Police brutality isn’t just when an officer shoots a woman while she’s asleep in her own bed, or a man when he’s sitting on the couch in his own apartment eating ice cream, or a 15-year-old kid when he’s in a car with his friends leaving a party. Police brutality isn’t just when a cop kneels on a man’s neck until he dies on the street outside a convenience store. It isn’t just when an officer fires pepper balls at a woman’s chest from close range. Policing, Sara Mokuria says, is “inherently violent.”
While we were talking for my profile of her in our December issue, which is online today, Mokuria told me a story and it’s an example of an instance where police presence made a situation much worse than it should have been, and left her asking, “What if?”
“Maybe it was two years ago now. I was driving home and it was over by Ervay. You know the intersection where you get onto the highway? There was an older homeless woman standing in the middle of the street and there was a car in front of her. She was blocking traffic. And she’s yelling at the car. She’s cussing. I’m coming this way in the intersection, the car’s here, so I roll my window down and I’m like, ‘Did he hurt you?’ There was an older White man in a suit and she was a Black woman. So I’m thinking: did he hit you or what happened? And then I quickly realized her response has nothing to do with this guy in his car. He’s on a phone call to 911. Everybody around is calling 911, because it’s like 5 o’clock traffic. I’m yelling out to her, ‘Hey, did he hurt you?’ She’s like, ‘No, eff this.’ Every cuss word. So I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m pulling over, come meet me over here. Let’s figure out what’s going on.’ She’s having a mental break, obviously.
“She agrees. She moves out of the street. I pull over and I’m just talking to her. I’m like, ‘What happened?’ She’s like, ‘They’re always fucking with me. Everybody’s always fucking with me!’ Somebody stole her wallet so she didn’t have her ID. They stole her backpack, which had her ID, so now she’s like, ‘I don’t have an ID. I don’t have any money. I don’t have any of my—’ And it was another homeless person who had stolen her things. She was just having this moment. I’m like, ‘OK, I can’t solve that issue, but let’s go. I can give you some money that can help you to go get another ID. Let’s just figure out what little thing I can do to help you calm down.’
“Another guy had come up who was on one of those Lime bikes. And he was the one who basically told me, ‘Yeah she has some mental issue.’ He was also part of the unhoused community. ‘She has some issues. People are always messing with her. They stole her stuff.’ So he was giving me some more background. OK, great. He was the one who told me, ‘There’s an ATM in this liquor store right down here.’ So I’m like, ‘OK, let’s just walk over there.’ Because I had too much stuff in my car.
“I park my car. I’m dressed in a suit because I was coming from some meeting or whatever. So the three of us, we’re walking. By the time we get down by Old City Park, the gang unit is there. It’s like 20 cops and they’re in SWAT gear and these big guns and they’re like, ‘Ma’am, were you blocking traffic?’ To the woman. And she’s calmed down at this point. So she starts revving back up and I’m like, ‘Hey. It’s all good. Traffic’s flowing. We got it under control. Thank you. You can go. Please leave.’ But they wouldn’t. They circled us and they’re telling her, ‘Sit down. Sit on the ground.’ And she’s like, ‘You’re not my husband. I’m not submitting to you!’ So she’s unwilling to sit down, so they’re like, hands on their guns. And now she’s standing behind me, so they’re pointing their guns at us and I’m like, ‘Whoa, look. I told you, we have it under control. No property was damaged, nothing has happened. Go away. Please stop.’
“They were just so hell-bent on submission. She had to submit. They were telling her to sit down and she had to sit down because they told her to sit down. So then I’m like—at this point they’re pointing guns at all of us. So I’m telling her, ‘Hey, look, let’s just sit down. I’ll sit down, you sit down. We can all sit down.’ I’m deescalating the situation. Who am I? I’m just a random stranger who was on my way home that day. And finally one of the other officers, we both sit on the ground, and the other officers calmed the other ones down a little. There was nothing for them to do. There was no need for them.
“I look White. I have a business suit on. It could have escalated so much more. Say I wasn’t in that situation, how easy could it have been another police shooting and death that people wouldn’t pay attention to just because somebody’s unhoused, because somebody’s poor, and, you know, ‘What were they doing?’ I say that to say this is a moment that they weren’t needed but because they were called and because they’re trained to get submission—that’s even more important in a lot of ways than anything else when it comes to them. I’m going to make you sit down because I told you to sit down! What does that have to do with keeping the public safe?
“With a short conversation with her I recognized she needed—she had issues but also she was stressed out over the loss of her items. Especially since like, how do you get an ID if you’re—it’s difficult with a car and a job. How do you go to one of the suburbs and sit for 14 hours if you don’t have a—it’s not easy. These are not easy processes. That frustration was amplified by underlying mental issues. I think her response was very natural. The guy who was in his car trying to get home just happened to be the brunt of it. And that didn’t have anything to do with him. I just bring that up to say so often there are these unnecessary escalations and use of force and it doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t meet the needs of people.”