Someday, someone wearing a police uniform will put you in fear for your life. Yet it is assumed this will not happen to those Americans who look like me, a white middle-class man well into middle age. Our response to others having to carry this fear will be limited because we will be unable to empathize; sympathy yes, but sympathy carries a time-limit, a distraction quotient, well-intentioned yet in danger of waning. We care enough to take action when that something is directly in our face, obstructing our freedom, when the trigger is cocked and the pistol pointed our way.
Hearing of deadly conflicts between people of color and cops (usually from the other side of the skin color spectrum), I assume guilt over that separation between understanding and actual experience. Recent events in Ferguson, in Staten Island (almost every day there is a new location), and now on the street in front of my house emphasize that need for empathy. A pattern is projected and illuminates memories closer to home.
Violently mugged in New York’s Tompkins Square Park on a hot summer night in 1980, around my 23 birthday, I regained consciousness, crawled out of the pile of garbage barrels in which I had been dumped, and found a young couple who called the cops. The only words I recall the two pale policemen speaking as we rode in the squad car looking for perpetrators: “What’s a white guy like you doing in a neighborhood like this?” My foolhardy self slid into a new category; does one collapse into the toxic embrace of separation, ennobled (though only slightly) by not being “one of them” (cop or mugger)? This unbidden identity became more complicated when I stood in the 5th precinct poring over mug shots, unable to distinguish between dark faces. All of them, none of them, one of them, must be my attacker, for this victim must find a perpetrator. Here’s a perk of this thing we call privilege; there will be conclusions, completion and closure, justice served because deserved.
My father had “the conversation” with me, though altered in many aspects from how that parental exchange is assumed to occur. I was in my early teens, it was the 1970’s, and we were white and middle class. Dad had grown up in a big city, played football, knew how to defend himself. Yet for his young son the suggested strategy would be to flee the battle, avoid the armed (whether with biceps or bullets) adversary. He knew that in my case the other guy would almost always be stronger. He wasn’t only referring to schoolyard bullies. A friend’s college-age son had been clobbered by a cop in Berkeley, with the young man left as damaged goods. My father was sure “the smart-mouth kid” had “talked back” to the cop. Justified or not did not matter; being an east coast Irish American who had risen to the educated, generalized white ethnic identity of suburban Southern California, dad knew something about cops. His brother, for example; nothing wrong with cops, you just don’t mess with them. They have the guns. If a cop tells you to do something, you do it, and argue about it later, when you are far away and safe.
In my post-college years, I attended political demonstrations and saw cops behaving badly, and people behaving as badly towards them; the burning police cars in San Francisco during White Night riots in 1979 were haunting, iconic, terrifying. When a symbol of power burns, you find yourself wondering, at the age of 22, what might replace it. Watching a friend being pushed to the ground by a police officer during our entirely peaceful protest of George W. Bush’s inauguration provided another reminder that whiteness and middle-classiness gets you only so far; a club raising you up can also push you down.
New York City cops in “bad” neighborhoods are not the same visitor-friendly beacons of assurance one finds in “good” neighborhoods (depending, but only partially, on one’s relationship to said neighborhood). The cops in the lower east side of Manhattan, where I lived in the 1980’s and 90’s, never seemed to fundamentally lessen the danger from their counterparts, the “criminals.” The drug dealers dealt often in violence, yes, but so did the cops. Though I have no hard evidence, the cops during that time seemed almost as dedicated to preserving the very crime they were supposedly fighting. We were interferences in their transactions. While I assumed the dealer running up the stairs might be armed, I knew the cops pursuing him were.
An incident in a subway station in the upper east side gave me the most shocking lesson in the mutability of privilege, and how quickly we can become “other.” Walking along the 59th street platform, I see a scrawled note lying under one of the benches. I crouch down to read; wild ravings of vengeance and an assertion that someone will suffer for having done something egregious to the writer. This is New York in the 1990’s and fear is amped, at this specific time and neighborhood, by reports of a serial rapist, one who leaves notes near his victims. Sure, I have one of those minds that is creatively paranoid, eager to dramatize, but I also carry a burden of wanting to be responsible. This is long before the “if you see something, say something” campaign; we, my kind, tend to say something, because of course someone will listen.
I go upstairs to alert the subway clerk, who tells me to return downstairs while he summons assistance. A few minutes later, he joins me on the platform and scans the note. I remind him of the recent rapes, and my theory this message may be related. Concurring, he returns upstairs to his booth to summon the police, telling me to stay near and not let anyone disturb our evidence. Soon, a uniformed policeman is coming down the stairs. Several more cops appear behind him, running, guns drawn. I walk toward them, pointing towards where the note, and my backpack, remain. “Get away from there, now!” yells cop #1. I start to explain that I am the alert citizen who… “Move away, now!” Another cop grabs me and hustles me further from the bench where my pack now appears as a piece of evidence, dwarfing the note underneath. I continue speaking to the cops holding me, “that’s the note, that’s what I was talking about!” “We don’t want you talking, we want you to shut up.” “But that’s my backpack!” “I don’t give a shit, you are in a crime scene and you are not moving.” I look around for my own backup, for the subway clerk. He’s far down the platform, also restrained by a cop. “He knows, I showed him the note and he called you.” The station is now swarming with cops. A subway train stops and people flow by, unimpeded by the officers whose attention is focused on bench and backpack. I continue gesturing towards the note, sure that if they would only look at it, all would be clear. “Can I just go?” “You aren’t going anywhere.” I am part of the situation, the problem, suspected, but of what? I continue protesting, not so much of my innocence as to my critical role in calling-out the crime, or predicting the potential crime. I did the right thing, why is no one listening and why can’t I get my backpack?
Finally, climactically, the mood shifts. The officers are moving more slowly, their grip on me loosening. I’m yelling at the one who appears to be in-charge, who is again charging towards me, his prior aggression slightly depleted. The MTA clerk is moving towards me as well, flanked by officers. He looks me over, “OK, explain what happened.” I unload the story of finding the scrawled message, why I alerted the clerk, why I… “Wait a minute. We received an “officer down” call from the station. I have squad cars scrambling from lower Manhattan and 50 officers upstairs and in the street.” Oh. I caused this? All I did was alert the proper authorities as one is supposed to do, right? And suddenly the incident is over, no damage, the cops no longer concerned. My commitment to being an honest citizen is and will be severely damaged, but I am unharmed, free to assert my rights and expectations at another time.
It was a paranoid time in New York, the Central Park Jogger attack very much present, with otherwise skeptical citizens (I was one), automatically assuming guilt on the part of those five summarily accused youths. People spoke too unknowingly about “wilding,” out-of-control teenage boys rampaging, the color of their skin unmentioned but proximate to that knowing, formed from a desire for evidence, a clear conclusion, the crumpled, crazed note under the platform bench. We can’t turn away from it, regardless of the uniform of skin color we carry with us.
As I’m writing this, many years later, and in a suburban city (Tempe, AZ) with its own history of racial bias, I see three armed policeman in SWAT gear and a dog walking down the street and entering the private school next door. It’s Saturday, and the Ghanaian Seventh Day Adventists are, as usual, finishing up their services. The cops stride onto the schoolyard. One of them is carrying a submachine gun. It’s a bright early afternoon in Arizona. They do a cursory look-around of the schoolyard. As they leave, I ask them what they are looking for. “We have two armed robbery suspects at large.” “So what should we be watching out for?” I ask. “Two Hispanic males. They are wearing ski masks.” The officers move on. It did not cross my mind to ask, until they had left, how they might know the suspects were “Hispanic males” if they were wearing ski masks. Startled and discomfited though I may have been by three cops carrying heavy arms, I was not afraid for my life. I’m a middle aged white guy standing in front of my middle class house in the middle of the afternoon. But if the cops were that heavily armed, shouldn’t everyone in the neighborhood been warned of the possibility of a shootout? Is my problem that this presentation of force is inappropriate for this neighborhood, this hour of day? What if had not been I who had gone out to investigate, but one of my younger Latino friends? Would they have lived to tell this tale?
© 2015 Jeff McMahon