State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Yes, You Do Know Someone Who Has Been Harmed by Systemic Racism

I am writing this first, as a reminder that you do know a Black person who is negatively impacted by systemic racism. Second, to draw a clear line between silence and death.

che flowers portrait
Che Flowers is an alum of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University. He writes that even though he graduated from an Ivy League school, it doesn’t mean he shares all the same experiences as his white colleagues. Photo: David Rhodes (used with permission)

I am just your average millennial New Yorker. I have a monthly MetroCard; I ride (or rode) the subway every day. I spend too much money on rent and takeout. I play in a recreational sports league for young professionals. I recycle. I care about the Earth and our ability to live on it; so much so that I got a Masters in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. I spend every day focusing on stemming the negative effects that arise because of climate change. And I am Black.

The protests that have arisen after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others have brought racism into the national spotlight. But it seems like some people think these issues are more figurative than literal. And that places like Kentucky and Minnesota are faraway lands that still struggle with poor policing systems. And that these sorts of racial issues also align with socioeconomic status, as if people of color with Ivy League degrees somehow dodged this sticky situation. I am writing this to show that the saying “silence equals death” is just as literal as it is figurative. Ivory towers do not absolve us from this reality. It is possible that your friends, co-workers, and classmates of color, whom you assume live lives just like yours, also suffer from the negative effects of systemic racism. So, though our lives and lifestyles overlap, they are not the same. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we’ll truly understand that silence does equal death. Because, we are all much closer to this saying than we think.

I’m also sharing this because I feel my story will be received this time. We’ve all seen countless instances where an “I’m not racist”-oriented person still asks, “Well, what were you really doing?” It’s akin to someone asking, “What was she wearing?” (Never mind if both those questions apply to you.) My warning sign for people with this kind of disposition is when they ask, “Do you consider yourself Black? I mean… you’re Black, but you’re not like… Black, Black.” Or other things like that. So to be clear, just because we live in the same neighborhoods, come from the same hometowns, or work in the same locale does not mean we share the same experience, sometimes. We can stand at the same location at the same time, but will the nearby police officer adjust his badge to glare sunlight into your eyes? And will you know that’s a warning sign? I will.

I am going to share a few stories of my personal experiences with the police. They are not exaggerated. They are not sensationalized. You are free to draw your own conclusions. I am only writing these as a reminder that you know someone who has a history of interactions (many of them negative, but not all) with the policing system. And this is not easy.

Driving While Black

I’ve been aware of tensions between my community and the police (and other institutions) for as long as I can remember. It’s something your parents teach you about. It’s something the world reminds you about. And it’s something you can experience, regularly, as a Black person in America.

a boy on the sidewalk
Photo: David Rhodes (used with permission)

One of my earliest memories of an unnecessary run-in with the cops was around the third grade. My family and I moved to a predominantly white suburb. And that same weekend we moved in, we got pulled over by a white police officer. He was alone. My mother followed the rules. She gave the officer her license and registration, which was still set at our old address in Brooklyn. The officer did not believe we lived in the neighborhood. He refused to let us go. And he declined us a phone call to clarify the situation. The officer made us sit and wait for over two hours while he decided “what to do with us.” To this day, I still can’t imagine what it’s like for a mother to become rendered helpless in front of her child like that… or all the Black men who innocently suffer at the hands of a police officer in front of their children.

If I had to sum up my feelings from this situation into one word, it would be: disillusioned. It felt like someone took my Sesame Street–colored world of fun and imagination and dissolved all the colors down to black and white. White meant right, and Black just was not right. I saw myself in this new world, and I was confused. I was a good boy. My mom was a good mom. How could someone hold us away from our home for no explainable reason? Why wouldn’t they want to listen to us? Why come my mother can’t fix the problem? Why can’t I help my mom? Is this man here to help us? I thought that’s what the police were supposed to do? Whatever hope and wonder I had for this new suburban world died that day. Whatever belief I had in the good guys was upended that day. Whatever sense of justice I had was questioned. This was the day I realized the boogie-man was real. The boogie-man found me. He knew  where I lived, and he got to decide what he wanted to do with me. Even my home wasn’t safe. This was the day my innocence died.

Backflipping While Black

A few years later, in that same town, some of the other brown boys and I were playing in our local playground. We were around 10 years old at the time. A friend of mine figured out how to do a backflip. And we all took turns trying to mimic him. I was having a good time. We were all having a good time. That’s when a police officer jumped out from behind a building, pointed a gun at us, and told us to freeze. Then a second one appeared. His weapon was drawn as well.

a student wearing a backback
Photo: David Rhodes (used with permission)

Someone had called the police and told the cops there was a gang vandalizing the playground. Note, the playground was connected to my elementary school. I played on this playground daily. I lived in this neighborhood. We all lived in this neighborhood.

If you find yourself asking questions like, “Well, what were you doing?” or saying “Perhaps it was a misunderstanding,” then maybe you should stop reading now. Then take an in-depth look at yourself in search of bias.

Luckily, the cops didn’t shoot any children on a playground, not that day in America. But they held us there, repeatedly separating us and asking us to re-tell the story of what we were doing. We didn’t have an ID — our pockets were just as empty as any other kid on a playground. They didn’t believe our story. They threatened to send me to juvenile detention if we didn’t tell the truth. They said negative things about the way I was dressed and how I looked. They told me they would cut that “shit” off my head after they locked me up. Eventually, an officer with a level head (and not these two specific middle-aged white guys) showed up and convinced them to just call our mothers. Our moms were furious. And the cycle continued.

All told, I have mostly fond memories of my hometown. Most of my neighbors, white, Black, or otherwise, were friendly. No place or event was off-limits. But, anytime a bike was stolen, or property was vandalized, that same collection of officers found me. Usually, during my walk to or from school, or when I was with friends. And they always asked me to recount my whereabouts. I was by no means an exemplary child. But I was raised well enough to not steal and vandalize. And even if I was not, some cops in my town reminded me that my skin color meant guilty until proven innocent, rather than innocent until proven guilty.

That day in the playground, I was angry. That playground was my second home. I knew every rock, every ditch, and every divot. And how dare someone pull a gun on me in my home. I had developed my own sense of justice by the time I was ten. I knew racism existed. I questioned whoever called the cops on us. And I question the cops’ ability to question who I was. Did he see a ten-year-old boy in front of him, or did he see a little black boy? I knew racism hurt my life, and the lives of those around me. I didn’t feel like we did anything wrong. And my little ten-year-old mouth unleashed all that anger. But for all that anger, what I really wanted was an apology. I still clung to the idea that the cops were the good guys. I clung to the idea that the police were there to keep us safe and make our lives better; or at least make living our lives fair. I lost faith in their ability to protect and serve. And I lost faith in the idea that they were right. I was hurt. And I wanted an apology.

That was the day my trust in the cops died. And with those guns pointing at me, I could have died, too.

spray paint says 'if a Black man dies, who mourns him?'
Photo: David Rhodes (used with permission)

Biking While Black

Growing up as a Black boy in America involves an indoctrination of its own. And my father’s side of the family is one sizable Southern lot. My grandmother is one of twelve siblings. And my father has six siblings. Suffice to say, stories of justice betraying our lives are pretty standard. By the time I reached graduate school, I had lost numerous cousins and family members to institutionalized racism in a variety of ways. For example, the young man who took my niece to the prom was killed execution-style by the cops during his sophomore year of college. The murder charge his family is trying to bring on those cops is still pending. It’s pending because the coroner can’t determine if he was shot execution-style before or after the police put him in handcuffs. So, just making it to adulthood while living as a Black man is an accomplishment in and of itself.

By the time I was in graduate school, I knew the rules — I lived them. They’re like invisible electric fences that only go off for you as a subtle reminder of your skin color. So you can imagine my surprise when I got arrested for just riding my bike. That’s right, you can get arrested for living while Black. One day, in New York City, I went for a bike ride. I was riding my bike on the sidewalk when a white police officer asked me to stop. Since I assumed I was following the rules, I didn’t think anything of it. And when he told me it’s illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk in NYC, I assumed he’d write me a ticket. After I gave him my license, I waited for him to run a background check in his squad car, and I was surprised by two other white officers who pinned me down and handcuffed me. To call this embarrassing, humiliating, or deflating is an understatement. The officer said I had outstanding tickets, which turned into warrants that called for my immediate arrest. I was put in a van and taken to the nearest jail.

a child on a bike next to a woman
Photo: David Rhodes (used with permission)

I got that good treatment in the first jail cell. One guy in my cell was arrested for beating someone, while the other was arrested for stabbing someone else. They and the other officers felt terrible for me. So the cops gave me my own jail cell. The officers even gave me their leftover Popeye’s chicken. I was so “lucky.” The officers told me about how much they disliked that one officer. They told me the station chief was so mad he took away the officer’s squad car and forced that bad apple to walk back to where he arrested me and carry my bike all the way back to the police station. Their weak attempts at accountability did not change my situation. I was pulled over for riding my bike on the sidewalk, and they claimed unpaid parking tickets as their excuse to jail me. The fact that they thought I should be grateful for their benevolent treatment felt pretty laughable from the other side of those jail cell bars.

Unfortunately, I was in the system by then. So I had to be processed. We offenders were all bussed to central booking, where I was stripped, checked, and dehumanized. Since I was arrested on a Friday afternoon, I had to wait until Monday for my day in court. I was shuffled from one dehumanizing and crowded cell to more and more egregious cells with a greater variety of clearly innocent and incredibly guilty people. I met my court-appointed attorney for about five minutes before my trial.

Lucky for me, it appears the cops at the original police station printed receipts of my parking ticket payments. And they tucked those receipts into whatever file followed me through central booking. I didn’t know this. The attorney didn’t know this. But as we stood in the courtroom, the attorney opened my file and she had a paper showing proof of payment. She walked up to the judge. I think she showed him those receipts. Then the judge let me go on time served and payment produced. I was free to walk out that courtroom a free man. But he felt obliged to issue me a warning. He told me if I was arrested within the next 90 days, that would be held in minimum security corrections for 30 days. I had been arrested early Friday evening; I spent over 48 hours in jail; and my “trial” barely lasted five minutes.

I turned around and walked out that courtroom dumbfounded. I hadn’t showered in days. I had barely eaten. I felt like I was just dragged through an experience that should have never happened; like my weekend was just hit by a bus. I had to go to some office to get my belongings (cellphone, wallet, keys etc.). Then I had to go back to the original police station to fetch my bike. But first, I wanted to tend to my life. I was almost 5 pm, so I walked to a friend’s apartment to use her phone to call my boss and apologize for not showing up and not calling out of work.

I remember my boss picking up the phone and just listening to my silence. I was wondering how I could explain what happened. My boss was white. I had no clue how he would react. I didn’t know if I should tell him why I was arrested. I didn’t know if I should tell him I just spent the weekend in jail. I didn’t know if he would believe me or assume they must have been right for arresting me. Physically, I felt horrible. Emotionally I felt afraid. Was I about to get myself fired? I felt humiliated down to the core.

I told him what happened. He told me to take the next day off and come back to work when I was ready. I did not get fired. But I could have lost my job, if I had a less forgiving boss.  My boss was not a bad guy. Neither was the company where I was working. I didn’t get fired. I didn’t lose pay. They had their in-house counsel look into the incident and get this incident expunged from my record. But I should not need the protection of a benevolent corporation to just ride my bike.

Life as I knew it could have died simply for biking while Black. I could have lost my job. I could have been kicked out of graduate school. If I was “caught” by another unfriendly cop, I could have gone to jail. Living while Black in America comes with diminishing returns, and that can lead to death.

These are just examples that might explain why some people are so angry.

faces of a man and woman
Photo: David Rhodes (used with permission)

By now, do you find yourself asking questions about my character? Are you questioning my lifestyle or my circle of friends? If so, perhaps you should ask yourself “Am I just denying his experience?” It’s completely normal to deny someone’s experience when you can’t believe what they’re saying. And it’s even easier to deny someone’s experiences when they don’t align with your own. But denying someone’s experience also invalidates it. And invalidating that experience eliminates any safe space to discuss it. By denying my mother’s experience of moving to a new town that cop gave himself the right to hold us hostage for hours. By denying my childhood experience to play on a playground, that cop gave himself the right to draw a gun on me. And if my boss had denied the experience I had in jail, he could have fired me. Every time we deny someone’s experience, we kill their agency. It creates a dangerous situation. If you’re writing these stories off, perhaps it’s because of internalized bias, and if you deny my experience you run the risk of killing my innocence, my trust, and my career. In other situations, we’ve seen cops deny someone’s experience of lack of breath. And denying that experience led to the death of a Black man. So yes, silence does equal death.

I wish I could say that these are all the unjustified run-ins I had with the law. That is not true. I wish I could say that these are the worst run-ins I had with the law. That also is not true. But I can say that these types of incidences are regular. I can say that they are wrong. And I can say they put diminishing returns on my life and affect everyone around me. So when you hear sayings like silence equals death — that is not a joke. It is not an exaggeration. And it is not an option. Being silent is a choice. Sometimes it’s an active choice to not speak up when you know something is wrong; and other times it’s the de facto step of doing nothing after you invalidate someone’s experience. Whichever path takes you to silence, something or someone will die.

Special thanks to photographer David Rhodes for sharing his photos for this piece. View more of his work on his Instagram account, augustuzziah.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Alex de Sherbinin
Alex de Sherbinin
3 years ago

I am really saddened to read this, Che. Thank you for having the courage to share your story. It is so important for the truth to be told about America’s “race problem” – meaning the problem so many whites have with people of other colors. I’m so sorry you had to live through these experiences.

Claudia Dreifus
3 years ago

Che, I am so glad you followed through and connected with “State of the Planet.” Your essay was very valuable and it demanded this broader readership. Good luck and continue with your truth telling.

Kuheli Dutt
Kuheli Dutt
3 years ago

Very powerful, thank you for having the courage to share. Horrifying as it is, articles like this help people realize how prevalent this behavior is. I have recommended your article as a reading for my Anti-Racism Seminar for EI graduate programs (which includes the MS in Sustainability Management program).