True Story: I Had An Altercation With A Black Man — And Luckily, Police Weren’t Involved
A video recorded by a citizen journalist, which captured footage of the LAPD shooting and killing an unarmed homeless Black man in broad daylight, has been circulating on the internet this week. The man in the video, nicknamed Africa, was shot several times by police in front of his tent home on Skid Row, after he allegedly reached for one of their guns (supposedly even after being hit with a stunt gun). As I watched the ordeal, I immediately thought of an altercation I recently had with a Black man, and wondered how it would’ve ended had the police gotten involved.
A week ago, a girlfriend and I decided to go camping at a local beach named Ho’Okena on the Big Island of Hawaii. We made a pit stop at Walmart, picked up a tent, some camping supplies and food, and the guy I’ve been dating gave us a ride down to the spot. We set up our tent immediately, but then walked away to have dinner and watch the sunset, before unloading the rest of the stuff from the car.
After the meal, my girlfriend walked back to our camping spot, but she returned a few moments later, a perplexed look on her face.
“Um, someone put all of their stuff in our tent,” she said.
Together, the three of us marched over to our camp spot to figure out what was up. It seemed that someone had not only placed all of their bedding and bags in the tent, but also left another bag and a cooler outside of it. We stood there for a moment, confused looks on our faces. Yep, this was definitely our tent.
“What the fuck are you doing near my tent?” a man suddenly screamed from the darkness. I heard heavy footsteps and then he entered my visual field. He was a tall Black man, probably in his 40s, with long dreadlocks.
“This isn’t your tent,” I argued. “I just bought this today and I have the receipt.” I rummaged through my huge backpack and pulled out the itemized list of camping equipment, pointing to the tent in question.
“I don’t give a fuck about your damn receipt!” he exclaimed. My dude friend then got into the mix.
“Calm down, I’m sure we can figure this all out without yelling,” he urged.
“You think I’m fucking senile!?” The man continued to argue, puffing out his chest aggressively. I immediately stepped between the both of them and instructed my guy to walk away from the situation.
“Let’s just go get the groundskeeper,” I said.
As we hustled away from our campsite, I could hear the man continue to shout expletives at my girlfriend, who remained standing there, bewildered. Within moments, we were back with security.
“What’s going on here?” the groundskeeper inquired.
“I know this tent is mine and these cats are trying to screw me out of my tent. I saw my girlfriend put it up with my own eyes!” the guy bellowed.
“Watch, when my girlfriend gets back, she is going to prove to you this is our tent!” he yelled over me, as I calmly explained that we just purchased the tent and I had a receipt to prove it.
A few awkward moments passed, and the girlfriend finally surfaced.
“Is this your tent?” the groundskeeper asked.
“Um, no, it isn’t. That one is,” she said, pointing in the direction of another setup, right next to ours.
“Ah, I’m sorry you guys,” the man said sheepishly. The couple gathered their things and settled in at their own campsite — finally.
That is how my girlfriend and I became acquainted with our new camping neighbors — an interracial couple from the other side of the island who practiced yoga, loved to smoke joints and looked forward to swimming with the dolphins at the nearby beach.
My guy helped us unpack and bid us farewell, cautioning us to remain vigilant and attentive. I assured him we would be fine, then zipped us up in the tent, holding my flashlight tight, just in case.
“Girls, I would like to offer my apologies to you for my behavior earlier,” a quiet voice whispered right outside of our tent a few moments later.
My girlfriend and I stepped out into the chilly night air to find this now cool, calm and collected gentleman, accompanied by his girlfriend, with his hand clasped around a small bottle of Hawaiian rum.
“Let’s have a little drink and call a truce,” he said. I hesitated, then accepted his offer.
The four of us walked towards the ocean and spread a blanket down on the sand and laid down to stare at the bright stars gleaming above us. We said cheers and each took a swig of the rum, passing the bottle around and “talking story,” as people do in Hawaii. He told us about his kids and being proud of their accomplishments. He said he came from a life of hardship, but had found a way to always travel and have new experiences.
“You know, if you were back on the mainland, you could be dead right now for the kind of shit you pulled earlier,” I said bluntly.
“Yeah, I’m a Black man,” he said. “Shit, if I stayed back in New York where I’m from, I’d probably be dead or in jail by now like most of my friends and family.”
Discomfort welled in my stomach. His statement was made so matter-of-factly that I knew he had long contemplated such a possibility. One where he was dead or in jail. I wondered what impact being constantly faced with such realities would have on my psyche. All of the anger and frustration I felt towards him because of his outburst were quelled. I had a moment of true, honest forgiveness.
That beautiful moment was interrupted by disturbing thoughts: What if police officers had intervened on our behalf? Would they have arrived and shot this man in front of my eyes? Two or three times? In merely the blink of an eye? Would the sight of his lifeless body be justified by his rudeness and aggression? How would this situation had been resolved in the cities of Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland, and so many others, where racial tension and bias have made it normal for police officers to kill unarmed Black men, women and even children?
I caught a glimpse of a shooting star whizzing by, high in the glittery sky. With so many endless possibilities in the universe, why had the death of unarmed citizens, many of them people of color, at the hands of the police force become a commonplace occurrence? People of all colors and dispositions deserve better than that.
Perhaps the guy who accosted my friends and I could actually have been described as “menacing” — as the Cleveland PD is now attempting to characterize 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was tragically shot and killed while unarmed. It could even be argued that he looked like a demon — like officer Darren Wilson claimed Michael Brown did before murdering him — while shouting expletives in my face. Still, it was difficult for me to fathom any reality where I would argue the man deserved to die for his obnoxious behavior. It saddened me that I live in one where, in the event he was shot and killed by police on that day, many would.
“Yeah, it’s been rough for me and I ain’t perfect, but I know things will get better,” the man said, before apologizing for his behavior several more times and taking a final swig of rum.
I sighed, returning my gaze to the billions of stars shining brightly ahead. As another shooting star raced through the sky, I reminded myself that the possibility for change always exists.
We stood up, said “goodnight” to one another and walked back towards our tents. This time, there was no screaming or yelling. Only the sound of the ocean’s waves crashing against the shoreline.