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for people who care about the West

A strange feeling of safety for a black American

Under the gaze of tribal police, a writer finds a new sense of freedom.

 

When you’re black in America, there are certain things you must consider whenever you’re out and about. The mundane is never mundane; there’s always mental preparation involved. You have to think about how you’re perceived, how you conduct yourself, and, most importantly, whether there are cops around.

You are hypersensitive to the presence of police. You want to act naturally, but you can’t. You purposely avoid any contact, as if you don’t know where the cops are or if they exist, when the opposite is true. You are hyper-vigilant; you know every move they make, and you measure your own movement until you are away from their general vicinity. If you’re in the car, you pretend to sing, in an attempt to look calm and unafraid, or you smile and look the other way — anything to appear nonthreatening.

A woman raises her hands in front of a line of police during a 2016 protest, in El Cajon, California.
Gregory Bull/AP Images

Your sole focus becomes knowing where they are and whether they noticed you, and hoping like hell that they didn’t and don’t. There is nothing normal about this, and yet it is the norm for black Americans. You do not want to give the police a reason to talk to you, because therein lies the unknown. Will you get arrested? Will you be tasered? Or will you get shot? If you encounter the police, will you get to go home when it’s over?

Last year, my boyfriend, Brandenn, and I took a trip to El Cajon, California, in the dry desert hills east of San Diego, where a concert in the park was being held. We were in costume — me dressed as a zombie slayer, with a prop sword, and he as a sheriff, with a realistic-looking metal prop gun. As soon as we arrived at the event, I could tell it was not a crowd that was entirely favorable to black people. It felt how I imagined it would feel in a rural area or the South — a sea of white people who were not only unfamiliar with black people, but potentially shared an outright dislike of them. I felt their eyes on me.

I told my boyfriend, who is white, about my unease, and I was right: Ten minutes later, the cop on duty, early 50s, white and friendly, came up to me, saying several people at the concert had approached him about me and my sword, claiming that I was “running around with it.” The cop, I am happy to say, dismissed all complaints, including one man, an event-goer who pressed, “So, you aren’t going to do anything about her?” (No one cared about Brandenn’s gun, I guess. Shocking.)

If you are black in America, this kind of encounter counts as lucky. It could have gone much worse. Still, the experience did not ease my tension around police. Which makes what I’m about to tell you all that more bizarre.

Last month, Brandenn and I went to Viejas Casino in Alpine, California. The hotel is located on the land of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, who bought it in 1932 after they were evicted from the site of the nearby El Capitan Reservoir. This was the first time I ever visited a reservation casino.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.1/a-civil-conversation-what-we-can-learn-from-nicodemus-kansas]

The place reminded me of a movie set, with a backdrop of rolling hills and mountain ridges, clean streets with brick overlays at the crosswalks and perfectly manicured shrubbery. Across the street from the casino was a shopping center, with a giant teepee-like entrance, leading to the outdoor mall, where a giant fountain cooled and calmed the air. The hotel was a place of serenity. And yet, apparently, it was flooded with reservation police.

“Wow, there sure are a lot of cops here,” Brandenn said on our second day, completely confusing me.

I simply could not figure out what he was talking about. Even when he pointed them out, for the most part I missed seeing the reservation police. When I asked him later how many officers he saw that weekend, he estimated about 20.

I only saw about two or three of them.

As someone who is so hyper-vigilant about police, I was shocked. After all, they were in uniform like other cops, and they were carrying guns. And yet, their presence went unnoticed by me. Being on that reservation felt like a safe haven for a black person. The police were like ghosts — unobtrusive, unoppressive, casual, allowing me to just ... be. They were watching the patrons, but evenly. This gave me a sense of freedom I had not known was possible — something sorely needed in my country. But I’m happy to say that, at least at that place, the feeling was possible, and appreciated. For just a weekend, I lived in a land that felt closer to home, where I was able to experience the feeling of being just like anyone else — as if I too had white privilege.

To not be criminalized due to my skin — what a novel idea.

Jill Robi is a freelance writer who specializes in entertainment journalism. She’s also an indie author, working on her third novel. Learn more at www.HouseOfFangirl.com.