Living while Black in America has not been easy for me either – Eric Coffie
As the tension between the black communities and the police are running at all time high, me, and countless others are forced during these turbulent times to stand up, to speak out and to process, capture and share everything going around the state.
I, or anyone listening to the news have seen a lot of concerns and protests beginning with what happened to the 75-year-old guy who was unarmed but was pushed by the police into the pavement causing him to be unconscious and bleeding.
There had also been pepper spray incidents and tear gassed riots reported to have taken the lives of teenagers. And also that black man in Minneapolis who suffocated under the knees of the people who were supposed to protect lives not take them.
With everything going on, I just wanted to share to people some of my past experiences growing up as a kid in Miami, Florida.
I AM AFRAID OF THE POLICE
Living in Miami, Florida might seem like paradise for most. But when you are a black teenager in the city. It was a norm to experience police harassment and injustice.
A lot of people seem to assume certain things about me or make presumptions about the kind of life I’ve lived to be successful today. This is why I’d like to share my personal experience and sentiments because for a very long time, I’ve had my fair share of police harassment. And I, too, am afraid of them.
HOW CAN A TEENAGER HAVE A GRENADE LAUNCHER?
When I was a teenager, one of the vivid memories I have with the police were me and my friends driving just fifteen minutes away from where I grew up and we got stopped by the men in uniforms.
At that time, we were just heading out for a party. As we were just exiting that community near Lakes by the Bay, a predominantly white neighborhood. We heard the police sirens and all of that, then the police quickly surrounded our cars and blocked us from being able to drive.
Me, and my four other friends were told to get out of the vehicle and they immediately started questioning us and asked what we were doing in the area.
Take note that I’ve been driving my mom’s car. We weren’t speeding, and we didn’t have any broken lights.
They said that they pulled us over because we matched a suspect. Or a description about some people that committed some robberies in the area.
That part was understandable but what was really crazy was they asked a bunch of teenagers if we had AK-47s or grenade launchers in the vehicle.
And I thought, how ridiculous was that? I had never heard of teenagers having grenade launchers during that time. And if that wasn’t enough, he asked if we had any criminal records and or if we had nicknames they should know about.
We were just teenagers who were driving around nine or ten in the evening. But we were already being treated and labeled as people who were up to no good.
SHOULD WE POINT OUR GUNS TO UNARMED TEENAGERS?
And then another incident was at a Taco Bell in Miami near 152nd Street. As we were pulling in to get something to eat we were surrounded by police cars again.
But this time, the police cars that surrounded us had guns pointing at us from every direction. If you were the police, and you saw two teenagers, me and my nephew trying to get through Taco Bell drive thru, is it necessary to point guns at us?
During that time, I remember how my uncle told me to take my keys out of the ignition and place the keys on the roof. This is to show that you are not trying to flee or run. I then proceeded to place my hands on the steering wheel so they can clearly see that I wasn’t trying to do anything.
On the other hand, my nephew was very frustrated and upset. He was flipping out. If I didn’t ask him to put his hands on the dashboard, who knows what could have happened to us that night.
When everything calmed down, the officers said that they believed that we had guns. And that someone had called and said that we were shooting at night.
We were allegedly pulling out our guns on people on the highway and that’s why they surrounded us.
THIS IS OUR NORM: BLACK PEOPLE GET HARASSED
That was our norm, even if I was a great student who didn’t drink or do drugs. I made sure to always bring my license and registration to avoid going to jail during these incidents.
But it was just a constant harassment. Let’s say for every other weekend that I would go out. I already knew that we we’re gonna be stopped by the police. You could count it like, if we went out for three weekends, we’d definitely get stopped twice. Almost every ten days, we’d get stopped and that was our norm.
Fortunately, nothing bad ever happened but those experiences left a sour spot in your heart with regard to how I felt about the police. And it just makes it very difficult to see them in a positive light.
As a child, we are all taught that the police were your friends growing up. But when you become a teenager and you experience different things. It makes it hard for you to balance that.
HOW I GOT ARRESTED FOR BEING A GOOD CITIZEN
Another incident that stood out or that baffled me as a teenager was when we were coming back from a party. And we’re driving through Miami, we saw someone committing a robbery.We quickly flagged down a police officer and said “Hey! We just witnessed a robbery from this store.” But they proceeded to arrest us and placed us in the police car. They told us that “We bet that you had something to do with it.”
So here we were, trying to help and assist when we saw someone committing a crime. Instead of going over to check out the scene, they accused us of being the ones behind the incident.
They took our fingerprints and our pictures and they told us they didn’t want to see us in that area. And I remember these police officers saying, “I bet you a million dollars that you guys had something to do with it.”
WE HAVE DIFFERENT EXPERIENCES
After that incident at Taco Bell, I called NAACP: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But their reaction was more of like. “You guys shouldn’t be out in those areas at night.”
And I get it! We were taught that you can’t say anything to the police whether you’re right or not because of what they might do to us. But even if I understood it, looking back. That was a horrible way to grow up.
Even if you’re in the right you have to just go along and play along with whatever happens to you.
LIVING WHILE BLACK IN AMERICA DURING COLLEGE
Fast forward to my college years, I remember a friend of mine saying. “You know, you think just because you speak properly or you talk educated and that you hang out with white people. You think that you are equal to them. But once in a while, they are going to remind you and put you back in your place.”
And somehow, what he said was true. Because no matter what I accomplished. I founded the Entrepreneurs Club. I raised money for a business but I was always reminded that I was lesser or was inferior to the white. And that I had to work harder and be better and prove myself more.
And time and time again, things like these would happen. I remember being in a business plan competition at the University of Florida. And we were dubbed as the best business plan written in that contest.
And everyone stated that, including all the judges said “Hey! You got the best plan, the best idea and you’ve proven your concept.” But yet we were ranked in second place, next to the whites.
It was weird because how they could say so many positive things about us, they knew we did better but they kept us at second place.
And this is how it stands out in my mind that Eric, you’ve got to work harder! I’ve got to be better and do twice as much. And I think that is a part of what makes our experience different from the experiences of those privileged people out there.
What makes us unique. Is the fact that we grew up with these different sets of rules and by which we have to operate in and play by.
WHY I DON’T TELL PEOPLE I’M THE PRESIDENT OF MY BUSINESS
Fast forward, to even in recent times, specifically to my business.
In my business card on Evankoff. I never printed on it the title “President” or “CEO” or anything like that.
It will always be a project manager or program manager for my business.
Why do I intentionally not tell people I was the business owner?
This is because of the fear that they would ridicule me. For fear that they may damage my projects. For fear that they would do something to sabotage my construction site.
But I think it is horrible that, not only me, others had also pretended to not be proud of having built their own business. Of having hired and employed and given a livelihood to people just so that people would not cause us harm or try to cause harm or impact our business.
And that was my normal, because when I get on here. I put all my money into everything I did but when I went to certain projects and certain jobs.
I knew that people would always question me who the owner was, was he young? Was he black?
The truth is, there’s a lot of jealousy out there and a lot of people would not want to see me, or the blacks succeed.
And this isn’t just blind assumptions, no. I saw that in their performance and in their work. I remember being on a project site with other people who thought I was just a project manager.
They shared with me all the types of information about their company and how they were gonna and do a particular job and everything like that.
Note that these pieces of information was something they wouldn’t have said if I had told them that I was the president of the company.
So just saying that I was a project manager, helps to ease any race relations or tensions that they may have against me because they can rest thinking that I wasn’t better than him or I wasn’t higher than him.
But it’s actually sad that you have to pretend to be something less than what you are and belittle your accomplishment and achievements so that other people can feel superior.
THIS IS THE REAL AMERICA
So when I reflect on these things, I say to myself that this is the real America. Because this isn’t fifty years ago, this is the present.This stuff has happened to me, and I thought I should share that. Because if I don’t share my stories and what happened to me. People may go around believing in their own reality, or whatever the narrative it is that they want to paint about who I am or of what I’ve been through.
The fact remains that black oppression still exists. And if this stuff continues to happen. The more it makes people uneasy because it is a big deal and it impacts our psyche. I know it did a huge blow on my own mental psyche.
Because if you add what’s happening today and couple that with what the experience has happened to you in the past. As a black individual, I know how easily but that could have been me in the news.
Lastly, I want people to know my particular experiences and then that way they don’t have to guess or assume or make any presumptions about Eric and who Eric is.
And you know what Eric’s story was so now you’ve heard it from me and you can take it for whatever you want to see and however you like to see it.
But again, I have never traveled in your shoes, you’ve never traveled in my shoes and if someone has never experienced what we did. We know how hard it is to explain.
However, I didn’t let fear defeat me. I haven’t let it stop me because I’m persisting. A lot of people are standing up for their rights. And I’m doing all these things, creating content out there to support and spread awareness that black lives matter and we experience different things.