Policed While Black in an Institutional System
As a 4th year doctoral candidate in the midst of data collection for my dissertation, I would be remiss if I didn’t have a lot on my plate. As an emerging scholar, I am often managing competing priorities while maintaining an unrealistic standard of living on a graduate student salary in the city of Chicago. This past week I have attempted to push through my writing as my mind, body, and spirit are left in turmoil and stress. While writing for a manuscript submission deadline and attending a virtual dissertation writing retreat, the countless hours of writing have left me at a loss for words. I can longer write because my inspiration has lost its steam…the words are not formulating or concise, so bear with me as I write this.
These past few weeks have been a constant reminder of the injustices and pervasive ways that white supremacy and racism is entrenched in the social fabric of our nation for Black people. George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, MN two weeks ago. As images and videos of his murder ran through social media, I could not bear myself to witness viewing another Black death. Knowing his last breaths were taken by the hands of a White police officer is enough. Throughout my life, I have seen how police have used excessive force and power, specifically over Black bodies. Growing up in a predominately Black neighborhood, I’ve seen police lights and cops dehumanized my community in devasting ways. My earliest interaction with the police was with my mother when I was in elementary school. With permission granted by my mother, I want to share this unforgettable moment that she and I experienced almost twenty years ago.
My mother was driving in-between states, and the police car stopped us. For what reason, to this day, I still do not know why. I vividly could hear the sounds of the police car and the light glaring me and my mother’s eyes. The cop pulls up to the car and starts speaking to my mother. As a child, I do not remember the exact verbatim exchange between my mother and the officer. My mother, as she always has been a well-mannered, kind, witty, and loving womxn and person. While her hands on the staring wheel, I could see them trembling. From the car mirror, I could see my mother’s lips move, but I couldn’t remember what was coming from her mouth. I hear the cop say, “Ma’am, can you please step out of the car.” The look on my mother’s face was something I had never seen before; I saw anger, but also, I could sense fear. My mother proceeds to get out of the car. I saw my mother being asked to perform a series of tasks such as walking in a straight line with her hands pointed to her nose. I can hear my mother saying the alphabet from A to Z and Z to A.
My mother would occasionally look back at me, and as a child, you don’t know what to do. I was not only scared for her, but I also was confused and upset that she was being subjected to this. My mother was not doing anything wrong in terms of reckless driving or putting us in danger, so it was perplexing that she was pulled over in the first place. They then proceeded to give her a breathalyzer test, in which my mother was not drinking at all. It felt like a continuous cycle of chastising her and asking her, “where was she going?” and other unrelated questions. It felt like she was there with this police officer for hours. As a child, I felt helpless and wanted to help her. I remember when she first got out of the car, my mom said, “Quortne, stay here, I’ll be fine, do not leave this car.” After the countless questions and interrogation by the police, they give my mother a ticket, and they leave. She received a ticket and was stopped by the police because her taillight was dimmed. My mother gets back into the car, and I ask her how she’s doing. She looks exhausted, debilitated, and angry. My mother said, “Quortne, I’m okay…are you okay”? I respond, “I think so…are you okay, Mommy.”
My mother pauses, and I can see the tears in her face, and she says, “Quortne, if you are ever pulled over by the cops, just do what they say and comply. You understand Quortne”. This is something I will always remember for the rest of my life. What my mother experienced was dehumanizing and antagonizing. From that moment on, I never trusted law enforcement. They treated my mother with so much disrespect and disgust. My mother did not deserve to be subjected to this…at all. It was then where I lost my faith in people that were meant to protect and serve. This person used their power and abused it on my mother of all people. It made me question if I was ever stopped by the police, what would they do to me and how would I be treated? Little did I know I would also have my interactions with the police later on in life.
I was stopped by campus police at my current institution, Loyola University Chicago, on two occasions during my third year in the doctoral program. One incident was a Monday afternoon, during Martin Luther King holiday observance. I had plans with meeting a professor at his office on campus, and when I arrived at the building, the door was closed. I noticed that as I was walking up to the building, I witness campus police open up the door for this young White womxn. I assumed that okay, well, it’s a holiday and campus building are temporarily closed, but the police officer is there to give students temporary building access. I walk up to the door, and the campus police officer stops me and asks me, “What are you doing here?”. I immediately got frazzled and mentioned to him that I was meeting a professor here for a meeting, but the doors are locked. His response was, “Well, no one is here, and I have not seen this professor you speak of, do you know if he’s here.” I said, “I’m not sure, but I have his email, and I can contact him.” The police officer said, “Do you have a student ID?” I told him, “Yes, I do, can I go in my pocket and retrieve it for you?”. I slowly had my one hand up and the other shakenly getting my ID out of my pocket. I had my bookbag with me, so I thought that would be a given I was a student. It is also worth mentioning, I have served as a staff member at the institution over a few years. I even showed him proof of the email of the professor and my correspondence to our meeting time and location. He then says, “Well, no professor is coming here…I would know, so you might as well leave”. So, I did. I ended up leaving, but the feeling of his interrogation and moments of my safety being questioned, I just went home. As I walked away from the building, I felt unwelcomed on campus that I would recruit students and staff members to join. I decided not to say anything to anyone or report him. No one was around, and if it was his word against my word…we all know the outcome of this “investigation.”
Another incident happened a few months later, where I was stopped by campus safety, asking why I was entering the School of Education building and where I was going. It caught me off guard because I had never been asked that question before after the years of me entering and exiting the building. I told him, “I’m just going to my cubicle to write…I’m a doctoral student”. He then let me proceed to use my student ID card to enter the elevators. As I approached the 10th floor of the building, I asked my peers if anyone got stopped by campus safety downstairs. Everyone said, “No…why?”. I then proceeded to tell them about my story and what happened. As I am retelling this story, I felt embarrassed because I was reliving this traumatic experience. At that moment, I decided to mention this to my advisor. It was comforting to know that my advisor, as a Black man, felt the same emotions I did and advocated to make a report to the School of Education Interim Dean at the time. A few weeks later, I had a meeting with my advisor and the Interim Dean, and the Dean reported him. While I appreciated his advocacy in addressing this, I could not help but feel anger. I had to relive and share this story again with another person in hopes that some “justice” would prevail. I never knew if any course of action happened to this campus safety officer, but the damage he did to me forever changed how I felt being a student at Loyola. I have had to see both of these campus safety officers numerous times on campus. I never received an apology or anything from campus safety. It is as if my experience didn’t matter to them or the institution. My heart still skips a beat every time I walk into the School of Education building or when I walk past that building on campus. I have to relive that trauma every single day of my life on campus.
I know my story is something that many other Black students have experienced at Loyola. Us having to use documentation to validate our existence on a Predominately White Institution (PWI) is arduous coupled with the institution mission’s claims of caring for the whole person. My care as a Black queer man was never considered, my existence was unwelcomed and a threat. My interactions with these men fail in comparison to the countless stories of Black people murdered by police. I share these stories because the murder of Black individuals such as George Floyd, Nina Pop, Troy McDade, and Breonna Taylor should have never happened. They should still be here with us! They should still have breath in their bodies! This injustice will forever impact these people’s families. Even if these officers are charged with murder, it will never bring them back. I am deeply hurt and exhausted by the lack of regard for Black lives. As Black people, we have been subjected to violence as we have been the ones who built this country, along with being on indigenous land and the genocide indigenous people have endured by settler colonialism. My ancestors’ bones, skin, labor, cries, and pain are a part of this nation under the guise of freedom and democracy. If we lived in a true democracy this nation would value Black bodies. Black people have been screaming and shouting for dismantling white supremacy and structural racism, and it is continuously met with threats and violence towards us. As an emerging scholar, I feel it is my obligation and responsibility to ensure that Black queer, trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and other individuals are advocated for on college campuses and society at large. I will continue to fight for social change. I don’t know what the outcome will be given our current sociopolitical climate, but I will fight with every breath in my body for justice for Black people and our lives.
Quortne is a fourth-year doctoral candidate pursuing a doctoral degree in higher education.