Shaw: What it feels like to be a Black man in America
San Jose Police officers are pictured in this file photo. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

When I was asked to share what I call my Black Lives Matter experience, I was divided within myself.

It is difficult to write about an experience in your past when it brings back so many different emotions. Feelings of helplessness, shame, regret, fear and hopelessness. It took me back to a time when I cut off everyone and everything in my life, and I repeated the same cycle while dwelling on this experience again. But I decided to share my experience for those who have experienced similar encounters with the police but don’t have an outlet for their voice.

I want to thank San José Spotlight for giving me that voice.

On March 26, 2016, I was traveling north on Highway 85, having just merged off of Highway 87. I set my cruise control to 75 miles per hour and proceeded down the highway. As I was passing Almaden Expressway, I noticed a San Jose police vehicle merging onto the freeway, which, of course, caused traffic to start slowing down.

I paid no mind since I was only going 75 miles per hour. As I approached my exit on Camden, I saw the SJPD vehicle speeding up behind me. It didn’t have its lights on — so I stayed at 75 miles per hour. As I exited off Camden, the vehicle also exited and I saw the officers on their radio as we waited at a stoplight to turn on Branham.

I had on a wave cap and sunglasses with a tank top, so I probably looked extra Black that day. As I was turning left on Branham, the officers turned on their lights, and I immediately pulled over and stopped in front of El Pollo Loco. Now, this was a year and a half after the Black Lives Matter movement began and I was very aware of police officers shooting unarmed Black men, so I put my hands up so they could see I was unarmed.

The response from the officers wasn’t what I expected. They jumped out of their vehicle, guns drawn and yelled to see my hands, even though my hands were outside of my car. As I was showing the driver of the police car my hands and ducking my head so I wouldn’t be shot in the face, the passenger officer came along the passenger side of my vehicle and stuck his gun through my passenger side window about 6 inches from my head and started yelling at me to turn off my vehicle.

I didn’t move my body one inch. I just turned my head and yelled at the officer, saying, “What are you doing? Are you crazy, pulling a gun on me?” He kept yelling for me to turn off my vehicle and I moved as slowly as I could because I didn’t want to get shot in the face as I turned off my car.

I was then pulled out of my car and placed in handcuffs (way too tight, with my arms at a very bad angle), being told that I was under arrest. I asked what I was being arrested for and was told for speeding. I told the officer I was going 75 miles per hour and he responded it was my word against his. The other officer then picked up a small shot-size alcohol bottle off the ground and claimed it was on the passenger side floor of my car, saying, “What have we here?” as he placed the dirty bottle on the roof of my car.

I said that the bottle wasn’t mine, but he opened my passenger door and started to illegally search my car. I wasn’t read my Miranda rights until they found bottles of psychiatric medications that were inside my backpack. The bottles weren’t labeled because I didn’t want people to know what they were in case I lost them since I was homeless. They assumed I was a drug dealer because they were controlled substances and they kept asking what I was doing with all the pills.

I told the officers they were my prescriptions and I could show them my prescriptions on my Kaiser app. They refused to look at my app and ended up taking me downtown and placing me in a holding cell for almost three hours with my hands cuffed so I had to sit leaning forward because of the angle of my arms.

After three hours, I was eventually released with a ticket that had four felony citations on it. Ridiculous.

This was before the SJPD started wearing body cameras and even though I filed a complaint with internal investigations and the Office of the Independent Auditor, nothing came of it because the officers lied in their report to justify their actions. All charges were eventually dropped, but it took me a couple years to clear my record. I was treated like I was guilty until I could prove my innocence.

In the six months after this, I completely separated myself from everyone and everything and became suicidal, because I realized I didn’t have control over my own life. Someone else could have decided whether I lived or died — so what was the use of living? The only thing that saved me was the thought of my son and not wanting to leave him to fend for himself in this world.

I was able to obtain counseling and psychiatric treatment and work my way back into society. By this time, the rules concerning legal action against law enforcement had reached their statute of limitations and I had no legal recourse against the officers’ abuse of their powers.

So I just held on to the planted alcohol bottle that has the fingerprints of both of the SJPD officers, but not my fingerprints, and I placed this bottle in a Ziploc bag and put it in my storage unit. So every time I open my unit, I see the bottle and I am reminded of that day and what it feels like to be a Black man in America.

Jerome Shaw is homeless and living at a HomeFirst shelter in Sunnyvale. He’s a leader in the Sunnyvale Clients Collaborative — a union of homeless shelter residents in the region — and is part of a group of homeless columnists writing for San José Spotlight’s In Your Backyard column to shine a light on the homeless experience in Silicon Valley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.