I Was a Principal in Southwest Philly and That Didn’t Stop These Black Cops From Pulling Me Over. Should It Have?

All year our eighth-grade students have been grappling with social justice issues and how to address them. They’ve closely analyzed past movements in America and South Africa—especially those involving direct action of children. These 13-14-year-old students have interviewed over 2,500 community members to get their feedback about issues pertinent to them, and have strategized to build coalitions amongst their peers. Currently, they are engaging with various groups (Black Panther Party, Black Lives Matter, police dept., etc.) that have an impact on the issues they are committed to addressing.

I love visiting our school’s classrooms—hearing and seeing how students engage in challenging material and debate topics inspires me to no end. Often, visiting this eighth-grade social justice class brings up many surreal memories for me.

As a principal, I realize that many of the experiences that shaped my outlook also reflects some of the experiences that my students have.

As students were engaging in their projects—police brutality, human trafficking, etc.—one, in particular, brought me back to an experience that I had as a first-year principal.

While I watched students seek out classmates who had similar foci in order to build coalitions, some of them asked me about my experience as a Black man with the Philadelphia police. Unfortunately, I have had several, but because one of my own students witnessed one particular moment it is usually one of the first ones that come to my mind when students ask.

After finishing a late night at Shaw Middle School in southwest Philly, I was relieved to jump in my car to head home. Not even four blocks away from my school, I saw the all-too-familiar red and blue flashing lights behind me. Like many Black men in this situation, I hoped the cops weren’t pulling me over. I knew I had not made any traffic violations. Yet, as a target, even when you aren’t afraid, you start over-thinking and second guessing yourself. As I steered to the right to pull over, I began to do a mental checklist about my paperwork:

  • Were my tags in order?
  • My license…did I forget it at home?
  • Were my stickers up to date?
  • Were my brake lights ok?
  • When exactly was the last time I had my inspection?

As a first-year principal, I knew certain things in my personal life were not at the top of my list.

By this time, I had pulled over. I knew not to make sudden movements, reach to get my paperwork out of the glove compartment, or anything else to “threaten” the officer. It was dark. I was in southwest Philly. And, I am a Black man…all threatening enough to those with badges and biases.

Two officers pulled up one on each side of the car. Lights flooding the inside and I rolled down the window. The scowl on his face, told me that this Black officer was in a bad mood and I wish I had left school earlier.

He demanded my paperwork, which I slowly started to look for. Unfortunately, for me, I had way too many old envelopes, registrations that had expired and I had failed to throw out. My propensity to be a bit of a pack rat was now making the officer start cursing.

He demanded that I get out of the car because he was going to tow it. I insisted that my paperwork was there, I just needed him to stop yelling and cursing so that I could focus. He wasn’t having it. He continued to direct me out of the car which I did. He walked me to the trunk and told me I was under arrest. At this point, I am agitated and asked why. Choking me, his Black female partner coolly watched with her hand on the butt of her gun. It was still holstered, but I was sure she’d pull it.

During this assault, I happened to look across the street. I am sure I was hoping there were witnesses around. There was, but not one any educator would want. Across the street, looking at the scene in horror was one of my  eighth-grade students. I briefly wondered if he was about to witness my murder.

Standing handcuffed in the 21st District on Woodland avenue in southwest Philly, I saw a few police officers who worked the beat in my school’s community. Most of them looked away, one of them asked, “What are you doing here?” I told her I wasn’t sure and she’d have to ask the arresting officer. She shrugged her shoulders and chuckled and walked away.

Eventually, I was released. No charge. No explanation. No apology.

I filed a complaint. Initially, internal affairs asked me on multiple occasions to come to their office, at least 30 minutes from my school. As a first-year principal in my first turnaround school, I insisted they come to me. I was not keen on being out of my building. I was in over my head and could not fathom leaving the building to reexplain what had happened. They never did come down. 

Surprisingly, I eventually received a notice saying the police officer was disciplined for “unlawful arrest.” Admittedly, I was shocked about that outcome.

Today, I often think of the  eighth-grader who witnessed that. He asked me the next day if I was okay. I was just as worried about his well-being. As my students grapple with how to address police brutality in their communities, I’ve been reflecting on how I rarely share my own experiences of police brutality with my students.

People would often ask me why I didn’t tell the police that I was a principal. Perhaps they offer, had the officer known, he would not have been wont to abuse his power. I reject that for several reasons. There are instances where even detainees who identify themselves as fellow police officers experience brutality from their colleagues. Secondly, I shouldn’t have to. It should not matter what role I play in society to expect decency, respect, and professionalism. Avoiding police brutality should not hinge on my job or my role in society.

This notion is what my students, and many others, are working to address.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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  • Hi Sharif,

    Your story needs telling. It needs telling over and over again, here’s why. Until it happens to one of us, we can’t relate to this being a fight all of us must undertake. My late husband and I had boy/girl twins 16 years ago and I was so grateful to be Mom. Little did I know of the cost of being Black in Philadelphia. I fear for my brother, tall, handsome like LL Cool J. He’s smart, kind and strong but he told me he’s not gonna be disrespected by another human that earns a living off his tax dollars and gets to wear a uniform and carry a gun. He’s been stopped in West Philly near 59 and Girard and once it was over he drove to the police station to file a complaint. He contested the ticket. I never asked if he won, guess I’m just grateful he was murdered for driving while being black.
    My son is physically disabled and in a wheelchair. It’s unbelievable that him being disabled may one day save his life from a statistic. Keep sharing your story. TBah

    • Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your story as well. The more we unite with a singular voice and common demands, the more our voices will be heard. From there, policies will change.

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