Black Skin As a Perpetual Threat
Brooklyn Center another case of trigger happy policing
I’ve lived through three encounters with the police that could easily have ended in my death. Each time I see another Black man lose his life to a trigger-happy cop; it brings back that same dread I had on those three occasions.
In the mid-1970s, I was a young reporter covering the city hall beat for a Black-owned weekly tabloid. One day I went home for lunch with a couple of girls who worked in the newsroom. They were curious to know how I prepared a vegetarian hamburger. This was decades before the meat alternatives we have on the market today and a lot less appetizing.
Following lunch, we headed back to the newspaper office. As we walked down the driveway to reach our respective cars, a white van pulled across the driveway, impeding our way. An older white man, in retrospect, perhaps, not as old as I am today, got out of the truck and asked if I was Harold M. Harvey.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Get in the van,” he commanded.
“Get in the van?”
“Yea, get in the van.”
“Get in the van. The judge told me to come and get you.”
“Get in the van,” he snarled, his cheeks turning red.
“Do you have a warrant for my arrest?”
“Nawal, Judge just said to come pick you up.”
I glanced at the white van the man got out of and did not see any decals representing any law enforcement agency. I took a good look at the man’s clothing. He did not have on a badge or any indicia of authority. I did not know who he was, but I was not going anywhere with him.
As I talked with the man, my co-workers eased down the driveway to their car. I turned and walked away from the man and headed back inside my home. Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw the man pull his coat back on the right side and reached for a handgun. I stopped and pointed my right index finger in his direction:
“I am going in the house to call my employer, and you are not going to shoot me,” I bellowed.
The white man was momentarily stunned. He removed his hand from his gun, and I walked inside the house. My mind raced out of control. “Why would a judge want me,” I wondered. I had not had any contact with law enforcement. I could not think of a single thing that I had done wrong that would have caused a judge to send me. I wondered if this was the man snatching Black kids in Atlanta in what would become known as the “Missing and Murdered Children” case.
I called my employer. By now, my lunch guests had arrived back at the newsroom and alerted him about this incident. My publisher asked what I had done. I informed him that I had not done anything wrong. He said he would send a male reporter out.
I called my mom and brother. Both were school teachers and could not come to the phone.
Moments later, the reporter arrived. I let him in the house, and he said that the county SWAT unit surrounded the house. He left me alone.
I did not know why the man called the SWAT squad, but I knew that this situation would not end well. I grabbed my step-father’s gun, slumped down at the foot of my parents’ bed, and vowed if SWAT breached the front door, I would shoot it out until I ran out of bullets.
I heard banging at the front door. I heard men racing around the house. I listened to the voices of a couple of Black men I had played against in a semi-pro baseball league. They were trying to get into my house. Why they wanted me, I did not have a clue. What started as a nondescript day had gone to hell in a handbasket in a hurry.
As the banging on the front door grew louder, I prayed, steadied my nerves, and prepared for the end of my days.
Just as all seemed lost, my dungeon shook, and I heard the voice of my step-dad.
“Stop, stop, don’t break down my door. What’s the matter?”
“Harold Harvey, he’s in the house, and he won’t come out.”
“Don’t tear down my door. I’ll get him to come out.”
My step-father came into the house. I told him I did not know what was going on and that the man came up without a warrant and demanded that I get in his van. He suggested we go outside and talk with them.
The man told us that the judge sent him out to pick me up. My step-dad told the man he would take me down to the courthouse and speak with the judge. We drove down to the courthouse and were ushered into the judge’s chambers. Ironically, my mom taught one of the judge’s daughters.
The judge said his records indicated that I was scheduled to be on jury duty that day, and when I was not present, he issued a bench warrant for my arrest. I relayed to the judge that I did not receive a summons to appear for jury duty and that the bailiff did not come in an official car or have a badge or warrant; I was suspicious of getting in his van. I told him about the SWAT unit that surrounded my home and how close I came to being shot to death. The judge apologized and ordered me to appear in court the following day.
When I appeared with my camera and took his picture, he angrily dismissed me from jury service, then called my paper’s publisher and told him he would shut his paper down if the photos I took of him ever appeared in print.
I got the local ACLU attorneys to settle my civil claim against the county.
Sadly, forty-six years later, encounters between law enforcement and Black citizens have not gotten any better. White agents of government start with unreasonable demands, and when they do not get compliance, they escalate the confrontation leaving lethal force as the only possible outcome.
If my step-father had not decided to come home for lunch that day, something he seldom did, I would not be here today to tell my side of the story. And the questions that everyone would have posited: “Why did Harvey run from the cops?” What did Harvey do?”
Later in the day, when my brother learned what had taken place, he could not believe that I did not do something to cause the cops to be looking for me. There was no iPhone or body cam to prove that the conversation described above is verbatim. There would have been no way to prove that my conduct was an appropriate exercise of rights guaranteed under the US and Georgia constitutions. There would have been no way to disprove that my actions had caused the SWAT unit’s escalation. I would have been dead, and it all would have been my fault.
I walked away because the cop approached me without proof of who he was and without a warrant for my arrest. I have a right under the constitution to question an unlawful arrest. No one would stop to challenge the judge’s callous racism, who thought it sufficient to round up a group of Negroes who missed jury duty without the necessity of taking the time to issue a warrant for their arrests. What Negro in his right mind would question a white man who orders him into an unmarked van?
Black Cops Do It Too
At the turn of this century, by some accounts, I was a prominent trial lawyer. One day a young Black man from Hancock County, Georgia, drove up to Atlanta to see me. He told me that the Sheriff’s office consisted of the Sheriff, his brother, and their cousin.
According to the client, the Sheriff and the two deputies routinely harassed. Members of the sheriff department would stop by the car wash where he and other guys hung out, washing their cars and killing time. The officers would order them to leave. At other times, the officers would stop him and threaten to arrest him. My client swore to me he was not doing anything wrong to cause the deputies to engage him in this manner.
I had a hard time believing that the cops were harassing this man, Black cops at that. I tried to explain their behavior away. So the client went away. But three weeks later, he appeared in the office again with a fresh batch of bizarre encounters with the sheriff department. Again I allayed his concerns. I told him he was reading too much into these encounters.
About six months later, the young man returned, this time seeking representation for a charge one of the deputies had brought against him. Still believing that the client was bringing this trouble on himself, I declined to represent him. He insisted, so I quoted a fee so hefty that he would have to consider whether he wanted to engage an attorney to resolve a misdemeanor violation.
He came back with a large sum of money to retain me. I thought it was only a case that could be resolved with a bit of understanding, so I prepared to travel to Hancock County and meet with the sheriff and smooth things between my client and his deputies.
When I got to the courthouse, I realized that the judge was the Sheriff’s cousin and his deputies. It was becoming clear to me that my client had some cause for concern. So I moved to have the case transferred to State Court.
This move angered the Sheriff and his two deputies. They snarled and growled at me as I escorted my client out of the courthouse. As we pushed opened the courtroom door leading to the stairwell, I heard a commotion coming from the courtroom. Since my case was over and did not concern me, I did not turn back into the courtroom.
I continued to walk towards the stairwell, suddenly the noise got louder, and the courtroom door burst open. The three members of the sheriff’s department, all Black men, rushed towards me, grabbed me, and threw me up against a wall. In retrospect, I believe that had I not stopped walking towards the stairwell, they would have pushed me down the stairs and claimed that I had resisted arrest.
As it turned out, they asserted that I walked past them and said “F” the police. Of course, I did not do this, but if I had, I would have been within my constitutional rights to do so without any intervention from the police. It is not against the law to have disdain for law enforcement and express it to their face.
Twenty-one years ago, my client did not have an iPhone to record his encounters with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, and until the Sheriff and his goons abused me in the courthouse, I did not believe my client when he said the cops were mistreating him. I have no doubt that had I not turned around when I did, those Black cops would have pushed me down those three flights of stairs to my death, and it would have been my client’s word against the entire sheriff’s department of the county. Who would not have believed that the self-important lawyer from Atlanta had come down to Hancock County in an outlaw manner that deserved the force of law to subdue him?
Let’s be clear; Black cops are abusive towards Black people too. I know for a fact that I did not deserve to be thrown against that courthouse wall by three Black members of the sheriff department. They alleged I swung my briefcase at them. How could I dispute the virtuous allegations of Hancock County’s finest with no iPhone or body cam? So what if I had dropped an “F” bomb that does not require the entire sheriff’s department to charge after me to determine if the situation demands detention for some matter.
Much of the police encounters involving Black people are this benign, but the cops either physically threaten or drunk on their position’s power, reach for the nuclear bomb at the onset of trouble. Escalation from the start, as much as anything, is what needs to change in policing.
The Problem with legal commands
During the middle of the last decade, putting on my journalist hat, I drove over to the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, to cover a vaccination protest organized by Robert Kennedy, Jr., and Louis Farrakhan. When I arrived at the CDC, I learned that people attending the rally could not park on CDC property. Since traffic light would only allow me to turn into the CDC campus, I had to turn into the CDC driveway until it was safe for me to turn around.
When the light turned green, I turned onto CDC property and traveled towards the security station. I was in the far right lane. I noticed just before reaching the guard station; there was an opening to turn into an outbound lane. But first, I had to change into the left lane. When I left the traffic light, there was no one behind me, but before I could move into the left lane, a car turned at the traffic light and was speeding in the left lane just as I moved to get in the left lane. I was able to stop my car before making the turn, and the vehicle on the left road stopped before colliding with me.
No harm, no-fault, right?
You would think, however, a white Dekalb County Deputy Sheriff stormed out of the security nook, yelling at the top of his voice.
“What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing?
“I made a mistake,” I calmly replied.
“You made a mistake? You made a mistake? You made a mistake?
“Yes, I made a mistake,” my voice matching his crescendo.
“You made a mistake,” he roared again?
His posture as menacing and as uncaring as we would see six years later in the Derek Chauvin case.
“Yes, I made a mistake. What is it you want me to do, I bellowed?
“Go ahead and make your turn and get out of here,” he calmly said.
Given the circumstances, there was only one lawful command he could have given me. And that was to make my turn and leave the premises. This command was open to him when he first yelled, “What are you doing?” But the officer chose to heighten the intensity of the encounter from the get-go. This situation could have turned ugly rapidly, not because I had made an honest mistake that did not lead to any harm to anyone, but because the officer escalated his power from the start.
I was able to diffuse this situation because I asked the officer to give me a lawful command. Under the circumstances, the only legal order he had at his disposal was to move along. In the encounters, we see that have led to the deaths of far too many Black men and women; the officers start with the nuclear option; comply with my demand or else, I will shoot you dead.
My soul grows weary; when will it end?
Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is the author of a book on Negro Leagues Baseball, The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro Leagues Baseball. He writes feature stories for Black College Nines. Com. Harvey is a member of the Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and a member of the Legends Committee for the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. Harvey is an engaging speaker. Contact Harvey at firstname.lastname@example.org