Content note: This piece contains descriptions of police violence and brutality.
I am a Black disabled man who uses Lofstrand canes and a sports-style wheelchair in a country that hates and fears me. I know what it feels like to get pulled over in cities across America and fear for my life, no matter if I’m in the driver’s seat or not.
I know the imperialist and destructive history of the police force through stories passed down to me from my elders and how, in the South, the police force was literally created to subdue and return runaway slaves to their white masters. I feel the ancestral pain of hearing “Don’t run, stop.”
When my wife and I had an offhand conversation about our varying police interactions growing up, I started to consider what hearing the different sirens feels like, especially for a Black disabled man. Imagine feeling like the wind has been taken from your lungs while getting a heart attack from sound and lights.
The short cadence of the siren reminds me of hearing “hey, n*****” from a Confederate sympathizer during a Civil War reenactment. A long, continuous siren could mean the police are pursuing someone who has done nothing wrong. You might be reading this and thinking that “driving while Black” isn’t a crime in the eyes of the police, but if you look it up, there are so many stories that say otherwise.
I can recall hearing that long siren at the age of 9 when my father, who was underpaid and overworked at Bell Atlantic, was at a stop sign “too long.” Being expected to “respect” officers while remaining calm was difficult to balance. I remember vividly being terrified that staying at a stop sign longer than the officer thought he should made my father, a working poor telecommunications professional, somehow a threat. I remember the officer “temporarily confiscating” a worn-down handheld snow scraper, thinking it was a threat.
I remember driving at the indicated speed limit in Rock Creek Park at 1 a.m. trying to get home and hearing the short siren. I remember being in the passenger seat of a brand-new BMW and watching my life flash before my eyes as the officer flashed his flashlight in my face.
My friend and I were doing nothing wrong. We complied with the officer’s requests, and he said we were under investigation because someone saw two Black men driving a brand-new BMW in “their” park and thought we were driving around with the intent to case the neighborhood for a future robbery. The officer shined his maglev flashlight in my face and forced me out of the car because my metal canes reflected light into his eyes. He thought they were two rifles.
My friend and I were unlawfully detained and searched, as was the BMW. But I was additionally searched and questioned when my name came back with a previous record. What was that record? Well, when I was 10 years old, I was in the Boy Scouts. In order to get a particular community activism badge, I and other scouts had to be fingerprinted at a police station while the officers gave us “pretend” crimes.
Knowing that I might not make it home, knowing that my human rights were violated, and knowing that my Black disabled body was on display for drivers passing by was traumatizing.
I still experience immediate mental distress whenever I hear any police sirens in public or in a news broadcast.
As a Black person in imperialist America, with the added trauma of my ancestors and my own, it’s been difficult to find a mental health professional who could help me unpack all that historical trauma, even with all the tools at their disposal. That said, there are therapists of color and Black therapists who can help. But acknowledging that mental strain is only half the battle in a world where sirens are a constant reality. To date, my immediate self-care method is meditation.
I still experience immediate mental distress whenever I hear any police sirens in public or in a news broadcast. I feel fear, even if the siren is not for me, because it reminds me of how another Black person could be under the brutal force of police violence. Both the long and the short sirens have spelled a death sentence for so many Black people who did nothing wrong, complied, and still were unjustly murdered.
The most recent worldwide coverage of police violence focuses on Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Their stories show how the modern police force reacts similarly to the historical police force — mostly white men with little training in policing minority communities. And yet a modern police officer can be on active duty in less time than a member of the American military.
With the budget for the modern police force ballooning and many jurisdictions authorizing military-grade weapons, it’s no wonder part of the movement is calling to defund police. If you’ve read this far, my request is simple: Keep reading. Read about what it takes to divest from imperialist, corrupt police, and invest in organizations protecting Black lives.
Neal Carter is Principal of Nu View Consulting, the only Black- and disabled-owned general consulting firm in the country. Neal lives in Rockville, Maryland, with his wife, Loryn.