The following account is written by a Chicago resident and retired Chicago Public School teacher regarding an incident involving her encounter with on-duty Chicago Police officers. The accounts below is based on her recollection and opinion.
RENT A U-HAUL AND TAKE A BULLET…
By Donna Barney
Let me begin by saying that I am a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher that was nearly murdered by the Chicago Police on the night of July 27. Before I begin the details as to what occurred, I must start by saying that a few years ago I taught in the community of West Englewood in Chicago. While serving as the 8th grade graduation coordinator, one of my duties was to find a speaker for the event. I decided to contact the District Commander. He was delighted and set out to meet the students beforehand.
On the day of the Commander’s arrival, I was startled by the reactions of my personable and energetic students who had suddenly become sullen and standoffish. As he walked around the room extending his hands to meet them and trying to engage in conversations, the students stood huddled in corners silently with their backs turned towards him. Many would not shake his hand. These children, who were often effervescent at times, showed anger at this uniformed man they had never previously met. Even Chris, our class comedian, turned his head to avoid facing him as he reluctantly shook the Commander’s hand. Besides being embarrassed, I didn’t understand why they showed such disrespect. You see, I hadn’t worked in that community very long, so I wasn’t aware of all the dynamics of living there.
After the Commander left, I decided to have a discussion with the students. The conversation was intense with nearly all of them telling me about their experiences of being harassed and intimidated by the police. Having members of my family in the military and law enforcement, I told them that perhaps some policemen needed to show aggression towards known violent criminals in the neighborhood. But clearly, these middle school kids should not be the aim of police aggression. These were college bound students who are not the norm of what the media highlights in Englewood. And as the conversations continued, what some of the students had experienced were physical acts of violence as well as intimidation with no regard to their constitutional rights. I now understood their behavior toward the Commander who was the symbol of the abuse they saw daily by living in Englewood.
As I previously stated, I’m from a family of police and military personnel. Basically, I abide by the laws and empathize with the duties of the police. But on that Wednesday night, while driving a rented U-Haul, I got a dose of the abuse and cruelty of some Chicago policemen.
It all started when I noticed a police car following me while driving northbound on Martin Luther King Drive. When I made a right turn, another police vehicle heading east followed the aforementioned. I thought to myself, they are really patrolling this community. As I approached a street signaling to turn left, a westbound unmarked car slowed to a stop and I assumed that it was allowing me to turn left out of courtesy. I began turning left and then suddenly, the car’s lights began to flash and it sped up and drove towards the van. I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting it and I saw more police vehicles move close to the van. These police officers got out of their vehicles and moved towards the van with their guns out and pointed at us.
“Hands up! Put your hands up!” my sixteen year old niece and young helper shouted at me. “Anybody in the back?” the one officer commandingly asked. The young male helper had been laying in the cabin area of the van. “Get out of the car!” My niece and young helper got out of the van and were handcuffed behind the back by another officer. “What did we do? Why are you all doing this to us?” I heard them say.
“I better see your hands higher.” The officer said to me all the while with his gun pointed in the direction of my head. He was at the front of the van and I had my hands near the steering wheel. There was an uneasiness to this, after all, my foot was still on the brakes. I distinctly thought to put the transmission in park and gazed slightly downward, and that officer now aimed his gun towards my chest. “I’m gonna shoot you.” he said. “I need to put it in park!” I shouted. Two of the policemen then moved to the driver’s door, both had guns out with the one still pointing in the direction of my head. The one opened the door and watched as I placed the van in park. The other officer ordered me to the side of the van and followed behind me with the gun pointed at my head. Clearly, I had no weapon, and as a small woman, I was no match to his towering physique, but he still felt the need to keep the gun on me.
“What did we do?” I asked. “Look at the van, don’t turn, just keep your hands on the van,” he ordered. I saw another officer go through the purse and belongings of my niece and our helper. The young man was very upset and was arguing with one of the officers. It was getting very heated and I was still asking, “Why am I being stopped?” One officer said, “I am going to handcuff you and take you to the station.” There were no explanations of what we did wrong.
As my hands were pressed on the van, I thought of many things. One of those things that flashed for a second was how my students must have felt. Then I remembered that my sister, a police officer, told me if you’re ever pulled over, to get their badge numbers and names. “Could I have your name and badge number sir?” I asked. “You better not step away from that van.” he stated.
“Yeah, could I have your badge number?” the young helper repeated while facing an officer. “Your dumb ass can’t remember 5 numbers,” the officers retorted. And this caused more inflamed rhetoric from the young man.
Some people on the sidewalk moved towards the street and asked the police what was going on. One officer shouted at the onlookers to get back. More people came out and two officers told them not to come near the street. All of the cars were now blocking the streets. Then one of the officers approached me and told me to come to his car. He was calm and said that he wanted to hear my explanation as to why I had this van, and he advised me that it was reported stolen by U-Haul. Finally, I found out why we were stopped.
“What?” I asked in shock. I proceeded to tell him that I had rented it that evening to drive for someone who needed a few things moved and I had the rental papers to prove it. I explained that the young passengers were my 16 year-old niece and a family friend who were helping me. The officer took the rental agreement papers and directed me to the side of his vehicle, then he quickly glanced at the other officer and my young male helper who were now close to each other and shouting profanities. I asked him if I could go over to try and calm the family friend down. As I approached, I heard the two arguing while another officer held his hands behind the boy’s head. “I will push your head through this glass window, ” the officer threatened. I asked my young helper to calm down and just keep his face at the van’s back window without looking at those officers.
Again I returned to the calm officer, who was reviewing the papers and checking his laptop with a worried look as he gazed up to see the agitated officer come close up against the back of my young helper, who turned around and shouted at him. I went over again and as I approached, I heard the officer say, “I like to get you on Cottage, you better shut the f—- up.”
“You are saying things to edge him on.” I told the belligerent officer. That’s when I happened to see his name. They all seemed reluctant to identify themselves, but at least I got one name. He walked away and another officer came over and asked, “What is going on? What did he find out?” I told him that this looked like a mistake, that perhaps the U-Haul company had given me a van that they previously reported stolen.
“I’m the one that pointed the gun at you,” the abusive office said as if this was his badge of honor. I told him, “I know,” and thought it was ironic that he was about to shoot me without knowing what was going on. Just get the target – no need to know the reason. He then tried talking to my young helper as I returned to the other officer.
“My father’s a police officer,” said my niece as she turned and told the officer who removed the handcuffs from her. A short time later, they removed the handcuffs from our family helper. “I don’t see why we are not taking her in,” I heard the belligerent police officer say as he sat in the vehicle with the officer reviewing my papers. The calmer officer asserted, “I told you, I just looked at her, and I didn’t believe that she looked like she would steal a van. She has papers that show she rented it and charged it to her credit card. I’m trying to call U-Haul.”
The abusive officer retorted, “She didn’t return it on time, and it is now stolen and we need to take them in. I know how U-Haul operates, if you don’t turn it in on time, it is reported stolen.” He seemed insistent upon having me locked up.
“You can keep it longer because it’s on a credit card.” I said. The calm officer held his hands up for me not to talk to that officer. It made no sense to explain that I had rented a van two days earlier and was charged a few dollars extra for not returning it on time. I watched the belligerent officer pull up information on the young man on the police laptop and use his cell phone to take pictures. He did the same with my information. I was about to say something, but decided that since he is so hostile, I will handle this matter differently. How dare he put citizens’ personal information on his cell phone!
“He don’t have anything, I’m surprised,” the belligerent officer told the calmer one in regard to the young man who did not have a criminal record. “She neither,” the officer added. I shook my head. These officers think that every Black person they stop in a poor community must be a criminal.
The officer went on to speak to the local U-Haul on the phone and gave me back my papers. “Such a bad experience,” he said. I thought, perhaps a glimmer of hope, someone showing some humanity. “Do I get any papers or a report regarding this?” I asked. “No,” was his response. He told me that I can contact U-Haul, and then they sped off. No apology. Nothing. It’s funny, because the time and manpower that these officers spent in their sports utility, gas guzzling vehicles, going after a retired teacher and 2 youths, they could have been better spent preventing crimes by patrolling the streets on foot. But it takes real courage to walk the streets, and much less bravery to go after the innocent vulnerable in vehicles – especially one old lady and a 16 year-old girl (without knowing there was also a young man in the vehicle). What is the likelihood of a retired teacher and a young female driving a stolen U-Haul? Is there misogyny on the force? Or are these just some cowards with character flaws and anger management issues?
“They didn’t even apologize,” my niece said as we boarded the van. “They don’t care,” said the helper. Unfortunately, he is right. These police officers utterly failed to value Black lives. And this is not a racial issue. There were Black officers as well as White involved in our seizure. Both viewed us as less in value to that of an insured vehicle, and they were willing to kill us for it. And herein lies the similarity of our incident to that of Paul O’Neal, whose murder has been highlighted on the news. The officers that shot at O’Neal did not care who got shot in the midst of their fray, just as long as they got the guy who stole the vehicle. The policemen who seized us were willing to shoot and kill us for presuming that we took a U-Haul van. The vehicles were more important than our lives. And here is the problem: it all comes back to one’s character. All the training cannot change the character of an individual. If individuals do not value life, they won’t value it on the streets. You cannot teach character. Either you have it, or not.
If I didn’t know any police officers, I would say that they are all flawed. But I know those who have the right character for the job. For example, the Commander who I introduced to my students had real character. He did not let the students’ rude behavior cause him to stray from reaching out to them. Before addressing the students at their graduation, he set up poetry slams and other activities at the station. Students looked forward to going there on some Saturdays and spending time at the station. They got to know many of the officers, and this allowed them to view some policemen in a caring and positive light. The Commander has long moved on, but he left a positive impression on the kids. Perhaps because he understood the social impact of his position, he viewed it not just a job. And that understanding is inborn in his character. It is too bad there is no way to totally ascertain character, what a good police officer needs as a prerequisite for the job.
The next morning I thought of what could have happened if the police officer pulled the trigger, and I had taken a bullet. Immediately, I wondered about what the reactions of my former students would have been, many of whom that graduated from colleges and universities and are productive citizens today. What would this have done to them? Would it have shaken their faith in our systems of government? Or would it confirm what we see in the headlines? What does it say that a teacher who was once awarded a grant from President Obama, an award from the Michael Jordan foundation, and was now a victim of the Chicago police. This should not have happened. Instead of playing a game of trickery, it would have been a better practice to pull me over and ask to see my license and U-Haul rental contract. Instead, these officers chose a harsher tactic. Sad. I only hope that they re-examine protocol. We – all innocent people – could have lost out lives. And with this experience, we lost something else.
Immediately after the incident, I contacted the corporate office at U-Haul to give the details of what had occurred. An agent gave me a reference number and told me that the corporate office would contact me within 48 hours. Unfortunately, they never contacted me. And as far as I am concerned, U-Haul is not a decent company. They are the real culprits in this unfortunate occurrence. And they show that they don’t care about the dangers that they pose to their customers with the use of their equipment. Clearly, my experience should be a warning to anyone renting those orange and white vans. To be so irresponsible as to rent out a van that they reported stolen which could have cost three innocent individuals their lives. This speaks volumes about U-Haul. Rent a U-Haul at your own peril: you could take a bullet.
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