Contrôler. Pronounced Kawh-tro-lay. It’s a French word that is used to describe the act of performing any sort of check or verification – be it the collection of a train ticket, official approval of one’s identification when crossing borders, or controversial contraband searches and/or citizenship verification in French cities, highly disproportionately aimed at people of color. You can image the disdain and fear accorded to being the subject of a control in France, particularly in the latter sense.
In my year there, which ended in 2011, I came close to being controlled by the police only once, near a bar in Rouen called Zulu that was as wonderful as it was rough around the edges, as untrustworthy as it was free spirited. Despite my fortune, I never let my guard down, never leaving home without a passport on me based on several past experiences abroad.
One of these occurred during more than a month of backpacking in 2009. I left my passport at a friend’s house in Strasbourg, in eastern France, and boarded a train headed towards Basel, Switzerland. We planned to get off for a few hours in Colmar, a French city twenty miles to the south, before returning. Because the train was eventually set to cross the Swiss border, a team of four or five customs agents stormed into the car, outfitted in their loud orange vests and athletic pants.
The fact that I tried to pass a New Jersey driver’s license as a valid form of ID was unfathomable to them. “That means nothing to us,” they remarked as my French friend, equipped with a national identification card, tried her best to vouch for my claim that I was indeed a tourist who followed all of the EU length of stay rules. More important, as I understood the whole time, was showing that I was a legitimate American tourist – not a Moroccan or Algerian as they almost certainly assumed.
After begging for a pardon, I sat there nervously as they decided my fate over the course of a few minutes. It didn’t look promising, as at least a couple of the agents seemed itching to make an arrest.
I was spared, fortunately.
In 2011, Plainfield rapper MC Enigma wouldn’t be so lucky during his year in Panama. In fact, what he endured was infinitely worse than that which would have awaited me.
But I’ll let him tell you in his piece called “Locked up Abroad”, which first appeared as a two part series on Bishop’s Travels.
Warning: this story contains strong language, stronger emotions, and graphic details.
Locked up Abroad
S**t was everywhere.
I hadn’t understood the saying, “this tastes like s**t,” until I’d inhaled a deep breath of hot air filled with excrement and urine vapor in my 8ft x 8ft cell that I shared with 6 other men at the police station in Juan Diaz. I hadn’t done anything wrong or committed any offense, but I was locked up abroad.
Bishop and I were kicking it with our newfound family in the barrio Concepcion in Juan Diaz in Panama City, Panama. The night before, there was a comparsa (a neighborhood parade where everyone is dancing outside and people have instruments, clink pans and pots, and sometimes men dress up as mystical creatures with dresses). Bishop was living in Caledonia with his woman at the time who practiced Santeria, and I was living on Calle 16 en Ciudad Radial. Everyone was out, even Caballo Loco, an old man and known character in the neighborhood who was notorious for dressing up like a woman and dancing on people when inebriated in the comparsa.
It was close to midnight when the police came. The comparsa died and people dispersed. Bishop had left a little before, returning to his cougar in Caledonia and just as I was about to head home, I was advised to spend the night and leave in the morning because it would be safer and the police were out. Whenever our Pana-fam told us that the police were out, it was to warn us that they occasionally apprehend and detain men at their discretion. The next morning I found out what they meant.
It was around 7 am when I’d walked from Concepcion to Ciudad Radial, my barrio. Before reaching my gate, I doubled back to the chinito (corner store owned by Chinese people) around the corner. I bought some coco-flakes and milk that I thought I’d be eating moments later in the comfort of the Sweatbox.
On the way back from the chinito, I’d turned onto Calle 16 and was footsteps from my gate when the police came. They hopped out like the gestapo with M16s and uzis drawn. My hands reached for the heavens and I froze. With several firearms aimed at me, one officer took the lead in questioning me.
“Tiene cedula,” the officer asked.
I gave him my passport and explained that I was from the US and was an English teacher in Marbella. I spoke in English first, then broken Spanish because my white co-workers at my job said to always speak English when the cops stop you. It had gotten them out of a lot of trouble, so I thought, I’d have similar luck. Little did I know.
The pig (a euphemism for the police primarily used by people of color, but not limited to said group, sarcastically) looked at his cohorts then looked back at me and said, “tiene plata?” I looked puzzled as if I didn’t understand what he meant, so he unstrapped his handgun that was attached to his chest holster and asked me again.
I kinda got the feeling that he meant business this time.
I reached deep into my pockets, unravelling both to show that I was broke. Some change fell out as I did this, so I slowly went to pick it up. It was about 75 cents. As I was counting it, the officer got aggravated and slapped the change out my hand and handcuffed me.
At gunpoint I was put into the back of the police truck and handcuffed to another detainee. This particular man was rambunctious, cursing the police and threatening to hurt them. The police kept telling him to shut up, pointing their large weapons at him. Our wrists were joined by the cuffs and as he got rowdy swinging his hands, he pulled me. I was trying my best to create as much distance between us in the back of the police truck, just in case they chose to shoot him.
I later learned in the cell that he was aggravated because the police apprehended him while he was walking down the street with his 3 year old daughter. The cops took him and left her in the street.
We arrived at the station and were escorted off two at a time. We were taken to the back, searched down to the undergarments (down to the birthday suit). All personal possessions, like keys and phones, were taken.
No charges, no rights being read and no phone calls. I was off the grid and completely unaware of what was going to happen to me.
We were walked outside and around the side to the holding cells.
The gust of funk that let out when the officer opened the cell door could’ve burned the ugly off the face of Mick Jagger. It was that putrid!
One by one the other captives entered.
I looked at the officer and said “por que?” He motioned with his uzi to my back to enter the cell.
When I first stepped foot into the cell, my sneakers slid on some dark, wet slippery substance. Before I looked down to see what it was, I’d already figured it out. There was about a thick 1-inch sheet of excrement glazing the floor of the jail cell. It was a mixture of liquid and solid.
I partially vomited in my mouth and swallowed it ecstatically, trying to cancel out the shitty taste that came with the smell of that horrid place.
The officer slammed door shut.
One detainee shouted, “chucha!”
The first hour was intense. We were all eyeing one another. One detainee with tattoos all over his chest started shouting obscenities through the cell doors towards the police. He then directed his angst toward an elderly man. The tatted captive tried to Deebo (slang for extorted, Deebo’ed : a colloquial term used by but not limited to inner-city youth that have likened extortion with a character from the film Friday) the old man, but his tirade was interrupted by the captive who was taken from his daughter. The man who’d had his child snatched from his hands wasn’t fazed by the threats of the tatted inmate. This guy wasn’t having it and he was already pissed off.
They bumped heads, literally.
The tattoo-covered detainee’s body flew from a headbutt that would make Zidane look like a novice.
In unison we all laughed at him. The tatted detainee then got up and reached for his belt and unravelled it, whipping his opponent. The pissed-off father then used his belt and they began whipping each other.
The other captives and I kept moving out of the way to avoid the lashes. The police noticed the commotion and came over.
As the two were tussling, without warning, these orange-ish streams of mist shot into the cell from outside. It was pepper spray!!!
I buried my face in my shirt and backed up to the wall. The cops were yelling for us to cut it out.
When the two fighting inmates got up off the ground and scattered, I temporarily forgot about the coughing and the pepper spray because I was disgusted and simultaneously perplexed at the sight of the feces-coated epidermises of the two combatants.
They just nonchalantly scraped and flicked it off as if it were dirt. Yuck, but hey what can you do? It was literally a shitty situation.
“Why the hell, matter of fact, how the hell did I get here,” I thought to myself.
An hour or so later, the tatted inmate discovered my bag of coco-flakes and milk.
“El tiene corn-flakes,” he said scheming through his periphery. Everyone’s eyes shifted to my bag.
I positioned my back against the wall and put them behind my back saying “no,” and motioning with my finger.
Then the tatted inmate came over to me with his hands out saying, “dame, dame.” He kept walking toward me until he was in my face.
“Donde eres loco?”
He backed up a little bit. I felt like Dave Chappelle in Half Baked…”right near de beach boyeee!” I’m from Plainfield, New Jersey but Panamanians, I believed, wouldn’t take too kindly to folks from a country that killed thousands of their countrymen during the invasion in 1989 and Operation Just Cause. I figured it was better to be what Sean Fury calls a “Jah-Fak-ian.”
Then a cop came to the cell door with my passport and said “el gringo?” I sped to the cell door and said “si.” The cop looked at the passport, then looked at me and said “okay,” then he walked away.
When I turned back around the whole cell was staring back at me. I quickly said that I’d lived in the states and Jamaica to downplay my United States-ness.
“Dame, dame,” the tatted inmate persisted, reaching for my bag of cereal and milk. I put my hand on his chest, pushing him back. He started yelling and so did the other inmates for my comeida y leche. He reached and I pushed, then the police started yelling for us to calm down.
When I looked to where the voice of the officer was coming from, I saw the nozzle of an uzi sticking into the cell door. We all scattered like roaches.
I maintained my grimace as a defense mechanism until the attention on my cereal and milk subsided.
Although they wanted my cereal, we all didn’t want that cop with the uzi to come back, so we chilled.
As the hours passed we paced, talked, and almost in unison at one point, sung the chorus of “Buay Del Barrio” by El Roockie.
“Hay adentro sentado piensa como escapar.”
There sitting inside thinking how to escape.
A couple more men were added to the cell, one of which was elderly. The old man overturned a garbage can that was filled to the top with urine and feces into the cell. Then, he used the upside-down garbage pail as a seat. I maintained an unaffected facade but was holding back from vomiting at the sight and smell of it all. The plot thickened….literally. It became harder to breathe in that cell, but I began to get used to it.
For some reason after a couple hours I thought about a conversation I’d had with my mother about Geronimo Pratt. She told me that in an interview he’d said that he was able to find peace of mind while serving as a political prisoner for 27 years. Peace of mind is something that is internal, regardless of outside factors. I’d internalized that and sat there thinking, “why am I here and what is the lesson in this?” I calmed down and controlled my core although the paranoia was very real, being that police were known for shooting indiscriminately at whoever questioned them with little to no consequence.
Before leaving for Panama one of the last texts I’d read was Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Davis. Was all of this to help me empathize with my sisters and brothers locked up in the US and abroad?
Prior to this experience I’d never been detained or arrested and have never spent any time in police custody. Nothing was more dehumanizing than being apprehended at gunpoint for not giving up money (extortion), handcuffed and thrown into a diarrhea glazed cell. As we called to the officers throughout the day, they’d ignored us as if we were nothing. When I was first being put into the cell, I remember looking into the eyes of the officer trying to appeal to his humanity. I was hoping he’d see that I was a human just like him and that these conditions were unjust and unsanitary, but he put the uzi to my back and pushed me into the cell.
I’d been in there for 13 hours until the doors just opened.
We were all told to leave.
I went to retrieve my passport from the front desk. The police woman gave it back and then told me to leave immediately. I’d asked her what I did and if I was being charged and she told me to leave in a more aggressive tone. Another officer came from behind the desk and unstrapped his handgun and said “tiene problema?”
I said, “no,” and walked out.
Since the cop had smacked the change out of my hand, I didn’t even have any money for a Diablo Rojo. I footed it, walking about 2 miles at night to Calle 16 in Ciudad Radial. I called Bishop who was looking for me all day. He’d thought I was kidnapped and we was right but not by street maliantes, but by the pigs!
When I got in, more than anything I wanted to shower, but there wasn’t any running water.
I threw the coco flakes down on my ironing board and just stared at them and reflected, happy that I managed to defend myself and not have them taken from me.
My one day behind bars was a horrible ordeal, but what’s more horrifying is the fact that this happens all the time and all over the world. My experience definitely helped me empathize with those who’ve been incarcerated or detained, but how many didn’t get let out in a day? This was an injustice and that day I’ll never get back, but how many folks disappeared in similar situations or were beaten to a bloody pulp for not complying to being extorted by corrupt police? Or how many were detained indefinitely never to be heard from again? This happened August 29th 2011 and it changed my life.
When I talked to my co-workers at the language school that I taught at, all of the black american co-workers had also been detained at some point during their stay in Panama, but my white american co-workers hadn’t. My white co-workers said once they talked english and said they were American, they were left alone. Jim Crow, my friends has passports and as an American citizen one must be extra careful while traveling especially if you’re a black man. The sad thing is that my story is not a unique one. If you’ve been unjustly detained while traveling while in the US or abroad, please share your story below. I know I’m not alone and that there are far worse cases. Thanks for reading.
Be safe while traveling and watch out for one time.
“It’s the dirty cop, that’s the one you need to watch.” – Erykah Badu