Elijah McClain: Black and Different
“My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different.”
Those words have been haunting me for the past few weeks. I hear them when I think of the individual students I’ve taught. I hear them when I remember friends I haven’t seen in months, which are almost all of my friends nowadays. I hear them when I think of myself: those words, that cadence. I’m positive a smaller teenaged me has said some version of that to someone.
“Hello, my name is B. I’m an introvert. I’m just different.”
In my teens and early twenties, I wore inappropriate clothes for the season, often kept my hoodie up, and used earbuds regularly. I was not attempting to appear shady or intimidating; these were defense mechanisms. I was awkward. And yes, sometimes on long stretches of mostly unpopulated roads, I’d forget where I was, get caught up in the music, and maybe move a little.
The cops were called on me for this once during college.
I put immense pressure on myself to graduate cum laude. In high school, I graduated valedictorian and felt it was essential to continue accumulating academic achievements. I struggled here and there, but overall I felt accomplished. I was an ideal student, hardworking, but I had to work to make money.
I should have felt some pride in knowing that I was performing well while still holding down a job. Instead, I remember feeling resentment toward my classmates, whose only job was studying.
Anyway, on the night I was approached by the officer, I had just gotten off of work and was stressed due to an upcoming final. I knew I was going to pass, but the results would make or break my attempt to graduate cum laude. SPOILER ALERT! It broke me. What can I say? Not all stories end in triumph.
Anyway, the stress was overwhelming. So, I put on a hoodie, found a playlist on my iPod Touch, because that was relevant to my life back then, and at 2 in the morning, I started walking into the relatively wealthy neighborhoods behind my school’s campus. I knew they had money because they had their sprinklers on.
I remember being very caught in class distinctions on that walk. It’s hard for me to say I grew up poor as, throughout my childhood, my family’s poverty and wealth varied wildly. But, by the time I was a freshman in college, my family was consistently at the higher wage earnings of the lower middle class, I had an iPod Touch after all. iPods weren’t very cool anymore, but, I was also old enough to be aware of how much my family struggled, so I was grateful.
My dad’s tenacity and my mom’s humility ensured that my family rarely if ever, I’m not going to ask them, qualified for government assistance. But, after dinner, we sometimes cut off the lights, didn’t let the A/C or heater run for too long, and would not waste money eating out when we had perfectly good food at home. And sometimes, I would walk around the perimeter house to tighten and check every spigot, so we didn’t waste any water.
Those were the kinds of thoughts that crossed my mind, as I walked. The further north I traveled in my college town, the more rural things became. So, I took advantage of what felt like a deserted world and zigzagged across the street listening to LMFAO or something else comparably dated and loud enough to drown out my anxiety.
The night was crisp, the moonlight was bright, and the nighttime humidity produced a sweet fragrance that came up from the grass. This walk was working. But then, after about 30 minutes, I heard a car slowly creep up behind me. I tried to ignore it and hoped they would pass, but since they wouldn’t, I checked my peripheral vision. It was a cop!
I don’t know when, but there was a moment when cops stopped being heroes to me.
An officer who could not have been much older than me, stepped out of the car and turned on those bright lights that blind and disorient people. He seemed confused as he approached me. But, as he got closer, he appeared concerned.
“Hey, I’m just here to see if you’re ok! It’s ok. You can calm down.” He said warmly.
“Huh? I go to college right down the street, and I’m just walking because I’m stressed, I can go back if you want. Do you need my ID?” I said in one breath. My ID?! Idiot. Your ID isn’t going to have a local address!
“Seriously. You can calm down, it’s ok,” The officer asserted.
He was becoming visibly uncomfortable. His discomfort only served to raise my anxiety. I was taught from a young age to make sure police officers never saw you as a threat.
The officer continued, “We just got a call that a man was walking erratically down the street. You seem fine, though.”
I nodded my head. He began to leave and then stopped himself.
“Actually, um. Sure, can I see your ID?” He asked. I handed it to him.
“Hm. You’re kind of far from home, huh?”
“No! I live on campus! Oh! I have my student ID!”
At this point, he appeared sorry or maybe disappointed.
He sighed, “Seriously, relax. I believe you, and I know where the college is. I’m sorry things are like this. You know, I became a cop to protect people.” He raised a hand to put on my shoulder, maybe, thought better of it, and just let his hand fall.
I remember that so vividly. The officer seemed lost in thought for a moment. I wasn’t scared, but I wasn’t sure what he meant either. He tapped my ID on his empty palm a couple of times before handing it back.
Maybe he realized the context of the situation and why I, an alone young black man, was not comforted to see a police officer in the middle of the night. I felt fortunate to survive that encounter mostly unscathed. I wonder if he understood that.
I watched his car pull away and disappear into the night. With my music off, everything seemed eerily quiet. I was hyper-aware of every sound. I was about to put my headphones back in as I realized that someone called to report a man behaving erratically. I’m pretty sure it was just me. But, I’m not 100% confident that there’s not another person out here! Awesome.
This walk was supposed to quell my anxieties, not increase them.
I jogged back to campus. I made sure to keep my music off as I no longer knew if I was safe. I heard every animal’s call. The wind felt colder. And, of course, my eyes were peeled. After all, I needed to be vigilant if I was to spot someone behaving “erratically.”
Then, I realized something. I stopped running. Someone was awake and willing to respond if they saw someone or something “different.” So, I figured a young black man running down the street might not be a good look.
I walked and slowly made my way back to campus, trying to appear as non-intimidating as possible. A 5'9", 140 lb., teenage vegetarian was worried about seeming scary to people. Then again, my profile at that time was nearly identical to Elijah McClain’s.
“I don’t eat meat. But I don’t judge people. I don’t judge people who do eat meat.”
By the time I made it back to campus, the sun was already coming up. There were some early morning runners. I could smell breakfast coming from the cafeteria. I never woke up early enough for breakfast. I went in, ate, trudged back to my dorm, and as I closed my eyes, I thought to myself…
“Wait. That cop could have given me a ride home!”
Why Change Needs To Happen
“I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry.”
I have had several other encounters with law enforcement that ended similarly benign. But, why do the police so often see me as a threat?
No report I found confirmed whether or not Elijah McClain was on the autism spectrum. But, many parents of kids on the spectrum resonated with Elijah McClain’s story. At the very least, he suffered from Social Anxiety.
And either way, some reports estimate that nearly ½ of police killings are people who have a mental illness or people with a disability. A recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, concluded that at minimum 1 in 4 police killings were a person with a disability or living with mental illness. According to a 2018 article written in the National Academy of Sciences journal, “Black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men.”
So, what are your chances of being killed by police if you are black and different?
I am neurotypical enough to recognize a police officer, assess how unhinged they are, take stock of how threatening I may seem to the officer, and present myself accordingly. If it’s late at night, I do my best to appear sober, calm, and mostly accommodating. If it’s broad daylight, I feel more emboldened, but I still use a respectful tone to question why the hell I’m being pulled over.
But that’s why Elijah McClain’s story won’t leave me.
Because, what if I’d had a worse day? What if I snapped? Let’s reimagine that scene from a few years ago.
“Hey man, I’m just here to see if you’re ok! It’s ok. You can calm down.”
“What?” I angrily snapped at the officer.
I wouldn’t normally do that to a police officer or any authority figure. But, finals were coming up, and I was stressed. Regardless, I immediately realized my mistake.
“Please, wai-” I started.
“On the ground!” The officer shouted.
“Ok! Sorry! I’m getting on the ground!”
“Just get on the ground!”
“Really! I’m not doing anything wrong! I’m just stressed!”
His partner sensed he needed back up and rushed out of the car. He drew his gun, and he too began yelling. Meanwhile, the first officer was choking me! I couldn’t breathe, and I felt sick. I tried to think of anything that would convince them to let me go.
But all I could think to say was…
“My name is B. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different.”
I’ve been at “threat-level” age for over a decade now.
That age must be 16 since that is when most data sets start measuring police encounters. But, my first vivid police encounter was at the age of nine. I fictionalized parts of the following story for my safety, but the main beats are authentic.
I was in a convenience store with my friend, Roger.
Roger was only a couple of years older than me, but he had nearly six inches of height and 20 pounds of muscular weight on me.
As we perused the candy aisle to calculate how much we could get, a nearby officer suddenly grabbed Roger. We hadn’t been given “the talk” yet, and Roger had a big personality.
“Get off me!” Roger shouted.
The officer’s hand hovered over the gun on his hip as Roger snatched his arm out of the officer’s hand.
“Stay right there!” The officer shouted to Roger.
“He’s fine! Why are you bothering us?!” I shouted back.
“You match a description,” He spat at Roger while talking into a walkie and ignoring me.
The woman working at the time was a friend of my mother’s. She was too busy with customers to notice anything until she heard my voice and saw the officer’s hand hovering over his gun. So, behind the plexiglass, she jumped into action.
“Oh my gosh! Officer! No, those boys are fine. I see them every day. Roger! B!” Everything went silent. The officer stood up straight and faced her as she continued, “Babies, go on home. I’ll let your momma know you’re on the way.”
At the time, moms and friends of moms held more authority than the police. They still probably do, so, without hesitation, we rushed out of the door and away from the confused officer.
It turns out the shoplifter they were looking for was a friend of ours. He was 14, nearly 6 feet tall, and already had a beard. Neither Roger nor I looked anything like him. Well, we shared one trait.
So, now what?
As you can see, it doesn’t matter if you are a child running errands, a teenager visiting his father, a stressed out college student, a young man trying to buy some tea, a mentally ill man with a pipe, a grown man trying to watch birds, a young woman who forgets to turn on their turn signal, a medical professional asleep at home, or a Harvard Professor who doesn’t want to be bothered at home. Being Black makes you a target.
And, if you’re different you may have fewer defenses at your disposal when you are targeted. Sure, my police encounters were generally nonviolent. However, that was usually due to dumb luck or my ability to utilize tact. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
It’s why rally cries like abolish the police don’t scare me anymore. I’m not sure what the best way forward is, but going back to normal is not an option.
Looking back on my life, I realized that the majority of my encounters with the police weren’t positive. There are very few instances in which I interacted with a police officer and left that interaction better off than before.
Whether it’s massive reformation, defunding, or abolishing, we have to do something about our policing problem.
Until then, below, I have some ways to help.
Here are some petitions to sign.
I also created this running document of possible things to do. It is not exhaustive, but it’s simple.