“Black Lightning” is the CW network’s latest superhero offering, and it’s like nothing seen before on broadcast television. Unlike other CW shows based on characters from DC Comics, the show features a predominantly black cast, and it has a grittiness and a level of sheer, brutal violence that is normally seen on the streamed productions from DC’s primary rival, Marvel Entertainment. In surpassing Marvel’s efforts, it accurately reflects many cruel realities that I am very familiar with.
Much like the show’s fictional community of “Freeland,” the area in which I live once saw better days, only for those times to be replaced by years of drugs, gangs, and rampant gun violence. I once wrote about the neighborhood’s rise, fall, and resurrection (of sorts), and that article can be found here. That is why the show feels as real to me as broadcast fiction can be. The issues it presents are based on real threats facing many Americans on a daily basis—threats such as murder, prostitution, gang violence, and police misconduct. The show tackled all four issues within the span of its premiere episode, and I was wholly impressed. It resonated with me on many levels as my reality is much like the fictional existence of Jefferson Pierce, the lead character who is the civilian alter-ego of the heroic “Black Lightning.”
Like Jefferson Pierce, my interactions with police consist of overwhelmingly negative encounters where I felt more threatened by them than any criminal element nearby. There are many, many good police officers, but it’s the bad ones—the ones who look upon black men and other historically oppressed minorities with a flaming, red-eyed hatred—who feed the animosity that exists between blacks and police. This is not about the officers who perform their tasks without bias. This is not about those officers who diligently keep us safe and who deserve our utmost respect. This is also not a “Black Lives Matter” article. My thoughts about that decentralized group can be found here. No, this is about those officers whose actions tarnish the badge. This is about bad cops and how they’ve affected me.
Police tried to arrest me—a man wearing a suit, polished shoes, and carrying a briefcase—for jumping over a turnstile at a station in Manhattan. Such an action was damned impossible to do since I paid my fare in Queens earlier and was already on the train for 45 minutes (or so) as it traveled through Brooklyn and then into Manhattan. I was ordered off the train on a false count of evading the transit fare, and it was only through the intervention of white passengers who spoke on my behalf that I was saved from an unjust arrest and probable conviction. Police then grabbed a black kid wearing jeans and a bomber jacket, but that was after telling me that “I fit the profile.” WHAT damned profile? Of being black on a workday? The kid they arrested and I were absolutely different in age, height, weight, and skin tone, plus our clothes and footwear were entirely dissimilar. However, to the police officers I met, one black man was just like any other black man, and we were both guilty in their eyes.
The officers I met then are like the one I ran into while working in New England, where an officer wanted to know why I was in a certain area at night. This happened in the age before GPS, and I found myself driving through a neighborhood that was a wall-to-wall garbage dump filled with lowlife scum. I was lost and looking for an entrance to a highway—any highway, secondary road, or cow path—that would get me the hell out of there, but I was pulled over by police and treated like a criminal despite my proof to the contrary.
The officer demanded my ID and papers, which I provided, then he wanted to know if I was trying to sell drugs, to which I truthfully answered “no.” In reality, and as I told him, I was using a paper map and trying to get my bearings once I found that I wasn’t in the area I expected to be in. The officer didn’t believe me despite seeing the open map in my car. I told him that I was a consultant for a nearby Government defense contractor and I showed him my credentials for the high-security installation. The officer didn’t believe me and openly doubted the authenticity of the security credentials. I asked him to call the Government contractor to confirm my identity. The officer said that didn’t stop me from committing a crime. WHAT crime? Driving through a black neighborhood while being a black man? The officer reluctantly became convinced that I didn’t have drugs after he searched me and my vehicle. He was astonished to find that I was drug-free! I told him I just wanted to get back to the area near the Government contractor because that’s where my hotel room was booked. The officer didn’t believe that, so he escorted me, with his cruiser’s red-and-blue lights on, to a highway entrance for traffic heading to New York—not to my hotel—and he told me to never come back. I later turned around and somehow made my way to the hotel in defiance of his absolutely illegal edict.
Many were the times when police chose to search me as I traveled within New York City’s subway system. I have personally witnessed how police officers allow whites and Asians to enter the system unassailed while blacks, Latinos, and Arabs are routinely searched. And when I mean searched, I mean the “hands out, they search your pockets, they overturn your bag, and then they have a dog sniff your belongings” kind of highly intrusive search. There is nothing random about their searches. Not. One. Damn. Thing. One day, two other black men and I went into a subway station in 1-2-3 order. With other passengers going in around us, the three persons who were pulled over for searching by police were just us three black men, in 1-2-3 order.
There was one time a police officer in Manhattan nearly killed me and an innocent child. He was with other officers as they searched a black man in the hallway of a building when I emerged from a staircase while holding a baby. I used the staircase because other officers were holding the elevator doors open, thus preventing elevator service for everyone in the building. As I emerged, the officer whirled, pulled his weapon, pointed it at me and the baby, and forced me to drop down to the floor at gunpoint even as I held a baby in my arms.
I was recently walking toward a doctor’s office just as two officers were exiting. Concerned, I asked them if there were any issues and if it was safe to proceed inside, but I was ignored. Instead, they asked a white person if I was “the guy” through the open door and I immediately objected as I had not done anything. My protests fell on deaf ears. The other person said that I was not “the guy” and I again questioned if it was safe to be in the vicinity. In response, one officer yelled in my face saying that he was not talking to me and that I was to shut up and sit down in the office.
The response to the above incident by those in the office split down racial lines. Caucasians said I should forget it since, in their view, the police officer was mad at someone else and I just happened to be right there. The blacks and Latinos immediately said the officer was wrong, that I should stand up and demand respect. Given I have NEVER had a positive interaction with police, I again felt threatened by actions taken against me by an officer and that my life was endangered by yet another gun-toting bully in blue. I sat down out of fear for my life.
Fear of police. That is the unfortunate standard for black America. That is the sad reality I saw in “Black Lightning.” I saw much of me in Jefferson Pierce and much of my reality throughout the first two episodes. I will continue to watch “Black Lightning” and support it however and wherever I can. I am not Jefferson Pierce, but Jefferson Pierce is very much every black man trying to make a difference while being made to suffer at the hands of officers who sully the otherwise sterling reputations of police everywhere.