Whether it's in Nigeria or Canada, police encounters haunt me
I have to drive with more vigilance because I’m Black
This First Person column was written by Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, who lives and works in Calgary. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
There is no unrest or riot in Imo state, Nigeria, but the police presence is always heavy. We've already meandered past two police checkpoints and there are more checkpoints along the road. Frustration gnaws me, although I remain calm.
On the radio, Nigerian-French musician Asa is singing Jailer. I turn the volume up and try to hum along but burst out laughing.
"What's funny, Dad?" my daughter asks from the backseat.
We are in chains, we're prisoners, I want to tell her, but she's seven and might not get it.
I stop laughing and sit up as the car ahead of me bumps forward and halts with a screech.
"Move an inch again, and I will shoot you!"
I flinch, tightening my grip on the wheel. I didn't notice that we had reached the next checkpoint. A policeman has his gun pointed at the driver before us.
It happens so fast. The driver is yanked out of his car and thrown to the ground. Two police officers smash his body with the butts of their guns, berating him. The scream from the man's lungs shatters the air.
A fourth policeman walks over to me, cradling his gun. He frisks our faces with flinty eyes, and my knees almost lock. My daughter shrinks in her seat. Without saying a word, he waves us along.
It has been eight years since my encounter with the Nigerian police. Even though I now live in Canada, the encounter still haunts me.
Sometime last summer, a friend and I were trying to locate another friend who'd moved into a new neighbourhood in Edmonton. My car GPS had misrouted us. My friend chided me after realizing I couldn't access Google Maps because I had no data on my phone.
"Bro, please don't ever take that risk."
"What do you mean?"
"If the cop stops you and something goes wrong, you always want to be livestreaming."
I have lived in Canada since 2016 and haven't encountered cops, but my friend's speech left me alarmed.
A few months later, another friend phoned me to recount how two cops had confronted them in Leduc, Alta., because someone had reported seeing a Black couple in a car prowling their neighbourhood. He and his girlfriend had missed the house where they had gone to pick up an item bought on Kijiji. The cops let them continue on their way after quizzing them. My friend recalled his shock when he heard the cops say to them, "You fellows don't look dangerous."
This is why these encounters haunt me and are intensified by the news of police brutality in North America. Sometimes I shudder when a squad car flashes by while I am driving. I know I have to drive with more vigilance because of the colour of my skin.
One day, I raced out of my apartment and drove off to restock groceries. My fingers almost slid off the wheel when I realized I had left my wallet at home. How would a Black man, without his driver's licence, identify himself if the cop pulled him over?
When the videos of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols being clobbered by cops in Memphis, Tenn., flooded news outlets in January, I refused to watch the video because it re-enacted the frequency of Black men and women killed by the police. Yet on Twitter, the photo of a woman holding a placard with "STOP KILLING US" pulverized my bones.
That week, wracked with grief, I pleaded once again with my children as they left for school.
"Please keep your hoodies down. Wear your toques instead. Don't drift out during break with your classmates to the strip mall. Never leave your hands in your pockets when walking in an alley. Better still, avoid alleys even if it's daytime. Stand still, however panicky you feel, and don't flee if the police accost you on the street."
This fear has me in chains. I struggle with its haunting because I don't know what drives a police officer to perforate an unarmed civilian with bullets, bludgeon another citizen to a mess, strangle a boy gasping for mercy, or yank a girl by her braids and slam her head against the concrete. How does one take the life of a fellow human being he has already overpowered, then go home and have dinner with their family?
I know there will be measured calls for accountability, anti-bias training, reforms, and further demands for defunding and abolition of the system. Anger will surge and abate. Yet another police officer, somewhere, will brazenly end another Black life.
Still, I remain haunted by the clank of chains — chains that I can't shake off my wrists and ankles, no matter how hard I try.
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