My hands were in the air and I was walking backward, slowly. “Don’t shoot me,” I whispered under my breath. “Please don’t shoot me.” The police officers who pointed their rifles at my back couldn’t hear me. They were too far away. What if I, a brown man stepping out of a blue van, made a sudden move they misinterpreted? What if I tripped but it looked to them like I was preparing to take cover and open fire? “Please, don’t shoot me. I don’t want to be the next hashtag.”
More than three years have passed since that day. I’ve told the story several times, but I’ve never written it down. Today I feel I must.
As the country rages over the killing of another black man at the hands of another cop [this time it’s George Floyd, whose neck was treated as a kneepad by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. By the time I post this, heaven knows if the next “Black Lives Matter” hashtag will start to go viral], I again feel compelled to understand the powerlessness people feel about police-community relations, particularly black people.
It’s a topic I cover in my day job from time to time. I’ve written about cops accused of overstepping their bounds, using force when it was not necessary, and deadly force when (hindsight is kind enough to disclose) no one’s life was truly at risk. I tend to be careful. By the time these cases reach a courtroom, they have been dissected and analyzed by countless people, especially if there’s video. I’ve trained myself not to judge. Let the experts do that job. Let the juries do theirs.
The cop on the job does not have the luxury of withholding judgment. A wrong decision could be fatal for them or an innocent bystander. It could also be fatal for an innocent or non-dangerous suspect. We demand police officers determine, on the spot, what takes us careful examination to conclude hours, days, weeks or more after the fact.
I get it. And I am fond of saying it is impossible to look at every instance of alleged police brutality and conclude the cops are always in the wrong, but it is equally impossible to conclude they are always in the right.
I’m not commenting on the Chauvin case. A jury will do that. Plenty of people who have watched the video of Floyd’s last moments have pontificated and expressed appropriate outrage (and sometimes inappropriate outrage). What can I add except one man’s heartbreak at what he observed?
I want to trust the police, always. The death of Floyd makes it hard. My brush with being at the business end of their rifles illustrated what I’ve often been told: cops don’t go to work every day looking for a chance to jeopardize their careers, their good names, their well being and their freedom just to gun down a brown person, as much as it might sometimes seem that way.
My encounter took place on January 6, 2017.
A gunman decided on that day to open fire in the baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Every local reporter I know headed to the scene. By the time I got close, the airport had been sealed off. But there was an area on the north side of the airport that was still accessible.
I drove a blue Dodge Caravan at the time (sue me; I have a family of six). I drove to a warehouse that overlooked the tarmac. I could see passengers waiting to get back onto planes or into the terminal, but no one knew at the time whether there was another gunman working in concert with the first. Was this an ISIS attack? Was the worst yet to come?
I took pictures with my phone. Then I got back into my minivan.
Between the time I arrived at the warehouse and the time I left, police had sealed off the area. No one else was getting in. More than a dozen police vehicles were stationed nearby in case a second shooter tried to get away from exactly where I had just stood taking pictures.
Did I mention I was a brown man riding alone in a minivan leaving the scene of a possible terrorist shooting?
I think I saw the rifles before I saw the hands holding them. I reached over to shut off my radio. Damned if I was going to get shot because I couldn’t hear the lawful orders of police officers. But what if they see me leaning over to turn the radio off? What if they think I’m reaching for something else?
I couldn’t panic. As I drove toward them, slowly, I lowered my window. I don’t remember what they said to me; the vision of the rifles drowned out the sound of their voices. “I am media!” I called out. “This area was open when I got here!”
I told them who I worked for. I was wearing my press ID (which is rare).
“Turn off your vehicle! Step out with your hands up! Turn around! Walk backward toward us.”
I stepped out. I did exactly as I was told. Arms up. Please don’t shoot.
I don’t recall how long it was. A minute? Two? 40? “Ok, stop!” I felt hands on my legs. On my sides. I was being patted down. I was unarmed. So was Amadou Diallo. So was Eric Garner. So was… I put those thoughts out of my head. A police officer circled in front of me, gun raised. We locked eyes. He put his gun down as soon as he saw my face.
“I know this man!” he said. “He’s OK!”
I didn’t see the rifles being lowered so much as I felt it. I was safe. I looked at the officer.
“Hey, remember me?” he asked.
I didn’t. Maybe it was nerves.
Officer Victor Ramirez. Ten months earlier it was defendant Victor Ramirez, a lawman accused of using excessive force on a homeless man sleeping on a bench at a bus terminal in Fort Lauderdale. Ramirez had asked him to move. The officer smacked the homeless guy. It was on video. Sound, too. They don’t all have sound. It was a really loud smack.
I watched the video carefully during the trial. Both sides deserved that. I reported exactly what I saw. The man (intoxicated, which was not in dispute) had lost his balance and fallen down. “When Ramirez grabbed at [the man’s] arm to pick him back up, [the man] swatted at the officer, according to the video.” Ramirez then smacked the man and ended up the defendant in a misdemeanor battery trial.
He was found not guilty. The video people used to condemn him actually exonerated him.
He was back on the job and on duty Jan. 6, 2017. He had his weapon trained on the reporter who covered his trial.
He lowered his weapon. He reintroduced himself. I was safe.
Unaware of whether there was another gunman at the airport (there wasn’t), police did not let me return to my minivan for a couple of hours. I borrowed another officer’s phone to let my desk know what had happened.
I lived because most cops are careful about the use of force. I lived because I followed instructions, but also because of the happy accident that nothing went wrong. I didn’t trip and appear to be readying to fire a weapon. I lived because every finger on every trigger on every rifle was trained to wait until they had no choice but to open fire.
How easily could I have been killed? One shaky cop. One misstep. One misinterpreted motion. What would it have taken to kill me?
Is it possible, if that cop were anyone other than Victor Ramirez, that I would still be here today? Probably. I would hope. But sometimes I wonder. What sane person of color would not?
It’s true. Police do not go to work looking to put their lives and futures at risk just so they can kill a brown person. That it happens as often as it does, under circumstances that must be questioned by any civil society, goes to show how far we have yet to go as a nation.
I am pro-cop. I am pro-people. Black lives matter. All lives matter only if black lives matter.
My heart aches for George Floyd. I want an answer for his death, something that validates my faith in the people who risk their lives for me every time they put on the badge.
I will not judge, but I fear that I will not get that answer. Not this time.
Support your local police. Black lives matter.
[Note: this was written before Sunday’s demonstrations in Fort Lauderdale].