The Storm

Some storms come with a warning; others come out of nowhere. I had no idea my life would be turned upside down that August morning in 2011 as I went out to water my blueberry plants.

It was a calm respite in a hectic routine of preparing my mother for her weekly outing to JABA daycare. I put on my headphones to listen to classical music on WTJU and proceeded with my chore. In the distance I noticed a helicopter. [mini-article-link id=”76724″]Based on experience being a lookout on Navy ships at sea, I took note of its flight path.[/mini-article-link] It drew my attention when it veered and headed straight towards me. The ominous looking dark craft, with no visible marking, came in low and started circling overhead. When I tried to view it with binoculars, it started flying evasive, military-style maneuvers. Knowing I needed to check on my mom who was sitting on the potty, I returned the binoculars to my house.

When I walked out my back door, I faced yelling men in tactical outfits pointing semi-automatic rifles at me. Four vehicles were idling in my drive and other men were fanning out in my yard. Although startled, I remained calm – my military training kicked in.  When I spoke and asked who was in charge, I saw a sudden change in their demeanor. The rifles lowered. They pointed to a man in civilian clothes holding a radio.  I asked him what was happening, and he said the helicopter circling overhead had detected marijuana growing on my property.  I own 39 acres and the response was, “Where?” Following directions from the helicopter, he walked across my lawn and pointed to some plants growing among a fallen tree. “There!” he said.

Startled by the fact that I couldn’t identify the 2-, 2½-foot-tall plants from 20 feet, I asked, “How did the helicopter see them?” The response was, “We have our ways.” Then he asked if he could look in the portable greenhouse that was erected in my yard. It was left standing from spring when I used it to start seedlings for my  fledgling roadside produce stand. I agreed and he peeked in and expressed his disappointment at not finding what they expected, a greenhouse full of marijuana.

The Virginia State Police agent who was leading the raid filled out some paperwork while I sat in his vehicle. As he was writing he made the comment, “You sure are dark.”  I had been in the sun all summer working the garden, so I didn’t really think much about it. He finished and said the State Police had no further interest in contacting me and there was one Albemarle County officer there and he may want to talk to me later. I met him and asked for his contact information. It was all over in less than half an hour. I rushed to get my mom ready and we made it on time.

After I dropped my mom off, I had time to think as I went shopping. It seemed so bizarre that I started questioning whether it really happened. When I got home that evening, the four scorched spots where the vehicles had sat idling, confirmed they were there. The Albemarle County police officer’s card was more proof of what had happened. I used it to call him the following day and had to leave a voice message. I explained who I was and asked him to call me if he needed more information.

I started feeling the effects of the raid the first night when I couldn’t sleep. I became anxious at the sound of aircraft. I started going outside less. I let my garden become overgrown with weeds. [mini-article-link id=”76725″]There was hardly anyone to talk to about what had happened, so it just resonated in my head. It was hard to convince anyone it even occurred.[/mini-article-link]

A month, later an Albemarle County sheriff was at my door with an arrest warrant for possession of marijuana. I immediately went to the Rutherford Institute because I felt there were so many violations of my rights. John Whitehead later said he crafted a story that gathered media attention. He emphasized that he felt my being African American was instrumental. The police and commonwealth’s attorney took issue with that and buckled down to get a conviction.

From reading a newspaper account of another raid in the area it seemed Operation GIANT was targeting Hispanics, who they thought were involved in criminal activity. To me, that explained the sudden change in behavior when I spoke, and the comment about being dark. The arrest warrant stated they thought I was white. In 2011, the idea of targeting Latinos would not have gathered as much media attention.

The point I wanted to make was the use of an extreme show of force based solely on the input of a State Police spotter in an Air National Guard helicopter. He testified under oath that he identified the plants from a quarter mile with only his eyes. There weren’t any guns pointed. They testified that in a friendly exchange, I invited them into my yard to show them my plants. They had no search warrant, but they didn’t need one because the plants were not really in my yard. We just walked through the yard. I was found guilty. The judge’s reasoning was that the plants had gotten there somehow. It seemed I was expected to prove how they had gotten there. At that point I realized my word as Black man was worthless compared to that of multiple white police officers. The case was appealed and a year later I was finally acquitted in a jury trial.

Nine years later, I still carry deep scars. My sense of justice has completely changed. I witnessed a total disregard of the truth by police under oath. I saw judges who had no taste for the truth either. When tragic events have happened in Charlottesville in recent years, I ask myself whether I could have done more to bring attention to issues that I see recurring. GIANT was and still is, a multi-agency operation and there is little accountability. When something goes wrong, it’s easy to point fingers. The militarization of the police often takes place in task forces with acronyms like GIANT, which stands for the Governor’s Initiative Against Narcotics Trafficking.

When I see the shooting of another unarmed Black man, I think of how differently police respond depending on whether they perceive me to be Black, white, Latino or something else. I know I could have easily been shot. To hear people deny that there is systemic racism in policing is incredible. I cannot escape the reality of it every day. We must acknowledge and embrace the truth to change.


Philip Cobbs was born and raised in Albemarle County, and his family lineage extends back at least four generations in the county. A graduate of Piedmont Virginia Community College, he is a craftsman, author, educator, businessman and farmer.