I loved to play Cops and Robbers when I was twelve.
It was a game that my next door neighbor and I used to play together while in the midst of the eighties, our formative years. It was during those years that the bombastic cop movies and television shows reigned. I would watch mesmerized, as charismatic, lantern jawed, and testosterone fueled men spent the better part of the movie/television show meting out hard justice to evil doers with forty-fives, twenty-twos, and thirty eights — that’s guns if you didn’t know what those numbers referred to. My personal favorites were T.J Hooker, Die Hard, and Lethal Weapon.
My neighbor and I were impressionable twelve and eleven year old kids then, but we of course knew that those gun toting cops on television and in the movies were merely actors who were using fake firearms to vanquish the bad guys. This knowledge did not stop us from idolizing and emulating the actions performed by these thespians in their films.
We played Cops and Robbers as much as we could during the school year, skulking about the neighborhood with fake guns in our hands, chasing, hiding, and shooting at each other with imaginary bullets in the evenings and on the weekends. God, it was so much fun to play! After the school year ended, with the summer days fending off the onset of the night until 9:00 pm or so, Cops and Robbers become an everyday occurrence.
It was during the afternoon of one of those summer vacation days that I was awakened from a boredom induced stupor by three knocks on the living room door. I immediately knew who it was that was rapping on my door, and said a silent prayer of thanks for his interruption. Summer vacations were a necessity, but there was not much a twelve year old kid could do to pass the time, except for hanging out with the neighborhood kids and reading a book. And who wanted to read a book during summer vacation?
My father opened the door. Standing on the edge of my family’s porch was the chubby faced, bespectacled child of our next-door neighbor. His name was David. “Is it all right for Eze to come outside?” asked the chubby faced boy, looking hopeful.
I was practically on my way out the door before my father gave his consent.
David’s parents had purchased one of the few houses in the neighborhood that was without a vestibule. So the two of us gathered together on the slab of concrete that preceded the doorway to his house, where we would decide which one of us would get the pistol; we both wanted the pistol because it was the freshest of the choices that were available. A subsequent flip of the coin would award David the coveted pistol, while I was saddled with the worn and chaffed machine gun.
The rules for Cops and Robbers were few. A player was “killed” when an opponent, who was usually within earshot, “shot” you with his gun. And we had to give each other enough time to find hiding places before the game officially began. David and I would give each other twenty seconds to find a spot to lurk on this day.
The game was usually played within the confines of our block. Nevertheless, my desire to win the game on this day propelled me on until I reached the next street.
I was so pleased with myself. My friend would have never suspected that I would expand the zone of war onto the next city street. I would remain on this street until I assumed that my opponent had run out of patience. He would ultimately expose himself to an ambush and I would make my way back to my block to spring my trap.
After about fifteen minutes of lying in wait, I emerged from my hiding place, which was the yard bush in front of the corner house. After a quick reconnaissance of the battlefield, I surmised that the coast was clear, and began to traverse the adjacent yards of the homeowners.
The sun’s rays were beating down on me, causing sweat to trickle down my face, back, and abdomen. My T-shirt stuck to the sweat on my chest, my slick underpants were sliding down along my bottom, and my underarms were musky. My throat was parched, and I would have welcomed a cup of water to quench my thirst. But those were concerns that I had to push to the periphery of my mind, for I had a job to do. And the heat and the sweat were not going to stop me from achieving my ultimate goal: killing the friend who occupied the role of police officer.
I crouched down low as I was making my way back to my block. I gripped my gun tight. Everything was quiet save for a slight wind and the slow rumble of an approaching car engine. A few more steps and the car was upon me. And then the engine stopped rumbling. I turned my head towards the direction of the car and I immediately recognized that I was being followed.
The police officer exited his car, an average sized man, middle aged, with hair that was retreating from the top of his forehead. He drew his gun from his holster, and rested both of his arms on top of his cruiser while gripping his gun tightly with both of his hands. I could not see for sure if his finger was on the trigger. To my horror though, I knew that he had trained the muzzle of the gun on me. Fear flooded my bloodstream in the subsequent moments, freezing me right where I was, for it was only thing that I could think to do.
“Stay where you are,” he said, sounding calm. “Don’t move from that spot.”
I was already stuck in place. I wasn’t going anywhere, though my knees felt as if they were going to buckle beneath me.
“Listen to me. I want you to place the gun on the ground. Do it slowly,” he said.
It took almost all that I had to move my limbs so that I could comply. I bent down, gently placing the gun on the sidewalk. Then I stood up straight, with my hands raised in the air. My breath had left me.
He inhaled a breath. “Good,” he said, still wary. “Now get down on the ground, face down, and spread your arms and legs out to the sides. Do that slowly too.”
I did what he asked of me.
My face was pressed down onto the pavement, but I could hear and feel his footsteps coming toward me. My heart was pounding the whole time, as I was resisting the urge to empty the contents of my bladder right then and there.
He reached down and grabbed for the gun. A few agonizing seconds passed.
“All right then. You can stand up now.”
And then I was able to breathe again. The fear was beginning to ebb, the warmth was returning to my limbs, replacing the cold. I got to my feet, with a tepid assurance that I was probably going to get out of this situation alive. I was still in shock though, and trembling from it.
I snuck a look up at the officer’s face. It was pensive as he examined the gun. I wanted to ask why he had reacted so severely, but thought it more prudent to remain silent.
The lantern jawed police officer was still working with the fake gun when he said: “There should be a red circle on the muzzle of this gun. You should get one of those for the next time.” And with that he dropped the gun in my hand, got into his police cruiser, and drove off without leaving an apology. As I watched him round the corner in his cruiser, I made a silent vow to never again play Cops and Robbers again.
I went to find David.
Life went on after that, and I buried the memories and trauma of that day as the years passed. I graduated from high school, enrolled and graduated from multiple universities, secured a job in the health services industry, and voted for the first black president. My near death experience three decades prior had not gotten in the way of that progress.
Then came the highly publicized killing of seventeen year old Trevon Martin in Florida, eighteen year old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, seventeen year old Laquan McDonald in Chicago, twelve-year old preteen Tamir Rice in Cleveland, twenty-one year old Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and so many others who were gunned by law enforcement. These were all young black boys, loved by the families and their communities, all seemingly with long lives ahead of them. But each of those lives would slowly ebb away from prone bodies that had been plugged with police bullets.
After learning of these unjustified shootings of young black men and boys by the state, the memories from my encounter with that policeman came back to me like a flood; the humiliation, the unforgiving concrete, and the abject and paralyzing fear. And now I begin and end each day with the same statement: that could have been me. One wrong move and I would have ended up prostrate on the street, body riddled with bullet holes, my blood leaking onto and painting the sidewalk. But I’m not dead. I’ve been able to live a productive life, and I believe that I have many more decades left to live. But that could have been me. The deaths of forty-three year old Eric Gardner and twenty-eight year old Sandra Bland make it clear that it could still be me.
As I write this, I’m asking myself why I was ultimately spared. What was the reason? Was the officer who confronted me some twenty-eight years ago better trained than the officers in Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore? Is there anything that I did that stayed the police officer’s hand? Was I a less imposing preteen than Tamir Rice? Is it the town that I lived in? Did the universe stand in the way? Was it a confluence of these issues? Because I want to replicate whatever it was that saved me and put it in an infinite number of jars to pass out to young people of color everywhere.
I am forty years old now, and I am feeling a bit discombobulated because these memories can act as a spark for some white hot anger, but I am also filled with gratitude for the policeman who spared my life twenty-eight years ago. I’ve forgiven him for what he did, because unlike some of his more trigger happy brethren, he had the sense to hold back.
I’ve even caught myself empathizing with this man, thinking that I’ve gained some insight into what he was thinking. He saw a preteen creeping through a neighborhood with what looked like a gun gripped in his fist. Perhaps it was prudent for him to be at least somewhat suspicious of me? Then I remind myself of the fact that so many kids my age played the game without ever being accosted by an intimidating police man, which causes my anger to flare up again. And then I end up being confused by all that I’m feeling, which infuriates me.
So I’m going to stand by my original assertion that the police officer was wrong, despite the fact that I am grateful. No innocent child of twelve should have their innocence questioned, and then subsequently ripped away.