Police Encounters #5: No Words Spoken
For Police Encounters #5 I will focus on a time when I was about 22 years of age. During that time (1993) I was living in East Oakland on 55th Ave. and Scoville St. This particular encounter was quick, but remains perplexing and haunting. During this season of life I lifted weights and worked out five times a week, Monday-Friday. Diego’s Power Alley Gym was a classic, popular, and intimate East Oakland spot and that is where I worked out while I lived in East Oakland. Additionally the owner is a pillar of Oakland and was a good influence to be around. The gym was on Foothill Blvd., just a few blocks from my house and it was easy for me to get there on foot. I could simply put on my workout gear, walk to the gym, hit the iron, and walk home.
On this particular sunny East Oakland day I walked to the gym wearing gray sweats, white t-shirt, and a dark blue sweatshirt, carrying a small white towel. While at the gym I had a solid workout and after about one hour and forty-five minutes I left the gym to walk home and prepare for work. At the time I worked for UPS in the evenings. I was in my personal zone of solitude walking home, catching my breath from my workout, wiping away sweat with my white towel. I took the same route to the gym every Monday-Friday, and at this time I was walking down 57th Ave. The only item in my pocket was my house key.
While walking down 57th I made it to the middle of the block and a Oakland Police Officer drove past and slammed his patrol car into the park position and hopped out. The moment was surreal; no siren or flashing lights. I still recall the sound of his gear-shift slamming into park. He jumped out of his car swiftly and at that point things turned weird and the encounter continues to haunt me.
As the officer exited his vehicle in the middle of the street, I kept my eye on him covertly just to see what he was doing. I knew I had not done anything wrong so I kept walking, but remaining aware of his actions and proximity. Suddenly the African American solo officer started walking towards me at a brisk pace. Here is where it gets psychologically sick. As I saw him moving towards me I quickly stopped, turned, and placed my hands in the air. The officer then approached me on the sidewalk, kicked my left leg so both legs were to spread, searched me from shoulders to ankles, found nothing, returned to his vehicle and sped away.
Throughout the entire encounter he never said one word and I never said a word. I then continued to walk home as if the interaction was appropriately normal and routine.
As I reflected upon that encounter years later it dawned on me how dehumanizing of an experience that was. Why was I so accustomed to that humiliating drill? Why was it okay for that officer to approach and search me without uttering one word? Why did I allow him to search me without saying anything? Why did I continue the rest of my day like nothing out of the ordinary had occurred?
I had never seen that officer before and I imagine he had never seen me, but to this very day I do not know why he searched me. I can guess; perhaps I fit the description. What if out of fear (not guilt) I would have run? What if I refused the search since there was no stated explanation for it? The problem was, as a young Black man, I was so accustomed to being searched by police for no reason on the streets of Fillmoe and Oakland, I allowed myself to be reduced to a person without rights. Additionally, the officer believed my worth was so low he could approach and search me without voicing a reason. Regardless, all of my unwarranted police encounters (and I have many more) and dehumanizing experiences continue to shape my schematic psyche. More than twenty years later the incidents have not stopped.
On an even deeper and more eerie level, I had no idea that many years later on November 8, 2010, in the same area, the unarmed brother of my wife would run out of fear and be fatally shot seven times by two Oakland Police Officers…
Dr. Ammar Saheli