It started with a piece of strawberry cake.
During my years after high school, some of my good friends, who would later become family, opened a Caribbean restaurant on H Street N.E. in D.C. It was really a takeout place with a few places to sit, but for many of us, it was a second home. My second family was from Trinidad, and they managed to survive the Rayful Edmond ’80s, so they were hip when we’d slide through with our eyes bloodshot in the middle of the day to devour plates of chicken smothered in curry. They never questioned why we’d crush a slice of cake in seconds. I don’t know anyone who could open the plastic cake container, smell the glorious scent of the frosting, and not punish that strawberry softness to smithereens.
The stew chicken was divine but truthfully, I was in it for the cake. The cakes were heavenly. They made all kinds of cakes: lemon, chocolate, but my favorite was strawberry. My boy Derrick would get an extra piece just for the end of the evening after we’d smoked and drank it all.
This was our tradition.
This night was one of those nights. The initial plan was that Derrick and I were going to dip off to another spot and meet the family back at the house later. But on this night we didn’t get back until late—well past 2 a.m. This was before cell phones. We didn’t want to wake everyone up so we figured we’d sleep outside. We walked up the block to where we knew the 18-wheeler drivers would leave their big 53-foot-long containers, and figured we’d sleep in one of those. We’d just found an empty joint that was open and were getting ready to go to sleep when Derrick reminded me that he still had a piece of cake. He pulled it out of his bookbag. Both of our eyes lit up as he popped the plastic cake case open.
That’s when the car came barreling down the street. That’s when the shooting started.
To this day, I don’t know what happened—just that a car drove past us, fast, slammed on the brakes and shooting rang out from everywhere. We couldn’t see anything because we were in the back of an 18-wheeler-truck container and there weren’t any windows. I laid flat on my back praying that a bullet didn’t hit us. At some point, Derrick must’ve closed the lid to the cake because we kind of laughed later when we both realized that the cake was secure. When the shooting stopped, we hopped out of the truck container and started running.
We didn’t even know where we were running, but we knew that our destination was away from there. When we looked up, Derrick realized that we were a good hour away from a girl he was dating but if we made it there, she’d surely let us stay the night. We decided that we’d give her the cake as a peace offering for waking her up so late. Derrick held the cake in his hand the whole way.
We walked, trying to piece together what happened, but nothing we thought of made any sense. We’d finally made it to Eastern Avenue, which was 30 minutes from his lady’s place when four officers rolled up on us. They wanted to know why my back was dirty. I didn’t even know what the officer was talking about; I couldn’t even open my mouth before Derrick shot back, “Is having dirt on your back against the law?”
I guess I’d gotten dirt on my shirt from laying down in the truck. I figured I could talk us out of this by just explaining the truth that we were going to sleep in a truck until someone started shooting. But the officer and Derrick had already gotten into something I couldn’t name. We were exhausted—normally our nights like this ended with funny stories—and we just wanted to get where we were going. That’s when the cop said something to Derrick and before he could answer, the cop smacked the cake out of Derrick’s hand. I watched as the cake lid opened and the cake, in all its strawberry goodness, went crashing into the ground. The cop then took his boot and smashed it into the pavement.
Derrick said, “I wish that man who was killing cops would’ve killed your ass.” And just like that, Derrick was handcuffed. I figured they were going to take him somewhere and beat him, which was normal D.C. operating procedure at the time. It wasn’t unlikely for an officer to roll up on you, search you, take your money and weed and let you go. I once had an officer almost hit me with his car when I raised my hands outward to imply, “What the fuck are you doing?” The officer put his hand over his badge and asked me “What’s up?!” He wanted to fight me.
It was their tradition.
Derrick kept shouting a phone number, and it was all happening so fast. I wasn’t high anymore. I’d stopped being high when the shooting started and I really stopped being high once we started running but I still couldn’t put together what he was saying. The cops bounced with Derrick just as fast as they arrived, and I realized I was alone. The number was his lady’s number. I didn’t remember it. I walked back to a neighborhood I was familiar with and slept outside. It wouldn’t be the last time.
I was new to panic attacks and new to being single. I was working a job that I hated and starting to feel like an old-ass burden. I’d been having trouble driving, trouble sitting in places too long. I was miserable. I was starting to feel like I was losing my mind and now I was trying to date. I just needed a distraction. I used to go out all the time; now, I had a list of shows I watched on TV.
Tuesday shows. Friday shows.
I didn’t even know how to bring it up or how to talk about it so I just told the woman I was trying to date, “Look, sometimes I lunch out, so if I get real quiet or need to sit outside, don’t freak out and definitely don’t call 9-1-1.”
I wasn’t born hating the police. I just didn’t believe they could help me. I can’t think of one time where a police officer has added anything of value to a situation I was involved in. Yes, I’ve needed their police reports to file claims but that’s an insurance requirement, not mine. Police aren’t trained in de-escalation—they don’t alleviate my anxiety, they add to it. I imagine them arriving and placing me in handcuffs for their safety and mine. Except, I hate feeling trapped. I spent the majority of my teen years outside. My best friend and I used to have this thing where we’d get drunk, walk the city and see what the night would give us. Some nights turned out fantastic; others tragic but either way, they were memorable and we were cool with that. As an adult, I feel the most comfortable and truly my most free when I’m outside. To this day, if I have anxiety in the house, I leave and take a walk—not because they’re refreshing or whatever white people get from walks—it’s just...I don’t know how to explain it.
It was my tradition.
If I ever feel panicky in a car, I need to get out. I need to be free. Imagine trying to explain this to someone you’re trying to date. Imagine trying to present yourself as a provider and protector who doesn’t really fuck with traffic jams or bridges. But I didn’t want to lie about it, so I explained that I grew up kind of fucked up so I get panic attacks sometimes.
This was a lie.
I was getting them more often than not. I was having them on some level at least four to five times a week. But she was beautiful and funny and I was willing to try to make it something. In fact, she still teases me for telling her after a week of dating that I loved her. That’s not how it went down exactly: what I told her is that “I don’t know how much you can love someone in a week but, whatever that measurement is, I one-week love you.” And I did. I’d never met someone so kind.
I told her not to call the police if I had a panic attack because I wasn’t trying to get fucked up. She didn’t understand. I told her that my height (6’2), weight (215 on a good day) and freaking out is an ass whooping just waiting to happen. She was from a hippie town in upstate New York but she wasn’t dumb. We were driving when I could feel an anxiety attack coming on. She could tell. We were on the highway and it was virtually impossible for me to get out and walk around. That’s when she told me to lay down in the backseat. I did, embarrassed. Here I am, this big-ass man curled up in the fetal position in the back of the car and that’s when her hand reached back for me to hold.
It felt like home.
Have you ever been pushed onto a hot car hood? It’s not like a fire burn that sears the skin; it’s just unrelenting hotness that turns your body degrees of red. The first time I was smashed on a hot car hood, I was 14. I didn’t set out to dislike the police. In fact, up until that point, the police were about as impactful as a cab driver or any other common job that people had. I didn’t have any interactions with them to go by. Until I was 14.
I was with a few friends attempting to get into a youth rec center in Old Greenbelt, Md. The white folks that worked there would let white kids in without any fuss but, every time we tried to get in, they’d ask us for ID to prove we lived in Greenbelt. We know this now as a microaggression, but back then we just figured they were being assholes. Same thing, really.
Finally, my friend Eric decided he’d had enough. He asked why they treated us like this. Told them where we lived and how we wouldn’t have a fucking ID because we can’t vote or buy cigarettes or drive a car. Apparently, these adults were frightened by Eric’s 14-year-old words because minutes later, the police had pinned me face-down on the hood of a hot car. I guess the only way these grown adults figured they could handle the situation was to call the police.
It was their tradition.
I don’t believe that the police can be saved.
I also believe that the individuals who make up the police force can be decent people.
They have a proclivity for brutality because they are cops. It’s their tradition.
My illness requires a compassion that even I don’t have—in fact, it’s one of the reasons I still suffer from it. I didn’t grow up in a compassionate house. I didn’t grow up receiving hugs (I imagine that healthy households include self-hugging). Although it is changing, I understand why Black folks don’t even believe in the power of therapy.
Imagine carrying around all that healthy compassion in a world that has no compassion for you. A person with a healthy mind might not have panic attacks but a person with a healthy mind might not be able to compose themself after nearly being killed in a random drive-by. A person with a healthy mind might process the bite-size racism that we call “microaggression” but they would also probably disintegrate into a tub of tears after being brutalized and tortured by an ever-present, all-powerful uniformed stalker.
I’ve been told that the only way through is through. I’ve been told to “Suck it up, champ.” I’ve been told to go to cognitive therapy, which is like Sesame Street for your brain. I’ve been told that this too shall pass. I’ve been told to learn 2 Timothy 1:7. I’ve been told to repeat it in those moments when I’m at my weakest. I’ve been told that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. ... hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
Having a fear of police is natural for Black men. The news confirms this. Police shootings confirm this. White folks so threatened by Black Lives Matter that they can’t even stand a government-approved banner on the streets confirms this. Calling the police for a mental health episode only for the concerned party to watch their loved one gunned down confirms this. There needs to be a whole separate category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for Black men’s mental health issues.
Our issues are complex. We are both imitated and hated, beloved and despised, copied and degraded. And as such, my relationship with the police is complicated. My mental health issues require a kindness that isn’t only foreign to me, it’s foreign to people who look like me. I once had a therapist tell me to repeat “I’m OK...I’m OK” when I can feel my anxiety beginning to rise. But the reality is that I’m not.
The hot car hood is emblazoned in my mind. I can’t forget it. It was my first encounter with the police and the first conversation I had with my father about that purgatory of being a black male; the space where you are too young to alleviate your troubles with a beer and too old not to understand that you aren’t white. There are rules and I learned them on this day. Being right didn’t save us. Trying to explain that our parents wanted the same for us (which is why we all lived in that shitty-ass suburb in the first place) didn’t save us. Trying to leave when we realized it was pointless didn’t save us.
The scariest part of having a panic attack is the moment when your heart is racing and your palms are sweating and you realize that you are alone and intimidating even while scared out of your own mind. What I really needed in these moments is an understanding ear; someone, really anyone, to hold my hand and say “You’ve been through this before, it’s going to be alright.” I was 14 and I learned then that the police will never be that hand.
The police are still killing Black people. Those on the front line are still fighting for change. Colin Kaepernick is still a free agent, and just some weeks ago, I watched a cop kneel on the neck of a Black man for almost nine minutes until he died. And you want to know why he died? It’s because those people who were begging the police to stop, those who were fighting to save George Floyd’s life couldn’t just push the officer off him themselves. It’s a trick bag. All of it. And I don’t trust the system or the process because until a therapist can talk to me about the code-switching it takes to navigate the liquor store in my neighborhood, then they can’t even begin to understand where all this comes from and why weakness—especially mental health weakness, Black man weakness—doesn’t move the sticks where I live.
I remember wincing the first time that I heard my childhood referred to as trauma. I remember thinking that trauma has a whole unit in the hospital. Trauma is what war veterans experience. Trauma is beyond serious, it’s cancerous. A good friend’s mom told her this saying that stuck with her: “Pain doesn’t decompose just because you buried it.” Most of us have buried our pain so far that even looking at it is painful.
I know how to destroy; building up has been a process. I don’t know how to love…anything, really. I know how to be critical. I know how to leave the cap off just enough so it all spills out. I know how to cut grass, but I couldn’t tell you how or when to water a plant. I’m a breaker of things by nature or design. Either way, I’m good at it to a fault—I’m comfortable outside, remember? It means I know how to leave.
It was my tradition.
But the one time I stayed, the one time I didn’t run, I held her hand and asked her to marry me.
Being black in America comes with trauma, pain and issues that need to be confronted.
But, if you’re lucky, there’s cake.