Several years ago in Albany, NY, I was involved in a situation that changed my life forever. This situation happened outside on the street after a very fun overcrowded birthday party was broken up by Albany PD. Young people poured outside of the apartment building. One kid was so wasted he ran into the street and was hit by a taxi, so hard he flipped on the hood. I think he was okay. Running around the corner was one of my youngest closest friends. He was fleeing the police. He took off, jetting past everyone and as two officers pursued him, so did I and a few others. He jumped off of the porch, over about 5-6 steps, landing on his feet and sprinting to the corner before hopping right. Somehow the law enforcement officers caught up to him (somehow meaning they train to be in top physical condition as well as train to pursue and obtain fleeing people). I jumped off the porch as well, in pursuit of my close friend. This was before I had two debilitating leg injuries so I was able to keep up. I was moving a little too fast or at least I thought so and remember keeping in mind that I need to slow down when I joy that corner, not knowing what I would see or run into.
Around the corner after the pursuit, my friend must have slipped on gravel or bumped into something. Maybe the officers were really trained well physically because they gained on him, apprehended him, and had his face down on the ground. One officer was standing up, hand on his holster, as we have seen many officers do in movies and past life experiences. It appeared he was making sure the surroundings were safe and that people were going to stay back. The other officer, well he had his hand/forearm pressed against the back of my friends head and neck, if you can imagine, and knee digging into his back. The young man apprehended was a little guy, two times smaller than the law enforcement officers. From my young perspective and vantage point as I approached the scene, it didn't make sense to have to be pressing him into the pavement in such a way. Maybe he was tired from the chase, I thought to myself. That thought quickly changed. The few of us that pursed the pursuit slowed our pace down. As we got closer to our friend on the ground I noticed the amount of pressure the police officer was applying to him. I immediately felt for my friend. I referred to the police officer," Why do you have him on the ground like that though?" The officer proceeded to look up and glare at me, shouting," Shut-Up And Keep-It Moving." I didn't have to be told twice, to keep it moving. As I proceeded to, I spoke up, more articulately, asking the same question," Why do you have him pressed on the ground like that?" This is when my first real physical encounter with the police occurred.
The law enforcement officer who was so inclined to press my young friend’s body against the pavement as if he had personally assaulted him or a friend or someone else for that matter, sprung up and ran towards me. Seeing this happen, possibly 8-10 feet away, I put my hands up in the air (yes many of us are now more familiar with the saying "Hands Up- Don't Shoot" due to the murder of Micheal Brown), saying," I'm not drunk and I'm not resisting arrest." I repeated as he closed in on me, closing in as if I was Phil Simms and he was Lawrence Taylor looking for a sack and I just made a crack on his mother," I'm not drunk and I'm not. . .". At this point, I stopped speaking and began turning my body, my head around. This law enforcement officer, whose duty is to protect and serve, the law and the people, proceeded to punch me in the back of the head 4 times. If I didn't turn around it would have been my beautiful face being punched in. As I took his hits, which weren't love taps, I had a fury, maybe a flurry also, of thoughts going through my head. None of which need to be repeated at this point or ever spoken out loud. My logic took over and I dropped to my knees, pushed on the ground, now in the similar position and pain that my dear friend, that I was merely defending by speaking up for, was in.
There were plenty of witnesses. Plenty of innocent bystanders. Many of which attempted to catch this on video, which wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is now. Everything all happened so fast but many of them saw it first hand. As we were handcuffed and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon I remember many of my friends that I went to Beacon High School looking on telling us everything was okay. That they saw everything. To be strong. I remember letting the law enforcement officers know, that they messed with the wrong one. Not because I was going to retaliate or because I'm special because I'm a free man. I'm an American citizen who wouldn't forget this happened and was just assaulted by the police without good merit. Before being processed and put into a cell, we sat on that cold bench for a long time, and I kept talking. I reminded that man, that he messed up. That his actions were inexcusable. That I wouldn't forget. That I was not drunk. That I was not resisting arrest. That he used excessive force on an unarmed bystander. I vividly remember doing lots of push-ups inside the cell and thinking of the Fresh Prince episode, when that guy kept singing "Let my people go".
Believing, being naive at the time, that our justice system would work. Would provide Justice, I filed a complaint with my court-appointed public defender. She told me that nothing would happen. That I fit a "description" of young meant who were abusing police. As outlandish as that statement was, as racist as that statement is still to this day, I knew at least I would get my day in court. Months go by. I'm getting used to the drive from Beacon to Albany. I'm fighting this case if it's the last thing I do. . . which were my famous last words. My court-appointed public defender finally used her scare tactic. She told me if I continued to fight this and take it to trial, and lose, I could spend a year in jail. I had to do some deep thinking. I know I did nothing to deserve being assaulted by a deadly weapon (the law enforcement officer), I knew I didn't break the law- even if they charged me or I plead down, but I was never much of a gambler. I've known of how the justice system has failed many before me. After conversing with my father, my imam, and my mum, I decided to plea down. I felt so weak. The weakest I've felt in a long time. I don't recall what the charges were finally dropped down to, but I had to do 35 hours of community service and pay a fine. Go figure. Years later, I've learned why that happens, so people can't sue the courts after "admittance of guilt." Yet I remember the law enforcement officers name, as well as my lawyer, and judge.
I decided it was time to be the change I truly desired to be in this world. I used to want to be a police officer. My two uncles were. I loved the movie "Bad Boys". I loved westerns. I wanted to protect and serve like Wyatt Earp. After this experience, I wanted nothing to do with becoming a police officer. I reverted back to my old plan of public service. Being a man of the people, for the people, by the people. My father taught me that human service is the best service provider I can be in this lifetime and I believes him. I desired to change the laws and the game that was institutionalized to make us fail. To not allow us to succeed. And I've done just that. On a very small scale. I started back home. Broken and confused. Angry and hurt. Slowly turning that anger into action I began coaching Pop Warner football and hosting open mics within my community. I lost my first election. I kept running. I stayed active.
Since then I've been elected to office twice. I'm the first African American male elected to Beacon City Council. The first and I believe only Muslim elected official in New York State. I've spoken at 39 public speaking engagements and have well over 3,000 hours of community service. I've never been arrested since. I still anticipate for my life (only fearing Allah), every time I leave the city of Beacon. Anytime I get pulled over, except for in the city of Beacon, I tense up and think could this be it. As if being young black poor in America is a crime. I only use those descriptive words to describe who I am, or at least what I look like on the outside. Who am I, is who I am. Within seconds, that can be taken from any of us. Our sister cities, Newburgh and Poughkeepsie are in worse situation than the city of Beacon. Anytime I step foot in these places, I can be a target for gang violence, whether it's organized-institutionalized or not. Whether they're wearing a badge or a fly, or not.
The moral of this story, if there ever could be one is that I now choose to be positive through it all. I've dealt and continue to deal with condescending comments from white and black allies who since I don't speak up about these issues or they don't hear me, tell me what books I need to read. Or political/governmental peers who tell their supporters that I don't think for myself. Or rich business owners who feel it's okay to tell me what my rights are, what I'm allowed to pursue, and in doing so, need to find other employment. I don't need to be told how to live and be Muslim, black, poor, and young in America. I'll write a book on it- and you all can read it if you choose to. I can suggest choosing respect and learning empathy, as well as leading by positive example. There's plenty of nonsensical things going on in our society. We have to learn from our history. We will, we can either positively or negatively.
I'll leave you with this quote by Malcolm X," We must choose either the bullet or the ballot.", I choose the ballot.
Ali T. Muhammad - For the People