For years my daughter took dance classes at the corner of Snelling and Larpenteur in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, kitty-corner from the state fairgrounds. The dance school she attended was behind a fairly nondescript strip mall with a spectacular Chinese restaurant, a pizza place, a cell phone store, a locksmith, a liquor store. You had to know the school was there to know it was there.
It sat, along the legs, two miles north and two miles west of my house in St. Paul, but I tended to take the hypotenuse, preferring to wend through neighborhoods, past my friends David and Kelly’s place for a chance to catch them in their front yard and yell “what’s up?”
In the years I drove that route, at least 12 times a week there and back to drop off and pick up, I could not count the number of times — always heading home from Falcon Heights back into Saint Paul — a squad car followed me south on Arona, then east on Hoyt (or California or Iowa or Idaho or any east-west street I took near there), then sometimes south a bit on Hamline before, I’m quite certain, validating that my tabs were current, my brake lights were working and I had no outstanding warrants.
Over the seven or eight years I drove it, I estimate, conservatively, I was followed like that about once a month.
I have a similar story about my year as a house sitter in Golden Valley.
I often saw it as a game, insulated as I was by current papers and a car that was finicky mostly just under the hood.
But sometimes it enraged me. I engaged in flawed thinking: I imagined a middle-aged man in a Saab with a child along for the ride might be perceived as a benign traveler and granted safe passage. The idea that if Black folks conducted themselves in a particular way and dressed in a particular way, their humanity would be harder to deny, was quite common when I was young and still persists today.
Here’s the theory: If we do everything exactly right, if we obey every order, even unreasonable or unlawful ones, we should survive an encounter with agents employed to protect and serve.
Ask any Army lieutenant dressed in fatigues, heading home in a brand new American car, how it actually works. He’ll tell you.
I realized in time that to the officers of the Falcon Heights Police Department, I represented the potential to hit a quota or fund a city project, to take a hint or be given one, the same hint Jeff Lebowski got when he ventured into Jackie Treehorn’s beach community.
You. Are. Not. Welcome. Here.
It all stopped suddenly in the summer of 2016 right near there on Larpenteur Avenue. Not long after the Fourth of July, Philando Castile was dead, and I was never again followed in Falcon Heights.
I still drive around there today, not followed. I was up there last week to hit a bucket at the University driving range, across the street and west a few blocks of where Castile was stopped by the police under the guise of a traffic violation. He’d been stopped 49 times in 13 years. Forty seconds after the police pulled him over, he was dead. He had a child in his car too and his girlfriend. No criminal consequences followed.
No one follows me now. I invite you to consider the cost and who paid it. Consider it like I do whenever a squad car appears behind me up there and decides not to run my plates.
It was intentional. It was policy, just like it was in Ferguson where Michael Brown was killed. And just like it was in Brooklyn Center on Sunday where Daunte Wright, age 20 (do you know how young that is?), was killed.
It was intentional and foreseeable — premeditated in that way. It isn’t that no one intervened to stop it, it’s that millions of Americans favor exactly this kind of policing. The system was designed to accommodate any accidents or overzealous acts. The architects know full well too many among us will reserve their scrutiny for the victim, will, in fact, see the victim as the perpetrator.
Through indirect associations on social media, I gained access yesterday to the vast part of the nation utterly unmoved by Daunte Wright’s death but outraged to no end by stolen beer or whatever.
What they want is completely clear — yes to over-policing, yes to predatory policing. Yes to all of it — just not where they live. Or not for them rather, check the folks passing through.
These advocates, these future jurors, are legion and sly like wolves. They never say what they want outright — that would be too ugly. They come at it sideways like all cowards do, under pretext. “Check that man’s air freshener” they say, “lest things get out of control.”
This essay originally appeared in the Examiner’s sister publication, the Minnesota Reformer, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Minnesota Reformer maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Patrick Coolican for questions: [email protected] Follow Minnesota Reformer on Facebook and Twitter.