I already knew about racism, I was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1967; just two months after the largest urban uprising in United States history took place in that city. I knew that explosive event was caused by years of systemic racism and police brutality, but I never really experienced these things first hand until the night of my 13th birthday.
For my birthday, I had decided to do something daring and different, and so I cut school for the very first time with my friend Javonni. A little after 3:00 pm Javonni and I headed to my mom’s flat in East Oakland. We arrived shortly before 4:00 pm, shocked to see both of my divorced parents and her mom when we opened the door. “Surprise!” yelled a house full of close family and friends. After cutting the cake and opening presents, the party settled into three sections, the adults, drinking wine in the dining area; my brothers and cousins, otherwise known as, ‘the boys’, ages 3-12, wrestling in the back of the house; and me, my best friend Cynthia, her little sister Diana, and Javonni relaxing on pillows in the living room having adolescent girl talk.
At one point, my dad went into the back room to yell at the boys to quiet down. A few minutes after that, we heard a knock at the door, and the ominous, “Open up, it’s the police!” Although it wasn’t his house, my dad assumed the role of the “man of the house” and went to the door with a glass of red wine in his hand. I stood up and was not far behind him when he answered the door. There were two cops; a female Latina and a very tall white male cop who towered over my six foot 1 father, and cowering behind them the white man who lived in the flat beneath us, Marco.
Unfazed by this scene, my father calmly asked, “What seems to be the problem officer?” The male cop then explained that they had received complaints about noise from the neighbor. At this point, my dad completely ignored the cop and looked directly at Marco, “You could have called, banged on the ceiling, or knocked on the door yourself, why the fuck did you call the police to my daughter’s 13th birthday party?” Everything happened very quickly after that, the male cop took out his billy club and began threatening to hurt my dad. It was the first (and last) time I heard a white man call my dad, ”a nigger.” My mom came to the door and before she could get a question out, was pulled by her belt and thrown into the porch window by the female cop, shattering the window in the process. Before I could blink, it seemed, a dozen police cars had pulled up to our house, cops came running in and pushed my father into a corner of the living room. Javonni was hit by a billy club, a lamp was knocked into my face (which we learned later had left a second degree burn), I was crying and screaming at the cops to leave my dad alone and there was general chaos all around. Moments later, a sergeant came in, looked around, saw all the children and ordered the policemen out before they were able to actually hurt my dad or anyone else. Both of my parents were arrested and charged with resisting arrest. My dad was also charged with assaulting a police officer.
Thus, it happened that on the night of my 13th birthday, my parents spent the night in jail. In one night, I learned more about racism and police brutality in America than I ever had listening to my activist educator parents discuss politics over dinner or sharing stories about growing up in Detroit and St. Louis, Missouri. It was truly a ‘Surprise Birthday Party’ and I knew from then on that the struggle against racism and White Supremacy was not some abstract notion, but a persistent reality and I had no choice but to join in.