By: D. Watkins/Salon.com
It was 1995, and we were scheduled to leave the east side of Baltimore for Kings Dominion the next morning. I had big plans: to ride all the rides, eat funnel cake, crack jokes on the three-hour bus ride with my classmates to the theme park, and sleep on the ride home. And to debut my new Nikes on this school trip — the Air Max 95s — with the top strings undone, like my boy JT from West Baltimore showed me. “I don’t know why, but the girls love when I don’t tie my shoes alla way up!” he’d say. “Wear them string loose, D!”
“Yo, stay the night at my spot. I got the house to myself — mom on a church trip,” my homie Larry told me as we shot jumpers in front of the rec center. “We can get up early and be the first ones on the bus in the morning. I want to sit next to Shannon, and you should sit with her sister.”
I packed my bag and headed to Larry’s. We ordered Chinese food and sat in the front of his house, laughing, joking, calling girls from school, and eating shrimp fried rice and Beef Yat Gaw Mein — we pronounced it yak-a-me, and Larry could finish a family size order on his own — until two o’clock in the morning. I laid my trip clothes across the top of his couch, noticing how my new white shirt enhanced the texture of my those Nikes, and then dozed off to reruns of “Def Comedy Jam.”
Pop! Pop pop! I woke up. Gunshots in movies sound like BOOOM! but in real life they go, Pop! Pop pop!
Larry was asleep in another room. I peeked out of the window and saw cop cars swarming the front of the projects outside. Sometimes people get shot in Baltimore. I laid back down to go to sleep.
“Yoooooo, who the fuck is that!” I heard Larry yell from upstairs.
I climbed over the couch and hid, but someone picked me up by my neck, flipped me back over the couch, slammed me on the floor, and buried my face into the carpet. It was the police. A cop dragged Larry down the stairs, his head hitting every step like a rag doll.
We were minors, but we were taken downtown without our parents’ consent to homicide, where we were held for hours and questioned. No food, no phone calls to our parents or anyone else. We missed the bus to Kings Dominion, and with it the trip we had waited the whole school year to go on. (The crazy thing about it? That wasn’t even the first time I had been trapped down in homicide as a minor for no reason at all.)
Being caught up in a violent sweep for an active shooter at large sounds like a dramatic outlier, but the experience of having the cops bust into your home without knocking or even announcing themselves is on the rise. The use of no knock warrants has grown expeditiously over the past 40 years — from 1,500 issued annually in the early 1980s to more than 45,000 in 2010, according to Peter Kraska, an expert on the militarization of police and Eastern Kentucky University professor.
On March 13, three police officers executing a no knock search warrant for Breonna Taylor’s apartment in the South End of Louisville were in the process of banging down her door when her boyfriend Kenneth Walker fired a shot at what he thought was an unlawful home invasion — he and neighbors say the police didn’t identify themselves, though the cops claim otherwise. The police broke down the door and fired a barrage of gunshots, more than 20, into the apartment. One fired 10 rounds “wantonly and blindly,” in the words of the acting police chief when he fired the officer in question, who remains the only cop present that evening to be terminated for his actions. Five bullets struck Breonna, an emergency medical technician with no record of criminal activity or involvement, and she died on the floor of her apartment. The investigation into her death remains open.
The logic of no knock warrants rests on the belief that cops should be allowed to retain the upper hand via the element of surprise when searching for illegal substances or when looking for suspects. They give police the power to locate their targets at their most vulnerable, and they are supposed to help avoid shootouts between police and armed criminals, along with other dangers. The problem is the power that the element of surprise allows police. When police abuse that power, they’re often protected from consequences by the system, even when these searches turn up nothing.
And if these so-called criminals whose homes are being searched aren’t even dangerous? Or even criminals at all? Do those families’ lives deserve to be disrupted? Do they deserve to be put in the position that Walker was put in — to defend himself and his partner against what he thought were dangerous criminals? Did Breonna Taylor deserve to die as a result?
This is a result of poor policing combined with the unchecked power of a no knock warrant, and the cops who killed Breonna Taylor should be arrested and charged.
In reaction to the public outrage over the death of Breonna Taylor in combination with my own experience in house raids, I had a series of conversations with people caught up in house raids in different parts of the country where no knocks are still taking place. The results were uniformly terrible.
Cheyanne and Ezekiel, Westside Baltimore, 2009
The Baltimore City Police Department busted down Cheyanne’s front door.
Cheyanne, who lived with her parents at the time, came home to discover her things scattered all over the place. The sight came as a shock; Cheyanne comes from a church family.
“The police picked a pair of your Nikes up and asked if you sold drugs,” her dad told her. “I told them you were home visiting from college.”
Cheyanne’s brother Ezekiel, who lived next door, returned from a trip to Chicago to find his place raided too: his front door broken, his mattresses slit open, and all of his work identification cards and other job-related documents spread out across his kitchen table.
The police didn’t leave a copy of a search warrant at Ezekiel’s house, so he grabbed the copy left at his parents’ and headed to the police station to demand answers. The officer who conducted the search started an unnecessary argument with Ezekiel before forking over a copy of the warrant.
According to the warrant, a confidential informant claimed without proof that drugs were being sold out of the two residences. The cops found nothing in their search and filed no charges. What they did do was leave behind busted furniture and a door they
Ezekiel reached out to a lawyer for help, but was told that since nobody was hurt in the raid, there was really nothing that he could do to get reimbursed for the property damages, let alone obtain any information about the source who made the false claim. Forget about an apology from anyone.
Eleven years have passed. That door is still messed up.
Unnamed State Prosecutor, 2019
“I watched body-worn camera footage of a group of officers busting into a house. On the other side of the door was a woman being treated by her Hospice nurse. The police searched the house, and detained the nurse with little to no regard. As if she wasn’t at work, doing her job. It was one of the most disgusting acts I ever saw during my career.”
La Tonya Green, Eastside Baltimore, 2001
It was cold, it was February, and everybody had slid through her house to watch the NBA All Star game — the one where Iverson went crazy, hitting all types of wild shots and snagging the MVP.
Pizza, wings, macaroni salad, and caesar salad were on the menu. Her guests ate it all, but luckily, she had thought to stash an extra plate for herself before they arrived, carefully wrapped in foil and tucked in the back of the refrigerator. After she finished cleaning, long after the party ended, she checked on that plate to make sure nobody had strolled out of the door with it. Then she made sure her son was sleeping, pecked him on the cheek, and went to bed.
“Get on the floor! Get on the floor!” Screams, bright lights, and aimed guns woke her up some time before sunrise. Police were in her home looking for a guy they say she was dating — her “lil dope-dealing boyfriend,” the cops called him. She had never even heard of this guy. Her actual boyfriend — now her husband — is in the military, and he was away at the time serving our country.
Almost 20 years have passed since that night. La Tonya still has no idea who the man was that they were looking for. She does remember that the police trashed her home, knocked family pictures off the wall, tossed all of her belongings and broke her dishes. They threw that plate of food she had saved on the floor of her kitchen, and stepped on it as they left her home.
Her son still has nightmares about it.
Lance Ramirez, Harlem, New York, 1999
Ramirez says up front that he was guilty.
“Yeah, I had plug on the [heroin],” he tells me. “It was good, it was pure. I was that guy, feel me!”
Ramirez stepped on it — which means he cut it with other chemicals to increase his quantity — and slanged all over New York. From the white boys in SoHo to the Wall Street coke-hounds, he served everybody. Eventually Ramirez had a dispute with one of his workers who felt like he should be paid more.
That guy sold Ramirez out to NYPD, and cops kicked in his mother’s door at the crack of dawn.
There was a problem: Ramirez hadn’t lived with his mom for at least three years at that point. He wasn’t even talking to her at the time. If he had, he wouldn’t have brought drugs into her home, he tells me, because “she was a real woman of the Lord.”
The ashes of Ramirez’s World War 2 veteran grandfather were stored in an urn kept inside of a locked wooden box on a shelf in his mother’s living room. The cops cracked the box open and poured the ashes out onto the carpet — looking for drugs or drug paraphernalia, they said. They found nothing.
Even though eventually Ramirez was incarcerated, his mother’s house never had anything to do with the three grams of heroin that earned him his charges and time at Rikers.
Kondwani Fidel, Eastside Baltimore, 2016
Cops bum-rushed Fidel’s grandma’s house like wild cowboys in the middle of the night, splitting the door in half — yelling, screaming, waving pistols, like they were raiding Pablo Escobar’s compound.
Once inside, the officers lined Fidel, his baby brother and a young woman he had just started dating next each other on the couch as they rummaged through all of their things. The cops busted open closed cereal boxes and dumped the flakes on the floor. They punched holes in the wall. They broke a dresser. Fidel’s a writer with important work on his laptop; the cops bagged it up.
“I just started dating this girl,” Fidel says he thought at the time. “She finally felt comfortable coming to my place and this BS happens. Man, I know she won’t go out with me anymore.”
The young woman’s phone kept ringing — because she was supposed to take her little brother to school — so one of the police officers answered it, told her mom what was going on, and made light of the fact that he was holding innocent kids hostage.
“Now her mom knows!” Fidel thought. “She is really never going to see me again.”
The cops found nothing, and left Fidel behind to clean up the mess they made of his house and his new relationship.
He never got his laptop, or the writing he’d saved on it, back.
Ms. Green, Camden, New Jersey, 2008
“My son was in jail for drugs, two years or so, but he passed in 2001,” Ms. Green told me. “I been in this house for 35 years and I never, ever, ever been so terrified!”
Ms. Green is a homeowner. She and her late husband had scrimped and saved up for a steel door that Mr. Green had installed himself. The door was for keeping criminals out, after their home had been burglarized two or three times in the past, and and it worked well. “Our neighborhood had become known for break-ins,” Ms. Green told me.
That steel door, along with a piece of the wall, ended up shattered — bulldozed to the ground and trampled over by big white police officers who, Ms. Green says, “smelled like all kinds of beer and mess.”
“They didn’t knock one bit, show us any ID, or tell us why they were there,” Ms. Green tells me. “They just put us in a room and fished through our belongings, until they realized that we had nothing for them.”
The police spent an hour or so looking for whatever they were looking for, but found nothing. “They was mad when they left,” Ms. Green says. “And the city never paid to fix my door.”
D Watkins, Eastside Baltimore, 2003 (again)
Durham Street was wild, and cops played that section of east Baltimore all day. My friend Big Bo owned 1020 Durham, and that house functioned as a kind of hangout spot where we’d drink liquor, talk trash and play NBA 2K all day. Because Bo owned a few homes, some of our friends even lived at 1020 Durham when they were in between places of their own.
One day the cops busted the doors off the hinges and made about 12 of us lie on the ground. One particularly ambitious officer yanked the video game console out of the wall and knocked the television over. They pulled down pieces of the drop ceiling, cleared out the refrigerator and the cabinets, dug through a ton of empty Nike boxes, and sent a couple who were in the middle of having sex downstairs naked. They allowed the woman to cover herself with a sheet, but slapped the dude on his naked butt cheek as he tripped down the stairs
“Aw, man! We were supposed to be running up in 1024, not 1020!” a cop shouted. The other officers just laughed it off as they all left to head over to 1024, maybe.
If I had had a gun on me the day the cops busted into 1020 Durham without warning, I might have shot at the door. For all any of us knew in that moment, we were being attacked — the police certainly acted like criminals when they broke in while we were playing video games.
All of the victims listed above are Black. I did to talk to three white people who were caught up in house raids as well. Strangely, in every case, the cops knocked on their doors first like civilized people.
D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America” and “The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir.” His latest book, “We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America,” is out now.