This morning The Love Life of an Asian Guy posted this picture on facebook with the following commentary:
This is one of the most powerful images I’ve seen in years.
You’re peeking directly into the laboratory of white supremacy. A system that will send TWO men in full riot gear to arrest ONE Black woman for one purpose: give her a criminal record.
If she is charged (most Black protestors are) for participating in a peaceful protest, she’ll be forced to disclose her new criminal record on ALL job applications and applications for rent.
That one small change can limit where she works, how much she can get paid, and where she can rent.
The implications are LIFE CHANGING. This act of arresting peaceful Black protestors is SYSTEMATIC RACISM AT WORK, BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES.
“You’re a Harvard Law graduate? 7 years of experience? Nice! Ooh, it looks like you have a criminal record… Sorry!”
I was immediately triggered. Germany. I was back in the park. A few weeks ago. It was the final day of shooting and I was glad because I’m not a model and only agreed to help out a friend, and while I was grateful to wear cool vintage clothes and feel “pretty”, after three long days I was ready to be done.
We had chosen the park because the pictures were for the summer collection, and we worked for about 2 1/2 hours. There were a number of people in the park, mostly white men who gawked. There was an older white druggie-looking man on a bench away from us. In German, you can use the word “Penner”. It’s not a nice term (it means literally “bum”), but the guy was dirty and had all his shit with him and was clearly a drug user.
Despite the climate, we ignored everyone and kept taking our pictures.
A few minutes into the shoot, a Black man sat down across from us. He was the only other Black person in the park aside from me, and it was clear that he was continental.
We kept working.
Then, about a half hour in, the police came around on bikes.
Now, the park is a known place for police checks. They claim it’s to crack down on drug dealers. Well, clearly there was a suspect. But they circled through and left.
As we continued the shoot, I kept an eye on my brother, but he wasn’t bothered with me. He glanced a few times, but mostly played on his phone, made a couple calls, and chilled. I was glad the police left him alone. I was glad the police left the Penner alone too. Police, just leave us *all* alone and let us enjoy the park, dammit.
So, we finished up. 2 1/2 hours later, I changed back into my clothes. The photographer packed up her camera and we were right about to leave when the police circled through again. My heart stopped. The fuck?
They went straight past the Penner to the Black guy.
I was frozen.
They were aggressive as soon as they approached him. I couldn’t hear their words, but I could see their body language.
How would you like to chill in a park for two hours and suddenly have two strangers who clearly don’t like you, in uniforms with guns, suddenly all up in your face?
Well, the African man didn’t like it either. I watched how his body language changed too. He slouched back on the bench. I could see his eyes rolling. I could see him slowly pull out his ID. I could see the white officers, hands on hips, demanding more of him. I could see the African man scoff. Shake his head. I could see the police switch their weight back and forth between feet, agitated, and feeding off the agitation of the African man’s. The gestures grew bigger on both sides.
I was worried.
I watched the police take the man’s bag and go through it. And when I say I watched, I mean we all did. Everyone in that park who had also been chillin the whole time. All I could think is: We’ve all seen this guy do nothing except chill like the rest of us. Why are they humiliating him? Why are we letting them?
Except I knew why.
I stayed because I was waiting for it to be over. But it didn’t end. I watched them put on gloves and make this man take off his shoes. I watched them touch his feet. And then, I watched them move their grubby gloved hands to his hair and start going through each of his dreadlocks.
I don’t know what images hit me first. Images of police brutality in the United States, Images of TSA “randomly” checking Black people at the airport (cough* me), but to be honest I think it wasn’t either.
As I’ve said, I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand. In Thailand there is a very, very strong culture around the head and the feet. The head is seen as a sacred place, the feet (furthest from the head, and often bare over there) are seen as dirty. You never put your feet near a Thai person, especially their head. You never even touch their head. Not even to be affectionate, not even to children.
To do so would justify aggression.
So to watch white men violate a Black man like this, in front of everyone, from a social place where the Black man can do nothing sent an eruption through my body and I….
An aching, angry, hopeless, vengeful scream.
And once it came out, all respectability melted. I grabbed my phone, turned on the camera, and walked over.
At first the officers didn’t get it. They didn’t connect that I could have screamed because of them. Typical white thinking. Typical “It’s not happening to her. Why should she– or anyone else– care about this Black man?”
It was only when I started talking to him. Telling him, loudly, for everyone else too: I am sorry this is happening to you. This should not be happening to you. We should not be allowing this to happen to you, or anyone. We have all seen you sitting here enjoying your day in the park like the rest of us. We know why they chose you. I am sorry.
The man said back to me: It isn’t the first time. Thank you.
The police were angry. “You are not allowed to record! Give us your phone NOW!”
I said: I am not doing anything illegal. I am just making sure that my brother remains unharmed.
One of the officers tried to snatch my phone, but I avoided it. “If this goes online, you will be charged! It is illegal to record us!”
A white man walked up, “Why are you telling her that? That’s a lie! That’s a lie! She has the right to record you. Why are you lying?”
Other white people were getting upset too. I sat down beside my brother. The truth is, my phone had run out of storage and I wasn’t recording anything after the first minute. But it was power. The only power we had.
They walked away to run his information. I just stayed with him. Tried to make the moment a little lighter. I asked him if he ate breakfast. Yes. I asked him where he was from.
I had another appointment and needed to go. But I feared for him. Especially now that a “real scene” had been made aka white people got involved. Because I got involved. That proximity to whiteness. I watched it play out.
I asked him for his phone number. As he tried to give it to me, the police came back. “No! No!” They screamed. “You better not exchange information! Give us your phone right now!”
I said, “I just want to be able to check in with my brother later and make sure he is safe. We die out here.” They laughed, “This is Germany, not America.”
I said, “It’s not just in America. Oury Jalloh.”
They ignored me. One of the officers kept trying to snatch our phones. What were we supposed to do? What could we have done? Run? Leaving the scene. Pushed his hand away? Assaulting an officer. So here we are cowering on this bench trying to avoid his hands. It was crazy.
Finally The Gambian just gave me his phone. “Take it. I will call you from it later.”
“You better not take his phone!” The officer yelled, “It’s evidence!”
“Evidence of what?” We argued back and forth for a bit, the location of the phone growing ambiguous.
Then I got up, and left. The photographer — a Person of Color — and I talked about what we’d just witnessed.
She said, “You know… I just got my citizenship. Today.”
And that was when it hit me: I am up against immigration right now.
I turned back around. At this point, we were far enough away that I felt a little safer. I watched a van pull up to the bench where The Gambian sat. I thought about Freddie Gray. I felt panic.
But as I watched, the officers were not after him anymore. They were climbing onto their bikes. They were heading towards… us!
The one officer who had tried to snatch our phones was biking hard, red-faced. I’d never seen intention so clearly on an officer’s face — to get me. And that’s what he said as his bike skidded in front of me. In a thick German accent he screamed, “Now you’re getting a kontrolle!”
Now, I write this out including my emotions, but through the whole ordeal I took the poise approach. I was calm and played up my Cuteness. My Americanness. My privilege.
“Why are you controlling me?” I asked them, “What did I do wrong?”
“Disorderly conduct and stealing evidence!”
“He gave me his phone from his hand. That’s not evidence.” I looked at the other officer, “You know what he’s saying isn’t even real.” The officer nodded. “Yeah, but it’s what he wants. He’s the one doing this.”
I wish I was kidding. I think if I wasn’t dealing with all this shit from the Immigration Office based on rules they’ve just made up, I wouldn’t believe that institutions just make up rules and then charge you for breaking them. But I’ve been dealing with it from so many sides… I’m still processing how chaotic this system is. Remember, this post is one story. I haven’t really blogged in almost two months. It’s because this is just one story. Of many.
I don’t walk around with my passport. I told them that. I gave them my student ID. I let them “control” me, and the whole time I talked about racism. Why did you choose that man instead of The Penner? How many Black people do you stop every day? Why?
And, uniform or not, these are men. White men. Who want nothing more than to talk to a pretty girl. And talk they did. So the photographer and I got strategic and she took Hot Head and I talked with the others. At this point, we’d gone from two officers, to five.
The photographer later told me that the officer in charge of the kontrolle told her he was charging me with disorderly conduct because I “didn’t respect him.” Boiled down, he was using his power to humiliate me and possibly fuck up my visa status because I scratched his overblown ego. That’s what Love Life of an Asian Guy is talking about in his fb post.
On my end, I learned more general facts about the power of the police here. I learned that they get their orders from the city and the city allows them to stop anyone— at random — and they need no reason at all. Let me repeat that: The police do not need any reason to stop someone. They can pick anyone. And the person must comply. Non-compliance is an offense.
I asked them how many people they picked that looked like them? They refused to answer.
In America, we have a major problem. But on the books, we at least bullshit. Here there is no cover. They are open about it: We don’t need a reason, we pick, and we’re the police. So ha!
It truly felt like I was talking to giant children.
As they ran my information, I asked them what the alternative thing to do was. For “next time”.
“What should I do? I can’t call the police on the police! What should I do?”
This was their genuine response:
“If you see us harassing someone — just scream! Don’t you see everyone in this park? If we are really harassing someone, just scream, and everyone will come and stop us.”
It was incredulous. I waited a moment to see if it was a joke, but they were serious. At this point, I am staring back at four Aryan officers.
I looked around. “These people? These people? You do know this is the same place where the holocaust happened.”
Their jaws dropped. There was a split-second where I thought they’d kill me. But they knew it was true, so they replied with “Oh come on!”
Eventually, a friend with a lawyer-bro arrived on the scene and they gave me back my ID while she de-escalated the situation. They told my friend that they will write an internal report because “the public got involved. We will receive calls about this disturbance.” The report reads that I interrupted a kontrolle and refused to follow orders.
It will not talk about their aggressive manner. It will not talk about how just *picked* the only Black person in the park to harass. It will not talk about how the only thing, I, the Ausländerin, interrupted was them from inflicting humiliation on another human being. It will not say how they refused to give me any names or badge numbers so that I could file my own report.
The whole point of the ordeal was to “teach me a lesson”. To give me so much shit for standing up that I will think twice next time before “challenging” them. Or that it fucks me over and there is no next time for me to decide to stand up or keep my head low to survive.
In short, the implications of the kontrolle could be life changing, and the act of kontrolling me (and my Brother) in itself was systematic racism at work.
The image that Love Life of an Asian Guy posted is a reflection of *Western* culture, The United States is simply the archetype.
Like I said in the beginning, this was three days into an intense photo shoot, and I was tired. This is the last picture before the police came back around.
When I look at it now, I see all the other layers of exhaustion I felt that day and continue to feel. Tired of wondering if I’m going to witness harassment or be the victim of it. Tired of being the only one to stand in a world full of people sitting on the bench while the person next to them lives an existence of uncertainty. Tired of oppressive systems perpetuated by intellectual laziness and apathy.
But it’s not over.
Part 2: The Sacredness of the Safe Space