I am a Detroiter, born and raised. So was my mother. My father, although born in Kentucky, grew up in Chatham, Ontario, before settling in Detroit.
I didn’t know anything about the “Green Book” guide until I was an adult learning about the Civil Rights movement. I couldn’t relate directly with some of the events in the film of the same name that took place in the south, but the scenes with police lights flashing in the rearview mirror hit close to home. I remember our family driving on the streets of Detroit or in the suburbs and seeing those lights in the rearview mirror.
My father would tense up mumbling something like, “What now?” while my mother would touch his hand reminding him to stay calm. Our instructions were to just sit still and be quiet. This was before the ’67 Rebellion when approximately 93 percent of the police department was white.
Incidents of police brutality made African-Americans feel at risk and unsafe every time we stepped out of the house. Driving too fast or too slow, a broken tail light, anything just from driving while, walking while, living while black.
After the Rebellion, with increased calls for more representative, community-responsive policing under the umbrella of affirmative action, I had an uncle join the police force.
It wasn’t totally about helping our community — the pay was pretty good too – but there was a part of him that believed having brothers on the street and on the force would protect other brothers on the street.
It wasn’t easy. He would share stories of harassment from his white “brothers in blue” on the job. He also talked about the pushback from his black community because he was “working for the man.” He was called a snitch, a pig and worse.
He wasn’t perfect. He had his own code of conduct for our community. He would come down hard on those he considered “knuckleheads” but would “give a brother a break” often.
Even I felt his wrath when he saw me hanging out with those “knuckleheads” raising our fists in protest, calling for Black Power. I’m pretty sure I called him a pig but was glad it was him who rolled up on us in that police car instead of a white cop who might have just cracked our heads.
Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The Detroit Police Department now has one of the largest percentages of black officers of any major city police department.
A lot has changed but a lot has not. Driving, walking, living while black is no safer. People who are black, Hispanic and Native American are disproportionately shot and killed by police today, especially young people.
And if you are a member of the LGBTQ community you are often not only targeted by law enforcement but your victimization is often ignored and even criminalized. So its no wonder that for many LGBTQ people, youths and people of color in spaces designated as safe members of law enforcement are not welcome.
This brings us to Creating Change 2019 and the treatment of Cpl. Dani Woods, community activist and LGBT Liaison with the Detroit Police Department.
I don’t know the percentage, but it’s safe to say the majority of police officers in this city are heterosexual and male.
As a police officer, Woods heard her coworkers verbally disrespect members of her LGBTQ community, respond slowly to calls for assistance, even disparage, victimize and criminalize individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender expression.
We’ve come a long way but still being black and female on any police force isn’t a walk in the park. But Dani also has that third identity: being LGBTQ. And that identity would not allow her to sit idly by while her community was under attack from those committed to “protect and serve.”
In 2006 she approached her supervisor about the need for a community liaison officer for the LGBTQ community, receiving her appointment in 2013.
Like my uncle back in the day, she’s had her fair share of off-color remarks, smirks and shade from within the police ranks as well as pushback from some members of the community not for Dani personally but because she has been a member of law enforcement.
But she has persevered helping to build mutual trust, respect and understanding between the LGBTQ community and law enforcement, ensuring that LGBT people feel safe and protected particularly when they report crimes, and when educating fellow officers on LGBT culture through mandatory sensitivity training.
Is she perfect? (Well, almost) No!
Is there still a long way to go before members of the LGBTQ community can feel protected and served by law enforcement? Yes, a very long way to go not only in law enforcement but in our judiciary and laws enacted across the nation.
I still have moments of feeling unsafe, wondering, “What now?” when I see those flashing lights in my rearview mirror; thinking about Sandra Bland, Aiyanna Jones, Miriam Carey and the other black and brown women, children and men shot and killed by police. My trans sisters and brothers come to mind, too, whose murders have been under-investigated and lives criminalized.
But just like back in the day with uncle Gil, I’d rather have a Dani Woods roll up in that squad car rather than just any heterosexual cop who has no clue about my LGBTQ life.
Until we have an overhaul of our judicial, law enforcement and laws recognizing the rights and protections of every human being, and as long as ignorance and hate prevail, there is no safe space.
Here was a moment – dare I say a teachable moment — where, instead of reacting, we could have found common ground, engaged in real, strategic conversation in a safe space to create change.