I grew up on North Avenue, in the same neighborhood as Freddie Gray. Sixteen people lived in our house, and many of them were on a first name basis with the police. When the cops would knock on our door they’d ask, “Who is it this time?” and list off the usual suspects. Sometimes they would arrest my father. That’s what I prayed for, because if he was in jail, he couldn’t beat me. If my Uncle Riccas and my cousin Andre were busted, too, then I was in heaven, because there would be peace in the house.
In those years, before I was a teenager, the police were my saviors.
When I got older, things changed. I was always big for my age, and by the time I was 13, I was often mistaken for an adult. One day I was walking home from school when eight officers surrounded me, guns drawn, and forced me to the ground. One had his knee in my back and his pistol in my face. They were hyped up and angry, too, threatening to kill me. I found out later that someone with the same outfit — white shirt and black shorts — had just murdered someone a few blocks away.
My life almost ended in a case of mistaken identity, like those that are all too common in America’s inner cities. But three things happened that kept me alive. First, I was so surprised that I didn’t run or fight, which, quite honestly, was my first reaction to seeing cops. Second, my next door neighbor came running out of her house screaming, “He’s just a kid!” That made them hesitate. And finally, the fact that there were eight officers, and not two or one, I believe, checked their impulses. So I lived.
It wasn’t long after that when I had another run-in with the Baltimore Police that would change my life forever. My father was still in and out of jail and would often still beat me. He was an addict and taking his frustrations out on me was just what he did. But one night when he got high and started cussing at my grandmother, I got so angry that I lost control. Suddenly all those years of abuse erupted inside me. By this time I was just as big as my father, and because he was so high, I quickly got the upper hand. When the police arrived, he was unconscious on our back porch bleeding from his head.
The police asked me what happened and I told them the truth, which was a mistake. Even though I was a minor, this was attempted murder. The younger cop told me I was under arrest. At that moment, I knew I would be going to Hickey — juvenile detention — for a long time.
But then the other cop, who was older, said, “Hold on a minute. We didn’t actually see what happened here.” That’s when I realized that he already knew my father.
He turned to me. “When you came outside you found him like this, right?” I nodded. Then both cops helped me get rid of the evidence that there had been a fight. When we were done, the older cop said, “Go to school. Get out of this. Save yourself.” Then he put a $10 bill in my fist.
I consider that one of the most important moments of my life, and it came from a gut feeling that one cop had about a situation. What he did was illegal. He ignored a full confession and destroyed evidence. But it saved my life. That night I almost lost any chance I had at a real future. And I didn’t forget it. I stopped fighting and I started paying attention at school. I finished high school and went to college. That night made all the difference.
In one scenario I was almost killed in a case of mistaken identity, in the other, a cop showed empathy because he understood exactly where my arrest would lead — a life of rage and crime. As a city we need to get to the latter place, where the police see poor blacks as people they can help, not as enemies, not as threats, not as thugs they have to eliminate. Because, like it or not, it is still the police, not the courts, who dispense most of the justice in our city. It is their decisions that determine the fates of many blacks. Including mine.
Alphonso Mayo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Mentoring Mentors, is public charity, 501c(3) non-profit organization dedicated to guiding and inspiring African American youth to be passionate about encouraging others, enhancing their community and becoming mentors in the Baltimore community.