I’ve never been much of a rebel.
At eight-years-old, I was the only kid on my block who wasn’t allowed to cross the street on their own. The other kids preyed on this. They liked to snatch my toys, flee onto the road, and step out of arms reach.
I would stand on the curb stretching my little arms for all they’re worth, but I wasn’t Reed Richards. I could never grab whichever Transformer or He-Man figure those jerks swiped. Even though it frustrated me, I never dared to place even the tip of my shoe on the street.
Years later, my mother told me she once saw the kids taunting me from the road as she stood on our porch, watching and hoping I would walk onto the street and give those bullies the business.
I never did.
Stepping off the curb would be breaking the rules, and I was not a rulebreaker. I wasn’t born with a defiant bone in my body, simple as that. Explain the rules to young me, and I would follow them to a tee.
Younger me avoided trouble like it was COVID-19. I never had a curfew at any age because I didn’t need one. My parents and I both knew there was no worse punishment than how I would feel if I let them down.
I’m explaining all this to give you a bit of context for what I’m about to share. It’s important to know that I wasn’t a troublemaker, and I never tested boundaries. As a child, I had an intense fear of disappointing my parents, teachers, and friends.
I didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love. (It took me years of therapy and self-reflection to understand this). I wrongly equated receiving my family’s love with being a good son. So my need to follow rules and stay out of trouble was almost pathological. That’s why my first encounter with the police rocked me like an anxiety supernova.
The incident happened on a lazy summer morning while my best friend Will and I were bopping around our neighbourhood, Little Jamaica. It was the kind of sun-drenched day best spent riding bikes, taking trips to the pool, and stuffing our bellies at evening BBQs. The morning contained limitless possibilities, but the one thing I couldn’t imagine was getting hassled by the cops. After all, I was only eleven-years-old.
Will and I had gone to the corner store with nothing but Jumbo Mr. Freezes and dill pickle chips on our minds. It was a bodega-like shop where you could buy anything from an overpriced bottle of soda to a suspiciously underpriced blow-dryer. But on this day, it wasn’t the baseball cards and bubble-gum lining the shelves that caught my eye.
Hanging there amongst the knick-knacks were two of the sweetest-looking toy guns I had ever seen. They were gunmetal grey .38 snub-nosed revolvers; the kind of pieces you saw dames pull out of their purses in old Bogart flicks. Being the ‘90s and all, these fake guns looked legit—there weren’t any neon orange caps on the tips that signalled they were toys. And the best part? They were cap guns. Throw in a ring of caps, and these babies go pow every time you squeeze the trigger. What a score!
I was thrilled to slap down my entire $5 allowance on the $4 toy—with all the rest going towards buying as many caps as possible. Will did the same. We spent the whole trip home setting up the rules for a game of cops and robbers. It should go without saying that my 11-year-old self only played as team cop.
Later, we went to a friend’s house to show off our new toys and recruit him to our game of cops and crooks. Our friend wasn’t home, and his kid sister answered the door. Seeing our shiny new toys, she asked if they fired anything.
Now, Will and I had an audience. We simultaneously leapt off the porch, guns in hand. We hit the ground and went into rolls before popping up on one knee and lining up shots, Miami Vice style. “Stick’em up,” we yelled as we moved towards cover, firing at each other as the kid-sister giggled.
I dashed towards the street, looking back over my shoulder, firing shots at Will. Will pretended to take a hit. He clutched his chest with dramatic flare and fell back, when suddenly…
The sound of a police siren cut through all our laughter. It never crossed my mind that the piercing noise was flagging me. A police cruiser sped towards us and screeched to a halt. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. But as soon as I made eye contact with the first officer, the one behind the wheel, his ice-cold scowl told me three things.
He had me in his crosshairs, this guy was pissed, and I was screwed.
The world went out of focus as I struggled to gulp down the stagnant summer air. My lungs were wet dishrags slapping around in my chest like dying fish.
I could hardly breathe.
“Get over here,” a voice thundered. I don’t know whether the cop had spoken through the siren speaker, but his booming words thundered out like the voice of Oz. To be fair, I was so shook at that moment I would have mistaken orders from Mickey Mouse as the voice of god.
I tried stepping towards the cruiser, but I was scared stiff. My shoes were rusty anchors buried deep in the sea of pavement. It was only when Will bumped me as he walked toward the car that my body snapped into action. We stepped to the cruiser’s open window. I couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and I saw straight into the car at eye-level, face-to-face with two police officers, Cop One and Cop Two.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the menacing expression on Cop One’s face. He was the officer closest to me and sitting behind the wheel. His furrowed brow scrunched together so tightly that his eyebrows almost touched. He looked like someone had pissed in his Cheerios that morning.
Neither officer bothered to step out of the car. They turned and gave each other a knowing look, paused for several beats, as if for dramatic effect, and proceeded to grill us.
“We have reports of people in the area going around firing guns at houses. Is that what you two have been doing?” Words failed us both. We shook our heads no. “You’re not lying to us, are you? We’re getting calls about this. We’ll haul your asses to the station right now if you lie to us! Don’t you dare lie to us.”
Considering that Cop One had a hang-up about liars, it’s telling that his basis for stopping us was a lie. We were not running around firing at houses. And had someone phoned 911 on Will and I, the police couldn’t have arrived within 30 seconds of us first firing our guns.
To give them the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if they saw Will and I running from our friend’s porch shooting at one another, and assumed we were a couple punks terrorizing the neighbourhood. But my eleven-year-old brain was too literal to consider that a possibility. We were only playing a game of cops and robbers on my friend’s front lawn like kids have done since forever.
Cop One sized me up, and I felt the heat radiating off his smouldering glare. He didn’t ask for my name, he demanded it. Then he interrupted me before I could answer. “If you two are lying to us we’ll throw you in the back of the cruiser right now and take you over to 13 Division.” I gave him my name and he punched it into the computer.
As he clacked away at the keyboard my skittish little legs began trembling. “It’s going to be ok,” I thought, “I’m with my pal Will.” Will was a whole year older than me, which is like half a decade in kid years. He was also the rambunctious half of our duo, a raging ball of freckles, farts, and ADHD who always found himself in a pickle. If anyone knew how to handle a situation like this, it was him.
We were standing shoulder to shoulder, so I looked over to Will for reassurance. That was a mistake. His eyes jutted out of his head like two hard-boiled eggs.
We were screwed. We were so screwed.
While Cop One ran me through their criminal database, Cop Two asked Will where he lives. Will answered the question with a question. “Why?”
He didn’t say this to sass the cops. He spat the word out in a wispy, muppet-like voice. Knowing him as I did, he was doing some quick math in his head. In a split second, he was figuring out which was worse, getting taken to the station or getting an ass-whipping when he went home.
“Don’t you dare ask us questions,” Cop Two shouted, all the while pointing his index finger right at Will’s face from across the car. “We ask the goddamn questions around here, do you hear me?”
Will spit out his address so fast you might mistake him for a professional auctioneer. Cop Two had to ask him to slow down.
And then, silence.
Cop One sized me up real hard. “Stiff, eh? Any relation to Milton Stiff? We have him in here on weapons charges.” Things weren’t looking good. The fact that I didn’t do anything wrong didn’t occur to me. Why would two police officers go through all this trouble if I didn’t commit a crime? They clearly knew something I wasn’t aware of. I must have broken a law that I didn’t know existed. Things had gone from bad to worse. At this point, it felt like electric eels were slithering around in my belly.
It’s important to point out that Stiff is my mother’s name (she’s white, by the way). I had only ever met three people on her side of my gene pool—a family rift had formed when certain Stiffs didn’t approve of my mother falling in love with a black man. For all I knew, Milton Stiff was my cousin. For all I knew, he could be Toronto’s kingpin of crime.
“Oh man,” I thought. “My goose is cooked.” I’m going down. I’m going down like my maybe-cousin Milton. I’m getting taken away to juvenile detention. My parents would be so disappointed in me. My world was over, and it was written all over my little brown face. I pleaded my innocence; I needed the officers to believe me.
We stood by the cruiser for what felt like an eternity. I don’t know how long they had us there, threatening to cuff us, haul us off, and lock us up. Finally, when the cops had their fill of terrorizing Will and I, they told us it was our lucky day. They let us off with a warning. “Just one thing,” they said. “We’re taking your guns.”
Sure, handing over my gun meant that my $5 allowance had gone up in smoke, but in my mind, Will and I made out like bandits.
- Cop One and Cop Two didn’t call our parents.
- They didn’t cuff us and haul us off to the slammer.
- Will wasn’t going to catch a can of whoop-ass.
- My parents would still love me.
At that moment I even felt grateful. But as soon as car #1314 cruised down the street, Cop One and Cop Two did something to make my feelings do a 180.
With our guns in hand, Cop One and Cop Two extended their arms out their windows and pointed them to the sky.
Bang…bang…bang, bang, bang.
We could hear their laughter beneath the sounds of our faux .38s.
Those eels wreathing around in my belly stopped squirming. I wasn’t thankful anymore, and I certainly wasn’t afraid. I was pissed.
Cop One and Cop Two wore badges and carried guns, but at that moment, they stopped feeling like law enforcement to me. When I started my day, cops, in my humble view, were almost superhuman—a few tiers below Batman and Michael Jordan. Under this new light I saw these bastards driving down the street with our guns as sad jerks on power trips—tyrants taking away little kids’ toys, playground bullies.
I was still making sense of what just happened, but the incident already shattered my young world-view. My understanding of law and order was thrown into chaos. I realized cops could flip my world on its head just to spice up their day. A piece of my childhood innocence died at that moment.
Take a minute to think about these two assholes and their irresponsible behaviour. I don’t even mean the part where they toyed with a couple kids. Imagine some poor schmuck walking out their front door that morning, coffee in hand as they grab the morning mail. And HOLY SHIT, two cops are driving down the street holding GUNS OUT THEIR FUCKING WINDOWS!?!?
I felt powerless and frustrated to the point of tears, so I did what any self-respecting 11-year-old would do. I told my mother. My “white mother” tapped into the all-powerful spirit of Karen. She had our local police station, 13 Division, on the phone within minutes and demanded the cops come to our house.
Once they arrived, I stood on Will’s porch a few doors down as my mother told off Cop One and Cop Two. Even from a couple houses away, I saw the berating wipe the smirks clean off their faces. They sat there silent, shoulders slumped; Cop Two was staring into his lap as my mom read them the riot act.
If I had any doubts about what happened—feelings of guilt, thinking I was complicit in a crime—those notions faded. I recognized the look on those two cops’ faces. They shared the look that every class clown has when the teacher calls them out on their poor behaviour. They knew what they had done was wrong, and finally, so did I.
Afterward, my mother explained what most infuriated her. It was about a policing double standard. Our Little Jamaica community is on the west side of the 13 Division police station. The area is lined with barbershops, nail salons, and restaurants where weathered-looking old men stand out front smoking jerk chicken in large barrels.
On 13 Division’s east side is Forest Hill, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Toronto. The expensive homes in Forest Hill cost millions of dollars, and their massive backyards have koi ponds, swimming pools, and tennis courts. It exists smack in the middle of Toronto but looks like a suburban paradise. Little Jamaica and Forest Hill’s streets were patrolled by the same police officers, but the cops didn’t subjugate us all beneath the same oppressive mentality.
In what world do these two cops roll through Forest Hill and harass a couple of white kids in front of their million-dollar home? Would they run those kids’ names through the computer and threaten them with jail for playing with cap guns? Do they take away those kids’ toys and drive away laughing?
Not. A. Chance.
I went to school with plenty of kids from Forest Hill and not one of them shared a story like mine. And as I grew older, taller, and more physically imposing, I endured more dubious encounters with cops.
At eleven, I was still a young and innocent kid, so my first police encounter went as well as it could for the cops. But the incident left me with questions. What if I had a rebellious streak? What if I questioned why two on-duty officers had nothing better to do than harass kids playing cops and robbers—which would be within my rights. How do these jabronis treat someone older, taller, and darker-skinned than me? How does that confrontation go down if they perceive Will and I as legitimate threats?
I don’t have to ask these questions in 2020. Every day I turn on the TV and see how cops dehumanize people who look like me; brown-skinned men and women who don’t get the same humane treatment as folks with less melanin. Cops kick us when they have us down. They kneel on our necks. And those atrocities happen if they don’t shoot us in the back first. I watch them do it again and again, brazenly and with impunity.
We’ve seen videos where police shoot, club, kick, pepper spray, tase, choke, stomp, and pummel unarmed black people. But police brutality doesn’t stop there. There are more deplorable levels to this shit. Not every attack ends in bruises and bloodshed. In addition to the unwarranted beatings and shootings, we’re under constant psychological assault.
Police are in the position to ruin black peoples’ lives on a whim. They know it, and black people know it. Cops wield this knowledge as a weapon. Society has let police forces get away with murder for decades. So what’s to stop cops from inflicting emotional abuse on the black community? Especially since psychological warfare doesn’t leave cuts and bruises on its victims. Try capturing police gaslighting on camera from across the street.
Law enforcement’s history of emotional terrorism is no less vile than the cases of physical abuse drawing outrage right now. The difference here is that the impact of emotional violence is far more insidious. I’ve internalized those scars.
I must always be aware of my blackness before entering white spaces. This means putting on a dark hoodie or jogging through a white neighbourhood means considering my potential threat-level (aka my odds of survival if a white person deems me threatening). I’ve been doing these calculations in my head on a ceaseless loop since I was eleven because of that cap gun incident.
Think I’m overreacting? Look at the police negligence and brutality that has come to light over the past few weeks alone. Black people are under attack by vigilantes, government-funded law enforcement, and even a dog walker. 1004 people were fatally shot by the police in the United States in 2019. How many of those 1004 encounters could have been de-escalated? How many of those deaths would spark public outrage if caught on video?
This bleak four-digit number is why black people suffer through an existential crisis whenever they’re pulled over by the cops. Best-case scenario, the cops treat us like human beings, which is a low bar. Sadly, that basic level of respect is often too much to ask for. Also keep in mind, no matter how well a black person’s interaction with the police starts off, the encounter may turn lethal if things go slightly off the rails.
For the black community, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders are lynchings of our collective spirit. These acts of violence remind us that police brutality has the power to wound us, even when we’re not in the line of fire. After all, two cops sparked my fear and mistrust of law enforcement without kneeling on my neck or firing a shot.