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Opinion | Ishmael Reed: My Police Misconduct Experiences




The cop who overheard me took me in a room and started punching me. We were taken to “The Tombs,” a New York City jail that was so dark and dank it reminded me of a medieval prison. Later that day, the same cop came to my cell and offered me a deal. He said that if I pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct I’d only have to spend a weekend at Rikers Island. Thousands of poor people take deals like this, whether they’re guilty or not. Unlike them, I was a member of a network of writers and artists, who put up the bail. I told him that I was going to obtain a lawyer.

On the day of the trial, I put on my only suit. A three-piece pinstriped number. If I was going down, I would go down with style. I took the stand and told the judge what happened, while the two policemen sat, alternately glaring at me and smirking. While I was telling the tale, I received encouraging looks from the blacks and Puerto Ricans in the courtroom. They knew the deal. The judge pronounced me guilty but then left the courtroom without sentencing me. My lawyer said that he’d never seen anything like it.

In 1967, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles from New York, I was walking to the library. Suddenly, plainclothes officers jumped out of a car. They grabbed a pouch that I was carrying. Finding only notes and a pen, they explained that they thought that it was a woman’s purse. Before the detectives re-entered their car, I said, “Gee, you can’t even go to the library anymore.” I get chills when I think about that remark. Given the actions of the Los Angeles police since then, I know I could have been brutally beaten.

In the 1980s, I was driving home from a rehearsal of my play “Mother Hubbard” when the Berkeley police officers came bearing down on me. They said that somebody had robbed somebody. I was so tired I told them that I didn’t feel like robbing anybody that night. When they found out who I was, they sped away.


Years later, when I arrived at John Wayne Airport, in Orange County, Calif., as a guest of the California Institute of Technology, three officers followed me and the two professors, my escorts, into the parking lot. They identified themselves as narcotics detectives. They wanted to know why I’d chosen a different exit from the other passengers. The explanation was simple: The other passengers had to pick up their luggage while I had only a carry-on; I was scheduled to return to Oakland, Calif., the same day. But the situation got tense. One of my escorts, the professor and magazine publisher Kofi Natambu, said he thought that it was “going to go down.” Did I insist upon my rights like Sandra Bland did when she was harassed by the police? No, I showed them the contents of my bag because I didn’t want them to plant narcotics on me en route to the police station.

I’ve had a number of encounters with the police since then. They’ve occurred mostly at traffic stops, even near the campus police at the University of California, Berkeley where I taught for 36 years. I’ve been followed by campus security at the California College of the Arts where I now teach.

I’m well aware that the privileged white males who monopolize the news and opinion space would probably call me paranoid. The legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has written that racism in law enforcement, which he admits has “persisted for many decades of American life,” has “led to a tradition of black hostility to officialdom,” and “fostered a mode of conspiratorial thinking that outstrips reality.”

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