Walking while black

August 12, 2016

1:25 pm

Cabo Rojo // Puerto Rico.

In August 2016, I was part of the Itinerant Seminar in Puerto Rico organized by Beta-Local. Our aim was to walk from Aguadilla to Cabo Rojo. We were a core group of 13 people from different parts of the world. There were people from Puerto Rico, Iran, USA, Congo, Italy and myself from Trinidad and Tobago / Venezuela. Only 4 people in the group were brown or black.

At this stage of the seminar we were in Cabo Rojo. Part of the group was ahead of me. I had stopped to wait on someone from the group that was recording video less than a hundred meters away from me. I began to walk back because I saw a car stop close to where she was. As I was walking back, a black Jeep truck with no license plates and dark tinted windows blocked my path. I could no longer continue walking because the Jeep was cornering me. I kept trying to move out of the way thinking that the car wanted to park. As the car stopped moving I saw blinking blue and green lights turn on in the front window. Only then I knew that this person was not trying to park.

A police officer gets out of the Jeep and walks to the front of the car. He does not come too close to me. Grey polo shirt, navy blue pants, black boots and his right hand resting on his gun.

Police officer: Buenas tardes…

Luis: Hola…

Police officer: Nombre?

Luis: Luis Vasquez

Police officer: La muchacha que está allá atrás es amiga tuya?

Luis: si.

Police officer: Ok, llámala y dile que venga aquí. No te muevas!

He walks to the other side of the jeep through the back of the car. I guess he was trying to see what Miatta was doing. He opens the door on the passenger seat and puts on his hat. My breathing begins to get heavier and my stomach gets that mild feeling of nervousness. I look over to my right and signal Ramon and Anahita to come. They were already walking towards me. The officer walks right next to me. His hand was still resting on his gun.

Police officer: Qué estás haciendo aquí?

Luis: Soy parte de un seminario itinerante que sucede todos los años alrededor de esta fecha a través de un espacio de Arte contemporáneo llamado Beta-Local que está ubicado en Old San Juan. Años anteriores caminaron de Ponce hasta Cabo Rojo. Este año estamos caminando desde Aguadilla hasta Cabo Rojo.

Police Officer: De donde eres?

Luis: De Trinidad y Tobago…

Police officer: Donde están tus documentos? Me los puedes pasar?

Luis: No los tengo. Están en uno de los carros de los organizadores junto con todo       nuestro equipo…ha estado lloviendo en los últimos días no tiene sentido carg…

Police officer: Bueno, eso un problema…

Luis: ok…

At that moment Miatta is across the street.

Police officer: Dile que cruce la calle.

Luis: Miatta – I signal her to come over-

Police officer: Ella habla español?

Luis: No, ella no habla español. Ella es de Nueva York.

Miatta crosses the street and stands right next to me. The Police officer starts asking her questions. She explains that she is an artist what and what she is doing in Puerto Rico. At the same time Ramon (Puerto Rican) arrives and explains again what the Itinerant seminar is. The attitude of the Police officer towards him is not hostile like he was to Miatta and myself as he recognizes that Ramon is Puerto Rican. He even said “ahh, tu eres Puertorriqueño’’.  

Miatta moves and stands diagonally right behind me.

Police officer:  Yo entiendo todo eso pero hemos recibido llamadas sobre un grupo de personas caminando por la calle y para ser sincero y me vas a disculpar por decir esto pero personas de su color - he points at me- caminando por esta área es algo no es algo común. Nosotros los Puertorriqueños no somos de su color- points at me again- Nosotros tenemos muchos Dominicanos, Haitianos y Chinos tratando de entrar al país por estas costas. Ellos sencillamente no pueden caminar indocumentados – he points at me -  Tu sabes yo estoy haciendo esto por la seguridad de nuestro ciudadanos y la seguridad de ellos – he points at me and Miatta. Tienes algún tipo de identificación?

Ramon: Si, bueno tengo algo como una identificación…

Ramon pulls out his wallet from his back pocket and hands him his I.D. I began to get very nervous so I started swinging my water bottle back and forth from left to right. The Police office tells us to give him a moment and takes a phone call through his ear device. He walks away closer to the car with Ramon’s ID. Miatta tells me:

Miatta: Stop swinging your bottle… Just don’t move too much.

My first reaction and thought is “ I am not doing anything wrong. Why should I stop?” as I look over to see what my arm is doing I realize that I am swinging my water bottle close to his waist and holster. I immediately stop moving and start getting more nervous until I feel that I can’t move and should not move.

Anahita had also reached to where we were all standing.

Police officer: Tu también eres Puertorriqueña?

Anahita: No, I am from Iran.

The officer looks surprised to hear that.

Police officer: Oh, you are from very far away. Do you speak… (can’t remember)

Anahita: No, I speak Farsi.

Police officer: Oh ok I don’t speak that. I was in Afghanistan… (can’t remember)

Anahita explains again what we are doing and what the walking seminar is about. While she speaks to him I look over to Miatta and tell her that he stopped me because I am black. She asked me if he really said that and replied to her “ Yes, he just told that to Ramon”.

He keeps asking for our documents, which Anahita explains again to him that everyone’s documents are in the car along with the rest of our things. I looked over to my right and see Michelle and Andreya walking over to where we were, followed by another Police car. The Police car was right behind them. It seemed like they were rounding up prisoners or suspects. A few police officers got out of the car. I cannot recall how many Police officers were there with us. Some of them start directing traffic while others talk to other people in the group.

Suddenly, someone gets out of a car saying that they own the property that we were standing in front of and wanted to find out what was the problem. The Police tell him to go away because it had nothing to do with him. Traffic slows down to take a look at the spectacle. Anahita is moving back and forth looking around and making phone calls. Miatta and myself are in the same spot we were since the beginning of it all.

Until this moment I was not sure what we were stopped for and why we couldn’t just leave. Almost all of us did not have our documents. We did not enter the country illegally. Is it that walking is a crime or is it that walking and being black is a crime? It did not seem to me that anyone else’s existence was under scrutiny at that moment.

Police officer: I will have to take you all to headquarters to verify all of your information. – He asked Andreya – Where are you from?

Andreya: Me? I am from Congo

Police officer: I always wanted to go there. Do you have your documents?

Andreya: - speaks in French to Anahita. His English is good but not his first language. It is easier for him to speak in French. He tells the Police- No, I don’t.

I got worried when Andreya spoke French. I did not want the Police to think that he was Haitian and he was undocumented. How would we be able to prove that Andreya is from Congo? The Police were already assuming that I was there illegally just because of the way I look. Andreya’s passport was in Old San Juan, 2 to 3 hours away from where we were. The Police officer tells us that it is very unsafe what we are doing and that we should have called the Police station to tell them that we were going to be walking around the area. Again, since when walking is a crime?

He asked Michelle:

Police officer: So, where are you from?

Michelle: Yo? Yo soy de Carolina.

The Police officer looks surprised that she said that. I am guessing that a brown girl like Michelle is not expected to be Puerto Rican. Not too long ago he had said that Puerto Ricans do not look like her.

Police officer: Entonces, tu eres de aquí?

Michelle: Siii…

Police officer: ok… bueno, ustedes saben que esto es por la seguridad de ustedes y la gente de Cabo Rojo…

I wonder what he really meant when he said that he stopped me or us for the security of the people of Cabo Rojo and even our own safety. What was so dangerous about us?

He looks over to Miatta and asked her what she was carrying in her hand. Miatta had been collecting the plastic that goes on top of canned beers or soda. She had a few hanging from a piece of plastic string.  

Miatta: I am picking them up because otherwise animals or small creatures get caught in them and they might die. So I have been collecting the one’s I have found along the way.

The Police officer gives Miatta the thumbs up, while another officer tells her something along the lines of “ Oh, you are cleaning our country” - nods smiling.

The Police officer says that he will have to take us all to headquarters and Border Patrol to verify our information. He explained that would mean that we would all have to get into the Police cars. Anahita asked him:

Anahita: Is it the headquarters here or the one in San Juan?

Police officer: No, the one here in Cabo Rojo.

Ramon and Anahita keep talking to him and asked him if it will be ok if we bring our documents instead of taking us to the station. He says that will work as well.

He proceeds to explain again that he is only doing this for everyone’s safety and that we should have called to let the Police know. I asked:

Luis:  Cual es el número que tuvimos que haber llamado?

I had my Ipod in my hand. I take down the number. Other people in the group also wrote it down.  

Police officer: 7..8..7..2..5..5..2..6..5..0

Luis: Este es tu numero?

Police officer:  No, ese es el número del Cuartel de la Policía Municipal de Cabo Rojo.

Even though he just gave us the number of the Police station he insisted to take us to the station. He starts talking with Andreya.

Police officer: I always wanted to go to Congo.

Andreya: Call me when you get there. I will give you my address and number. I will wait on you.

Police officer:  Don’t tempt me because I will go knocking on your door…

Andreya: I will wait for you.

He then turns to Miatta to interrogate what does she do for a living.

Miatta: I am an artist…

Police officer: Oh, so you can make a drawing of me?

Miatta: Yeah… I will make one for you in the sand.

With his passive aggressive conversation and behavior he kept asking questions to all of us. I think he was trying to see if anyone had anything to hide or to see if we were really lying about the walking seminar. Michelle is from Carolina. I am a University Lecturer. He tries to speak another language with Anahita. Miatta was doing to draw a portrait of him. Asked Andreya about being a choreographer. In between all this useless questions and conversation he kept insisting that he will takes us to the Police station.

Miatta stands behind me silently. We were both standing in the same spot with a forced smile on our faces. This forced kindness, forced conversation, stiff body, tense muscles, heavy breathing, fast heartbeats, anger and fear, all because of walking and being black. Everyone else moved around carelessly, without the sensation of being under questioning, without thinking too much about what their bodies are doing, without thinking too much about what they are allowed and not allowed to do.

I tell Anahita to contact the rest of the group who was far behind. Patricia arrives in the car that has my backpack and passport. I realized that most of the conversation that happened was in Spanish and that probably Miatta only understood pieces of it. I told her that we should go to the car to get our documents. She reacts in frustration and asks me why did I not tell her that before. Miatta had her documents with her the whole time. I apologize for not translating earlier.

Patricia parks the car. Miatta opens her backpack and gets her documents. I tell the Police officer that I am going to move towards the car to get my passport. As I give my first two steps my brain goes in overdrive and starts thinking about my body language. How fast am I walking towards the car? Where is the car and where are the Police officers standing. My body movements should not be too fast. I should always remain in sight of the Police. I should not cover my backpack with my body and always show what my hands are doing.

I walk over to the car slowly and open the car door to look for my backpack. I realized that my bag was on the on other side of the car. I walked over slowly to the other side of the car. I started wondering if it was a mistake to walk behind the car and if I should have probably walked in the front where they could have seen me. I opened the car door. I pulled my backpack from underneath a pile of everyone else’s things. I opened my backpack by the door but that might have been very restricting to their visibility. I took my bag out of the car and took it to the Police officer so he could see my body movements, where he could see my hands, where he could see I am only taking out my passport.

I took out my passport, got up and handed it to him. He looked thoroughly at my passport. He inspected it. Checked my American Visa. Checked my Schengen Visa, my passport stamps and passport information. He looked at me and said:

Police officer: Este no eres tu… esta es otra persona.

My heartbeats got more intense…

Luis:  como que no soy yo?

He did not reply and kept looking through my passport. He looked at me in the eyes and closed my passport and handed it to me.

Luis: Todo bien?

He nodded at me in agreement. I did not understand if it was a joke or if he was just trying to intimidate me. I don’t think that was the best moment to make those types of jokes.

Andreya did not have his passport. Someone was bringing it for him from Old San Juan. He did not seem too preoccupied. The Police were a bit confused on what to do. Andreya said out loud that he knew his passport number. One of the officers wrote it down in a notebook. Not sure if they were going to check or verify with border patrol.

I guess at that moment we were free to go.

Someone suggested taking a picture together with the Police. I was walking away but everybody else starting gathering around him. Someone grabbed me by the shoulder like to get in place for the picture. Should I smile? I don’t feel like smiling. Forced smile.

Eventually, the rest of the group reached to where we were. I moved away from the Police cars and the Police. I started observing from a distance but not really paying attention. Miatta, Andreya are right next to me. The Police are smiling and laughing. One of the Police officer yells at Andreya “ Hey, look he is also from your country. He is from Congo as well…” The officer was pointing at another Police officer who is also black. The black Police officer nods in denial while laughing. Andreya did not understand the Joke. I tell him not worry “fucked up joke”.

My legs were weak so I sat down on a rock that was on the side of the road. I can’t remember if anybody else’s passport got checked. Ramon sits next to me and a black Mercedes Benz with three white girls pulls up. They wind down the passenger window and asked us “ Que están haciendo ustedes?” Ramon gave her a very snarky reply “ No se, porque tu existes?” The girl looked very confused. She did not know if to smile or to ask another question. I guess she realized we were not in a talking mood. They drove off. Police also got into their cars and drove off.

Miatta walked over to where I was and stood next to me quietly. I could see how upset and nervous she was. We hugged each other. She had tears in her eyes. I was so angry. My eyes teared up a little bit but I took a few deep breaths to hold myself together.

2:20 pm

Miatta and myself were hungry so we sat down in the first place we found. It was less than a five-minute walk from where the Police had stopped us. As we sat down, State Police showed up and asked to talk to someone who is from Puerto Rico. Natalia gets up, but then Ramon says, “I think I should talk to them”. He explained to them that Municipal Police just checked us and that they should call them to verify that everything is ok. Eventually they left.

I went inside to check on the menu. Miatta went to the bathroom. I told Isabel how angry I was.

She hugged me.

I started crying.

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