April 20, 2010. I was on my way to parque central in Antigua, Guatemala. We were in week 13 of our study abroad trip, and this was our last week in Antigua before we’d be heading back into the village of Magdalena for the last three full weeks of the trip. A couple the people from our group had been meeting up on Tuesdays to go out for sushi, and while I was not a fan of sushi I still went with the group to hang out. Since everyone was spread out in host homes across the city, we decided to meet up at Antigua’s central park and go to a restaurant together from there. I, however, was not coming from my host home that night, but from the office of a mission agency in Antigua. We were partnering with this mission agency on the study abroad trip, and they allowed us to use their building to study, hang out, and use the wi-fi. I had wi-fi at my host home, but it was nice to get out of the house sometimes, and the mission agency building was more centrally located than my house was.
When the time came, I left the building to make the three block journey to parque central. We weren’t supposed to go places alone on the trip, but I ended up by myself a lot since I lived so far away from anyone else. Besides, this would only be a short walk that I’d made many times in the eleven or so weeks we’d been in Antigua. Half a block south, turn onto 5th street, and two blocks later I would be at the park. Unfortunately, my walk on this night was not as uneventful as normal. Just before I crossed the first street I saw a police truck out of the corner of my eye coming up the street from behind me. It didn’t pass me, and I could feel it shadowing me as I came up to the intersection. I didn’t know if it was turning onto the street or was continuing straight, but since it made no move I crossed the street through the crosswalk. At this point the truck accelerated and stopped right next to me, and two national Guatemalan police officers got out and told me to put my hands against the wall. They then proceeded to frisk me, and once they were done they told me to turn around and show them some ID. I didn’t have my driver’s license or a copy of my passport on me because I’d emptied my wallet; a couple weeks before, one of the girls on our trip had gotten mugged, and I didn’t want to be carrying anything of value on me in case that happened to me.
As my interaction with the officers progressed, I found myself taking stock of the situation and trying to figure out how I would be able to come out of it OK. I knew that they had all of the power in the situation. I was alone and had no one to support me. They were speaking to me in Spanish, and while I was glad that I’d learned enough Spanish throughout the semester to be able to talk with them, I knew my language skills were severely lacking. Running away was out of the question, since I knew they would just shoot me (not the best scenario to act out, but my mind was going through all of the possibilities). I knew that help was just a block away at the park but I couldn’t very well walk over to the park and my friends that were waiting for me and leave the officers where they were. I asked if I could call my trip leader, who was also waiting at the park, but the officers said no. As the interaction continued, it became clear that the officers were really only interested in one thing: they were looking for a bribe. Unfortunately for me, I had gone to the market earlier that day looking for presents for my family and was carrying all of the money I had left for the trip with me. I didn’t know how much the cops would want, but I didn’t have very much money left (440 Q, around $50 US) and assumed I may end up needing to give it all to them to get out of the situation.
As I was contemplating how I was going to get through the rest of the trip without any money another police truck pulled up behind the first. The two officers who were questioning me told me to leave as soon as the other truck showed up, probably because they didn’t know who was in the other truck and because they could get in trouble for shaking me down. I left the area as quickly as I could without looking like I was running away from them, and made my way to the park and to my friends.
The interaction literally left me shaking, and still stands as one of the most frightening situations I’ve ever been in. I had to mature very quickly in order to get out of the interaction unscathed. Thankfully, though, this is the only interaction of this nature I’ve had with police in my life.
About a year ago I participated in a prayer rally at the Colorado state capitol that was organized around issues of policing and Black Lives Matter issues. After the event, as I was standing with a group of my classmates, two men with a camera came up and asked if we would like to be interviewed about the event and the issues surrounding the event. Towards the end of the interview, he asked if any of us had ever been profiled by police. My first thought was “Not in this country,” as my mind flashed back to my experience in Guatemala.
Aside from a couple cops who were very surprised to see some white kids on the south side of Chicago on a Saturday night while I was on a missions trip I have not personally had a negative experience with police in the United States. Profiling isn’t something I’m really concerned will happen to me here. If we were to go to look at the broadest definition of profiling, though, I think I was profiled by a couple Guatemalan cops looking to make a few bucks. Still, as I look back on my experience I think of the number of people in communities of color for whom profiling is normative. My experience is neither unique to me nor unique to Guatemala. Profiling and stop-and-frisk tactics are used daily in the United States. My experience is a drop in the bucket compared to a group of people who are stopped and frisked daily. The fear I experienced is either lived daily or completely washed away through an experience that is expected in these communities.
An entire people group cannot and should not be classified as worthy of expecting to be mistreated. Profiling has also been shown to be ineffective as a policing tactic. The fact that profiling is seen as normal in some areas is ridiculous, and the fact that more white people don’t care that an entire people group is being systematically and systemically mistreated is even more ridiculous. It should not take an experience of being profile or mistreated to care about the issue. If our families were experiencing this treatment we would be up in arms, yet we stay silent as the practice continues to affect an entire people group. We fail to see that these people are our brothers and sisters, and that their well-being and treatment is our concern. If all lives matter, then we should act as if all lives matter and take a stand with our brothers and sisters.
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