Home Opinion Surviving Cops In America | Vincent Nzemeke

Surviving Cops In America | Vincent Nzemeke


Houston to Midland is a five hundred miles trip that takes between 8 to 9 hours for good drivers and flexible observers of highway speed limits. I used to make that trip every fortnight until the global slump of oil prices forced oil and gas companies operating mainly in the Texas Permian Basin and some parts of New Mexico and Oklahoma to furlough employees and subsequently halt all operations. For over two years, that long trip from East to West Texas was just a routine drive for me. Day or night, I could make the drive crisscrossing interstate highways and small country town roads without hassles and stop only for gas and restroom breaks. My conversance of the route was so potent that I relied on my GPS only for alternate roads in construction zones, traffic situations on city highways and the location of police officers and highway patrols.

But as the world mourns the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man under the knees of Derek Chauvin, a white Police officer in Minnesota, memories of my encounters with police officers on American roads came flooding. Although I didn’t make much of them when they occurred, current black lives matter protests in various parts of the country have compelled me into moments of introspections. Watching life ease-out a subdued black man on  an American street was an opportunity to reflect on what could have happened if one of the many cops I have encountered during my trips were anything like Chauvin. I have imagined myself, a black man with an African accent stopped on an old town road in the heart of Texas by a trigger-happy cop.

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Think Amadou Diallo and the infamous 41 shots that rained on him in the vestibule of his apartment in New York, or Philando Castile, who was gunned down in a car in the presence of his girlfriend and a child. Add Michael Brown, Eric Garner and George Floyd to that macabre list of black men who met death in the hands of those who swore to protect them and you will understand that the life of a black man isn’t worth a dime in America.

My first encounter with the cops was in the spring of 2017. Donald Trump had just been sworn in as President and there was a wave of white optimism surging through the country. Immigrants, especially those without legal documentation were apprehensive when Mr. Trump signed an executive order that banned the admission Muslims from seven countries to United States.  A day after executive order was announced, I was out on a busy road in Houston. At an intersection, I pulled up behind a van on the left lane ready to make a turn.  When the green arrow flashed, I stepped on the gas ready to move but the driver of van ahead of was stalling. When he finally got his acts together, the arrow was yellow. We crossed the line before the light was red and the driver behind me was also able to squeeze in. I was attempting to maneuver to the right lane when I saw the flashing lights of a police car behind me.

Uncertain about what was going on, I maintained my position behind the van but the deafening whistles of sirens and lights made it clear the officer was after me. I pulled into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant with the police car tailgating me. I set my car in park mode and sat there still unsure what was going on. The officer didn’t come to me and or give any signals about what I was supposed to do. After about five minutes of sitting in my car, I opened the door to get out and bedlam ensued. The Officer rushed out of his car with his pistol trained on me and ordered to me put my hands up. As he moved closer, he barked orders and his face grew from pale to red. “Put your hands behind your head and face your car”. “Do you have any weapons on you”? “Why did you come out of your car”? I was terrified. Satisfied that I was unarmed after frisking me, the officer told me turn around and asked why I came out of my car. “When you didn’t come to me, I wanted to know if I was the one you were really trying to stop”. The officer gave me a bewildered look and it was clear to me that I just did something stupid that could have been deadly had I met a less-restrained police officer. I came out of that encounter with a lesson on how to stay in your car for as long as it takes an officer to run your license plates and my first traffic ticket in America. When I recounted that episode to a friend in 2019, she told I me I was lucky to be alive.

Another day I was driving to work on the interstate highway when I came across two policemen who had detained a man on the right side of the road. I was cruising at about 70 miles per hour and I didn’t notice the third officer searching the detained car. As the officer attempted to open the rear door on the driver’s side, I breezed past him at almost 65 miles an hour. One of the officers standing in front of the detained car got in the police car and gave me a chase, all lights and sirens blaring. I pulled over to the side of the road and this time I stayed in my car, rolled down the windows and spread my hands on the steering wheel. After about two minutes of waiting, the officer came to me and said “You almost hit a police officer”. That encounter ended with a ticket that read “failure to vacate emergency lane”. I paid a fine and took six hours of defensive driving class.

In Brady Texas, a female officer gave me warning ticket for driving 61 miles per hour on a Farm to Market road with a speed limit of 55. In Pecos, an officer let me go when I missed an exit and made an illegal turnaround on quiet country road. I have also been stopped for using a wrong turn signal as I drove out of a gas station at midnight in San Antonio. I was riding with an African American friend with visible tattoos and dreadlocks. The officer detained us for about 10 minutes before letting us to with a warning ticket.

As I look back at these encounters, the trepidation that gripped me when they occurred still makes me shiver. There is an eerie feeling that comes with dealing with white police officers for many black men because a simple traffic stop could mean the end of your life. America is beautiful a country, but there is something fundamentally wrong in the relationship between its cops and black men.

Nzemeke writes from Houston

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