Brown and Autistic: A terrifying encounter with the police.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” However, I’m part of an invisible worldwide majority; black, Brown, Multiethnic, African, African-American, Negro, or, whichever Blumenbachian social caste system inspired expression you’re most comfortable using. I’m also a musician…that just happens to be on the autism spectrum. Understanding and truly empathizing with what it’s like to be part of both groups (Brown Multiethnic and autistic) may help broaden the autism conversation beyond European toddlers or teens and their American descendants.
“My name is…”
Let’s start with my ‘declaration’. Getting to know someone, personally, allows us to see what we share in common. So, let me introduce myself. My name is Mike. I’m a multiplatinum music producer who’s been privileged to work on gold, platinum and diamond rated records. I’m an author. I’m a contributing editor for an award winning entertainment magazine. I ride a sport bike. I’m a tech nerd. I’m into anything involving engineering. I’m a veteran of the military. Eating, for me, is vegan. It is my opinion that cashews are crazy delicious. I’m an award-winning entrepreneur. I’m an ambassador. I’m a dad. Hi, everyone!
Nothing particularly fear inspiring or frightening about that introduction, is there? Well, glad you agree. I’m quite the non-confrontational spirit. Look, I’m a musician. It’s all about peace, love, blueberries and music, no matter the genre. Give me a cabin in the mountains (with a custom built recording studio) and I’m cool. I’m pro human race. The behavior of people intrigues me and I want to learn as much as I can from everyone I meet. However, I, quickly, became aware of people who’ve been taught I’m insignificant and there is nothing of substance I can ever learn that would teach them anything.
My very first experience being harassed by someone, who, clearly, did not have my best interest at heart, was in kindergarten, School No.3, Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was my first teacher. My mom taught me to respect my teachers and listen to their instruction. I did that at home, so, this was a piece of cake. While other 4 and 5 year olds were crying things like, ‘I don’t wanna go!’, I stoically told my mother I’d see her later. Once in class and settled, lessons began. I enjoyed the regimentation. It felt like I was doing something really important, until, the kid next to me started talking. Moments before, when the teacher instructed us to work in silence, it just made sense to me that talking was out of the question. Simple, even for a 5 year old, right? Apparently, dude did not get this home training lesson. Next thing I hear is, “Michael! I said, no talking!” WHAT?! I hadn’t opened my mouth! Composed, I raised my hand (as instructed) and quietly refuted, “It wasn’t me. It was him.” I had (and continue to have) no snitching loyalties. I didn’t do it. I shouldn’t take the blame. The teacher did not acknowledge my complaint. I thought the matter over. Then, he spoke…again. It’s as if he knew none of the blame for doing so would ever be attributed to him. He was right. “Michael!”, my teacher excoriated, “That’s it! Everyone! This is what will happen when you talk in my class. Michael, get in the corner and face the wall! I’m calling your mother, too!” Lesson learned. Remember, all of this is happening to a 5 year old child on the autism spectrum in 1970. I’m sure, today, there’s quite a bit more diversity of teachers and students, along with fair treatment.
“Many…experiences would shape what I, now, know as racism.”
The result? I observed that no matter how neat, quiet, attentive or smart I was as a student, many teachers that didn’t share my brown color, treated me quite horribly, without reason. Thankfully, I have parents (and a grandparent) that showed me unconditional love, growing up. I had no doubt I was loved. Many more incidents, student and acquaintance experiences would shape what I, now, know as racism. Me? I refused to perpetuate the legitimacy of that academically elitist caste system designed to render Brown people invisible, but, another major experience would cement my understanding about how many in society were taught to perceive me.
“I was not fearful. I hadn’t done anything to invite this police response.”
Just turned twenty. I’m living in Mountain View, California, minutes away from Naval Air Station, Moffett Field, where I was employed. Fresh back from a deployment to Okinawa, Japan, my new experience, in another country, broadened my mind to the acceptance of different peoples and their unique cultures. I was an enlightened twenty year old who’d saved enough to purchase a car with cash. Yes, I was carrying quite a bit of cash, but, what’s menacing about a clean-cut, clean-shaven, Izod shirt wearing Brown guy walking down El Camino Real? I, soon, found out when a police car, clearly speeding, was driving up the street (I’m on a sidewalk) toward me. Screeching to a stop, catawampus in the street, both doors of the cruiser flung open with two police officer’s drawing guns on me. Many of my autistic traits kicked in. One, I was not fearful. I hadn’t done anything to invite this police response. Two, I’m clean-cut! Can’t they tell I’m from the military base? Three: I can clear up whatever confusion is happening here. I’ll tell them the truth. What I did not know is that ALL of these reasoning’s and reactions could get me killed. After being ordered to stop, turn around, walk backwards toward them, get on my knees and lock my hands behind my head (my hands were already up), this is starting to feel like more than a misunderstanding.
Handcuffed (behind my back) and placed in the back of their police cruiser, I was cordial. Told them I was active military, but, they never checked my ID, military or otherwise. When they illegally searched me, they found my wad of cash, you know, to buy my car with. Not good. After, briefly, explaining I was back from a deployment to Japan, they pulled up to a mall entrance. Running toward the police cruiser was a greying man shouting obscenities. “That’s him! That’s, f@%*ing, him!” The officer driving asked if he was positively sure and he answered yes. The man was the store’s manager. In tow of the manager was a store worker, who just happened to be Latina. She looked inside the police car at me and said, “That ain’t him!” This started a bit of debate with her manager. “That’s definitely not him!”, she said emphatically. “His hair is buzz cut. The other dude had, like, an afro and was much darker.” Without a positive ID, they couldn’t hold me, but, I was guilty. ‘Walking while Black’, many of us Brown people call it, here in the United States. I ‘fit the description’, even though I didn’t. Thanks to another Brown person, I survived that moment alive, no arrest record and no unnecessary time served in prison ending the prospect of contending with a systemically unequal justice system. There are people who perceive us to be what they’ve been taught we are and people who can physically see us as we are. Lesson learned.
“My sensory issues cause me to feel things exponentially. Their is no chill.”
Now, compound being perceived as an eternal suspect, criminals, dangerous, lazy, complainers, ghetto proud, unmotivated, irresponsible, talented, musical, athletic, materialistic consumers, beast-like, threatening, someone who reduces property values, super-predators, having a high pain threshold, unable to swim and any other propaganda driven stereotype about Brown Multiethnic peoples, while living in the body of someone disabled, on the autism spectrum, or, both. My sensory issues cause me to feel things exponentially. Their is no chill. It feels like I’m under siege, all day, everyday. I never feel safe. I have had “the talk” with my daughter. I could not afford to teach her that the world is candy canes, Unicorns and rainbows. Sadly, as long as we are Brown, some form of targeting, or, mischaracterization will be forced upon us out of fear.
It is my hope just one person will empathize with the millions of peoples, like me. We have much more in common than not. We do have a voice. I’m making everyday Independence Day. Enough, already. It’s time to stop. It’s time to listen. It’s time to learn.