I saw his door open and watched a set of large gloved hands pull him from the driver seat next to me and onto the pavement. I saw his feet disappear as he was dragged toward the back of the car.
What is going on?
A surge of adrenaline sent my heart into my throat and my bowels into my stomach.
I glanced to the back window to see a large, unmarked black SUV with dark windows and the infamous blue and red lights flashing.
Oh my God. Police.
Two officers with their bulky bullet proof vests had guns pointed at the ground where they must have dragged him. There was yelling. Loud yelling. As more officers piled out of the vehicle two took position just behind the car on my side with two guns pointed at my head through the back window.
Oh my God. Breathing ceased as terror sunk in.
I realized the shouting was at me. It took a moment to register.
“Keep your hands in the air and get out of the car!” They shouted repeatedly in the unmistakable Zulu accent.
In a split second I wondered if my life was about to get snuffed out in broad daylight on the pavement of this back road in Soweto.
Three days before and not too far from here, police had shot a teenager eight times in the back as he was spread eagle on the ground, just as they had instructed him. He died that day. He bled out on the dusty streets of Soweto while unarmed and following every instruction.
The South African Police Department is known to be one of the most corrupt in the world. And it is supposed to be the front line of “protection” in this violent crime capital of the world: the country I had grown to love.
As I slowly got out of the car with hands in the air, they continued to shout orders. But now there were four of them. Four police officers 15 feet away in their wide stance with revolvers all pointed directly at my face.
I will never forget the feeling in my body as I stared directly down the barrel of one of those glocks. It felt tingly. Almost like the signals sent to my brain went something like, “A bullet is about penetrate this soft tissue so shut off all nerves and we won’t feel the pain.”
As I inched my way past the back bumper I saw him face down on the pavement with the knee of one officer on the back of his neck and the hands of another one violating him and calling it a “search.” The shouting at me continued, along with horrible insults hurled in both English and Zulu. Two officers holstered their guns and I was laid out face down on the pavement.
The soft skin of my face was pressed into the same jagged, filthy pavement that bears the bottoms of peoples’ shoes, that the folk on foot like to spit on, that the tires of cars drive on.
That pavement pressed into my face was a degrading of dignity like I have no words to describe.
It was made for the bottoms of shoes, not the stripping of my soul through the skin of my face.
I am a survivor of police brutality. That is weird to say.
We were the only interracial couple within our five million strong, densely populated, so-big-but-actually-so-small community of Soweto. And that is because the stain of Apartheid still lives on through the racial separation and deafening economic disparity that continues in its wake. There was no one else that looked like me in this sacred space called Soweto, the largest township in all South Africa.
I stuck out like a sore thumb.
None of us knew if, over time, I would become more of a target or more protected by the community. No one knew because no one knew anyone who had done it before.
It turned out to be both. Simultaneously both.
We were targeted today because we were an interracial couple.
I had never felt more vulnerable or more terrified than I had in those moments pressed into the pavement and the savagery that followed.
The most pronounced impact of this incident, however, was not the flashbacks or the nightmares, or even the extreme hypervigilance for years to come of the gun on the hip of every officer I saw. It was the pervasive feeling of never being safe.
It changed everything about how I experienced daily life in South Africa for all my remaining years there.
Something about it was different from normal PTSD. It was weeks before I could pinpoint what had made any sense of safety become utterly elusive.
In this country that I now called home, a woman was statistically more likely to be raped than to learn how to read. Every day the news was saturated with such stories, sometimes of people I knew. Scores of people every day were robbed at gunpoint, carjacked, murdered in broad daylight for something as stupid as a phone.
And if I should have the great misfortune of finding myself in such a crisis, who I am supposed to call for help?!
I will never, ever call the police.
Which means I will be on my own. I will figure it out. I will save my own life. Or it will be taken from me. But I will not ever call the police.
Therein lies the grit under the souls of marginalized, vulnerable peoples… And what makes our resilience so extraordinary.