In the early summer of 2020, I accepted an assignment from Cincinnati Magazine to do a feature profile on Police Chief Eliot Isaac. As a film critic, I felt a bit over my head, but was intrigued by the layers of complexity in the narrative. I would have the opportunity to sit down with the Queen City’s Black police chief as the country struggled through this latest and quite explosive reckoning on race. Cincinnati has its own traumatic history of tragic encounters between black men and the police, leading up to a week of civil unrest after the killing of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in April of 2001, which occurred less than nine months after I relocated here from Philadelphia.
As part of a nearly two-hour interview with the chief, discussing these issues and a host of others, I recalled a situation from my own past, in the early-to-mid-1990s, when I was still living in Philadelphia and working for a social service organization supporting people with disabilities. I was walking home, from the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia back down to Center City, approaching the intersection of 20th and Walnut. The streets were alive and bustling with weekend traffic, folks heading out for drinks, dinner, or maybe an evening show. I imagine I was trying to figure out if I was going to drop my backpack off at home before checking out a new film at The Ritz. I probably had some snatch of a melody playing in my head, distracting me from the sounds of the city that night.
A police officer in a patrol car dashed out into the intersection and blocked traffic from proceeding from any direction. He started yelling instructions, which I was only vaguely aware of because I assumed he was addressing someone else. It took a few extra seconds for me to recognize that I was the person of interest. His yelling escalated and soon he had drawn his gun from his holster, while continuing to demand that I approach his car with my hands up.
I did so, as carefully as possible, aware of every lesson I had ever heard about police interactions. I was deathly afraid, but also caught up in a simultaneous sense of being outside my body as well. I was able to watch the exchange from several vantage points at once. I saw myself from the perspectives of the many white folks strolling by or in cars at the various lights and I knew that they were seeing what, for them, felt like a routine police stop and inevitable arrest of a young black man for being a typical menace to society. My tan LL Bean barn jacket and black Doc Martin boots couldn’t disguise my inherent threat level any more than the Ivy League degree (University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business) I had but couldn’t carry around to offer up as proof of my status as an upstanding member of society. Who would have believed it anyway?
Beyond those people though, the face I remember most vividly was that of a SEPTA bus driver, whose bus was literally the first vehicle at the corner on Walnut. He was an older Black man and while I know he was watching the entire scene unfold, probably with a mixture of outrage and horror, we locked eyes and I felt something deeper, a connection with him that was like a momentary sense of communion and communication. He was willing me to do and say the right things, to make sure I would be able to walk away from this encounter. He was brewing up a cauldron of sadness, resignation, and resolve in that moment and its magic was strong.
By the time I made it to the police car, the officer roughly slammed me against the hood near the open driver’s side window and had begun demanding that I produce my ID. I feared complying too quickly, so I let the officer know where my wallet was before making a move to get it. While awaiting further instruction, I heard scratchy reports from police dispatch projecting through the car radio.
Be on the lookout for a suspect – Black male, between 20-35, over 6’5’’, wearing a long black leather duster.
Before I could contain myself, I asked why I was being stopped. I’ve already mentioned that I was wearing what was a waist-length barn jacket and as much as I would have liked to have been taller, I’m only an even six feet. Obviously, this was a mistake. The officer and I both heard the same description, so no harm, no foul, right?
Instead, this officer continued with his belligerent tone, requesting my ID and my full compliance with his orders. Again, I heard the description being repeated by dispatch. I nodded my head in the direction of the open window, attempting to let the officer know that I heard that description and was in no way even close to matching it.
What’s fascinating to me now, as I’m in the middle of this accounting of the events, is how long the exchange took. Time slowed, certainly for me, with each detail framed by a sense of distinct clarity. There’s a cinematic quality to the whole experience, and if this had been my last moment on this Earth, at least I would have had my very own close-up.
This story ends much more mundanely though. I slowly produced my ID, which the officer never even looked at. He instructed me that I should be more respectful and compliant when dealing with an officer and casually sent me on my way with no apology.
I made my way to the nearest sidewalk and stood there, watching him get back in his car and head off in pursuit of another Black man to profile, thus allowing traffic to pick up again. My face felt hot with rage and shame, especially when I noticed the staring eyes of the mostly white crowd that was returning to their evening plans. I wasn’t the right one this time, they seemed to say, but next time…
And sure, I can’t forget how I felt, settling back into my own body and perspective on that corner, but often, when I consider that night, I find myself drawn to the bus driver. I have no idea how old he was. Old enough to have been maybe my father or uncle. Not likely much more than that. But old enough to have seen and lived through situations like that himself. Truth be told, I am now probably close to his age back then.
When I think about him, I also know that he, unlike everyone else watching that scene play out, wasn’t looking at the police officer as someone serving and protecting him. As Black men, we recognized the police as a necessary evil. At that time, a possible lesser of two evils. The call you would make if you found yourself the victim of a crime, but you would do so knowing that the response might wind up with you feeling doubly victimized.
And remember, that was in the early-to-mid-1990s. I walked away from that encounter with wounded pride and a slightly larger bit of cancerous rage in my belly that wouldn’t go away. With every report of a black man’s death at the hands of the police, that cancer grows.
That moment was post-Rodney King. More than a decade away from a time when such encounters are routinely captured on cellphones or police officer’s body cameras and broadcast on seemingly endless loops. We’ve had to remind folks to say the names of those slain in these situations because, if not, they would morph into CGI blur of faces and bodies snuffed out without distinction.
I recognized that sense while watching the Academy Award-winning Live Action Narrative Short Two Distant Strangers from directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe. At first glance, I was Carter James (Joey Bada$$) waking up in the apartment of a young woman he had met the night before, digging the blissful vibe, realizing he either never wanted it to end or anticipating how long it would be before they would be able to re-live/re-experience the moment. He needs to get home though, to check on his dog, his obvious best friend and partner. He slips his earbuds in, lights up a hand-rolled cigarette once he arrives street-level and prepares to bounce. When the officer (Andrew Howard) approaches him, nothing can break his stride, until the officer grabs his bag and attempts to search his person.
Unlike my early-90s case, a fruit vendor yells out, vouching for him and then pulls out her cellphone to document what happens next. We all know what’s going to happen. In an instant, other officers emerge and wrestle Carter to the ground, pinning him down, choking the life out of him.
And just like that, Carter wakes up…in the bed next to that same beautiful young woman from the night before. Exactly where he imagined and desire to be, but it’s déjà vu. Think Medicine for Melancholy meets Groundhog Day.
Except Carter finds himself living through the existential dilemma that is the Black Experience in America. No matter what he does, he relives this same morning over, countless times and there’s nothing he can do or say to change his outcome. He’s always going to die.
Watching that short, I longed to give him the reprieve I got from my encounter, which in its own way was still a zero-sum game scenario. The major difference being I got to walk away from that situation, even though I knew there would be another one with another police officer somewhere in my future. Whether we live or die, we are all Carter James.
Except when we aren’t. Like when we happen to be police officers, as in the movie Black Cop, from writer-director Cory Bowles. I caught that film at a public screening during the Toronto International Film Festival all the way back in 2018. The public screening meant sharing the experience with a regular audience of festival attendees rather than during a packed press screening, which tends to be a more reserved situation. Audiences, especially larger ones, see and feel things together and rarely hold back their reactions.
The titular protagonist (played by Ronnie Rowe) of the film is a Black man who identifies fully (first and foremost at the start) as a police officer. His life is blue through and through. He lives in a city caught up in a simmering conflict between the police and the community as a result of the death of a Black person at the hands of the police. He is unfazed by the situation though, until one evening while off-duty, he is accosted by white officers who don’t recognize him as a brother-in-blue. They see and treat him like any Black man, and while he’s able to walk away from the encounter, that cancerous rage I mentioned earlier comes to a dangerous boil and bubbles over.
The thing is though, he’s not exactly impotent. He’s got power and authority as a police officer, so he decides to use it. Black Cop (he’s never given a name or much of a backstory) begins to treat the white citizens he engages with the way white officers treat Black folks. It is not a revolutionary upsetting of the power dynamic, because he is only one man, but there is a cathartic rush, in particular for Black audiences.
For me, this was like wish fulfillment. I’ve always imagined a world where white men might have experiences with the police that looked and felt like mine. What would it feel like to a twenty-or-thirtysomething college-educated white man and have to stew in the shame and fear of a traffic stop that could end with them splayed out on a city street?
Let me offer up another anecdote from Philadelphia. A few years after my traffic stop, Center City was on high alert; this time from a white man preying on women usually out running during the early morning. There was a vague description – white male, 25-40 years old, average height – and the police presence in the neighborhood was pronounced. Officers on foot patrol were camped out across from my building on the corner of 16th and Spruce. My first-floor loft had large windows facing both streets, granting me a widescreen perspective on the daily reality show called life.
One afternoon, I caught sight of a pair of officers approaching a white man who matched the description and stopped what I was doing to tune in. I had been drawn in by the raised voice of one of the cops, that distinctive authoritarian tone gave me pause within the relative safety of my apartment. I heard the request for ID, but as the potential suspect handed it over, a conversation began that I wasn’t able to overhear. It didn’t take long for the exchange to venture into completely unfamiliar territory. Both cops – who happened to be white – and the pedestrian started laughing casually and engaging in what looked like sitcom-style banter.
This alternative universe experience felt more than foreign. Outside of television and the movies in my 20+ years of life, I had never seen an individual white person stopped by the police. I had never even heard stories of such encounters, but I knew countless Black folks, male and female, who shared their experiences.
And here I am, recounting this one now as if it has meaning. Maybe it does, but to whom?
Black folks surely recognize the fantasy inherent in it. Imagine movies where police interrogate a white suspect who is obviously a killer or criminal mastermind and then routinely let them walk out of custody. The idea behind that is it’s better to allow a guilty person to go free than to impugn the rights of an innocent. Pure make-believe.
But that is how privilege works. White folks don’t need to hear this story, because all it does is reinforce the notion that the system is thankfully operating as it should.
Is it wrong for me to say I wanted that white man to be mistreated and bullied by the police during that exchange? Even back in the 1990s, the reality of race relations was such that we could not have created a dynamic where the police could have adjusted their practices to the point where Black people had encounters that ended like his. What had to happen was a world where white men ended up feeling like I did after my stop.
That’s why Black Cop mattered so much to me and some of the Black people in that audience at TIFF. The film positioned itself as satire, but that was only for white audiences. Black folks recognized the truth of its narrative, the skewed sense of justice in its unfair treatment of others.
I knew I wasn’t alone in this fantasy during that TIFF screening. There was a charge pulsing through the crowd as the film unspooled that gained voltage when the lights came up and the filmmaker joined us for a Q&A. Yanking off my critic’s hat and pulling on my festival programmer’s cap, I knew I had to bring the film to the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival. It was our first year following a rebranding from ReelAbilities Cincinnati, expanding our focus from disability to also incorporate themes of faith, freedom, diversity and identity. This felt like a seismic title, but when I approached our festival team with it, they feared Black Cop would turn off the Cincinnati Police Department, a potential festival partner.
As one of the few people of color on the team (and the only one who had actually seen the film), I had to go along with the decision to back away from the film, with the understanding that somewhere down the line, we might be in a better position to program a title like this, once we were more secure as a cultural organization.
But why wait? Why not speak truth to power when it is uncomfortable? There is a moral authority, a moral imperative to stand up, to be ahead of these situations. In many ways, this was no different, for me, than when I was left standing on that street corner, after my encounter with that officer in Philly, except I had been left there by authority figures and partners who were far more familiar, people who were supposed to be serving and supporting a unified vision we had all bought in to.
If I’m honest, what irks me about that situation and the others I’ve included in this telling is the knowledge that I wanted to curate conversations about these issues and was denied. I have experienced a lifetime of confronting authority figures of all sorts and having to swallow instances of systemic bias or blatant racism. At least until I’ve been asked to offer solutions to this impossible conundrum.
I wanted the power and the platform to speak and to spotlight other similarly silenced voices. I wanted to win and not feel bad that maybe, just this once, someone else might have to lose in this zero-sum scenario.
Note: This is the second in a series of long-form pieces based on my 2021 “Truth & Reconciliation” project. These essays and a soon-to-debut podcast (Critical Reflections) would not be possible without the support of ArtsWave, the City of Cincinnati, Duke Energy, Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Fifth Third Bank and the Arts Vibrancy Recovery Fund.