The cops stopped me anywhere they saw me, particularly at night. Once, as I was walking through the laneway behind my neighbourhood pizza parlour, two officers crept up on me in their cruiser. “Don’t move,” I whispered to myself, struggling to stay calm as they got out of their vehicle. When they asked me for identification, I told them it was in my pocket before daring to reach for my wallet. If they thought I had a weapon, I was convinced that I’d end up being beaten, or worse. I stood in the glare of the headlights, trying to imagine how I might call out for help if they attacked me. They left me standing for about 10 minutes before one of them—a white man who didn’t look much older than me—approached to return my identification. I summoned the courage to ask why he was doing this. “There’s been some suspicious activity in the area,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Then he said I could go. Another time, an officer stopped me as I was walking home from a movie. When I told him I wasn’t carrying ID, he twisted his face in disbelief. “What do you mean?” he asked. “Sir, it’s important that you always carry identification,” he said, as if he was imparting friendly advice. Everywhere I went, he was saying, I should be prepared to prove I wasn’t a criminal, even though I later learned I was under no legal obligation to carry ID. When I told my white friends about these encounters with police, they’d often respond with skepticism and dismissal, or with a barrage of questions that made me doubt my own sanity. “But what were you doing?” they’d badger, as if I’d withheld some key part of the story that would justify the cops’ behaviour.
When I was 22, I decided to move to Toronto. We’d visited often when I was a kid, driving into the city for festivals and fish markets and dinners with other families from Sierra Leone. In Toronto, I thought I could escape bigotry and profiling, and just blend into the crowd. By then, I had been stopped, questioned and followed by the police so many times I began to expect it. In Toronto, I saw diversity in the streets, in shops, on public transit. The idea that I might be singled out because of my race seemed ludicrous. My illusions were shattered immediately.