Not All Scars Are Visible: A Classmate's Tale of Police Brutality

Friday, July 17, 2020

I have not watched the George Floyd video. In fact, I have not watched the Ahmaud Aubrey, Eric Garner, or any of the other recordings of police brutality. I do not need to watch the video to know what George Floyd was experiencing as he was on the ground pleading for help. I have been pinned by a police officer with my face to the concrete, and I have witnessed my brothers beaten by officers.

When I saw the picture of George Floyd on the ground with an officer on top of him, it took me back to the day when I felt as hopeless as he felt. Trust me, you never want to feel that hopelessness.

A few months ago, I was walking around the Mission Bay campus with a black student on a day a protest was scheduled. We noticed the increased presence of police officers near the Bakar building. As we got closer to the officers my heart rate increased; I started to feel nervous and anxious. I stopped talking; all I could think was “do not make eye contact, do not draw attention to yourself, do not act suspicious, try look innocent.”

I turned and asked my friend, “Am I the only one that feels like I have to try really hard to seem like I am not guilty of anything?” She responded, “No, I feel that also.” For people of color fear — not a sense of security — is what the presence of police officers induces. This fear is instilled in us by the constant harassment we face from law enforcement.

For those of you who feel safe around the police, you must recognize the security you feel is an example of the privilege you do not realize you have. It is disappointing how easy it is to find people who refuse to acknowledge the racism that is prevalent in law enforcement even though many examples of police brutality exist.

I realize that some people reading this do not really understand why people of color fear the police, so I am going to tell you about an experience I had when I was a teenager.

One summer day shortly after I graduated high school, my two older brothers and I hosted a barbecue for a few family members and friends. After my father complained of the number of people in our house, we decided to move the barbecue to our friend's house down the street. We packed up the plates, cups, utensils, and the food and headed down the street.

As my oldest brother and I walked towards the front of our house we saw our other brother smoking a cigarette in our front yard, inside our property. As we approached him, we saw police officers open our gate, walk into our yard, and start beating my brother without saying a word.

They immediately tackled him, pinned him to the ground, and started kicking him. Being the protective older brother, he started yelling at the officers to leave our brother alone. An officer approached him and yelled, “Back the fuck away.” He refused to leave and continued to ask that they stop assaulting our brother.

At that point, the police officer punched him. My brother laughed at the officer and responded, “Is that all you got you little motherfucker?” That is when a few officers started beating him.

Shortly after they started beating my oldest brother, an officer approached me. I immediately put my hands up. Even though I did not resist, he threw me on the ground, handcuffed me, and pinned me to the ground with his knee on my back, similarly to how George Floyd was pinned down.

My brothers continued to “resist” (this is what they say when a person reacts to being assaulted). To be clear, my brothers were not acting violently towards the officers; they were acting in defensively trying to minimize the pain being inflicted on them.

The area quickly filled with police officers and before long, they had the three of us pinned to the ground and handcuffed.

A sergeant arrived at the scene and began interviewing the officers and witnesses. When he asked me what happened, I told him I had not done anything. Several people who witnessed the ordeal attested to the fact that I was telling the truth. The sergeant assured me that I would be released.

Two police officers approached me and picked me up off the ground. I was under the impression that they were going to uncuff me, but instead they walked me to their vehicle. They asked me to sit in the back seat. I sat on the back seat but refused to enter the vehicle. I realized that instead of being released, I was being arrested.

I argued that I should not be getting arrested. I repeatedly told them that the sergeant said that I was to be released. They did not seem to care. I noticed the female officer losing patience, and that she intended to slam the door by force, so I quickly swung my legs into the car. The officers got in the car and drove away from my house.

As they drove away, I started to yell that what they were doing was not only unbecoming of a police officer but that it was also illegal. After unsuccessfully pleading for some time, I got upset and let out an expletive-laden rant. The female officer pulled the car over.

At that moment, I heard the male police officer ask over the radio, “Who’s in charge?” After receiving a response, he said, “Ok good” and then he yelled, “Why are you trying to kick out the window?” I had no idea what he was talking about; I was sitting in the back seat doing nothing other than yelling at them. They both got out of the car and put gloves on.

The female officer opened the back door, driver’s side, put me in a headlock, and began punching me. The male officer opened the other door, pulled out a taser gun and shot me with it. The taser prongs embedded in my arm and delivered waves of electrical shocks.

In between taser pulses, I pleaded for them to stop, but they continued to punch and shock me. As I watched people walking and driving past me on this main street, I yelled for help, but no one did anything. They just watched in confusion as the officers beat me for several minutes.

At that point I came to realize that no one was coming to my aid because those tasked with ensuring the public’s safety were the people who were currently attacking me.

I imagine that the hopeless feeling I felt at that moment is the same one that George Floyd felt as those around him watched the assault taking place and did nothing as the officer kneeled on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. No one did anything as I was in the back of the police car, in handcuffs, not resisting being punched and shocked several times.

For those who are unaware of how taser guns work, they shoot out metal prongs that dig into your flesh. The prongs are attached to wires that supply the electrical current. After being tased, the prongs, and the strings attached to them, remain embedded in your flesh.

The police officers took me to the hospital and advised me that protocol stated that after someone is tased, the prongs must be surgically removed. They gave me two options: go into the ER to have the prongs removed or pull them out myself. I said that I would like to go to the ER.

They then said that if I went to the ER “things were going to be worse for me.” I restated that I wanted to go to the ER. They then responded, “Well you aren’t going into the ER” then twisted my arms and forced me to pull the wires to dislodge the prongs from my arm. Only then did they get back in the car and drive to the station.

I arrived at the station and was placed in a cell; my brothers were already there. They had also been beaten and tased. The officer in charge of the station pulled us out of the cage we were in to take pictures of our wounds.

When he finished, I asked him when I was going to be released, considering that I did not do anything wrong. He responded, “Released? You are facing thirteen counts, multiple of them serious felonies. You aren’t going anywhere.” I was in shock. I had no clue what he was talking about and he refused to give me more information.

My brothers and I spent the weekend in the station. On Monday we were taken to court, where we were informed that we were being charged with felony assault on a police officer and felony child endangerment, amongst eleven other charges. We had no clue what they were talking about.

Later we found out that a few people at our barbecue had been intercepted by the police on their way to the other house. They were also assaulted by the officers. What they failed to realize is that my cousin was only sixteen years old at the time, and his friend was seventeen years old. Once they realized that they had assaulted minors, they fabricated a story where they blamed my brothers and me for the assault.

The officers claimed that my brothers and I were assaulting my cousin and his friends when they arrived at the scene. They attempted to stop us, but we resisted and started attacking them. We were shocked that not only had we just been victims of a series of crimes, but we now faced what was likely to be a stressful, emotionally taxing, and lengthy trial.

We hear arguments about how flawed the criminal justice system is; the reality is much worse than what you hear.

If you cannot afford a lawyer, you are assigned a public defender. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you are assigned a public defender (PD) who often does so little to defend you from prosecution that many refer to public defenders as “public pretenders.”

Usually the public defender approaches you and reads the charges you are accused of and then advises you of the deal the district attorney is offering you. The public defender falls just short of advising you to take the deal. They will reiterate that your case “does not look good,” before any of the details or evidence is appropriately analyzed.

Public defenders are not the only people who show no interest in representing you fairly, the prosecutor (district attorney) approaches your case as if they have a personal vendetta against you.

The district attorney (DA) shows little compassion and is ready to recommend a jail or prison sentence before appropriately analyzing any of the details or evidence. It is almost as if his job is to ensure you are prosecuted for a crime.

Seriously, who thought of this system? How could we possibly have an unbiased justice system when the success of a DA is dependent on their conviction rate? How can we expect them to not be quick to consider the defendant guilty and recommend a prison sentence?

Our country claims that you are innocent until proven guilty but that is not the case, at least not for a person of color. Once you are charged with a crime, you are essentially guilty unless you can effectively argue your innocence. Without the money to afford effective representation, most of us cannot prove our innocence.

I was sitting in the courtroom, and I sensed from the eyes on me that everyone considered me guilty. I was given an option: go to prison for ten years or proceed to a trial where, if convicted, I would receive the maximum sentence of forty years in prison. My heart dropped, and I saw my ruined life falling into pieces.

Forcing people into taking a deal is a strategy the courts execute to perfection. Most cases do not go to trial because people are scared into taking deals with the threat of facing a significantly longer sentence if convicted, they repeatedly remind you that you will receive the max sentence if convicted.

It is easy to think that if we are truly innocent, we should be able to prove it. That is not the case; the criminalization of people of color has made it nearly impossible to truly convince a judge and jury of your innocence. When charged with a crime we are essentially in a lose/lose situation.

Even though my brothers and I recognized that we were taking a huge risk, we went against the advice of the public pretenders and decided to go to trial.

As we prepared to go to trial, there was a hearing during which the prosecution presented evidence they had against us. During the hearing it immediately became evident that the officers were lying. When the officers took the stand and offered their version of the story, many inconsistencies came to light. The story they told under oath was different from what they wrote in their police reports. They also contradicted themselves as they spoke. They made claims and when questioned about those claims several minutes later, they stated something different. They claimed that they did not use force.

The judge looked through the files and pulled out the pictures of our wounds that were taken at the station and asked the officer why the station submitted the photos if no force was used. The officer then admitted to using force. When the judge asked where the use of force report was, the officer claimed that it was in the file. When the judge failed to find it, the officer claimed to have forgotten to write one. The judge made it obvious that he did not believe their story.

We proceeded to trial and easily won the case. It took the jury under half an hour to return a not guilty verdict for all three of us. We were relieved that we managed to successfully defend ourselves. We were some of the lucky few that were assaulted by the cops and had charges fabricated against us but managed to prove our innocence.

A question I frequently receive after I tell this story is, “Why did you not sue the police department?” I used to think that we did not sue the police department because we did not have the resources to do it. Although that is true, it was not until several years later that I realized the real reason was that we were so relieved that after a long hard fought battle to prove our innocence, we never wanted anything to do with the police (or the justice system or the courts) again.

We knew that a biased justice system would fail to provide justice for a series of crimes committed by officers against three people of color.

We were beaten by the cops and we avoided jail time. Even writing that sentence now seems ridiculous. I will repeat that, WE were BEATEN by the COPS and WE avoided jail time. Our human rights were violated. We experienced physical, mental, and emotional trauma at the hands of these officers; this experience still haunts me, even when I see an officer on UCSF’s campus.

We were treated like the criminals by the court, even though we were innocent; the officers were the criminals. It was our word against theirs and our words meant nothing. We claimed our innocence and told our side of our story, but initially no one believed us. A group of officers, driven by their prejudice, assaulted us, and then colluded to cover up their crimes.

They did not show any consideration for our lives; they were ok with sending us to prison for crimes we did not commit. They did not show compassion for us; after beating us they attempted to inflict further punishment by fabricating charges that would have resulted in lengthy prison sentences. If they would have been consistent in their testimonies, my brothers and I would be in prison right now.

Those officers could have easily ruined my life. I could have been in prison instead of working on solving the brain. They could have prevented me from accomplishing my goal of earning my PhD, becoming an amazing scientist and role model to young students who grow up in underrepresented areas.

I want to say that I am fortunate, but I cannot come to terms with how wrong that sounds. I should have never been in that situation to begin with. I should not be one of the lucky ones; I should be talking about how I was supported by my community and how I was given every chance to succeed, but that was not the case. I guess I will have to settle for being fortunate.

Every time I see an officer, in the back of my mind I am afraid that I will once again find myself beaten by them, be charged with a crime, and I will not be fortunate to avoid prison. I have worked extremely hard to get to graduate school and I know that if they choose to, they can easily take neuroscience away from me. For those that wonder how people of color can dislike law enforcement, stories like these are the reason.

The officers in my story were not disciplined in any way. We have witnessed many white men murder black people and go unpunished. It took two months for the men that murdered Ahmaud Aubrey to get arrested. It took days for the officers that killed George Floyd to get arrested, even though the video footage of the murder was immediately available.

The fact that the officer brazenly continued to press his knee into George Floyd’s neck even though he had cameras in his face shows the privilege white officers have. He was confident that he could kill a black man on camera and get away with it. Police officers, and even white civilians (Gregory and Travis McMichael, George Zimmerman to name a few) can murder people of color and get the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, POC make less egregious mistakes (or in some cases no mistake at all) and face stiff consequences.

How can our country claim to be just? For those of you who do not believe that prejudice, racism, and unequal treatment towards people of color exist, I hope the countless murders of people of color and stories like mine convince you otherwise. For those of you who finally understand that we are not treated fairly, my story is one more example of the injustice POC experience.

There has been a lot of talk of fighting the systemic racism that exists in our country. I implore you to really listen to stories like mine and try to empathize with and understand the hopelessness I felt, the hopelessness George Floyd felt. When you claim that we must fight discrimination, truly feel like you are fighting for one of your own. Stand proud by your pledges to end systemic racism in all aspects of society.

Here in academia it’s easy to think that the issues of the “outside world” don’t affect us, but that is not true. Unfortunately for POC we cannot step on campus and evade the injustice we face in this country; academia is not a haven for POC. For example, the sight of police officers on campus is a constant reminder of the discrimation POC face and it impacts POC differently.

People cannot expect us to respond the same way as people who do not face this type of discrimination. We should be able to walk around campus and not be worried about having a confrontation with the police. Like everyone else at UCSF, us POC worked extremely hard to get to UCSF and we deserve to feel welcomed and safe.

Beyond the police, systemic racism and prejudice exist in many other forms in academia. I have not had an experience like the one in this story since I entered academia, but I have experienced subtle, covert prejudice, and discrimination. UCSF states on their website that it is “committed to building a broadly diverse community, nurturing a culture that is welcoming and supportive, and engaging diverse ideas for the provision of culturally competent education, discovery, and patient care.”

As part of the academic community we rely on our institutions to foster an environment where we feel comfortable and secure. As the university community looks to address systemic racism within our own community, we must keep in mind that racism is prominent in our country and that the racism POC experience in the “outside world” might be a little different but it is still as impactful.

This article focused on some of the broader issues POC face in this country; I intend to publish a second article highlighting how our experiences shape our perspectives, what the academic experience is like for POC, and how the university can help us feel welcomed.

There is a lot of work that must be done for UCSF to have a nurturing, welcoming, and supportive culture. I hope that this sudden desire to tackle systemic racism is a genuine desire. This is the time for our institutions to prove it.