What Living In Four Countries Has Taught Me, A Black Woman, About Policing In America

Photo: Clark Sanders / Unsplash
Black woman posing on the sidewalk in denim jacket

Being raised in a neighborhood in the Bronx, New York that was rampant with poverty, crime and abuse, I was mostly elated to see officers patrolling the streets, although at times I would regard them with fear.

I can’t count how many arrests I’ve witnessed in my life. 

The entire neighborhood seemed to always be on high alert with boys and men running for their lives, in fear of getting tackled, beaten, maced or shot by the plainclothed officers that rushed to monitor the streets.

RELATED: As A Black Woman, The U.S. Capitol's Policing Hypocrisy Isn't Surprising To Me At All

I remember my first law enforcement interaction like it was yesterday.

I was fifteen years old and begged my strict father for permission to attend a dance at an all-boys school in Mount Vernon, just outside of the Bronx.

The only condition was that I’d have to be home by 10:00 PM. I was picked up by two girls from school and one of their mothers. After the mom dropped us off, one of the girls waved to someone in a waiting car. 

A guy rolled down the window and motioned for us to get in. “We’re going to chill with my boyfriend and his friends. They’ll drop us back here later. Come on. Get in,” she replied.

Using my best judgement, I decided not to. Full of anxiety, I walked up the dark driveway and handed my money to the doorman. He then asked to see my student identification card, which I forgot to bring. I was denied entry. He apologized, then shut the door. 

There I stood, 15 years old and stranded in a dark neighborhood. I didn’t even have a cell phone. Panicked, I waited for more cars to arrive in hopes that I could use a phone to call my father then call a cab. I finally decided to walk home.

A police car pulled up beside me just as I began my walk home.

The officer in the passenger seat asked where I was going, to which I explained my predicament. “You shouldn’t be walking around by yourself, sweetie. It’s not safe. Get in. We’re taking you home.”

And he did just that. I arrived home safe.

My second interaction with law enforcement was positive as well.

I was walking to the library when a man wrestled my cell phone out my hand and ran into the housing projects.

Shaken, I ran to the nearest police precinct and made a report. Two detectives helped me search for the bandit to no avail. Still, I was happy with the level of comfort and support they provided.

Any subsequent circumstances followed the same exemplary model of professionalism that many police officers uphold.

RELATED: Why I Support Black Lives Matter Even Though Both Of My Parents Are Police Officers

The final interaction occurred outside a metro station in Rego Park, Queens, about 10 years after I was mugged. It was not a positive one.

A man attacked me as I was waiting for my ride to a birthday party. He grabbed my wrist and began dragging me down the street and into an alley all while delivering blows to the side of my head and screaming at me to shut up.

After pleading for help to the men either driving or watching nearby and getting rejected, a man finally asked if I knew the guy that was beating and screaming at me.

When I replied, "No," he yelled for help and ran toward me. My attacker released me and calmly walked away.

After pulling me to my feet, the good samaritan screamed, “Stop that guy. He just tried to rape that girl!” A couple of men held the man down until the police arrived.

To my detriment, the police only questioned me about why I was in that particular neighborhood and waited for my friends (two white males) to confirm my presence upon their arrival.

They also questioned my attacker and told me that I needed to prove that I didn’t know him.

My attacker told them we were dating, that I was drunk, and we were merely having a lover’s spat, which I vehemently denied. With my ID in hand, they quizzed him about my address and asked for personal details about me.

I couldn’t hear the responses. All I could remember was the smug look as his eyes burrowed into my soul. It was as if he knew they were going to let him go.

No matter what I said, the police refused to take a report from me, stating that there was nothing they could do since they didn’t witness the man attacking me, he said it was a domestic dispute, I didn’t have any bruises (yet), and I hadn’t actually been raped. 

It was at that moment that I finally understood what it meant to be a Black woman in America  something that hadn’t really resonated with me in a negative way before that incident.

I couldn’t help but think, “This wouldn’t be happening if I were white.”

This included the men that watched me get hurt and only intervened because another man told them to do so. There I was in a cocktail dress, standing amongst men in uniforms and suits while my soiled-clothed attacker smiled smugly at me.

My heart ached. Not only was I humiliated and furious; I felt helpless. Even worse, I felt gaslighted and worthless.

The physical signs of the attack came and went but the emotional damage went on without repair.

Not coping after the incident, I decided to leave my beloved hometown. For good. I moved quite a bit over the years to Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, and Spain in hopes that I’d feel more and more safe. 

I began to study how police interacted with the public, almost obsessively, with my cell phone in hand, ready to document and report any signs of neglect or abuse  especially if the accused was a person of color.

In one instance, on a crowded street in Melbourne, Australia, a disheveled Black man was going ballistic. As people avoided him, I ran across the street. As I dialed emergency services, a police car pulled up to the man.

He took a swing, they brought him down to the ground, and tried to calm him down. The calmer he became, the more they eased the physical pressure against him.

He spoke, and they listened.

About 20 minutes later, the officers explained why they needed to take him to the station. The man allowed the officers to cuff him and they led him away peacefully. They never shouted at him, belittled him, nor did they ever raise a weapon to him. 

When I got to New Zealand, I was surprised to learn that many Māoris, the aboriginal people of New Zealand, identify with the strife that Indigenous people of the African Diaspora have suffered.

They spoke of the dire need to uphold cultural values and traditions, systematic racism, gang violence, poverty, illness, and other social issues.

The only difference for me was that they retained their cultural identity, while as a multi-generational African-American, my heritage was erased and re-invented.

From time to time, someone would tell me about unjust interactions with the police or I would see horrendous stories on the news about social injustice and the unnecessary use of force. According to the NZ Herald, Māoris are seven times more likely to have force used against them than Caucasians. 

​These stats jar me as much as it does when I hear about Native Americans, Latin Americans, and Black people facing brutality at the hands of law enforcement — like captives in their homeland.

While I felt safer in my melanin-enriched foreign country, I felt enraged and guilty regarding the absence of peace for those that look like me in my home country of USA. The outstanding outpouring of support during the Black Lives Matter marches in New Zealand over the summer came as no surprise to me.

Years later, in the continued spirit of adventure, I moved to Spain. 

Sadly, a Spanish colleague noticed that I would tense up and grab for my ID whenever a police car approached.

Subconsciously, I expected to be stopped and questioned out of fear that I did not look like I belonged. I have subsequently rid myself of this fear. Still, I have seen African immigrants stopped, chased down, frisked, roughly handled in Barcelona, Madrid, and Málaga. 

While I have heard many stories about the harassment and use of force against African men in Portugal, it's not at the frequency reported in the USA — but enough to find it disturbing and problematic.

If only I had the privilege of witnessing these tactics in my own country.

Law enforcement is meant to serve as a pillar of civilized society which can only be achieved through order, compassion, critical thinking and building trust.

Since moving overseas, I have witnessed more and more officers smiling and simply letting people be. Every so often, I’d witness a drunken white person berating and attacking people (usually bouncers) of color.

They were swiftly arrested by police officers, and this was a huge contrast to the weaponized use of police against Black people in the USA — something that still occurs to this day.

Complaints should be regarded with concern, patience, rationality, warmth and civic duty. No one should panic if they forget their ID at home or are deemed “from/in the wrong place.” 

My question is: what makes policing so incomparably different in the USA versus other countries in the world? 

In 2020 along with the rest of the world, I watched and read seemingly endless stories about Black men, women and children being detained, beaten and murdered by police. 

I've watched hoses, tear gas, bullets, verbal abuse, and sheer brute force be used for minor or non-existence offences. What happened to the use of de-escalation tactics?

In 2019, CNN reported that Black children go missing at a higher rate than white children, yet we don’t hear about it nearly as often.

We have white Americans calling the authorities on Black people during everyday living, and Black children being cuffed by police officers.

In the first week of January 2021, the world stopped as some MAGA followers rioted, vandalized, and terrorized the streets of Washington D.C., and stormed the U.S. Capitol building.

We watched as law enforcement took selfies with rioters and encouraged them to engage in anarchist behavior with the support of a sitting U.S. president.

The arrests and other casualties of the Black Lives Matter movement show a stark and grim contrast.

It was reported that 14,000 people were arrested during the BLM protests, compared to about 120 participants of the Capitol riots where they breached and vandalized what should be one of the most secure buildings in the world.

Thousands of white Americans collectively terrorized our nation with minimal impunity at the behest of the man elected to lead our country.

Police officers were attacked, and five people — including one police officer — died as a result of the riots. And again, my thoughts drifted to, “This would be an entirely different story if they weren’t white.”

There would be no solidarity and compliance with police officers, excessive force would have been prematurely used, and there would have been more chaos

I refuse to feel nothing other than love for myself and my fellow Americans as we pray along with the world for equality and justice.

It’s our responsibility to ensure that those who fail to deliver on their pledge to uphold the law and act within the scope of morality are held accountable for their actions, re-trained, or swiftly penalized when circumstances go array.

While I’d never negate nor debate the unpleasant or horrific experiences of anyone that has been affected by poor policing practices, my experiences living and traveling abroad have shown me that it is not only feasible, but an undeniable right for all to be treated with compassion, dignity, and respect by law enforcement.

RELATED: 7 Tangible Examples Of Real Change Inspired By Black Lives Matter Protests & Activists In The Wake Of George Floyd's Murder

Quia Bethea is a Spain-based travel writer and storyteller from New York City. When she’s not writing, she’s studying two languages, indulging in self-care, dancing, cooking, or enjoying a glass of wine with a view.