[NOTE: This post was originally penned back in September. The police officer in question is obviously no longer a threat to my safety. However, because a lot of what I discuss in this post is triggering, it took me a while to get to a place where I felt comfortable posting it. If you have any bad experiences with police harassment or street/sidewalk harassment, you might want to skip this post altogether.]
Today I cried on a stack of lemons at the supermarket. I should note here that crying in public, much less on produce, is atypical Fiqah behavior. Public crying is embarrassing AND unattractive, and as a pretty and vain chronic sinusitis sufferer, I know that Puffy-Sobby-Wetface is NOT my best look. But today, that’s exactly what I did: stuck my elbows in a stack of sunny yellow lemons, buried my face in my palms, and sobbed. It was early afternoon, and the produce section was thankfully empty. I don’t know how long I stood there before I was able to collect myself, wipe my obviously-been-crying face, clean my smeary glasses, and make my purchase. I ignored the eyes of the cashier, the concerned and alarmed expression of the man bagging my groceries, and the fiery burning of my beet-red ears as I left the store. You fucking idiot! I thought as I made my way back home. You forgot he was there!
I guess now would be a good time to explain myself.
For the past month or so, I have been the recipient of the unwanted attentions of a cop. This officer, whose beat is at a park in my neighborhood, first approached me when I was coming back from running some morning errands. At the time, I was carrying a few large shopping bags and wearing ear buds blasting M.I.A. I didn’t see him until he was right next to me, grabbing one of the heavier bags right out of my hand and startling me stupid. The cop, a Latino man in his late thirties, purred a too-familiar “hello” and told me that he it looked like I needed some help. All this as he took off his sunglasses and frankly assessed my bosom. A chill had gone through my whole body as I’d smiled and stammered a nervous thank you, moving my purse around to from my side to my front in an attempt to cover my breasts.
“Where you headed?” he asked, looking down at me as my eyes landed everywhere else: his shoes, a lamppost, a trashcan, a little boy barrelling down the sidewalk on his scooter. As we stopped at a crosswalk, he moved a full step closer to me so that we were separated by no more than a few inches. I swung the shopping bag hanging from my hand between us, casually, so as to appear non-deliberate. My flitting eyes landed on the gun at his hip. I quickly looked away.
“Oh, not far,” I’d said, calmly, making small talk as my mind screamed angry accusations and panicked instructions. Don’t let him walk you to your building! Stall him! It’s your fault for wearing a V-neck shirt without a minimizer! Tell him you have run to the bodega across the street and pick up something you forgot! Tell him your boyfriend’s waiting for you! You must always remember to wear your wedding ring when you go out or this will happen! This is your fault! Your fault! Don’t tell him your real name! Don’t tell him anything! Keep talking! This is your fault!
“OH!” I said, feigning dismay. “I forgot something! I gotta run into one of these bodegas and grab it.”
“No problem, I’ll walk you there,” he’d said. My stomach turned over.
“Thank you so much, that’s really nice, but I got it.”
“You sure?” he’d asked, handing me my bags.
“Oh, yeah, it’s not a problem. I mean, a little weight-lifting won’t hurt!” I added. He laughed, and gave me one last nauseating up-and-down.
“Don’t get too much exercise, now,” he’d drawled.
I had swallowed my rising bile and forced a smile, thanking him for his help, and hastily crossed the street. As I stood in the tiny, cramped bodega, the crystal pinpricks I felt along my arms, legs and neck condensed into a sickening film of cool sweat. I was mortified to discover that my normally well-behaved teeth were chattering audibly. The store owner’s cat, dozing on a bag of flour and awakened by the noise, lifted her eyelids to half-mast to investigate. Finding me boring, she slid them shut and resumed her napping. Clenching my teeth, I strode quickly out the door, crossing the street against traffic, and headed up to my apartment. The elevator ride up those ten flights lasted forever, as I plotted my future daily trajectory.I would have to be more careful. I would have to vary my route. I would have to remember he was there. I must not forget.
And yet, weeks later, here was I, in the same boat. As I unpacked my groceries, I tried to calm down. Contradictory thoughts echoed in my head. It’s fine. He doesn’t know my name. He hasn’t done anything untoward. I’m fine. It’ll be okay. He doesn’t know which building I live in. He doesn’t have my number. I’ll be okay. As I put my kettle on the stove for tea, it dawned on me that what this officer hadn’t done didn’t matter one whit to me. Because it was my knowledge of what he could do that had sent me into the first public crying jag I had had in over a decade. All the things that he could do to me, without questions, without consequences. All the ways that in an instant this man, whose sworn duty is to protect and serve me, could do me harm. Could hurt my body. Could ravage my soul. Could hurt the people I loved. Could ruin my life, or take my life, or both. And it was that which emboldened him to repeatedly ignore my body language, transgress my personal space – spatial rape -and openly eye my body. The weapon he wielded was menace, and it was backed up by the physical reality of a loaded gun and the legal authority of a badge. Because of the power dynamic imbalance, I would not be able, politely or harshly, to brush this man off. He would not allow it. My mind pored over the seemingly unending roster of the NYPD dead and wounded, people who had been violated and/or murdered because some asshole racist bastard jackass inferiority complex motherfucking PIG was having a bad day and exercising bad judgment. It wasn’t fair. It just was not.
As my anger and outrage grew, tears filled my eyes as I tried to recall the last time I had felt truly Safe. It had been such a long time. I am relentlessly mistrustful of authority in general by design, and the Poh-Leese in particular by experience. By the time I was four I knew that there were things in this world that my mother, the most powerful force in my child universe, was unable to protect me from. And by the time I was seven, I knew that the adult world often abused its power, gorging itself with gusto on the innocence of children, aided and abetted in its crimes by willful adult blindness. (I am and have been smart, strong, quick and crafty since I was a kid. Please believe me when I tell you that if I had been Safe, I would not have needed to be any of those things.) I abandoned the notion of entitlement to safety altogether the first time I was followed by a grown (White) man. It happened at my local mall. Panicked, I found a (White) female security guard. And told her what happened. She didn’t believe me. Or rather, she didn’t believe that I hadn’t done something to make the pervy bastard follow me. Let the record show that I was twelve years old. As an adult, I know that my positionality as determined by the laws of the Kyriarchy mean that I will very rarely be Safe in any real sense, and will often have to fend for myself even when I obviously need help or am in danger. Having been blessed with a survivor’s mentality, the mantle of victimhood is something that I rarely wear for very long. So, with that in mind, I blew my nose, washed my face, and got online to see what options for citizens who are subjected to police harassment are. I was appalled to learn that the Department of Justice, one of the few bodies empowered to “police the police”, offers no preemptive recourse and precious few options to actual victims of non-physical (i.e., property damage, verbal assault) police harassment. Mind you, if you so much as brush the arm of an officer of the law, it’s considered assault, and you can be arrested. Basically, you only have a case if you have been violated, and even then, it may be shot down unless you have solid physical evidence. Your chances of building a case are significantly reduced if you are female and Black. A short conversation with my lawyer upon the advice of a friend confirmed that, as is so often the case with the law, it wasn’t about what I knew, but what I could prove. My attorney, his voice simultaneously tired and hurried, sighed the truth to me: “I’m sorry, honey. There’s no case here.”
There’s no case here. So,there it was. With the exception of my teary retelling of these incidents – and there were more – with this cop to my friends, this story didn’t happen. It won’t be a nationally-known scathing indictment of the NYPD. It won’t be another chink in the perceived armor of the NYPD’s professional integrity. It will be a drop in the bucket, and water under the bridge. It will fade into silence with nary an echo.
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