Sometimes I forget where I am. At this point, everything feels familiar. I feel like I know how to handle uncomfortable situations on the street and I’ve managed to avoid becoming the victim of a crime. I’m constantly aware of my surroundings and I’ve mastered the speed walk when somebody on long street tells me that my “shoes are untied”. I never have very much cash on me and I don’t use my phone out in public. I’m doing everything right, and so far, it’s worked. Last weekend though, I was hit in the face with reality, realizing that sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.
On Friday night, while coming out of a bar in De Waterkant with two friends I hang out with regularly, we were stopped and harassed by the police. We had broken no laws, and showed no signs that would warrant any kind of suspicion. I thought they would just stay in their car once they realized that we were not under the influence of any substance, and were just calling it an early night and heading home. Instead, they grew hostile. Maybe it was because they saw the glitter on my friend’s face or maybe they just wanted a bribe. Even after my friend told them very clearly that we weren’t doing anything wrong, they got out of their vehicle and said that they needed to search us. They forced us to empty our pockets while patting us down, claiming that they were looking for dagga (marijuana), which of course we did not have. I was terrified. I knew that this search was unlawful, that the Criminal Procedures Act guarantees a right to privacy in South Africa, and that police cannot randomly search people on the street. But in the moment, in reality, what could we have done? They were armed, and could have just arrested us had we objected to the search. They searched my friend’s wallet, and only looked in the compartment where cash goes. Luckily, he didn’t have any as they were clearly just trying to see how much money he had. After the search, when they finally understood that we were not doing anything wrong, they left.
In the car heading home, I asked my friends how common things like that are. They said it’s pretty rare, and that usually the cops are looking for an illegal substance so that they can solicit a bribe in place of an arrest. My friends were a little rattled, but they seemed to be used to it, almost desensitized to the situation. I was rattled, and I still am. I realized that despite all of my precautions, if the police are the ones committing crimes, becoming a victim is difficult to avoid. It felt as though the cops may have targeted us explicitly because we were in a gay neighborhood, coming from a gay bar, and some were covered in glitter from dancing. That probably was not the case though. Well, I hope so.
Obviously, this is not unique to South Africa. In the US, cops commit crimes all the time. Many people of color in the US experience this sense of powerlessness at the hands of bad cops every day. I’m extremely privileged in the way that while it’s scary for me here, when I go home I don’t have to worry about it anymore. I don’t have to worry about being stopped and searched randomly. Millions of US citizens do have to worry, not just about searches, but about assaults and shootings. A fear of law enforcement is the reality for so many people living in the US. I almost feel bad for being so rattled by the incident, with the knowledge that in my entire life, this is the first time I have felt unsafe in the presence of a police officer.
This small incident reflects the disconnect between South Africa’s laws and South Africa’s realities. Yes, the law says that police can’t search people randomly, but they do. The law also says that prisoners can’t be tortured by their warders, yet they are. The country is supposed to protect women, and LGBT people from persecution, but it doesn’t. South Africa has perhaps the most progressive constitution on the planet, but it’s just a piece of paper. Life on the ground is nothing like the country envisioned its constitution.
Incidents like this put the booming private security industry into perspective. It often takes more than 30 minutes for a cop to arrive at a crime scene in the Western Cape. Once the cops arrive, you wouldn’t really want them there anyway, knowing how corrupt they can be. Instead, many people here turn to private security companies that have faster response times. It’s an issue because the armed response companies aren’t usually completely just in their actions either. They are also incredibly expensive, leaving the vast majority of Capetonians without protection, and vulnerable to all kinds of crime.
Finally, I’m going to do my best to stop this incident from bothering me. It’s very unlikely that it will happen again, and nothing bad ended up happening to us. I don’t want fear to stop me from engaging in this city. Of course, this statement is full of privilege because I have the luxury to go on with my life here feeling safe 99% of the time. I’ve certainly learned from this experience, and I think I have a clearer picture of what it means to be unjustly targeted by the police. This was just a tiny glimpse of what it must feel like for people living with discriminatory policing practices in the United States.