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first person

Illustration by Wenting Li

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When a friend of mine quips that “ALL lives matter” he doesn’t understand how he undermines the struggle of minorities toward equality (and how Black, Indigenous and other minorities have always been statistically overrepresented in incidents of police violence). For that reason, I’m sharing my own experiences with police. These injustices had a lot to do with my decision to become a lawyer so that I would know my rights and never be victimized again.

Although gentrified now, the Vancouver neighbourhood I grew up in used to be rough, working class and with lots of new immigrant families like mine. One night, I was 14 and walking home alone after studying at a friend’s house. A car followed me. “Hey, you!” someone in the car yelled. Expecting to get robbed and beaten, I didn’t look back and quickened my pace. “Come here!” the voice commanded. “What’s in your backpack?” I told the truth: “School books.” On the verge of bolting, I paused, looked back and could barely make out a policeman’s hat on the driver of the unmarked car. At first, I was relieved it was the police and glad I didn’t run. Instead, I endured a humiliating search and interrogation until they were satisfied I’d done nothing wrong. I went home shaken. I told my parents, who were mostly just relieved they wouldn’t have to deal with the police because they couldn’t speak English. Not knowing what to do, I phoned the police non-emergency number to make a complaint, and asked why the police never identified themselves before detaining me for no reason. I never got anywhere with that.

At 16, I was walking to work on a busy downtown street when a policeman said: “Hey asshole, come here – I want to talk to you.” I didn’t know my civil rights, nor why he was addressing me so rudely. I was detained arbitrarily and interrogated. After co-operating initially, I grew impatient and frustrated at being gawked at like I was a criminal. When I asked why he stopped me, the cop just said: “Okay, get outta here …” I went to work angry but still had to smile because my job involved dealing with customers.

At 17, I was choosing a movie in a video store when a policeman entered and aggressively directed me outside where I saw three police cars with lights on and five other officers. The store clerk, who went to my high school, looked at me like I’d murdered someone. Outside, cars slowed down and drivers looked accusingly at me while I co-operated fully until the police accepted I wasn’t who they were looking for. Why did they single me out? They were looking for an “Asian guy in a leather jacket.” “That’s it?” I asked, wearing my denim jean jacket, “Because I’m an Asian guy?” The video store closed by the time they let me go, so I never got my movie.

At 19, I drove an ’83 Camaro. One night, I was pulled over by police. I had no idea why – I was not speeding, my lights were on and my friend and I were wearing seat belts. I waited but the officer did not approach my car. After more than five minutes of idling, I turned off the ignition (and with it, the headlights). Immediately, the officer was at my window demanding to know why I was driving at night without my headlights on. I felt like a trap had been sprung. After a brief argument, I got a ticket. Because I was innocent and had faith in our justice system, I took a day off school to appeal the ticket in court. It was the police officer’s word against mine (my passenger couldn’t leave work just to help me fight a $100 ticket). Finding in the officer’s favour, I asked the judge: “Why do you believe her testimony over mine, just because she’s wearing a police uniform?” He banged his gavel, pointed it at me and yelled: “You’re out of order! I’ve made my decision! You’re guilty as charged!” The sting of that injustice had a profound effect on me.

When I was 26, I worked summers as an exterminator. On one call, when no one answered the door, as per our usual procedure, I walked around the house to check the accessibility and exposure of its foundation before spraying. I was surprised to encounter a police officer in the backyard. I saw her first. “Oh, hello,” I said. Startled, she whirled around, reached for her gun, and yelled “Freeze!” I had to de-escalate the situation because my life might depend on it. She wouldn’t take her hand off her gun until I showed her the work order to prove I wasn’t a prowler. The white female homeowner had been inside the whole time – she forgot she made the appointment. She said I “didn’t look right” and called the police. The cop laughed at the “innocent misunderstanding” while the woman kept apologizing to the officer for the trouble. No one apologized to me.

By 41, I was a lawyer and knew my rights. One day, I was dining on a patio with three South Asian friends. Another man (who I didn’t know) briefly and unexpectedly joined us. Immediately after he left, two policemen informed us that the man was “known to police,” and they demanded to see our identification. To end the embarrassing interruption, we co-operated. Only after the officers returned with our identification did they admit to inputting our personal information in their database as “known associates” of the man. I was shocked, and embarked on a year-long nightmare of bureaucracy to try to get this inaccurate record expunged. I complained to the Vancouver Police Department, Vancouver Police Board, Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner and Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. Getting nowhere, I contacted the BC Civil Liberties Association. Eventually, I went to the media. As a lawyer, I exhausted every available legal channel but to this day, I remain in police records as a “known associate” of some person “known to police” who I did not actually know.

When I share my stories, I typically get one of two reactions: People who are visible minorities always get it and tell me their own, similar stories. It has only ever been privileged white people who say, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would a cop do that?” or “Gee, you really seem to attract the police,” (with the unspoken message being they don’t believe me or that I’m somehow to blame, because that’s certainly never been their experience with police).

I share these personal stories not to elicit sympathy, because I know they are trivial compared with the much greater systematic injustices that Black and Indigenous peoples have faced from police for generations. I share these experiences to show that police practices and culture are badly in need of fundamental reform.

Tony Wong lives in Vancouver.

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