We’re celebrating the Fourth of July at my cousin’s McMansion in Lake Mary, Florida, a short stroll across a golf course to the Sanford line. I’m surrounded by kinfolk I haven’t seen since the last funeral. We’re sipping sweet wine, Baileys, and beer. We’re telling the stories we always tell, and stories I’ve never heard.
Trayvon Martin is all I’ve been thinking about since we rode into this muggy, power-washed, brunch-and-Froyo under palm trees town. The ghost of the boy lounges on the squishy sectional, sneakers propped up on the coffee table, staring into a smartphone while Netflix streams on the 60-inch TV. At the grown folks table, we’re silent about the child who was killed a few miles from here. We’re silent about the police that protected his murderer. We’re silent about the dangers—homicidal, panicky, delusional, trigger-happy and otherwise fearful and deranged—white people pose to the grown black bodies around this table, to the black children joyously cutting a fool throughout the deep caverns of this house.
My cousin, who owns this palace, can’t stop talking about safety and crime, 24-hour monitored alarms, robberies, and home invasions. Born and raised in the ghettos of Harlem, the Bronx, and Co-op City—like many of the Yankee transplants around this table—she’s scared of boogeymen stalking this gated community. She laughs at herself. She’s cried wolf so many times that the police know her by name. For this black mother of black daughters, stepmother to white daughters and sons, police—white police—are servants and saviors.
Sometimes the boogeyman shares your name. We take an inventory of all the men and boys whose crazy this family couldn’t contain, all the full-time hustlers, liars, thieves, pedophiles, rapists, brawlers and killers. The snakes who threatened to blow momma’s or uncle’s or sister’s or nephew’s brains out 20 years ago. All the uninvited niggas who inevitably show up swinging and carrying steel. All the niggas you don’t mention at reunions. We name them, these crazy niggas. We tell lies and half-truths, hesitant, scared, skeptical, unknowing whether the truths we know and want to speak are known to all. We shame. And we dare not nourish that shame by leaking family business. There’s something wrong with the men in our family, one of us concludes.
I’m caught. I turn to my partner thinking of all the fights, the tantrums, all the times I called her out of name. I think of all the times I couldn’t get out of bed and greet the day, all the times I wanted to swallow a bullet. I think of my biological father, an undiagnosed schizophrenic who beat my mother and imprisoned my mother and set fire to everything my mother had and everything my mother loved until she stole herself and me. I think of the intro psych class I took in college and hereditary madness. A sick man, they tell me. Your father was a sick man. That’s what I told others—friends, girlfriends—when they asked why I was raised by my father’s brother.
Dad: my uncle by blood, my guardian, my hero and my archenemy, the man who took me in when everyone else wanted to flush me down the toilet. Dad is flowing across the table, feeling nice off pink Moscato. He’s telling war stories from his 16 years as a police officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He’s been retired for 16 years plus a decade. That’s as long as I’ve known him, and as long as I’ve known myself.
Folk still ask if he’s military. He has that kind of clenched butt cheeks, sentinel swagger—the panoptic gait of a self-described HNIC who always has the barrel of a 9mm nestled in the crack of his ass and a shotgun in the trunk outside. In the glove box, he still carries a shield engraved “Retired.”
Strangers get heroic tales: going undercover to catch a rapist in Central Park; the contract put out on his life by a mafioso assassin; being one step away from making detective when he was forced to retire because his vertebrate collapsed like a stack of jenga blocks. As a kid, I memorized these stories riding shotgun along hundreds of miles of Alabama highway, pasture after pasture of cows, emaciated horses tiptoeing around half-buried sheets of galvanized roofing, tall grass interrupted by a gas station, a propane company, discount fireworks, a deer morgue, a lone donkey or goat. You never see a goat in a field with a donkey, Dad said once, detouring from nostalgia. You just won’t.
At the grown folks table, the stories are more grisly, sorrowful, and introspective. Tonight, he’s sharing snapshots of violence, stories I’ve never heard, confessions that I can’t believe he would say out loud.
Some stories aren’t mine to tell.
My story, as I remember it, begins in a warm kitchen in Bayshore, Long Island. It’s July 22, 1989 and, sour neck to moldy toejam, I’m wearing a 100 percent polyester Ghostbusters onesie. My aunt, my mother’s one-time foster sister and forever supafriend, is crying into her coffee at an hour normally reserved for my little self and a cold bowl of Cheerios. I don’t remember everything she said exactly, but what she said was that my mother was dead. The night before, my mother suffered a massive heart attack in the parking lot of the Jones Beach amphitheater. The Doobie Brothers were in town.
The worst thing about the summer of 1989 is how quickly I forgot my mother’s smell. Time-traveling through photo albums—from black and white toddler portraits to the gross snapshots folk take at wakes—I mapped the curves and wrinkles of her face. That’s all I had. From what I know from stories, photographs, and ancestry.com, my mother was a couple generations removed from Poland. She was an orphan, and spent her childhood in and out of foster homes. She was a survivor. She was an addict. And she eventually went from community college to medical school, no thanks to Bill, my biological father.
Bill is the only person I’ll name. The other names are too precious to me. A sick man, they say. Your father was a sick man. According to granmomma and everybody else, Bill was the kind of crazy a black southern family in 1950’s Harlem—deeply religious and deeply scarred—didn’t know how to handle. Beating the devil out of Bill only made the devil in him fight back twice as hard. So my grandparents released their oldest son into the streets.
As an adult, Bill ran gypsy cabs and prowled Riverside Park at night, robbing lovers. He once snuck a pistol through booking at the Tombs. Bill had a habit of calling on his little brother, my futurefather, the black cop, to get him out of sticky situations. He would pick fights in a crowded bar knowing his little brother would rescue him.
My mother was a teenager when she ran into this platinum-tongued, bird-chested charlatan, rayon shirt unbuttoned down to his belly, gold-plated pendant punctuating a bony sternum. Bill haunted bus depots and train stations for vulnerable youth, runaways, addicts, and the developmentally disabled. Bill hated himself. He hated being black. He ironed his hair and tried to pass as Indian. And he thought that marrying a white woman would give him a ticket to whiteness. When my mother sued for divorce, he threatened to murder me. According to multiple sources, Bill danced at her funeral, singing a remix to the Wiz: Thank god, the bitch is dead.
A sick man, they say. Your father was a sick man.
My blood uncle—my futurefather—now my father, my only father, and for most of my life, my father and mother and sometime-friend was a stranger to me in July 1989. When he came to visit me in Bayshore, he drove a new, red Nissan Maxima with the keypad on the door. He stepped out the car in a fitted sharkskin suit smelling like Drakkar Noir. His trunk was full of action figures. By then, doctors had relocated bones from his hip into his neck. After a lifetime of violence, including two decades as a CO and a police officer, my futurefather’s neck shattered while rescuing a motorist on the George Washington Bridge. I didn’t notice it when we met, but he couldn’t turn his head side to side. He could, however, wiggle his ears on command. That was hilarious. Stiff, hip-boned neck and all, he was strong and handsome and glamorous as Billy Dee. He told me to call him Dad.
For most of my childhood I lived with a single father, a man who accepted responsibility for a six-year-old grieving child when nobody else would. I was sad, confused, angry. That was a lot for a first-time parent whose only model of loving and parenting was violence. Dad was an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence, a man whose life occupation was violence. I was fully grown and in graduate school when he told me that he had no idea what he was doing.
I’m old school, Dad liked to say. Old school meant a touch less monstrous than his parents had been to him and his five sisters and brothers. That was abuse, he’d holler after I dared to talk back, after I shared with a trusted friend that I wanted to kill myself, after a social worker came knocking on our door to make him account for rays of red welts radiating across my back. Real abuse.
Count your blessings, Dad warned me. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. You don’t see me running the streets. My father was a whore, Dad says, a gin-soaked shadow who visited their Harlem tenement long enough to eat a hot and heavy plate, leave some scraps for the children, and pick a fight with granmomma so he had an excuse to run the streets again. Grandad was the super for the building, but Dad and his brothers did the work that made the apartment rent free—slinging mops in the cold inky hours before school, collecting trash in the courtyard. The task of home training those children, of seeing to their moral instruction, of ensuring that they didn’t turn out to be rogues like their daddy was granmomma’s work alone.
Dad was a loyal, obedient son. He was a loyal brother, a loyal uncle, a loyal cop. Despite the traumas my grandparents and others put him through, Dad followed them to Alabama after my grandad retired from his long, dead-end job in New York. Acre by acre, during those 16 years at the Port Authority, Dad had mortgaged a small kingdom along Highway 80 in Lowndes County, Alabama, what elders call the Old Selma Highway. We moved from the Bronx to an apartment in Montgomery to a ramshackle horse farm on that highway, within sight of my grandparents’ house and five acres.
During those early years, Dad thought I was crazy, the kind of crazy Bill had been. So he tried to beat the crazy out me. Real abuse or not, my father’s tough love alarmed teachers and administrators at a rural country school where corporal punishment was an official policy, a school where it was common for fed-up bus drivers to storm off the bus, harvest a good switch, and start swinging. In fourth grade, my school called child protective services. Handsome, glamorous, good-smelling and looking like a black Hollywood actor peddling Colt 45, Dad charmed that social worker. She’s now a family friend.
I don’t remember being troublesome. I remember being invisible and unheard. When I threatened to run away, he offered to loan me luggage and give me a ride. When I asked his girlfriend if it was normal for folk to think about killing themselves all the time, he reacted as if it was him I had threatened to murder. Everybody wants to blow their brains out, he hollered after my whooping. What black person doesn’t? When I boohooed about being light-skinned he emptied his shoeshine kit on my dresser and offered to paint me whatever color I wanted to be. Then he cussed me out for disrespecting my white mother. She came from nothing and became a doctor, he said. She had less than nothing, he said. She had Bill. A sick man, they say. Your father was a sick man.
The first night I saw Dad cry, he called me into his bedroom and confessed that Bill, his older brother by seven years, molested him when he was a little boy. Years later, Dad chuckled softly about the torture my biological father put him through. Real abuse. You should write that in one of your stories, he told me. Raising the son of a man who raped me. Raising the son of a brother that threatened to kill me more times than I can remember. Ironic, is that the word? I think that’s the word. Ironic.
I research and write and teach about black liberation movements. I’ve often felt frightened or embarrassed to tell revolutionaries that my father was a mercenary for states that had infiltrated, assassinated, and incarcerated our last best chance to get free. Thinking back to Dad’s childhood in Harlem, I once made the mistake of telling a Black Panther that Dad wasn’t political as a youth. Being poor is always political, the black revolutionary told me. If Dad had been born a few years earlier, she said, he would have been a Panther.
When I was a child, Dad told me that he chose to become a cop because a cop was the most respected man on the block. When I took a seat at the grown folks table, he told me that he wanted control.
With my child fingertips, I tried to read the scars on his body: the crater where his mother’s iron landed on his head, the crescent keloid above his hip where surgeons removed bones to reconstruct his neck. Dad recounted horrors that broke his body and horrors that anchor his memories, his nightmares, and his sense of self, to battlegrounds of a lifetime ago: that tenement apartment, the bus terminal, La Guardia, the GWB. Some horror stories he seems to relish in the reliving. Others are fleeting revelations off sweet wine, confided once or twice, then discarded, left to rot.
Before entering the police academy, Dad was a guard on death row at Green Haven and survived a riot at Sing Sing because he wore a dashiki and studied the Quran with inmates. Before he was on the job, incarcerated people, felons, and suspects were not the monsters the job needed them to be.
When he was 24 and still a rookie cop, Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 crashed at Kennedy Airport. Dad was among the first responders that rescued and comforted survivors. That long night of carnage haunts him decades later. Port Authority cops collected more than 100 bodies from flames, twisted metal, and grass.
Other scenes from his police career sound like oral histories of hate crimes. A mourning for control over bodies and their movements. For power. For sending perverts and jackasses and junkies to the emergency room. Stationed at the Port Authority in Times Square, Dad had a sixth sense for male travelers, he says, who journeyed into the city to fuck in bathroom stalls. The bathroom monitor with badge and a gun—you’ve seen him—peeking under stalls. That was Dad. He would lean over the stall and start swinging at heads. If not men cruising bathroom stalls, it was citizens who did not follow his commands unquestioningly, everyday people who disrespected the badge, bad-mannered civilians who refused to show papers, empty pockets, or open trunks based on his inventions of probable cause. Again with the billy club swings, or the nine to the temple. Death threats. I’ll blow your fucking brains out. That kind of thing. This is the part of the job that nourished his nostalgia—picking fights, wishing a nigga would question him, talk back, disobey his orders, overtake him on the Major Deegan or the BQE. Regular, spontaneous violence decayed his vertebrae over the course of 16 years and thousands of fights.
For Dad, “junkie” became the kind of subhuman, unhuman, anti-human term that allowed him to cope with the violence of the job, the drug war and his personal stake in it. Busting a junkie’s skull, bludgeoning a junkie, booking and processing a junkie, locking up a junkie upstate for a mandatory minimum was overtime for him. It was profitable. Easy money. And it was insurance for the day that his neck collapsed.
All those junkies and all that overtime steady increased Dad’s pay grade to a livable pension. All those junkies and all that overtime enabled him to forward my mother’s death benefits to a private white flight school in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a hateful place. It was a hate-filled place. The suffering and shackling of all those junkies gave me a passport and membership card to some of the most prestigious open-air drug markets in the United States: Montgomery Academy, Vassar, Indiana University, Yale. Granite gothic classrooms packed with trust-fund junkies, taught by junkies with PhDs.
Dad didn’t need to read Ruthie Gilmore and Angela Davis and Sarah Haley and Michele Alexander to know that the prisons he worked at in 1970 were few and far between, had plenty of vacancies, and what they were full of was white men. He saw Green Haven, Sing Sing, Mattewan, and Rikers in 1970. He was there, baby-faced, 5’9, 150 pounds, strolling corridors of death, chuckling with inmates, rapping about Elijah Muhammad. He was in the police academy when Nixon declared the war on drugs. He was in uniform when Rockefeller declared life sentences for junkies and dealers. He helped fill those prisons, and new ones, with black and brown addicts. He was on the job when Reagan became an international cocaine kingpin. This history is his life history. His theory is his experience.
He’s known that our prison industry, our policing industry, that our government profits from the internment of the poor, from the arrest of political possibility, from the bondage, theft, and underpaid labor of communities of color, of kin. “Junkie” as a subhuman, unhuman, anti-human caricature could never suppress the fact that it was actual humans and health and family at stake.
Now that I have a seat at the grown folks table, sipping that sweet wine alongside Dad, his pride has faded. The swole-headed and swole-chested laughter of a gregarious showboater is more restrained. That piece of metal engraved “Retired” is no longer a badge of honor for busting the heads of winos, junkies, disrespectful civilians, and men who have sex with men. As the years go by, more stories are retired, suppressed, or if conjured up again from the dirt of remembrance, remixed not so much for glory and amusement but as explanations, apologies, confessions, immolation—the atonement a poor black youth conscripted, a retired mercenary vampire that drained democracy of its hemoglobin, who walloped and handcuffed on behalf of the white supremacist capitalist oligarchs who profited from his neck-breaking labor.
After criminal defense attorney Bob McCullough engineered the grand jury decision, I’m on the phone with Dad. I’m walking my dog through my white neighborhood. It’s November 25, 2014, and a few days from now we will break bread for Thanksgiving, a day he once renamed Black Family Togetherness Day on account of colonialism, genocide, and white supremacy. He’s spitting all this irrelevant anti-blackness: Mike Brown was no angel; they found reefer in his system; yada yada. I’m crying on the phone with him. Hollering. He’s calm for once. Why all the curse words, he says, like every other word out of his mouth isn’t motherfucker. Dad is the type of black elder who watches Fox News in order to cuss out the TV. Shit has rotted his brain. The worst part of it is his loyalty, the uncritical defense of white cops—blue through and through.
If my mother-in-law, a nurse, sees another nurse killing patients, is she silent about it? I ask him. Does she blame the patient for getting killed by the nurse? Every semester a student comes into my office crying about the white supremacists and sexual predators my job protects and promotes. If somebody on my job abuses a student, I don’t stay quiet. I raise hell. Don’t tell me about raising hell, Dad shouts. Don’t tell me about loyalty to white cops. I know black cops that have been killed. Killed, you hear me? On the job. By white cops.
We eat Thanksgiving lunch at a buffet on Maxwell Air Force Base. We’re surrounded by elders and veterans. Inevitably, Ferguson comes up. “So you guys think that Darren Wilson should have been convicted?” a cousin asks. McCullough confused the whole process—for her, for a lot of us. No, my partner says. He should have been indicted. That’s the point, she says, there should be a trial.
Dad is silent for the most part, listening. Somebody starts that “no angel” stuff again. I ask him about the black cops. He’s buried black cops that were killed from the unfriendly fire of fellow officers, he says without saying much. He’s been to the funerals. He leaves it at that.
Two days before Christmas, Reuters publishes a report about black cops in the NYPD. They fear that their co-workers might kill them. Knowing better, I post the story to Dad’s Facebook.
I never had a problem in NY and was very careful in NY because I knew the dangers of black cops being shot by cops. I had been stopped a number of times in Alabama, even had a gun pulled out on me in two occasions by Police Officers. I’ve spoken to many black men here in Alabama, and I happen to agree with them, that I’d rather be pulled over by a white Police Officer than a black. It seems as if the black Police Officer has something to prove to a black man that he is head nigger in charge. I as a black man feel more intimidated by a black Police Officer than a White one.
One of those times was recent. A group of serial burglars broke into his house. ADT called the sheriff’s office. Dad also called the cops to notify them that he was on the way. He gave a description of himself, and that he would be in a white truck. When he arrived home, the black sheriff’s deputy pulled his weapon on him.
I write back:
“the dangers of black cops being shot by [white] cops” seems like a huge problem. That you had to dress, speak, walk, and otherwise behave in certain disciplined ways in order to avoid being shot to death by your colleagues is exactly what blacklivesmatter is protesting against, and as you write, black cops are both victims and perpetrators of police brutality. No person—cop or not—should have to walk in fear of the police—white or not—just for existing.
What I don’t write is a question. During my childhood, Dad was both Furious Styles and the black cop that stabbed his pistol barrel into Tre’s throat. I wonder whether the trigger-happy black cops my father fears so much are just the sort of black cop he had been.
Christmas Day and I’m back in Montgomery, Alabama digesting another lunch buffet. In the kitchen, elders pass around spiked eggnog in a plastic jug. Dad and another elder are arguing about Mike Brown. This time around, Dad is talking all kinds of shit about McCullough, his defense of Wilson. I’ve testified before grand juries countless times, Dad says. I know the process. The prosecutor’s job is to present evidence to get an indictment. No more. No less.
No, the Elder hollers. The system is good. The system works. He ain’t listening and Dad is tired of talking. He blames Mike Brown’s murder on marijuana, sagging pants, and black culture.
I grab the mic like a dummy. That is pure racism, I say to the Elder. That’s the definition of racism. I’m talking decriminalization and prison abolition, conjuring my best Ruthie Gilmore and Angela Davis and Sarah Haley and Michele Alexander and Dad. This isn’t about crime, I say. It’s about public health. I know we’ve all loved addicts, had addicts in the family. Would you rather see them in prison or in a hospital?
The Elder’s son steps in saying that he is teaching his own son how to survive: he has the right name, keeps his hair cut low, speaks proper, pulls his khakis up to his bellybutton, and will never toke ganja.
I interrupt him. You and I both know that a suit and tie will not protect your son, I say. Your survival strategies are not kevlar, and survival ain’t enough.
You’re right, Dad says on the way home. When it’s white folks it’s a damn tragedy. These white actors, when they overdose, fuck up a hotel room—that’s a sickness they need help for. Rehab. A black person is just a junkie that died. Back then we were taught a junkie was a piece of shit. Wasn’t human.
In the early 1970s, Dad flew to Los Angeles to take the police exam. The LAPD offered him a job to go undercover in Watts. The plan was ridiculous because Dad had never been to Watts and he could never trade the Harlem in him for that Calibama accent. Twenty years in Alabama and he still talks like a carpetbagger.
He would have taken that job if the Port Authority hadn’t called first. He would have had 20 years when four LAPD officers broke Rodney King’s skull. Had my father spent his career in the LAPD, he might have known Rolando Solano, the then-rookie cop, now Captain, who claimed under oath that the 50 blows to King’s head were an accident.
“I saw some of the most vile things humans can inflict on others as a police officer in Los Angeles,” wrote Christopher Dorner, the former cop, retired Navy officer, and murder suspect who declared war against LAPD officers and their families in February 2013. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the streets of LA. It was in the confounds of the LAPD police stations and shops (cruisers). The enemy combatants in LA are not the citizens and suspects, it’s the police officers.”
In the memoir and memo “To: America,” posted on Facebook two years ago, subject: “Last Resort,” Dorner echoed many scenes from Dad’s personal history. Dorner was an eyewitness to systemic corruption, the violent racism of coworkers and commanders, and the gleeful torture of vulnerable citizens, rookies, and black and brown cops. His brief memoir is a horror story of death-dealing cops who profit in overtime, emptying clips like depositing checks. “I’ve heard many officers who state they see dead victims as ATV’s, Waverunners, RV’s and new clothes for their kids,” Dorner wrote.
Two years before Timothy Loehmann stepped out of his police cruiser, took two breaths, and fired two bullets at Tamir Rice, Dorner described the psyche and monstrous motives of police like Loehmann and Frank Garmback, his partner and accessory in murder, sworn public servants and first responders who refused medical assistance to a child slowly dying in snow and mud. “They will let you bleed out just so they can brag to other officers that they had a 187 caper the other day and can’t wait to accrue the overtime in future court subpoenas,” Dorner explained. “As they always say, ‘that’s the paramedics job…not mine.’”
The Navy and the LAPD trained Dorner to combat evil with violence. Instead of adapting and assimilating into a white supremacist paramilitary industry that profits off crime, that profits off poverty, that profits off the destruction of poor and black and brown bodies, that profits off the slow death of its own employees, Dorner combated the injustices of white supremacy by using the tools of white supremacy, by turning to his training, by killing. To “reclaim” his name as an “honest officer,” Dorner targeted innocents. He promised to murder both the officers that had “destroyed” his “life and name,” and their children, like Monica Quan and her fiance Keith Lawrence, a black cop.
The job destroys humanity, saps the plasma and morality from its foot soldiers and the people they are commissioned to suppress, bludgeon, and control. The job turned Dorner into a murderer, a monster. The job turned my futurefather from a traumatized youth and intensely loyal punching bag into a belligerent pawn, a paid bully who found pleasure in violence and feared for his life, terrified of his coworkers and anonymous perps slowly reaching for their pockets or waistbands.
“To those children of the officers who are eradicated,” Dorner writes, “your parent was not the individual you thought they were. As you get older, you will see the evidence that your parent was a tyrant who loss their ethos and instead followed the path of moral corruptness.”
As the grown child of a former police officer, a black cop, I don’t see the tyrant that Dad once most certainly was, or impersonated, the immoral automaton that the force recruited and trained him to be. I see a 64-year-old man who is recovering from a lifetime of cruelty, haunted by two decades of neck-wrecking work on behalf of a government and industry of suffering that ate and depleted, but could not devour, his soul.
W. Chris Johnson teaches black history at the University of Memphis.
[ Illustration by Tara Jacoby]