“Saturday Night Live” alum Jay Pharoah says it felt like “drowning” when police pulled guns on him and knelt on his neck in a case of mistaken identity last year.
Speaking to Taraji P. Henson for Monday’s episode of her Facebook Watch series “Peace of Mind,” the comedian recounted the scary confrontation with Los Angeles police officers on a street in his Tarzana neighborhood in April.
“I’ve never had handcuffs on me before in my life. And it feels like you’re drowning,” he said, describing the sensation of being forcibly restrained while face-down on the pavement.
“Somebody puts cuffs on you, and you can’t get up, and they’re on top of you... It does feel like you’re drowning. You can’t breathe. You’re underwater, and you’re fighting. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world,” he said.
“It’s not just mental, it’s physical,” Henson said. “You’re scared. Your heart is racing. You don’t know.”
Pharoah called it “a miracle” he happened to spot the first officer approaching with a gun off to his left.
“I couldn’t hear him. I had my headphones on. So if I was running through that situation at that time, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” he said.
Pharoah said it was an utterly traumatizing and humiliating experience — one he shared with his parents in a difficult phone call afterward.
He said his mom “felt totally helpless” and his dad was “emotional” as well.
“My mom was just — I could hear it in her voice. I could hear the shakiness, the ‘What if?’ And that’s what she said, ‘We could have lost you today, had it been different,’” he recalled.
Pharoah, 33, said it was the first time he personally experienced such aggressive police tactics.
“I have to give it up for my peoples for just keeping me away from that,” he said of his parents.
“Both of them from the hood. But they tried to shelter me in a way where I don’t have to deal with that. And at the end of the day, I dealt with it. There was nothing that could be done,” he said.
Pharoah first shared details of the police encounter in June, amid ongoing protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
He included surveillance video from the scene in a short film produced by Careyon Production that he posted on Instagram.
Pharoah said he was completely caught-off-guard by the actions of the first officer because he didn’t do anything wrong.
“I see him coming with guns blazing. I see him say, ‘Get on the ground. Put your hands up like you’re an airplane.’ As he’s looking at me, I’m thinking that he’s making a mistake,” he recalled.
Pharoah said he turned to see who the officer might be addressing and thought to himself, “Whoever they’re about to get, it’s just about to be terrible.”
He soon realized he was the target, he said.
“Four officers got their guns blazing. They tell me to get on the ground, spread my arms out. They put me in cuffs. The officer took his knee, put it on my neck,” he said.
The cops told him he fit the description of a suspect in the area. He was released when the officers realized their mistake.
“I had never been in cuffs before up until that point. I’m a law-abiding citizen,” he said.
“Black lives always matter. My life matters,” he said.
“I literally could have been George Floyd,” Pharoah said in a final clip of the video where he spoke to the camera while lying on the ground with a knee on his neck in a recreation of the incident.
“We as a country can’t breathe anymore,” he said in the video.
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