Q & A WITH TIGER BROWN
At the end of the summer of 2016, Library Assistant Tiger Brown ‘13 was preparing for his senior year at Claremont McKenna College, where he studied economics and psychology and was a member of the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team as a defensive back. As he was 21 and had three years of prior experience of getting settled into college, Tiger decided to take on the move-in process on his own, flying out to California by himself to get ready for school, while his parents stayed back in Georgia to help his younger brother Jean-Luc move into his freshman dorm at Mercer University in Macon.
According to Tiger, it was just a normal Tuesday, the day before football camp was starting. Since college was across the country, he had always kept most of his belongings in a storage unit in California. On this day, he cleared out the unit and packed his entire dorm room into a van that his mom had previously rented for him. Staying in an Airbnb guest house before being able to move back to campus, Tiger headed back to his temporary home in his rented van.
When he took a left into the neighborhood he was staying in, pulling into the driveway of the house, a police officer behind him turned his lights on and pulled him over. It was in that moment, sitting in his Airbnb’s driveway with a cop behind him, that the normal Tuesday that Tiger had been having completely changed.
In a conversation with Tiger, he addressed this encounter that he had with the police.
What was going through your mind when you got pulled over?
That summer, I felt hyper-aware of what was going on because there had been a few police shootings, so I personally was already grabbing my license and registration, so it didn’t look like I had to rummage through anything when the police officer came up to my car. I wanted to have everything I needed out just because I had a giant dorm room of stuff piled in the back of the car. Then, I just waited for the officer to come to the window.
But, he just didn’t come, so I finally took a look into my side mirror to see where he was. At that point, I looked out and saw him with his door open, window down and a gun pointed at me. I had no idea what was going on. I fully thought I had a brain fart and just forgot to put on my turn signal at the light. But he had his gun out.
At first, I was very confused and upset because I was not going to be able to afford a ticket right before my senior year and upcoming football season. But when I fully realized that he still had his gun pointed at me, I stopped worrying about all money issues.
I began to think that there were only two scenarios that could come out of this situation. I thought I was either going to go to jail or I was going to die. I wanted to go to jail. There, I could figure out what was going on.
So, what did the police officer do next?
I then rolled down my window and put my hands outside because I did not know what he thought had happened or who he thought he was dealing with. He was yelling to keep them out. I guess I stayed there with my arms hanging out of the window for about 10 to 15 minutes.
After that first command, I asked if I could possibly adjust my arm as it was in an awkward position, but I got yelled at, so I just stayed where I was. The same voice then told me to open the door from the outside of the car, so I did with my arms in the air. At that point, I got to see everything that had happened on the street while I was just sitting there.
What had happened while you were in your car?
As I was moving away from the car, I realized how packed the street had gotten. What was a residential street, only two blocks from campus, was entirely filled with police cars, both marked and unmarked. I could see flashing lights from each end of the intersection, blocking off the street.
The actual officers were all tactically hidden behind their cars, covered while pointing their guns at me. If the officers were not holding a gun pointed at me, they were holding a dog. What I had already thought was a bad situation became even worse because I had no idea why this was happening to me.
How were you feeling when you saw all of the officers with guns pointed at you?
As I said, I really thought I was either going to be arrested or killed. I was in my head thinking that I was literally going to get a hashtag. Then, I started thinking, what are people going to think? I just wanted to get out of the situation without being shot. The police officers were fully yelling, “f-ing turn around, don’t look at us, look away.” So, I did as they said.
Also, it was one of those moments when I began to take account of what I looked like, which I had never done before. At that point in time, I had just tattooed my forearm, my hair was cut in a mohawk with blonde tips, my ears were pierced and I was wearing a snapback hat and athletic clothes. I kind of thought that that was not a good look, even though it was normal for me my entire life. It was who I had always been, so I didn’t think anything of it until that moment.
When did the police officers make their next move or explain the situation?
Soon, an officer came up to me, and put a gun against my back. Then, he interlocked my fingers on my head, and handcuffed me, which was a very cold feeling. Also, the officer was pulling my arm back, and he expected that in one movement he could cuff me, but naturally my body gave a jerk, so with that I got told to “stop f-ing resisting.”
I finally got the first chance to ask what was going on, and he told me straight up, “we will let you know what is going on when we get this figured out.” I had no clue what that meant and didn’t realize that you could be put in cuffs and thrown into a car without being read your rights or being told what was even going on. He just kept telling me that he would let me know what was happening eventually.
But, at that rate, I was no longer at risk of dying as I was just sitting in the cop car. As f-ed up as it may seem, it was comforting to be put in cuffs and walked to a police car, which is not OK for anyone to ever have to say. However, I was still uncomfortable as I had heard of names of people, like Sandra Bland, who died in police custody, and no one knew what was going on.
I was just sitting there for I have no idea how long, wondering if I was ever going to be able to call my parents, and what they would even be able to do when I called them.
What were the other officers doing in this moment?
I watched them walk around my rental, go through everything inside, talk to my Airbnb hosts and the people who were watching from the end of the street. It was a residential street, but there were shops at the end, so everyone was curious what was going on.
I was just sitting in the car chilling then, and I was just left to think. I didn’t know how I was going to operate jail, what the night was going to look like, if I was going to be able to start football the next day.
Were you ever told what was even going on?
An officer eventually came up to me and asked “do you know why you are here?” In my frustration, I was looking at him, saying “you tell me because I have no clue what is going on.” He then said that the car had been reported stolen. I didn’t know what that meant. I asked when it had been stolen, and he said it had been reported stolen a month prior in Las Vegas, when I was literally in Georgia.
Interestingly enough, they only had a report of a stolen vehicle, but nothing else. All they knew was there was a stolen vehicle and a black driver. He then asked me for my license and registration, and I said it was somewhere around the van, as I had to drop it when I got yelled at for holding it. I can’t imagine what they thought when they found out they made me drop a plastic license and piece of paper.
When they finally verified my rental, they said that I wasn’t responsible and let me go. It was a total flip of innocence until proven guilty, as I was entirely guilty until proven innocent. The cops did their best to apologize, which I guess I appreciated as much as I could after they were all pointing their guns at me.
They pretty much all left, except for the initial officer who pulled me over, so I had to sit with the first arresting officer for about three hours to figure out how to prove that the car was my rental and was not stolen by me.
What were those three hours like with the police officer who had initially pulled you over?
I was not paying much attention to anything, but he then grabbed my arm, and asked if I had new ink on my arm, as I did. He even asked what my tattoo said. He then started writing down everything about it on his notepad. It has always sat a bit strange with me that he was still identifying me after the situation had been cleared up.
What did you do when you were finally released?
Thankfully, the other officers had cleared up with my Airbnb host what had happened. The Airbnb host even came up to me and let me know that he was a former convicted felon and had been to jail, but had never been arrested like that. He was nothing but apologetic.
It was crazy that my comfort came from me finding out that my Airbnb host was a convicted felon. He was an older white man on top of that, so I was just appreciative that he understood what had happened.
After that, I called my mom. It was not a fun phone call. Not a fun phone call at all. I had never had a situation in four years when my mom said she would drop everything to come see me. She was completely torn up. I said it was OK, and I guess I just was holding it together for her.
Have you ever known someone who has experienced something like this?
That night, I decided to go to campus, just hoping that someone would be there. A handful of my coaches were there, so I explained what had happened. Once I told them what happened, each and every coach of color then had a story of their own to tell me, exactly in the same way with a large number of police force, getting arrested and having no idea what was going on. That same day, five of my coaches told me that the same thing had happened to them.
How did you process this experience and how did you move forward?
Well, the next day, the school year was starting. To be honest, I don’t think I ever gave myself enough time to sit and process it. I enjoyed school but little things stayed persistent throughout my time. When cops came to campus to break up parties, I hated that. When cops drove around, I felt uncomfortable. I just never really felt safe anymore. I just pretended that everything was OK. Before that moment, I never really understood any of this.
How do you think the police system can change?
The militarization that has happened over the years is unnecessary. I think police education needs to expand. I think police officers must be held accountable for their actions. Police officer stands for peace officer, and their job is to de-escalate. I think it is clear that that isn’t the case for a lot of officers. Somehow it has become an excuse that because their job is dangerous, they can slip up and make mistakes.
I am not saying that people don’t make mistakes, but if a doctor messes up a surgery, that is malpractice or if a lawyer starts cutting corners, they are held accountable. There are systems in place that will hold these people accountable. I think that police officers are realistically not, though.
Another thing is that as a country, we need to recognize that the system in place was created to keep certain people in their place. The police system as is right now is geared to help certain people and keep others in their place. If things do not change, we are inevitably looking at a crash in this system.
What perspective or mindset did this encounter with the police give you?
Honestly, four or five months ago, I had no hope for this country or the system. I would not have been sitting here, talking to you, just because I would have thought it was wasting my time, as nothing was going to change. However, my mindset now is that people are willing to listen and learn.
I have concluded that if there is someone different than you, do not form an opinion of them until you have heard them talk about their own experience. I have also become aware of other people or groups that struggle.
I started to think, what does my mom have to deal with? What does a brown man or woman have to go through that I wouldn’t understand? What do Hispanic people go through that I wouldn’t understand? What do people in the LGBTQIA community deal with that I wouldn’t understand? What do women go through that I wouldn’t understand?
Overall, my mindset now is to just shut up and listen for what you don’t know and to speak up for what you do know. My story is my story, and I couldn’t tell you what other black men go through. I just want people to listen to others.
Do you have any final words to share today?
I would just ask anyone different from you what is going on in their lives. People are subject to things that you may never understand, but you can always try to listen. Just spread some love.
Top Photo: Tiger Brown with his parents at his Claremont McKenna College graduation in 2017. Photo: Tiger Brown