I was driving home from work when my rear-view mirror lit up in red and blue. When you are Black, those lights shake you like the springing of a trap door—and once sprung, you’re falling in and there is no way out. The tense moments tick by as you wait for the one hunting you to arrive and inform you of your fate. I pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center and waited, feeling my heart beat out of my chest.
I had been working part-time hours at the Barnes and Noble in Metairie, Louisiana, just outside New Orleans, for a little under a year. It was 1997; I was 22 years old. For an undergraduate student unsure of his major but fascinated by history and philosophy—and still years away from becoming an environmental policy wonk—it was a dream job. I worked in the sections I read the most and couldn’t wait to give suggestions, see customers’ selections, and hear why they’d made them. Eastern philosophy was my go-to, especially the Sufi poets and parables. During lunch breaks, I’d slip off my name tag, pull a few books from the shelves, then sit in a chair and read.
That night, rather than take the 610 highway back to my dorm at the University of New Orleans (UNO), I took the slower, more casual route through the lakeside neighborhoods of Robert E. Lee Boulevard, home to mostly upper-income, white families. I had made it to within a mile of campus, just before Robert E. Lee split off and became Leon C. Simon, when the police car appeared behind me.
I wasn’t sure why I had been pulled over. On this slower route, I knew I wasn’t speeding. But I also knew the police didn’t exactly need a reason. I made sure the parking lot I pulled into was well lit—where no shadows could be mistaken for weapons.
The officer approached the car and asked me to get out. “Hands on the car, legs spread.” He told me he’d pulled me over because of my broken headlight, then asked where I was going and coming from. My right front headlight had been out for a little over a week. It was an easy thing to change; I’d done it half a dozen times in under 15 minutes. I just needed to buy the part. I’d been hoping to make it a few more days until payday.
I can’t remember the officer’s face, but I remember that he was white. I’m sure he wouldn’t remember my face either. I showed him my necktie and said I was coming from work at the bookstore and heading back to the dorm at UNO. I hoped those facts would offer me some protection, add some dimension to the flattened caricature I knew was in his head.
None of it mattered. Of course it didn’t. It never does.
It just so happened that the night before, someone had fired a gun in one of the dorm rooms at UNO. At the only dorm at UNO. The dorm where I lived, just a few floors down. Where I was going with my broken headlight.
On this night, my collegiate identity actually put me at greater risk. The officer called for backup and started questioning me about the shooting. I didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that it had happened.
I will never forget how defeated I felt when that first backup car showed up . . . with a broken headlight.
Since I’d gotten out of the car, my hands hadn’t left the hood. I’d already explained two, maybe three times that I had nothing to do with the shooting.
Now with an audience of his fellow officers, the cop who’d pulled me over made a move to put handcuffs on my wrist. He didn’t explain what was happening. Why was I being taken into custody? My wrist jerked away.
He tried again. I remember hearing myself yell, “Wait, am I being arrested?!”
He grabbed me by the neck, pulled me to the ground, and slammed my forehead into the concrete. I tasted my own blood. While he pushed my head into the pavement with his knee, the other officers grabbed my arms and held them forcefully behind my back while I was cuffed. There were three of them, but it felt like an army. I remembered that at the time, the New Orleans Police Department was the only one in the country with one of its own members on death row.
They pulled me to my feet and pushed me into the back of the police car. I still had no idea why I was being arrested.
Before they took me to Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), they had to take me to Charity Hospital for the gash they tore into my forehead. On the way, one of the officers told me I was lucky I had been in a public place; otherwise they would’ve just shot me in the back of the head. As far as he was concerned, the world would go on without me, my passing unnoticed. I sat in stunned silence, blood dripping.
At OPP I was charged with three counts of assault on the police officers who’d shoved me into the concrete. I was placed in a high-security prison wing. I’d spend three nights there, missing my next two shifts at Barnes and Noble.
Ultimately my case was dismissed; the officers who framed me for my own assault never showed up to court.
On the fourth day, after my release, my parents were outside the prison waiting for me. I collapsed in tears in my father’s arms, too ashamed and embarrassed to be angry. I was supposed to know better. I was supposed to know how to avoid the trap. I had let them “get me” and gave them power over me.
I wondered how I would explain what happened to my roommates, friends, and coworkers—including my manager at the bookstore. I went back to Barnes and Noble to explain why I had uninformed absences. But it was too late. I’d already been fired.
This happened in New Orleans, the city I’d known all my life. The city that was supposed to be mine, the city I still love. This was years before it was ravaged by Katrina and contaminated by the BP oil spill. This was before Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Mike Brown and Alton Sterling and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Botham Jean and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant were killed and their names became known. The violence they suffered at the hands of the police shook me, but it never surprised me. Neither did my own encounter.
Later, when my community organizing led me to the city’s Calliope and Melpomene public housing developments, I saw from a higher vantage point how police systematically target Black people. After I started hanging posters in the covered hallways around the developments imploring people to “know your rights when stopped by police,” on which I listed my phone number, the NOPD brought me in for questioning, as if a community educated on its legal rights were a threat to the agency’s mission. Today, as an environmental policy expert, I see the same communities fighting for their human rights: the freedom to breathe clean air, to live lives protected from harm, to be valued as people. I see police act as noxious and deadly agents, a cancer on the Black community not unlike the pollution from power plants that attacks the heart and lungs. I don’t see a livable future—at least not for me—without abolishing them both.
From the Confederate monuments to the still-growing tally of innocent Black people murdered by the state, the messages are everywhere. It’s part of the environment, the atmosphere. When I saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, I thought, as I have in so many other cases, “I know this man. I almost was this man.”
We’re asking for these nightmares to end. But nightmares don’t end until we wake up.
It’s time for the world to wake up.