It was the sort of day that felt like the summer sun bared a personal grudge against the city below. Even the winds that occasionally gathered before sweeping through the area, were hot and arid, offering all the relief of an oversized hairdryer aimed at the face. On this particular August afternoon in Union City, I was 15, and on my way to Bronco Billy's pizza parlor for both a peperoni slice, and to play the 'Marvel Super Heroes' arcade. With me was Dolos, and Archon.
We taking the same shortcut a majority of kids living in that area used; the railroad tracks. On hot days the rocks, metal rails, and brick walls wafted with heat. Such shaved off a significant amount of time when walking to places such as the park, Alavrado middle school, and various stores, but only in exchange for noticeably dusty shoes. It was smart to keep a cloth, or old rag in your pocket to use at walk's end.
Upon exiting the railroad tracks we arrived on the street to discover the snarl of commuting traffic that was common for that time of day. Dolos, and Archon were talking about a music album as I noticed a motorcycle cop driving pass. He slowed his vehicle, and watched us, until making a right turn just around the corner. I was instantly host to the sinking feeling that something unpleasant was about to go down.
“Hey,” I called to both of my friends over my shoulder.
“What's up?” Dolos asked.
“I think we're about to have a problem.” I explained after coming to a stop.
“What?” Archon asked as he began looking about. “What's wrong?”
“The cop that just passed by is going to come back.” I informed them.
“What?” Dolos asked skeptically. “What makes you say that?”
Just then the officer quickly came from around the corner, and began driving directly for us. I frowned internally, doubting he was returning to ask for directions, or just to introduce himself, and say 'hello'.
“Does that answer your question?” I replied to Dolos without taking my eyes off the motorcycle cop.
“What the fuck did we do?” Archon asked irritably.
“Besides being Black? I really can't say.” I answered truthfully.
“Great. Because we need this.” Dolos laughed with vexed disbelief.
Pulling to a stop next to the curb just several feet away from us, the cop immediately dismounted his motorcycle, drew his sidearm, and took aim in our general direction. Sadly, I felt no surprise. Instead there was only a bitter resignation that this was nothing new. It could have been that I was just very cynical at that age. Or, then again, maybe I just had a firm understanding to how U.S society operated when you had a bit of extra pigment in your skin. Despite Oakland, and Union City being two wholly separate cities, the situations were identical. Preforming the same play on different stages does not make it a brand new story, as the characters, costumes, and script always remains the same.
“Keep your hands where I can see them, and get down on the ground.” The cop quickly demanded.
“Well, isn't this a sonofabitch.” I muttered to myself as I began following the given commands.
“Wait! What did we do?” Dolos asked in surprise.
“What's with the gun? We haven't done anything, and we don't have any weapons!” Archon angrily chimed in.
“I said get on the FUCKING ground, NOW!” The cop demanded more aggressively.
“Don't give him a reason.” I called to both friends on my knees.
Living in Oakland, I had witnessed enough overzealous, violent, and frequently racist cops to know how quickly the situation could escalate over even a perceived minor insult. The miserable irony is that this is exactly how the gang-bangers in my old neighborhood operated as well. “Disrespect them” and they will hurt, or even possibly kill you. The only difference is one side is punished for such a mentality, while the other is awarded, and praised for identical behavior.
“I said face down!” The cop reminded us. It would seem even on our knees, with both hands behind our head, the deadly art of negro magic meant we were still somehow a viable threat to him. We of course complied.
So, there we were, lying face down on a dusty, hot sidewalk, in the middle of the late afternoon commute, a spectacle for every passing motorist. To this very day, I can only imagine how many adults, saw three Black kids being held at gunpoint by an overzealous cop, and simply figured we were guilty of something that made it perfectly acceptable to point an instrument of death at us. Perhaps, the same way they automatically assumed my friends, and I were guilty because the color of our skin, they too also assumed the cop was justified by nothing more than the office he served.
“While we're down here, is it too much to ask why this is happening?” I called over to the cop.
“Quiet.” He replied harshly before pulling his radio free to begin speaking with someone.
“Bullshit. Complete bullshit.” I heard Dolos mumble.
“Good job, officer.” I heard a woman suddenly call out from the street. Looking over, I saw an older White woman waving at her new hero from her car, before rejoining the natural flow of traffic. I cannot begin to describe just how reassuring that was. To know there was an adult, happily congratulating another adult for forcibly detaining us kids for nothing, while pointing a weapon at us, was indescribably uplifting.
“Yo, this sidewalk is really hot.” Archon voiced unhappily.
“Deal with it.” Was the cop's only reply before he returned to whatever it were he was doing.
This situation continued for a while. Us lying there, the cop waiting to hear back about whatever it was that was happening, and traffic slowly rolling by to stare at us. A good time was being had by all. Just as I beginning to wonder if this was all a secret experiment to record what would give out first; our skin on the hot sidewalk, or our sense of dignity in the face of such humiliating treatment, the cop acknowledged an update over the radio then returned to us.
“Alright. You are all free to go.” The cop said as breezily as one would say; 'Hey, thanks for stopping by. Catch you later.'
“Now, can you please tell us what this was all about?” I asked after getting to my feet, and beginning to dust off my now very dirty clothing.
“Five suspects broke into a house. Reports said they were potentially Latino or Pakistani.” The officer replied.
There was a palpable moment of disbelief that silently ignited between Dolos, Archon, and I, as we exchanged looks of bitter skepticism. It was Dolos who began laughing as he turned and began walking back towards the tracks.
“Right.” I said after looking between my friends and then back to the cop.
“What?! There are only three of us, we're Black, and-- fuck it. Never mind.” Archon waved the explanation off and began following after Dolos.
“I am only doing my job, kid.” The cop replied with an unapologetic tone, and put his mirror shades back on. Sometimes cliches exist because they are just real.
“Whatever gets you through the night, officer.” I shook my head, then turned and followed my friends.
After all that, none of us were in the mood for pizza, or video games anymore.