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My Life as a Spy on the Racial Divide

Date Published: 08/23/2016

Author: Phoenix Thomson

The author of this post is 16-year-old Phoenix Thomson. He interned for Growth & Justice this summer through the STEP-UP program, a nationally recognized youth employment model that trains and matches Minneapolis youth ages 14-21 with paid summer internships. Phoenix helped research transportation and transit issues, shadowed Growth & Justice staffers at meetings and events and helped with administrative duties. He shows promise as a policy thinker and writer and we hope to continue mentoring him in coming years.

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Phoenix Thomson    

One day after school about two years ago, my friends and I got on the Hiawatha light-rail train downtown, headed for the Mall of America. Our group of six was diverse. One was Somali, four of us were part African-American and part white (including me), and one of us was Asian-American. Of the six of us, I undoubtedly looked the “whitest.” My parents are each about half white and half African-American and because of my fair skin, I sometimes joke that I am a “spy” in the white world for the Black community. When I am with white people who don’t know me or my background, they say things they otherwise might not. It’s often irritating, and sometimes infuriating.

After boarding the train in downtown Minneapolis, our group decided to stop at the Lake Street station to get some snacks from a convenience store. As soon as we got off the train, two transit cops started to follow us. We were a little irritated, because we felt we had done nothing to deserve this surveillance, but we kept walking because we did not want to get in trouble. But then one of the officers stopped us by saying “Hey, you four!” Because there were six of us, I looked back and I pointed at myself to see if they were referring to us and he said, “Not you.” So we all kept walking. But then they again ordered us to stop. They then demanded to see the transfers of the four visibly darker-skinned friends.

After they showed the two cops their transfers, one of the cops proceeded to ask them further questions like “Do you have any weapons on you?” or “Do you have any illegal substances?” My friends assured them that they didn't have any drugs or weapons but the officers persisted, asking “Are you sure?” I got frustrated and finally asked them why they were badgering my friends. I was told: “This doesn't concern you.”

I then asked my Asian-American friend to start recording our conversation. One officer said: “Ooh, do you feel cool?” I responded that this was for the safety of all of us. I then asked him why he was questioning my friends, and not me. The officers said they were just looking for proof of purchase (referring to their transfers). I asked why he didn't ask for transfers from me and my Asian-American friend. We were told the requests were random. I got tired of the conversation and suggested they were being racist and the officers tried to defend themselves. They finally said we could go.

I asked my friends why they didn't back me up and my Somali friend said “I didn't want to get shot.” He had a point. After we got our stuff at the store, we returned to the station and saw that the same officers were still there and we all decided to go home rather than get into another confrontation. So the Mall of America lost some business that day. I told my friend to delete the video because we all just wanted nothing to do with that situation anymore. The whole thing left my feeling a little sick, thinking that these officers were supposed to “protect and serve” my friends and the public but that this service and protection is too often applied unfairly.

In my 16 years, I have seen countless acts of systemic racism, profiling, and segregation but rarely have I personally been the target of these acts. When I walk in a store or walk by police I think, “If my skin were darker, would the store owner follow me or would the police stop me?” I go to bed some nights and think I'm lucky that I'm pale and I wonder how different my life might be if I weren’t.

When I was younger and I would run errands with my mom (she is more visibly a person of color), I would get countless looks of confusion and sometimes even disgust. I could sense that it wasn’t positive but I didn't understand why they would always stare at us until I got older and my sadness about it turned to anger. I try to stay positive but I’m also a realist and the reality is that there needs to be change and this change needs to start now.

I don't want members of my family to end up like Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, John Crawford III, Michael Brown Jr., Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, or Freddie Gray and countless others.

I have three siblings. Two of them have darker skin and every night I worry that when they get older that they might get harmed or killed by the police simply because of the shade of their skin. I tell them how to act when they talk to police. But it seems that even doing exactly the right thing doesn't seem to matter in some of these police shootings. People get killed for being black and it seems like nothing will change that fact.

Finally, this is not just a black people problem. If you think it is, you will be surprised to see how many whites are supportive of Black Lives Matter. What all of us are saying needs to happen is equality, for Blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, equality for all. And this means that the police should be prosecuted like the rest of us when they mistakenly or wrongfully injure or kill others. Ask yourself this: If a black man saw a cop walking toward him, then shot him fourteen times, then went to court and said he feared for his life because cops have been known to kill black men wrongfully, do you think he would walk out of that courtroom a free man?

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