Ms. Dean left the classroom unattended for at least 10 minutes—long enough for all of us sixth graders to hop out of our seats, migrate across the room, and chat about anything other than schoolwork.
My friend Zach and I were hanging out by the window, discussing the merits of Offspring’s Smash (popular among 11-year-olds in 1994), when we noticed a Fort Worth police officer enter the building, one floor below. He stared up at us from the main entrance, and as we exchanged looks, Zach interrupted our chat, stuck his head out the window, and hollered, “I smell bacon!” We burst into laughter, and returned to our conversation without a second thought.
Minutes later, the officer appeared in our classroom. He was a tall, imposing white man with a standard-issue policeman’s mustache and Oakley sunglasses hanging from his shirt collar. He looked at me and pointed.
“You. Over here. Now,” the officer said in a terse Hank Hill-esque Texan accent. I didn’t know why he wanted me; Zach was the one who heckled him. There was no way he could have confused my black moptop and brown face with Zach’s platinum-blonde bowl cut and pale skin.
The officer stood beside me, putting his right hand on my shoulder. “Listen up!” he shouted to the rest of the class, as he grabbed my neck, put me into a headlock, and held my head tightly against his hip.
I tried my best not to resist; the more I moved, the more painful it felt. So I just stood there limply, the officer’s thick dark navy shirt pressed firmly against my cheek, while he lectured us about the virtues of respecting police who risk their lives for our safety.
I tried my best not to resist; the more I moved, the more painful it felt
I didn’t listen to him. Instead, my eyes focused on the officer’s gun, inches away from my face; it looked plastic up-close, almost fake. The subtle leather smell of his belt and holster wafted into my nose.
“I would take a bullet for all of you,” he said, pointing his available index finger at a room full of mostly white, upper middle-class 11-year-olds. (I was one of only three Latino kids in a class of 24.)
The headlock lasted no more than 45 seconds, but time seemed to slow down, as my heart rate escalated. I was frightened because I didn’t do anything, yet the officer still handled me violently. I knew what police were capable of doing. I didn’t want to get arrested, and I really didn’t want to die.
One of the first lessons my mother taught me was to always ask for a receipt when making a purchase, in case a store clerk or security guard accused me of stealing. Even though two of her brothers were police officers, she was overprotective and always made sure I knew to be careful around law enforcement.
“I was afraid that if something happened, you would be the one they picked up,” my mother told me over the phone recently. “I told you not to trust the cops because I didn’t think they were going to protect you.”
She said my life could be at risk regardless of how young or innocent I was. She told me about her fear of police as a teen, as well as my grandpa’s distrust of them.
“Daddy was always afraid of cops,” she said of my grandpa. “He felt they overstepped, that they were above the law. He actually used to call them perros—dogs—and he laughed when they portrayed cops as bulldogs on cartoons. They were all dirty, he thought. They were all wrong. But he never really came out and told us what they did to him.”
My mother recounted rumors she had heard in her youth about how police in Fort Worth, Texas, would shoot first and ask questions later.
“Whenever they talked to us, they would talk to us like we were idiots,” she said. “But my fear of cops increased when they killed him.”
“Him” was Santos Rodriguez, a young Mexican-American boy murdered by a Dallas police officer in 1973. It was the first story about police violence my mother had ever told me, several years before I was held in a headlock.
When my mother was 14, Santos was 12. His father, an undocumented immigrant, was deported; shortly after, his mother Bessie Rodriguez was convicted of murder in 1970 when she fatally shot her boyfriend, a man she alleged had stabbed, shot, and beat her, and then threatened to kill her family. Bessie killed him in what some say was self-defense, but served five years in prison.
Santos and his older brother David, 13, were then placed in the care of their elderly grandfather, while their younger siblings moved to foster homes.
On July 24, 1973, a Dallas police officer named Roy Arnold saw three children running from a gas station that had just been burglarized. Arnold thought he recognized two of them as the Rodriguez brothers, who had gotten in trouble with police before.
Around 2 a.m., Arnold and his partner Darrell Cain went to the Rodriguez house to wake up David, Santos, and their grandfather, who spoke little English. Arnold and Cain handcuffed the boys, threw them into a squad car, and took them to the gas station where $8 had been stolen from a vending machine. They then interrogated the pair—David handcuffed in the front seat with Arnold, Santos handcuffed in the back with Cain—who claimed not to know anything.
Frustrated, Cain emptied all but one cartridge from his gun, and pressed the barrel against Santos’s head, urging him to tell the truth.
He pulled the trigger once, and the hammer clicked.
Again, Santos said he didn’t know anything. “I am telling the truth,” he told the officer.
Still, Cain spun the cylinder, and pulled the trigger a second and final time.
Darrell Cain was found guilty of murder with malice, and sentenced to five years in prison for killing Santos, but only ended up serving half that time. The Rodriguez brothers’ fingerprints were nowhere to be found on the robbed vending machine, according to testimony made by the officer who dusted the scene.
“We found out about Santos on the radio,” my mother recalled. “After it happened, it was on the news. [Cain] had said it was an accident, but he was playing Russian roulette with him.”
Santos’ death was forever seared in her mind. My mother knew right then and there that she had to make sure the same thing wouldn’t happen to her own children.
“It was my responsibility—I never wanted anything to happen to you,” she told me. “And I just wanted you to know how it happened to Santos. I felt like they just swept it under the carpet."
“Nothing happened to [Cain]. He lived a full life after he took a little kid’s.”
Twenty-one years later, I told my mother about those seconds I spent in the headlock—a memory I had kept from her since it happened. She went noticeably quiet.
“You never told me that!” she said after a long pause.
“I thought I was going to get in trouble,” I replied. “That’s why I didn’t tell you. But I was scared.”
In that moment, I wondered if her suspicions had been confirmed—that in my classroom full of upper middle-class white kids, the officer would choose me.
I didn’t feel pain when he released me from the headlock. Only shame.
And now, every time I’m pulled over—when a police officer runs my plates at a red light, accuses me of having stolen my own car, or simply stops me for forgetting to signal—I tense up. No matter the reason, I am momentarily overcome with fear and guilt. I should have signaled sooner. I shouldn’t have stolen my own car.
“Why did he pick you and not the other kid?” my mother asked.
But she already knew why. We both knew.