I was probably about one month into my dream job as a forensic psychologist in a remand facility for adolescent girls, in Brooklyn, New York; it was my second job after graduating from graduate school with my Master’s and my first as a psychologist, so words could not describe the excitement and the zeal that I was harboring and felt ready to deliver! I was also earning more money and at age 27 years, I saw this a freeing time for me: I was leaving sour relationships and an impending closure at my old job, so my escape was a very satisfying treat.
However, unlike my old job, this one did not offer a parking lot for employees, so hustling for street parking in the midst of the Crown Heights neighborhood was my new normal. If I was lucky, I could park in front of our facility, a solid, State-run, double brownstone, which featured a convenient parking sign in front, which denoted the area for state vehicles only. It was large enough to fit three cars, and to safeguard employees from receiving parking tickets when parked there, each one was given a laminated parking plaque with the State’s emblem on it. I was glad to receive mine from the maintenance man, a quiet Haitian immigrant, who printed and laminated it before giving it to me. Most often, I did not get the chance to use it, as my late schedule precluded me from its luxury. However, on occasions, I took the habit of some of my coworkers and used it when I moved my car to the front of the building after the daytime shift left, which lessened the time that I spent walking in the dark to my car at the end of my day.
It was a warm evening in mid-December, 2008 and I was leaving for home after a satisfying day of work, at 7:00pm. I was parked a little further than usual, half a block east, a block north and a quarter-of-a block east, on the next street over. My car was an off-white, 2005, Acura TSX, with a hip and sporty vibe, just like myself. It was dark, and just after I entered my car, I immediately noticed two police officers come out of the shadows from across the street and approached me. For those wondering, one was Black and the other was White, in terms of their skin-color. They began to ask me about the parking plaque, which was left in my windshield from the day before. I told them that I received it from my workplace, to which they inquired further.
I do not know when, but at some point, they asked me to step out of the vehicle and I complied. Shortly thereafter, more police officers arrived and different ones began the same line of questioning. They asked me for work identification which I did not have, as it had not yet been issued. They asked for the location of my workplace and I told them. One even replied that he knew the place, which is familiar to the nearby precinct. They asked what I did there and I told them that I was a psychologist; they replied and asked if I was a psychologist. I offered to call my job to confirm my story and I did; by then, no supervisors were available, so I had to retrieve a cellphone number from a coworker. During this, one officer bizarrely noted that if my boss came to the scene with more plaques, she would be arrested. More time passed and looking back, it just consisted of me standing by the door of my car, surrounded by a number of anxious police officers. More and more police cars pulled up to the scene, all male, and in all, I was probably surrounded by fifteen to twenty officers—or maybe even more.
My frustration was mounting and by the time the “captain”–they made sure to promote his title–had arrived, with brakes screeching and sirens blaring, I was ready to go on the offensive. He was a white man in dark clothing with a slightly cocky air, and he wanted to ask the same questions that the others had, so my responses were sharp and to the point. I was obviously irritated and annoyed and I had no intentions of backing down. He heard my responses, surveyed the scene and made the decision to arrest me. The accused crime was forged state property or something alike.
Interestingly enough, none of the officers who had spoken to me by this point made me aware of his decision; it was another officer, maybe of Hispanic or East Indian descent, backed by the rest of his comrades, who informed me of it. He stumbled as he spoke and I asked him what he would like for me to do next. He told me to turn around. I did, and handcuffs were applied. I successfully bottled up the rage that arose in that instant.
It was a surreal moment, walking towards the police car but I was proud and defiant, enduring aspects of my character that would earn me similar backings at different points in my life. I held my head high, ignoring the fact that I was now a major spectacle of crime.
The silence amongst the cops was deafening as they all stood by to ogle me on their well-prepared walk of shame. I sat in the back of the police car for a while, maybe ten to fifteen minutes, before I was carted off to the precinct several blocks away.
I was led inside and into a bathroom where three female officers corralled to search me, which consisted of opening my jacket and jiggling my bra, which unsettled my composure. My dignity tugged at, I verbally put up my limitation and insisted that she had jiggled enough. She resisted my resistance verbally too, but they led me out without further affront since nothing was retrieved.
I was placed in a three or four feet cell by myself. At some point I was allowed to make phone calls and I called my sister and told her to remain calm, as I told her where I was. I next called the Director of our program to inform her of the situation; she could, obviously, only listen at that point. I returned to my cell and I ignored the two benches on either side, believing that it would not be long before all of it was over.
At some point, the arresting officer, the White one of the two who had initially approached me, came to check on me. I asked to use the bathroom and I was told to wait for when I arrive at Central Booking. As the night went on, another officer came by and after I asked when I would leave, I was told that Central Booking was closed for the time being so I had to wait for it to reopen. I remained standing the entire night, focusing on maintaining my righteousness and my calm. I passed the night somehow, ignoring the intermittent screams of a male prisoner in another cell, somewhere nearby. I later learned from my lawyer that Central Booking never closes.
The morning came and went, and at some point during the late morning, more female prisoners began to arrive. One, two, and then three and even four. It began to get crowded quickly but I remained standing at the front, focused on maintaining my little space. My resolve was waning though, and after a few more prisoners—and in particular, an obviously crack-addicted woman who was the antithesis to me, in that she would not remain still—arrived, I began to feel my heretofore intact psyche cracking.
A few of the officers that had come by with their prisoners in tow looked at me and asked what I was doing there. One turned out to be an African-American, plainclothes officer, who noted that he does not keep his government issued plaque visible, to shield against situations like mine. It may have been him or another officer who acquiesced to my request for another phone call, and I called my sister and allowed myself to show the cracks that I was desperately trying to conceal. She made me repeat to myself several times that I was going to be okay, and after a minute or two, a white officer came and literally barked at me to get off of the phone. I glared at him to assert my bravery and I returned to my designated space.
I am guessing that it was about three or four o’clock that afternoon when we were all finally rounded up to go to Central Booking. My wristwatch was taken at some point during the arrest so I had to rely on my internal clock for any sense of awareness.
I endured the lengthy process of traveling and being shuffled by various officers and by that point, my loins were in pain from the urine that I was holding. I was also giddy from the movement and the air outside, and I managed to smile with the watchful officer who was carting us throughout the process.
At Central Booking, I have surreal memories of being placed in a larger, more intimidating cell with thirty or more fidgety women, who were strewn across the floor, the walls and the small, sidelined bench. There was another similar-sized cell across from it, and at some point, some women from the two cells began arguing back and forth. Items like milk cartons, snacks and even toilet water, were flung from cell to cell; a female guard may have even intervened but the women continued until they had satisfied themselves.
The toilet was at the front, near the entrance and it was separated from the rest of the room by a stump-wall—which made it visible to practically everyone, and certainly to anyone outside of the cell. Someone had to use it, so some of the women banded together to shield her so that she could go. I was soon motivated to do the same, so with my pride shattered, I lowered my clothing and I allowed the shame to warm my exposed rear-end for the surreal moment. It was hard to go at first, but my mind and body were aching for relief, so I willed myself to flow freely, renouncing the shame that hovered. Thankfully, my menstruation had dried up so I was able to rid myself of the wasted sanitary napkin that I was loathing. Toilet paper was not even a thought.
In better spirits, I managed to find myself a spot on the bench as time went on, basking in the renewal that I was feeling in the larger space and in the inevitable resolution that I was mentally massaging.
The night passed uneventfully and it was around nine or ten the following morning, when I was mercifully called out to see the judge. My family was present, as in both of my parents and my sister, which, looking back, is a testament to how lucky I am. The judge was a heavyset white woman, and I could still hear her saying incredulously, “And they arrested her?”
She then asked if “profanity” was used at the scene and I braced myself—not expecting the “No,” that promptly came about. She then retorted to the prosecutor, that he should “look into what was going on” at that precinct, before proceeding with the matters. I guess a court date was given, as I was allowed to leave the courthouse under the support of my family. All I could remember was bursting into tears as I walked down the sidewalk towards the car with my family and my Dad, groaning loudly.
I was happy to be home and a warm shower was enough to erase away the bitter edge of the wicked ordeal. I knew what I had to do, but first, I had to revisit the precinct to retrieve my car keys to get my car, which was left at the scene.
It was the weekend and I returned to work the following week. I was not aware of the embarrassment that I was walking into, as my discrete mind assumed that my misfortune would have remained with only those in the know. However, after I met with the program’s Director, I was mortified to find out that everyone knew. I steeled myself at the subtle criticism from my coworkers that ensued; I certainly heard and bristled at the word “stupid,” and I also endured an older coworker giving me step by step instructions as to how she discretely, used her plaque .
I complied with the written statement that was requested by the Director, and after hiring a lawyer, I, in turn, requested a written statement from her as to how I received the plaque in the first place.
There began my harsh, crash course into the rigmarole that the State plays; my Director refused to acknowledge that the plaque was provided by the program and it was not until I had a heated discussion with her, supervisor, the Regional Director, that I was given any statement at all.
The piece of paper that I was handed simply said that I was an employee of the State and it probably gave my title and my date of hire. My lawyer pointed out that the fear of a lawsuit was the cause for such tiptoeing, which had not even crossed my mind. I was happy to be an employee and I looked at that situation as no one’s fault, except that of the discriminatory police.
Weeks later, a Bangladeshi coworker relayed an incident of a police officer from the same precinct yelling at, and threatening her and another coworker with arrests for having plaques in their cars and for parking in front of the building. No one else was ever arrested, of course, but the incident caused memos to be sent discouraging its use, which was grumbled at by some of the staff.
In an effort to make the situation go away, I abruptly settled my lawsuit against the City of New York, for a mere thirty, thousand dollars, which was entirely swallowed up by my student loans. I received no advice of how to negotiate from my lawyer, who, at one time, joked that the detainment was the insider experience that I needed in my line of work. I resent that he was sort of right.
Looking back, I wish I was more forthright in acquiring a sizable compensation, as I did not foresee the mental health needs that would arise and affect my future employment and my career. I even ran into the arresting officer in the neighborhood a couple of times on my lunch break, and I glared at him whenever I did–wanting so badly to make him regret the wrong that he had done to me. I eventually taught myself to ignore him/them whenever I saw them, although I always stiffened up at the sight of the police.
Through this experience, I know that the police seek to elicit fear and intimidation; I am certain that my bold and upfront personality was a major reason for my arrest. During my standoff with the officers, I was subconsciously aware of the increasing tension and anxiety that brimmed every minute with more and more arriving officers, blaring sirens, careening cars, and curious onlookers. The average person would at some point be triggered to react aggressively in such cacophony, which, usually leads to their favorite, trumped-up charge of resisting arrest–which I would opine–should to seriously be reconsidered as a legitimate charge. I also know that my extreme sense of self-control saved me from further debasement in that moment; I do not wish to imagine how I would have been handled by that fervent group of male officers, had I given in to my instinctive nature to fight back against the perceived injustice.
Furthermore, as an adult female, an unexpected standoff with a large group of male purveyors will always be psychologically perceived as a threat, and becoming defensive is a required natural response for self-preservation. The addition of more males and sudden, loud sirens only increases that sense of menace. It is likely that a male in this situation would also feel similarly threatened and instinctively want to respond with aggression, which the police panders to exacerbate.
Some lingering thoughts from that experience are that it is unlikely that every police officer agreed with my arrest that night; but, given the pejorative nature of the police force and the American culture for that matter, to disagree would be to put headlights squarely on oneself with almost no tangible benefits in sight.
If we are witnessing today, in the federal government, the targeting of government officials who seek to disagree with their superiors, it would be foolish to think that this same cancer does not afflict all government agencies–and that it is a new phenomenon. Indeed, in the various State and City agencies that I’ve worked for, I have seen supervisors more interested in subjugating employees than achieving goals, especially the ones given to dissent. I have seen years spent on these misplaced ideals while budgets and self-aggrandizing staff members run amok–and the system returns failure, after failure, after failure–and the occasional, stilted success.
This experience was not my only instance of racial discrimination, and it certainly was not my last as an employee. I chose to tell this one as it was, sort of, my official introduction into life in America as an educated, African-American female. Some of the experiences that I fielded were near and far—i.e., stories that I read in the newspaper, heard on the news or heard from the boys and girls that I treated in the program, and even my own interactions with some of the Caucasian members of my church.
I began to take note of how I was treated and to how African Americans were caricatured by reporters and journalists. I noticed undue and sometimes unwarranted criticism, intense judgment and demeaning language and tone. Their White counterparts did not suffer the same treatment, ever. I am an avid tennis fan, and I always noticed the tone with which Serena Williams’ matches was commentated on. I once took to the comments section of an online article that ridiculed Sloane Stephens and questioned her intelligence after she lost a match.
If a psychological perspective is needed, constant negative expectations and external interpretations of one’s actions are damaging to the fragile human psyche. No one can withstand hundreds of years of tactics and insidious taunts. I wrote and published my book of poetry, Ode To America, to offer a fighting stance against the tireless psychological onslaught on the African-American psyche that is endemic to the American society.
I specifically chose the language of love to promote healing—and, in fact—to usher in my own, as I have accepted the challenge that the consistent confrontation of these faults is necessary—not only for my own mental health but for the overall health and future of this culpable, diminishing society–and I am participating as loudly as I can.