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Office of Multicultural Affairs—NYC

My First Encounter with Racial Profiling and Police Brutality

It’s 1992, I’m five years old. I’m presently a Kindergartner. I’m so excited this is my first year in St. Anthony’s. I’m so happy that my teacher is Mrs. Vode, she’s the best! My classroom is decorated very cool. We have red and orange carpet, our desks are attached to our chairs, and attached to our chairs we have a basket to put our folders in. Our walls are painted with animals representing the letters of the alphabet. We have five bowls of goldfish and have three hermit crabs in our classroom. In the back we have a walk-in closet where we put our snacks and coats in. I’m known as the girl whose dad got beat up by a classmate’s stepfather.

I live on the second floor on Mercer Street in Paterson, New Jersey. Rodney King’s case was just big in the news. Police brutality is an issue just introduced to the public. The media says it’s a racial issue.

It’s two in the morning. It feels like I’ve been up all night waiting for my dad to come home.

“Mom, is that you?”

“Liz, what in the world are you doing up this late?”

“I can’t sleep. Where’s daddy?”

“Look, now your brother is awake, both of you go downstairs to the tenants apartment for a little bit. I have to go do something.”

“Ceez hurry up, mom said to go downstairs.”

It’s morning now. Why am I still downstairs? Why is my aunt here? Where is she taking us? Where are my mom and dad? We finally arrive at my aunt’s house.

“Liz! Ceez! Your dad is here—come say hi.” I start crying. “Daddy is that you?” I didn’t recognize my dad. He was dressed in his work uniform full of blood. He had white bandages all over his nose and face, and his eyes were too swollen to look at us. It looked as if his eyes were closed. What happened to him? Why did he look like that? Who did that, and why?

At that time we were too little to understand. My dad was a victim of racial profiling and police brutality. My mom later explained to my brother and I that my dad was beat up near a bar, by a cop. When I asked why, she told us that she went looking for him, that’s when she left us with our tenants, and found him in a bar with his friends. She said that they started to argue because my mom wanted to take my dad home and he wanted to drive home. My mom said that she didn’t want him to drive because he was drinking. Like my dad kept insisting that he was alright to drive home, my mom told a cop who she saw was coming their way to pull over. That was probably the worst decision my mom could have made.

The cop pulled over. His name haunts me to this day, Christopher Lemons. He was a tall, white, dirty blonde hair with brown eyes. He was my classmate, Herbert Lemons, step-father. I was in a weird situation. I wasn’t sure if I should I talk to my friend about what happened? It’s not like he doesn’t know. I decided to not talk about it, anyway it wasn’t his fault. I held no grudges towards my friend, but to his step-father it was a different story. I was so young experiencing true hatred towards a person I didn’t even know. Even thinking and writing about it right now is making my hand tense up and making my handwriting sloppier. How can I hate someone I don’t know? Like the saying goes actions speak louder than words. I don’t have to know him, from what he did, I hate him!

After the cop and his partner came out of the car they approached my mom and asked her what was wrong. She told them that my dad had been drinking and she needed help taking the keys away from him so he won’t be able to drive. She was responsible and aware to keep my father off the streets for his safety and other people on the roads safety. The officers didn’t see it like that; they saw him as a monster, a criminal, someone they had to attack. Christopher took things into his own hands. He started to use racial slurs to refer to my father. Christopher called my father a “Spick” and started to beat my father up with a hand bar. After they got tired beating him, they put a gun to his head and told him, “We’re going to kill you mother fucker! “You fucking Spick, you don’t deserve to live.”

Why are people scared of different things? Why can’t we accept that we are all brothers and sisters who all migrated here for the same purpose, success and more opportunities? Why see someone like a monster when different? I think, overall, humans have a hard time accepting change. Generally speaking, “Americans” think they/we are great; not a person nor thing can be better than us or different. And when we see something different, some people don’t know how to handle that experience, but to show violence and anger.

The officers probably saw my father like a lazy person that sits on his ass all day. They probably profiled him as a “Ghetto Hispanic” or a person that probably already has a few felonies on record, was on welfare, and lived in project homes. He probably thought the stereotypical things we Hispanics get stereotyped as. Little did they know that both my parents were immigrants from Peru who worked very hard in a new country by themselves to start a family, never committed a felony, and have two houses built by my fathers own two hands from the ground up, and that are both owned by them. Fortunately, we never had to receive or use any government help. My parents would work many hours so we wouldn’t have to resort to government help. Very humbly and proudly, we established a steady income that was able to maintain us through all these years.

They put him in the back of the car and started to take him downtown. My dad later told us that throughout the cop ride to the station, they kept telling him they were going to put a bullet through his head and kill him. As they were passing the red lights, as cops can do, my mom was right behind them doing it too. She wanted help. She didn’t want her husband to get beat up but she had to remain strong for my father. She wanted to bring her husband to her children safe, but asked the wrong people for help. My mom followed them downtown, to find out that they weren’t going to take him to a hospital; in fact they were going to put him in jail for “resisting arrest”. My mom waited for him that day until she was able to take him out. That was the day he came and I couldn’t even recognize him. I even remember calling him a monster because he had dried blood and bandages all over his work uniform, face, and head.

Seeing my father like this is what made me create a fear and hatred towards cops. I was poisoned to hate all officers; they inadvertently taught me how to hate them. I thought, “How can someone commit such a hate crime to a person because of differences?” I didn’t and don’t understand this concept. Because of this traumatic experience, whenever someone I was with in the car would get pulled over by an officer, I would get so nervous and start to cry. My fear remained until I was thirteen years old. I, in turn, became a profiler. I thought all officers were going to hurt the person I was with because of a silly traffic offense or just because… My perception of law enforcement was that they’re out to hurt instead of “out to serve”.

My dad went to trial. It took five years to finally be able to go to court and try to fight against them. That didn’t work. The cops were so corrupt that they paid off my dad’s lawyer! What kind of people where they? To try to win the case, my dad went public. He came out in the news and the newspapers. My dad appealed the case and supposedly the lawyer never received or forgot the court date. He even told my father, "Take me to court if you want.” Because of the lawyer, the case was lost.

If I were to see these people today and they were to ask me for forgiveness for the traumatic and emotional damage they created to my family and myself, I wouldn’t even think about it twice, my answer would be NO. Even though I’m not supposed to think like this because of my religion but I will never forgive them for what they did and I hope God won’t either.

My experience is what motivated me to go to school and major in criminal justice. Not to be like Christopher Lemons, but rather, to be either an officer who genuinely protects people. I also envision becoming a criminal defense lawyer to protect the “criminals” who were unlawfully abused by officers—as was the case with my father.

This experience also motivated me to go to school and graduate. It motivated me to remind “America” that not all immigrants and their families fail. My struggling parents were able to put me through a good university, even though that meant a lot of sacrifice and overtime work. In a couple of months they can say, “We accomplished the “American Dream”, we have two houses, put our kids in university and have the pleasure to see our daughter graduate this May with her bachelors degree. We accomplished the reason why we migrated to this country, so our children can have the opportunities we didn’t.”

Elizabeth Villanueva
February, 2010