Desmond Cole: I’ve been interrogated by police more than 50 times—all because I’m black
by Desmond Cole April 21, 2015 at 12:28 pm Photography by Markian Lozowchuk
The summer I was nine, my teenage cousin Sana came from England to visit my family in Oshawa. He was tall, handsome and obnoxious, the kind of guy who could palm a basketball like Michael Jordan. I was his shadow during his visit, totally in awe of his confidence—he was always saying something clever to knock me off balance.
One day, we took Sana and his parents on a road trip to Niagara Falls. Just past St. Catharines, Sana tossed a dirty tissue out the window. Within seconds, we heard a siren: a cop had been driving behind us, and he immediately pulled us onto the shoulder. A hush came over the car as the stocky officer strode up to the window and asked my dad if he knew why we’d been stopped. “Yes,” my father answered, his voice shaky, like a child in the principal’s office. My dad isn’t a big man, but he always cut an imposing figure in our household. This was the first time I realized he could be afraid of something. “He’s going to pick it up right now,” he assured the officer nervously, as Sana exited the car to retrieve the garbage. The cop seemed casually uninterested, but everyone in the car thrummed with tension, as if they were bracing for something catastrophic. After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. “You realize everyone in this car is black, right?” he thundered at Sana. “Yes, Uncle,” Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.
My parents immigrated to Canada from Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the mid-1970s. I was born in Red Deer, Alberta, and soon after, we moved to Oshawa, where my father was a mental health nurse and my mother a registered nurse who worked with the elderly. Throughout my childhood, my parents were constantly lecturing me about respecting authority, working hard and preserving our family’s good name. They made it clear that although I was the same as my white peers, I would have to try harder and achieve more just to keep up. I tried to ignore what they said about my race, mostly because it seemed too cruel to be true.
In high school, I threw myself into extra-curricular activities—student council, choir, tennis, soccer, fundraising drives for local charities—and I graduated valedictorian of my class. Despite my misgivings about my parents’ advice, I was proud to be living up to their expectations. In 2001, I earned admission to Queen’s University. I was enticed by the isolated, scenic campus—it looked exactly like the universities I’d seen in movies, with stately buildings and waterfront views straight out of Dead Poets Society. When I told my older sister, who was studying sociology at Western, she furrowed her brow. “It’s so white,” she bristled. That didn’t matter much to me: Oshawa was just as white as Kingston, and I was used to being the only black kid in the room. I wasn’t going to let my race dictate my future.
At Queen’s, I was one of about 80 black undergrads out of 16,000. In second year, when I moved into the student village, I started noticing cops following me in my car. At first, I thought I was being paranoid—I began taking different roads to confirm my suspicions. No matter which route I took, there was usually a police cruiser in my rear-view mirror. Once I felt confident I was being followed, I became convinced that if I went home, the police would know where I lived and begin following me there too. I’d drive around aimlessly, taking streets I didn’t know.
I had my first face-to-face interaction with the Kingston police a few months into second year, when I was walking my friend Sara, a white woman, back to her house after a party. An officer stopped us, then turned his back to me and addressed Sara directly. “Miss, do you need assistance?” he asked her. Sara was stunned into silence. “No,” she said twice—once to the officer, and once to reassure herself that everything was all right. As he walked away, we were both too shaken to discuss what had happened, but in the following days we recounted the incident many times over, as if grasping to remember if it had really occurred. The fact that my mere presence could cause an armed stranger to feel threatened on Sara’s behalf shocked me at first, but shock quickly gave way to bitterness and anger.
As my encounters with police became more frequent, I began to see every uniformed officer as a threat. The cops stopped me anywhere they saw me, particularly at night. Once, as I was walking through the laneway behind my neighbourhood pizza parlour, two officers crept up on me in their cruiser. “Don’t move,” I whispered to myself, struggling to stay calm as they got out of their vehicle. When they asked me for identification, I told them it was in my pocket before daring to reach for my wallet. If they thought I had a weapon, I was convinced that I’d end up being beaten, or worse. I stood in the glare of the headlights, trying to imagine how I might call out for help if they attacked me. They left me standing for about 10 minutes before one of them—a white man who didn’t look much older than me—approached to return my identification. I summoned the courage to ask why he was doing this. “There’s been some suspicious activity in the area,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Then he said I could go. Another time, an officer stopped me as I was walking home from a movie. When I told him I wasn’t carrying ID, he twisted his face in disbelief. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Sir, it’s important that you always carry identification,” he said, as if he was imparting friendly advice. Everywhere I went, he was saying, I should be prepared to prove I wasn’t a criminal, even though I later learned I was under no legal obligation to carry ID. When I told my white friends about these encounters with police, they’d often respond with skepticism and dismissal, or with a barrage of questions that made me doubt my own sanity. “But what were you doing?” they’d badger, as if I’d withheld some key part of the story that would justify the cops’ behaviour.
When I was 22, I decided to move to Toronto. We’d visited often when I was a kid, driving into the city for festivals and fish markets and dinners with other families from Sierra Leone. In Toronto, I thought I could escape bigotry and profiling, and just blend into the crowd. By then, I had been stopped, questioned and followed by the police so many times I began to expect it. In Toronto, I saw diversity in the streets, in shops, on public transit. The idea that I might be singled out because of my race seemed ludicrous. My illusions were shattered immediately.