a tale of reasons
Posted: Friday, 09-Sep-2005 15:48:31 EDT
This isn't a proper essay. It's disorganized; it has no one stream of argument. It rambles all over the waterfront. It's not structured properly. It doesn't have a nice framing tale.
And yet, in the end, this was the only place I could put it.
I was at the North and Clybourn stop on the Red Line, coming back from Whole Foods. I'd been standing for a while, so I sat down on the bench. Sitting next to me was a guy in a stocking cap and leather jacket. Standing on the other side was another guy, also all bundled up.
All ready for winter, we were.
Oh ... and all black.
I forget to notice that sometimes, you know? After all, from my perspective, black people are just ... other people. So I forget to say, "Person Q, a black man" or "Person J, a black woman" or even "Person C, an Asian woman". In my day to day interactions, people are just ... people.
There were, on the other side, a few white people, as well. One of them, a woman, was smoking.
The standing man--let's just call him Brown Jacket, for the hell of it--was throwing pennies at the wall on the other side of the track. I have no idea why; boredom, I suppose. He wasn't hitting the track, he wasn't trying to hit the track. Waste of pennies if you ask me.
Further down the track, there was a group of four men. White men. Perfectly non-descript. I didn't really notice them or pay attention to them.
Until they went up to the guy who was throwing pennies. Surrounded him. Started talking to him in low voices, asking him why he wanted to throw pennies at the wall, what the hell he thought he was doing. They started crowding him, pushing closer. I wasn't sure if they were going to start beating on him or if they were going to push him onto the tracks, but it looked like they were going to do something, and I didnt know what to do. How to defuse the situation or stop it, if I should do ... anything.
Then the guy next to me--we'll call him Stocking Cap--lit up a cigarette.
Just like that, the four peeled away from Brown Jacket and came over to this guy. Asking him what he was doing. He said, not surprisingly, that he was smoking. They called him a smartass; didn't he see that no smoking sign right over there? Put the thing out.
So he put it out.
Stand up, asshole.
He asked what for.
They told him they were police and they wanted to see what else he had on him.
He asked to see their badges.
They showed them to him.
He stood up, and they grabbed him and shoved him against the wall and started searching him. Right there, in public, in the train station.
I looked around to see what other people were doing. I realy didn't know what to do. The woman was putting out her cigarette.
I looked back at them. They'd pulled out his jacket, patting him down underneath it. The one doing all the talking asked if he had something in his crotch they ought to know about. He said no. The guy unbuttoned the front of Stocking Cap's pants, pulled them down a little, and stuck his hands inside, feeling around his crotch.
Right there. In the train station. In public.
I thought, for a weird second, that this guy was known to them. That they had some reason for doing this to him, for acting like this. That thought went away when they asked if he'd ever been inside, what he'd been inside for, what judges he'd been in front of.
I just stared at them. I couldn't believe this was happening in front of me. I just watched every second.
They noticed me watching. I honestly think they'd have started in on me--after all, I was the only black person in the station they hadn't harrassed (of course, I wasn't doing anything), and I'd been paying attention to how they treated this guy. Frankly, I got lucky. They ran out of time. The next train pulled into the station, and I got on it as fast as I could.
Sometimes I feel like I should have done something, said something. Throwing pennies isn't cause for police harrassment. Smoking in the subway should get you an order to stop smoking, and a ticket if you don't stop. That's it. Nothing more. Smoking isn't probable cause for nearly strip searching a man in public.
I know--I know--it wouldn't have done any good to say anything. At best, it would have gotten me the same treatment; more likely, it would have gotten me that, and it would have made things worse for him. I know that.
But still... I should have done something.
As I've mentioned before, I was at the University of Chicago for many many many years. Hyde Park has the second largest chartered police force in the state of Illinois. Larger than the police forces of Naperville, Rockford, Peoria or Springfield (the next largest cities in the state, in no particular order). A constant refrain of the Black Students Union while I was there--and even now, I expect--was that the UC Police were abusing them. Not violently, but constantly stopping them, questioning them, searching them. And I never knew what they were talking about. In my ten years in Hyde Park, I never had any contact with the UC Police. Not good, not bad, none at all. So their concern was always a little ... remote for me. I just never quite understood it.
Well, now I understand.
I've always been a bit isolated from normal experience. That's just what comes with an academic life. That's what comes with being lucky; with being relatively well off. Things happen to other people, not to you.
I mean, it wasn't always quite that way. When I was growing up, we lived at the intersection of three of Albuquerque's designated poverty areas. Our house was robbed ten times. But ... that's just the way things were. And then things got better, and certain experiences got ... pushed away.
Even now, it didn't happen to me. By the grace of whatever god you believe in, I got out of that subway station before they could start in on me. But I have no doubt at all that they would have started in on me. And I'd probably have eaten it, just like that man did. Just like people every day do.
A while back, just before I started this journal, there was an altercation of some sort in my building. I honestly don't remember all the details; I remember that it wound up that a woman had called the police for ... some reason, and then left the building so that the police would come to harrass her neighbors. Only ... the neighbors weren't doing whatever it was when the police got there. Hadn't done it that night. In fact, the people she called about no longer lived there; it's not clear what was going on.
Anyway, the police came down to ask me about something to do with that, and then asked me to let them back in the building. I wound up accidentally locking myself out of my apartment. While I was making calls from the neighbors to the landlord, waiting for calls to be returned, all that, one of the cops told me I could wait in their car, as it was winter and I was in my robe. Then he started explaining police work to me,
And then he ran my name through NCIC, on their portable computer.
Granted, he was enthusiastic about their new computer, wanted to show me all the fun stuff. But I didn't want to see it. Didn't ask to see it. Sure as hell didn't ask to have him run a criminal background check on me.
I was not thrilled to watch their computer equipment working.
But let's face it: running a criminal check without cause is ... minor stuff. They never laid a hand on me. They weren't anything other than courteous to me. They did discover that the tenant who'd made the false call was, in fact, doing one or two quite illegal things. (And making a false report is a criminal offense; it's cause for quite a lot of things.)
I'm not condemning all cops.
Much as I want to do so right now. Much as I would dearly love to do so ... I"m not. All cops can't be bad, just as all blacks can't be good or bad, all religious people aren't intolerant, all gays aren't virtuous ... a blanket categorical statement would be wrong, just as what those cops did was wrong. All cops aren't bad.
I know that there are good cops out there. I know this. My uncle worked with a lot of cops for many years in his job. I've met a lot of them. Most of the ones I've met seemed to be decent, average people.
But this ....
I don't feel like I can trust the police, suddenly. Any of them. At all. And I know that in some ways, that's wrong, too, but it's how I feel right now.
For a moment--just one--I wondered why they were doing this. Why police anywhere do this. I mean, at some level, people who go into police work must do it out of some idealism, some sense of public service. It's not a well paid job, most places; as a starting librarian, I made only slightly less than a starting Chicago cop. (And, by national standards, Chicago cops are quite well paid.) The job is rough, the hours are long, and there's a fair chance that you'll wind up damaged, if not dead, at the end of the day. They can't go into police work with the express purpose of abusing the public in mind; it simply doesn't make sense.
Of course, I realized why they were doing it.
Because they could.
Because we have no choice.
There are bad people, evil people out in the world. People who aren't the police. And we need someone to protect us from them, to come along afterward and clean up what they've done. Even if we don't like the police, even if we bitterly hate them, when something happens, we still have to call them. We still need them.
It doesn't mean we have to trust them, of course. And if there's enough abuse, enough mistrust, you wind up with a New Orleans, where many people would rather die than call the police, because the corruption is damn near legendary.
And, of course, they have died. Sometimes at the hands of the police.
What I don't understand, and will never understand, is why those who abuse their power, their position in this way, don't understand the damage they do to themselves. If people feel that they can't trust the police, that they can't trust the people they count on to help them, then they'll stop calling them, as they have in some places. People will start doing things for themselves. And the point of the police is to prevent people from doing things for themselves, because unrestrained personal vengeance makes it impossible for a community to exist. Because vengeance can be excessive. Because vengeance can be flat out wrong--vengeance isn't concerned with evidence and doesn't reason; it's just flat-out rage, directed at a given target. Because, at day's end, vengeance is not justice.
If there is such a thing as justice, of course. Another argument for another time, I think.
Of course, the other side to this is that police who abuse their power reap what they sow. And it amazes me that the police who conduct themselves this way don't understand that. You'd think, among other things, that the whole O.J. trial mess would have been a spectacular, ugly object lesson.
Then again, it doesn't seem to have been an object lesson even to the LAPD. Not one that was absorbed, anyway.
"What I wanna know is if you think that black people have a right to be mad at white folks or are we just fulla shit an' don't have no excuse for the misery down here an' everywhere else?"
I honestly don't know the answer to that.
More and more lately, I've wondered about that, as I've watched black people, over and over, eating their anger about one thing or another, because they had no options, no choice but to take mistreatment of one sort or another. I've had to eat anger more than once in my life--and quite a lot lately, one way and another--for all that it was nice and soft and sheltered. And now we're in a time of unprecedented prosperity and plenty, and yet ... and yet it seems that the abuses are worse. That everything is somehow worse.
I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just ... timing.
I suppose I'm too old to be this naive. This trusting. The fact is, in this day, in this country, a black man has no business unconditionally trusting the police. It's sheer idiocy.
But I really hate that I can't. I really hate that.
Back when he was a little boy, Socrates feared his tall and severe auntie. But he was also enthralled by her stories about the black race in a white world under a blue god who barely noticed man.
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