I was sixteen and it was the early 1990’s.
Hair metal was was about to take a downward turn, and groups like N.W.A, Public Enemy, Two Live Crew, Geto Boyz and Naughty By Nature were now dominating Sony Walkmans. Also, Compton California was placed on the map for us young, impressionable white teens.
We were hearing about ongoing racism, police brutality, a life of drugs and hustling, and trying to escape the confines of the ‘hood or county jail. As always being a person interested in other cultures, food and music, I dove in.
I bought the hook, line, sinker and the clothing. I wanted to not necessarily identify, but to empathize with those having a rough time just because of where they were born, or how others defined their heart based on skin color. I dove headfirst into the era of gangsta rap.
Along with the music came a mentality: an activist with a big mouth, hard look and prone to being picked on by the powers that be.
Maybe it was a martyr complex? I was bullied often at school and then I’d be abused at home, so trying to become the tough guy was the approach. Make people scared of me and maybe they’d leave me alone. I hung out with bigger kids—harder kids—so that people would be afraid of me purely through association. And if they weren’t? I had a gun.
Well, not a real gun. But it looked real. It was a pellet gun bought from Walmart, and I had those pointed pellets that slide into a clip that went on the top of the pistol. Of course, you already know where I kept the pellet gun, because you’ve heard the same songs I tried to imitate: my waistband.
At this age, I was seeing a psychologist regularly. And I walked everywhere. Considering that my dad raided my room from time to time, I always had to have the pellet gun on me. This was the case one Saturday morning walking the who-knows how many miles to my appointment with the shrink.
I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t completely loaded, so while I’m walking down a major road in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, I pulled the pellet gun out, popped off the clip, hid the gun while I filled the clip, replaced it and put the pistol back in my waistband.
I figured maybe someone would have seen me. But they would look down and think, there is a gangster. Hope to never cross his path.
I walked and walked, and I saw a squad car drive by. The officer looked at me as he passed. Soon another passed me. I hadn’t seen any police for a long time, so I thought jokingly to myself, wow someone might be in trouble.
Seconds after this, a cop turned in front of me before I crossed an intersection. Another cop was facing him, and other squad rushed from the direction I was facing, essentially forming a triangle around me as five cops got out of three or four cars.
My heart jumped. I had forgotten about the gun for a second and couldn’t figure out why they’d stopped me. I’d been stopped before—profiled—even though I was white (I dressed and tried to walk like the stereotypical black “gangsta”.) But once I realized they were all pointing their 9mm Glock semi-automatic guns at me, I knew.
I immediately raised my hands, stood still, and told the officer directly in front of me that I had “a pellet gun in my waistband.” I didn’t know firsthand what five 9mm guns could do to a skinny, short 16-year old, but I wasn’t about to find out.
Weapons still drawn, they rapidly approached me, and one lifted my shirt and removed my pistol. Two holstered their weapons, led me to the hood of a car, and then they started to frisk me, one asking, “Do you have any other weapons on you, Sir?”
“No, Sir.” Quick and to the point.
They went through my pockets, pulled out my house key and some money, put it on the hood of one of the cars, and then another one handcuffed me. “Where were you headed?” he asked.
“To see my psychologist,” I replied. There was some brief heckling and responses to that reply, as you can imagine.
I was placed in a cop car—my second time—and was taken to the police station, where they’d decide what to do with me.
Apparently, someone indeed had seen me from an apartment loading the pistol and called the police.
Turned out, having a pellet gun isn’t illegal. I wasn’t going to be charged with any crime, but they weren’t going to just release me. They called my parents and my stepmother came to get me…and the pellet gun (it was legal for me to own.)
She slapped me around (at the police department) and took me home to face my dad.
I can’t play the martyr and say that I was picked on by the cops in this scenario. I messed up and I know that. I’m not really a tough guy, and I’m definitely not an inner city “gangsta.” I’ve grown since then, and looking back at how I was at 16 years old, I’m embarrassed. But I’m also slightly amused, as I’ve been through a pivotal moment where I almost tasted death. And it would have been my own fault.
Recently, there is increasingly more news about kids—and adults—getting shot by the police. The most recent situation occurred here in Columbus, Ohio when a 13-year old running from the police turned and pulled out a BB gun. He was shot and killed by an officer. Tragic, but preventable. Now there is an uproar.
I’m not going to say there are two sides to choose from, black or blue. But here is where I stand: the kid pulled out a pistol that looked real and the officer, in a split second, responded out of self-defense. Whether the deceased is thirteen or sixty, the person pointed a weapon and we cannot expect the police not to defend themselves in a time of apparent danger.
However, there is also another side of the same coin: no matter how thug a criminal is, if they are not armed and dangerous, any form of brutality or execution is wrong and illegal. Any officer who assassinates an unarmed adult or child should be arrested, convicted and sentenced accordingly.
I was fortunate to have walked away from the situation I placed myself in. The whole thing could have played out differently. I thought I was invincible and scary. I could have tried to be idiotic and think the cops would merely wrestle the pellet gun out of my hands, and I could have bruises to brag about: a perverted red badge of courage.
But I didn’t try to play a victim. I remained compliant. And I’m glad, looking back. Two and a half decades ago, I could have been killed.
And it would have been my own damned fault.
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