keep quiet.
“I didn’t do anything,” I protested. “What is he going to lock me up for?”
My mother degraded herself further nearly bowing to her knees as she pleaded with him. The image made my stomach turn and he threw it in my face.
“Look at you! Look at what you got your mother doing for you,” he sneered taunting me as he reached for his handcuffs.
The image of my mother degrading herself in vain and the prospect of getting arrested in front of her silenced me.
“Ok officer, I apologize,” I mouthed quietly gritting my teeth. He had won. He found my sore spot and doused it with salt.
“You’re lucky. I’ll let you go, but not for you, for your mother,” he announced smugly.
I had finally given him the deference he sought from the beginning. He’d won. My blood boiled as he continued his lecture, which was nothing more than a victory lap at this point. I remained quiet as he spoke.
I stood there replaying the image of my mother begging to preserve freedom of her son—a freedom that should have never been in jeopardy. I felt like a little boy as he handed me my license back and walked away.
Inside my home, Darnell and my mother harped that all of this could have been avoided if I simply told the cop I was going home and humbly produced identification. “He holds all the cards Pete. He could have locked you up for no reason and then your life is ruined just because you wanna flex your rights. You’re too smart for your own good,’’ Darnell lectured.
I knew he was right; this wasn’t a revelation. But that was what angered me: the best recourse in such a circumstance is blind obedience and the worst is an exercise of your constitutional—scratch that—natural God given rights.
I sat in my room in the dark and contemplated what had just happened. Why did I feel so helpless? What was I just a victim of? The cop was black like me so it wasn’t racism; it was simply a guy drunk with power. And then it hit me: that’s what I was just victimized by—power.
What a farce I thought as I punched the wall in frustration. The pain in my knuckles was a welcomed distraction from that of my bruised pride. Silly political theories about social contracts and consent of the people meant nothing. Darnell was right: I am too smart for my own good. Fear the people? Why would the police fear us in a system where they are all powerful? It is we who should fear them, especially in America—a country that holds five percent of the world’s population yet 25 percent of the world’s prison population; a country in which 65 million citizens, nearly one in four, have a criminal record; a land that has reduced our rights to a theory you dare not attempt to put into practice.
Could have been worse I thought to myself. I could have been Mike Brown or Eric Garner. I could have been in New York and stopped and frisked without even the pretense of an ambiguous call. Or I could have been arrested and kept in jail for up to four years without a trial (an occurrence not uncommon in New Jersey for detainees whom can’t make bail and whose trial dates are delayed repeatedly; many times until they accept a plea).
Or I could have been David Eckert, a white man, pulled over for running a stop sign and subsequently subjected to three enemas, a colonoscopy and several cavity searches because officers believed he appeared to clench his buttocks, indicating he was a drug mule.
I specify Eckert’s race because this is a key component in the myth of America’s justice system. Racism is not its greatest flaw. It’s the abuse of power.
There are countless stories of police misconduct in respects to people from all walks of life, of all races and creeds—these stories may be more prevalent in the black community but the fact remains WE ARE ALL POTENTIAL VICTIMS.
The officer that stopped me didn’t care if I was white or black, he cared that I questioned his authority; whether legitimately or not, he was willing to make me pay if I didn’t submit.
Police are necessary—they keep us safe and we should be thankful and appreciative for them putting their lives on the line to ensure our safety. But should we imbue with power that seems to only have limits in theory? I shouldn’t have been afraid of him; in a true democracy, it is I he should fear. It is we the people.
Peter Asebiomo is freelance writer and journalist from Miami, FLA, who resides in Newark, NJ. He’s a simple man whose pleasures include reading, playing basketball and watching the New York Jets lose—badly. Needless to say, he’s been very happy as of late. Dolphins fan through and through.