All I could say after “it” concluded—and after I picked my face and bowels up off the floor of the car—was, “it is amazing what is possible when racism isn’t central to interactions with the authorities.” I may have fainted after that; I’ll ask my wife.
The “it” in question was an interaction with police in Ghana (officially the Ghana Police Service) that I’m fairly certain would have ended up with somebody being shot had it occurred in America. But I’m telling you too much without saying anything...allow me to tell you a story.
Back in December of 2019, I, along with thousands of other diasporic Black folks, ventured to Accra, Ghana (and other parts of the country) for the Year of Return, a yearlong celebration of sorts centered around welcoming people (Black Americans, in particular) back to Ghana 400 years after the first slaves made landfall in Virginia in 1619. I wrote about some observations I had about my first trip and the experience of visiting the “slave castles” at Elmina and Cape Coast, including the infamous “Door of No Return” that you saw pop up in pictures of every single person you know who ventured to Ghana.
What I didn’t write about in that piece about Elmina and Cape Coast was how I wasn’t sure if I was going to return (as it were) back to America. While everybody who went to Ghana probably had wonderful stories about their experience overall—a molasses-paced food-services industry, varying opinions on Afrochella, etc.—what they probably didn’t mention was the police checkpoints set up all around the city. Every single day that I was in Ghana, we hit at least one police checkpoint. Part of this was because we were staying in East Legon and there was what seemed like an eternal checkpoint on Lagos Avenue right by where we were. Folks who lived there all had the same groan-ish reaction to them: “They’re all just looking for extra tips during the holiday season; just give them some money and they’ll let us go.” And that’s usually what happened. We’d pull up to the police officer who would look into the car, ask where we were going, and, depending on who we were riding with, it was either a really short convo or a few Ghana cedis were passed out the window.
In one very humorous interaction, one of my car’s passengers—a Ghanaian woman—took on her impression of an “American” accent and told the officer, “we’re just visitors trying to get home” in what sounded like a goofy white, country Texan voice. I was floored and we laughed about it, and it made me realize that Black folks around the world affect a goofy white country Texan when mimicking white people. We truly are all cousins. Ghana was fun.
Anyway, the point of all that was that there were many police checkpoints. That, too, was the case traveling to and from Cape Coast and Elmina. We had a driver—whose name escapes me—who like most Ghanaians was annoyed by police checkpoints. And well, it turns out on our drive back to Accra, he’d had enough. Here is MY recollection of those events.
This particular checkpoint had two parts: The first one, where they either let you go, in which case, you could drive through the second—or the first, where they told you to go to the second.
My man, the driver, decided he didn’t feel like stopping at the first one. Sure, he slowed down and then he pretended that the police officer didn’t tell him to stop. I know this because I HEARD THE POLICE TELLING HIM TO STOP.
At this point—as his slowdown turned into a speedup towards the next checkpoint, probably 50 yards in front of us—I literally felt like shit was about to go down. Again, I heard and saw the police beckon to us to stop and he slowed down and then hit the gas. My wife and I went silent as I’m going full American at this point and thinking that I didn’t come all the way to Ghana to die at the hands of the police; I could have done that in America with ease. I also had no idea what my now unpredictable driver was about to do at this second checkpoint.
I saw several police officers yelling to him to pull over and he wasn’t slowing down enough (for my liking) for somebody who was being pulled over by police with M-16s. I guess he either decided it wasn’t worth it or realized we were PAYING him to get us back from whence we came alive because he did pull over to an officer YELLING at him. So what does he do?
He rolled down the passenger side window and started YELLING back at the cop. The officer was yelling at him, asking him why he didn’t stop at the first checkpoint. He even yelled, “You didn’t hear him say stop?” Our driver yelled at him in both English and Twi that the initial set of police officers DIDN’T tell him to stop and waved him through. All this was not only untrue, it was a bald-faced lie. I WATCHED the officers wave their arms and yell at him to pull over.
So what did our driver THEN do?
He turned around to the two passengers, including the Black American man who was praying and wondering what the articles about my life would say, and said, “DID YOU HEAR ANYBODY SAY STOP???”
I also lied because well, there was no other option on the table. He then explained to the cops that we were Americans and the still annoyed and pissed off cops with M-16s who were still 38-hot and still yelling, waved off our driver, and let us go. Our driver, with the window STILL down, continued to yell at the police. And he continued to be pissed at the police after we drove off.
Our driver not only barreled through a police checkpoint, he THEN proceeded to yell nonstop at police officers, incredulously and with vigor for minutes, only for them to let us go, while still mad, and nobody pulled out a weapon or got shot.
As you can imagine, my level of discomfort was present for probably at least another hour on this drive back to Accra going over and over in my head what I just witnessed. Racism wasn’t at the core of this interaction; these were two black men. Our driver was in the wrong, by a country mile, but still managed to be pissed at the police to the point of yelling at them dismissively, as if they were inconveniencing him. It was the whitest police interaction I’ve ever witnessed up close and personal.
We went on to enjoy the rest of our night and I believe even went OUT that night to some party or something or other. We lived to see another day.
And it never would have happened in America.