No Idle Threat: Processing the Trauma of Police Terror

by Ah-Keisha McCants

I sat in my idling car at a rest stop. It was around 11:40pm. My husband, four kids and I had just had a day to remember celebrating the unveiling of a friend’s new artwork at MoMA PS1. Laughing in the streets of Brooklyn with my children’s god mommies, our fearless blackness blanketed an ever-changing backdrop. Gentrifiers’ stares be damned, we re-branded the streets that night with off-key renditions of r&b/hip hop oldies, and original satirical folk songs. We captured that moment (our children sang along, and somehow we were bigger kids than them), and shared it on Facebook. We were happy, proud, well-fed, well-cultured, silly, black and carefree.

On the drive back to Philly only an hour or so after saying goodbye to our dear fam, following such reckless abandon, my partner Et had to run to the bathroom. We stopped at a rest stop in New Jersey; it was not busy, but it was late and dark. Parking spots abound, a man sat idling his car in the handicapped spot in front of the building’s entry-way. We debated whether we should pull up to one of the handicapped spots too. We checked for his insignia, no tags, just a man waiting, probably for his spouse who had to quickly run in to do the same as mine, and figured we should be alright. To be clear, this wasn’t a typical occurrence, we don’t normally park in handicapped spots. But we thought, because of the late hour, the minimal activity in the lot, and the number of open handicapped parking spots available beside our car, we’d be fine. And, we felt safer, since our four kids were asleep in the back to park closest to the building, where there was light.
Et left the car, and I idled in the passenger seat, on my phone, smiling at the recently uploaded pictures populating Facebook from the monumental art show we’d attended earlier. This had been a great day of art education, deep conversation, catching up with friends, and meeting new people. In my moment of bliss, I didn’t notice a white man, a cop, approach the driver’s side of my car until he began to tap furtively on the window.

“Ma’m,” he said curtly. I looked up and met his simmering gaze. “Who is the handicapped person in this car,” he asked. I said, knowing I was in the wrong for being parked there, “I’m sorry, no one.” I knew it was wrong of me to be idling there. I also knew there was a white man right beside me in a spot like mine idling his jeep, without a care. I wondered if he’d been asked the same question, if he had, did he answer yes or no. I met his question calmly. I told the officer no, but he was angry, and it was apparent. His glare made my stomach drop. He then said to me, in a pointed tone, “Do you know where you’re parked? You’re disrespectful.” I answered, “I’m sorry, I’ll move the car. My husband ran in to quickly use the bathroom.”

He cut me off, and then asked again, he had one hand at the hip, his tone was like boiling sap with no caution, just burn. He needed to prove something to me, “Is there a handicapped person in this car?” he raised his voice, aggressive. He peered at me like I was an animal, some derelict that needed to learn a lesson. At this point, my heart was beating a mile a minute and I thought back to Sandra Bland and I didn’t want that to be my fate. I remained calm and answered again, “No.” I didn’t move an inch, I couldn’t. I didn’t know what he wanted to do to me, but I felt it, the hate seeping through my half-opened window. He asked me again, the same question, and I just looked at him. I said nothing this time. And again, he asked raising his voice, “Who’s handicapped? Is there a handicapped person in this car?”

Measuring my tone, my breath, I said, “No, no one, I’m sorry I’ll move the car.” He wasn’t satisfied and he leaned in closer, as I sat idling in the passenger seat, my four kids asleep in the back, I thought what have I done. What a mistake have we made, to idle on a Sunday night, near midnight, at an empty rest stop, in a handicapped spot. And then I thought about my partner, a black man. Had the cop seen him? Was he dragging this out, building his case, revving himself up so he could hurt my husband? Pull the gun, he had been resting his hand on this entire time, because he was startled or felt attacked by this black man who came out of nowhere to his car, to his wife and children.

The officer spoke again, icy and fixated on wielding his authority, “In my book that’s a $250 ticket.” And I thought, if it’s a ticket then fine, but anything more I can’t take. I thought to myself, is he going to ask for my license and registration? As I looked at him, and him back at me, he didn’t ask for anything. He just stared at me with rage in his eyes; it seemed he was hoping for me to make a sudden move or to become irate or to say something like, there are five other empty handicapped spots beside my car so why are you picking on me, or to point out that there’s a white man right next to me with no insignia on his car, did you talk to him like this? Or, what else do you want me to do, I said I was sorry and that I would move the car. Or, are you going to just give me a ticket and be done? Or, fuck you for trying to escalate an otherwise cut and dry situation? Or, either ticket me or let me leave with a warning - it’s late at night, an empty rest stop, this isn’t a hostage situation.

But, I didn’t give him what he was looking for; I wouldn’t, and yet my safety was on the line like I had stole something and held somebody for ransom. I felt in danger, not safe, not protected, not fairly reprimanded. I felt completely powerless, belittled, and threatened. I told him, again, “I’m sorry, I’ll move my car.” And then, sensing that was not enough, I told him that my children were asleep in the back. As if I’d fouled his plan with this unexpected mention of kids, he quickly pulled out a flashlight and looked in the back of the car. He saw the four of them, asleep. I was spared the toll of that cop’s boiling rage because of them. If I never knew it before, I know now, those kids are my guardian angels.

He shot his next words at me, like I’m sure he wished he could have a bullet, “Then move the car. Now.” And just as fast as he was there, he was gone. I gingerly moved the car, my hands trembled the entire time. Et came out seconds later, and all I could think was we better drive especially careful, what if he’s waiting to catch us on the road or radioed another cop, all because we idled in a handicapped parking spot.

I realize that so many other people of color go through this on a regular basis. My husband has been pulled over so many times, for driving while black, it truly hurt him that I had to experience that. That cop was intent on escalating a non-situation - other bad cops like him are so intent on looking to create a disturbance, to bag an innocent body because a person supposedly stepped out of line or didn’t have the right tone, or answer to give.

The trauma.

It’s taken a couple weeks for me to process what happened, and how close I was to being harmed or detained. And everyday I see a new video of a cop attacking a person of color violently, it sends me back to that moment in my idling car. I know that not all cops act this way, but the ones who do this to people, who treat citizens, children, like terrorists, like vermin to be kicked around, broken, and made an example of, shame on you and the painful wounds you leave - not only to your victims but the bystanders paralyzed with fear and powerlessness that you’ll turn that rage onto them too. We hear about the casualties of life lost in these exchanges, but there is very real loss even when you make it out alive. You realize you are not safe in this country. Black people cannot be idle and expect to walk away with a ticket or a warning even when you’re compliant. That’s the scary part about this. I will never be the same.
A day later, while in our neighborhood, I took my youngest son to the supermarket. A pair of cops rushed by to handle a situation up ahead of us at the pet store. My son says, with the innocence of a five year old, I love the police. One of the officers hears him, and turns around and gives him a high five. If my son had awaken the night before, and saw the evil in that other cop’s eyes, the venom in his tone, the malicious intent in his interaction with his mother, who knows if he’d have felt the same about the officer who was in front of him, who was doing his job, and well. The pet store called the officers because an older black man was in the shop, and was speaking incoherently, and wouldn’t leave. The two white officers, instead of physically or verbally assaulting him, spoke calmly to the man, tried to find out his name, if he had ID, a family member they could contact. They called an ambulance; it was clear the old man was sick and confused. They actually wanted to protect and serve.

Award-winning playwright, filmmaker and songwriter, Ah-Keisha was Senior Editor of Duende, an online literary journal with Goddard College, and contributing writer for Black History Mini Docs. She's been published in Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Specter Magazine. Ah-Keisha recently completed a new play, “Black Hands” and is developing an accompanying visual doc series titled, “Black Hands: ON DISPLAY,” a homage to blackness and the personal narratives of black wellness. Ah-Keisha has a BFA in Creative Writing, and is completing her M.S.Ed in Reading/Writing/Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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