I sort of blew it with this interview. BJ Watkins and I met on a Monday night in November, at the sushi place on Cortelyou Road in Brooklyn. Mistake No. 1. It was too loud. Mistake No. 2 was not checking how much space I had on my digital recorder because it cut out 13 minutes into the interview. When did I realize this? When we were done talking. In the interim, I asked BJ about her time in the army, being part of a police force, and what her experience being a black, masculine presenting queer person was like while in uniform.
BJ and I go way back. We met at a photo opening and considered dating each other for like half a second before we became fast friends. We deejayed an internet radio show together on Radio23 for over a year based in Portland, Oregon. I will spare you the name. She would play R&B and I would play whatever random music I was into at the moment. Ever since then we’ve been good friends. She cracks me up on the regular and I’m lucky I get to see her every Tuesday night when I head into the Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE), where she’s the office administrator, for my karate class. When she’s not there, she’s riding her bike to teach group fitness classes in Brooklyn.
In this interview, she graciously shares with me her reflections on her time in the army and on a police force in the southwest, the Black Lives Matter movement, and advice on how to get off the couch and move when you just feel like laying there.
You have a military background and joined the army in 2002. Then, approximately six months later you were hired at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Tuscon, Arizona. How did you decide to go into the army? How old were you?
I was just out of high school. That decision came from my sports career falling through. I was competitive in basketball and track and field as a thrower and for all four years was always competitive. When it came to my senior year, due to some stuff that was happening in the household, I actually became homeless, so in terms of fulfilling the courtships from a lot of B1 schools, I couldn’t really fulfill my end. I had opportunities for junior college but I think at that point I didn’t have the maturity level to take that as an opportunity to grow. At that time I was engaged in youth homeless services and employment that was centered around that and wanting to feel more adult and secure. I was focused on money and survival so I decided on sign-on bonuses and really felt I was at my last straw so I went into the service.
That was a really big eye-opener. I never really gave myself credit for being an intelligent person – and being there I started to learn that the world was more complicated, strategic and a lot more frightening than I was already experiencing. Also, I was recognizing I would have to trust my life with people who were deferred from jail to act in service or stay-at-home moms just underneath the wire who needed to provide for their families.
I have a lot of family members who were in the service and I got there and realized I was smart and there were benefits to that. I got on the radar of my squad leaders and first sergeants and I did things that were not necessarily my military job because I had a head on my shoulders.
What were you doing?
Technically, I was supposed to be a truck driver but everybody does that job. I did admin stuff, and ended up being more involved because I was able to think and was organized and responsible.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the army?
When I would receive orders that I needed to do, it was always a smaller piece to something that was much larger. Really now when I sit back and watch the news, and there’s an air strike or whatever, I think about how much other work happens to get that end result. At the end of the day, not always knowing the orders I received and what I was truly accountable for. That was very surprising because I’ve got my orders … but if I bring this thing over here, what exactly does that feed into? Not having that information did make me uncomfortable because you are talking about people’s lives and welfare.
Do you have any regrets about going into the army?
I don’t think so. It allowed me to understand the world a little bit better. It is easy for me to sit back on my couch and think about how we should do things sometimes. But I realize that the world is not so black and white, that there are an array of colors and a lot of grays. It taught me a sense of maturity and discipline and a practice to some extent in my life that is important. I may have gotten that at some other point but that structure is successful and it’s successful for a reason. It also served me well when I go into other areas of my life. It really brought out my leadership skills and built my confidence.
After you were discharged did you go right into to the Police Academy? How did that happen?
I got out and I started working but at the end of the day it wasn’t a good fit and so I ended up getting this bootleg job at Wendy’s. I was looking in the newspaper and saw an ad that said, ‘Be a sheriff,’ and said, ‘I can do that.’ I signed up and I didn’t think I was going to get in. When I got out of the army I initially applied for federal corrections and I bombed out of the test. I think it was just because I had a lot of anger about my life experience and it was really coming out of the test. Then I retested at the sheriff’s department, already having resolved some of that anger, yet still thought I wasn’t going to get in. But then I got called. I was like, ‘Oh snap, I passed with flying colors!’ And it was one of the best decisions I ever made. To be honest, if my mother hadn’t have passed, I would still be doing that job.
What happened when your mom passed away?
Losing anyone is always complicated and painful but when money is involved and there’s multiple people who are in need, it’s especially difficult. At 24 years old and having my mom die at 44 and living on my own and having such a dangerous and important job to go in there each day and be someone that someone else can count on was challenging. One of the things that is unique for the agency I worked for is we don’t ride two people to a car, it’s one person. And sometimes your back up is 15 to 20 minutes away.
The Black Lives Matter Movement had tremendous impact on bringing police brutality to the forefront. What do you think needs to happen next to create real lasting change that incorporates building trust?
I feel like there needs to be a much larger conversation. Starting with the command instructor and other officers there needs to be more training around systems. Really the conversations Black Lives Matters are trying to have with the larger public – I think officers who work in particular areas and see repeated crime or poverty etc, if they took the time to train to understand why those things are happening they might have more impact in their police work. I want us to get back to trusting each other to do the right thing and respect each other.
What was it like to be a more masculine presenting female person in the military and police?
It was fine while training because the environment is extremely controlled and intense from every angle. For whatever reason, people tend to be receptive to me. I only had one or two women who were apprehensive or tentative towards me, which was expressed due to religious reasons. That is fine. Men typically were fine with me because there were a lot of things I believe we had in common to a certain extent, but I did challenge a LOT of egos.
Despite my presentation, in general, I can either do things as fast, can exhibit similar strength and power. My expectation was always bring it… If we’re doing hand-to-hand combat training or obstacle courses, hold me to the same standard! Don’t hold back punches… in a real fight for your life scenario the other person won’t and I need to be prepared.
When no longer in a training scenario, that is where I experienced things differently, but no different than being a civilian. I would say maybe more amplified because where I was stationed was more isolated from the public. The same things I think most women experience. The experiences of some men who felt entitled to get answers from me, my interest, my attention. Some women who liked to try and blur the lines because I like women.
What was your biggest takeaway from being a police officer?
If I was going to make arrests or incidents would escalate, it would be same run-of-the mill people and that was just where they were at in their life. But for the most part, the larger population are just the people you have contact with from time to time who appreciate your service and usually if you end up at their door it’s probably like the worst day of their life. You have to operate from a space of ‘Wow if this was the worst day of my life, how would I want to be treated?’ If you just did that you would be alright.
Currently, by day you work at the Center for Anti-Violence Education and were heavily involved with the Face the Change campaign. What keeps you involved in nonprofits?
It’s the same vein of helping people especially working with CAE, it’s the other side of the coin. I responded to a lot of domestic violence calls and I’m always in a situation in the heat of the moment. When you do make an arrest based on the situation presented maybe you see people in court but you don’t know what happens on the other end. Its been really amazing to see what the other side of the work looks like, to know there is an organization that is creating change and empowering people but I think at the end of the day we, as individuals, just need love an support no matter who crosses our path. I just want to be a person who creates change so people can grow.
You’re also currently a trained group fitness instructor. How does your military training show up in your classes?
I do variations of common military body weight exercises and I would also say my presence. I think I look intimidating and I’m not small. I guess people often assume I’ll be like a Drill Sergeant or something, but I’m actually a marshmallow with challenging workouts that wants you to be successful!
What’s the best advice you have for someone who wants to work out, knows they need to work out, but can’t seem to get themselves off the couch?
Provided that you are medically cleared for exercise…
Start small – Even if you can’t get yourself off the couch for that die-hard cardio session or whatever, make small changes! Get off a train stop or two earlier so you can walk, take the stairs rather than the elevator or do some general exercises between commercial breaks or when a certain person comes on the TV. The small changes add up to a greater whole.
Get exercise clothes that make you feel good – You will feel more inclined to get off that couch if your workout gear has you feeling on fleek! Feeling like a hot mess just isn’t another obstacle you need! We’re here to feel good about ourselves!
Workout wear are the new PJs – Well at least for YOU! Use this as a means to remind yourself that your fitness is important, an extra layer of motivation… whatever! I mean you already got them on so why not get that workout in!
Make it social – If you like how you feel rolling to the club with your friends on Friday, why can’t you roll with your crew to Zumba and make it a day party? You can put in that awesome work and have fun! Maybe Zumba isn’t for you, what about hiking, frisbee in the park, skating on a Tuesday? Find things you can do with others! Help each other be accountable and get some face time in too
Mix it up – Are you doing the same routine for every workout? No wonder you just want to just lay back down. Try something new! Our bodies are made to adapt and if you want to see results, you need to avoid plateaus.
Stop defining your happiness by the scale – I’ve reached a point where I have been encouraging people to consider how they feel and not the number on the scale when they feel discouraged. If your clothes are fitting better, you are feeling healthier… use that to keep going. You’ll drive yourself NUTS measuring your success by the scale.