When I lived in New Haven, a young man on a motor scooter crashed into my parked car at an intersection in the Wooster Square neighborhood. I was walking home at the time, and turned the corner as a police officer was writing up some notes. The officer asked if I knew the owner of the car, I said it was me, he told me that the “kid” was going up a one-way street in the wrong direction and, when he saw the officer, tried to speed away and lost control, crashing into my car. The officer told me that he had found drugs on the young man.
I fidgeted a lot, worried about the man in the back of the police car. I tried to look at him from where I was standing, to see who he was, but I didn’t want him to feel like I was gawking. New Haven doesn’t have a history of good race relations or of good police conduct. I wanted him to feel my worry and my solidarity, but I wasn’t sure how to convey it. I wanted to ask the officer if I could not press charges, but I knew that neither possessing drugs nor driving the wrong way were crimes “against” me, but against the state. I wanted to ask the young man if there was anyone I could call for him, anybody I could tell about what happened. I was nervous around the officer; I did none of these things. I stood by as he continued talking.
As we were standing there, a middle-aged white woman driving by slowed down and rolled down her window. “THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!” she shouted at the officer. He waved at her. They might have talked for a moment. She drove away.
I was not thankful for the arrest of another one of New Haven’s black youth. The young man in the backseat of that squad car certainly wasn’t thankful either. But her grateful outpouring for the policing presence was probably enough for the three of us. This experience – the blind appreciation for policing the neighborhood – is ingrained in my memory.
The lived experiences of policing are so, so different depending on where you live or what you look like. The intersections of state and society are not the same for everyone. In every place I’ve lived in, I’ve seen this. SB 1070 in Arizona. Stop and frisk in New York. A one-way street in New Haven. The intersections at which police and everyday people meet, depending on the city, the neighborhood, the block, can be polar opposites.
When I was a teenager, I was driving home from somewhere. A police car drove past me, and I saw it flip a dramatic U-turn in my rear view mirror. I drove slowly, trying to let him pass to whatever demanded his attention. He didn’t pass. I turned into my neighborhood, and he followed. I decided I would stay on a road with more traffic, and pulled over by the neighborhood mailbox instead of going to my house. The officer pulled over behind me. His lights weren’t on.
I hesitated. My parents – like many parents of sixteen-year-olds – had taught me what to do when pulled over by a police car, but parents don’t usually teach you what to do when an officer follows you for half a mile without turning the lights on and then pulls over behind you when you stop.
Trying to act casual, I got out of my car and I picked up the mail. I stood by my car. I think a few people drove by, but I don’t remember. I do remember wishing that my parents or one of my friends would just happen to be passing. Someone who knew me. I remember standing on the sidewalk, feeling vulnerable, immediately regretting that I was not still in my car. The police officer rolled down his window and looked at me like I might have something to say, but he remained silent.
“Is there a problem, officer?” I asked. I remember asking it like that because I think that’s what they say in movies. He gestured towards his laptop and told me he was checking to see if my car was stolen. He didn’t mention it matching a description or a recent call or similar plates or anything. After a pause, he said everything checked out, and he drove off. I lingered for a while before getting back in my car and driving home, unnerved.
That was before SB 1070, but police have been profiling long before it was law. (I grew up half-white, half-brown in a more-than-half-white town, county, state). This was before I had really come to realize how easily a man in a car with lights on top of it – even if the lights weren’t on – could make you feel like you had done something wrong, like you were in trouble, like you might not make it home. I learned quickly. I learned around the corner from my house. (And that was in a middle class, white neighborhood in which I wasn’t stopped, nor arrested, and no weapon was drawn on me – a huge sign of privilege in and of itself).
I often think about the guy with the scooter. I wish I had done more, not knowing exactly what more I could have done. Once I think about him, I begin to think about my own encounters with police, as a brown-skinned driver in Arizona, or as a protester in New York (another story, another time), and think about how they compare to my experiences with police when I was in a car accident, or when I needed directions downtown somewhere. I often think about how these situations shift, how much depends on so little. Every encounter depended on what intersection it happened at (and who was involved). Most of my encounters with police have involved no confrontation, they’ve been professional, and no harm was caused. But it’s the moments of unease that remain with me, and even my encounters have been remarkably unremarkable. I was followed once, and I saw someone get arrested. I was wrestled to the ground in a protest once, but I got away scared but relatively unscathed. But these moments are what I think of when I think of police. People remember their vulnerability more than any run-of-the-mill interaction.
I’m not a victim of police violence, that’s for sure. I’ve only ever been inconvenienced and a little unnerved. I’ve never been in the real danger that whole segments of our society know all too well. Policing happens everywhere, but it looks different. I’ve often thought about writing about these anecdotes, but I never know what to say about it all. I’m typing this now because I read about what happened to Steve Locke a month ago.
Locke is a professor in Boston, and he was stopped by police while getting lunch on his way to class because he fit the description of someone who broke into a nearby house. The description was essentially black-person-in-winter. The whole account is worth reading, but this excerpt is what got to me:
Something weird happens when you are on the street being detained by the police. People look at you like you are a criminal. The police are detaining you so clearly you must have done something, otherwise they wouldn’t have you. No one made eye contact with me... An older white woman walked behind me and up to the second cop. She turned and looked at me and then back at him. “You guys sure are busy today.” I noticed a black woman further down the block. She was small and concerned. She was watching what was going on. I focused on her red coat. I slowed my breathing. I looked at her from time to time. I thought: Don’t leave, sister. Please don’t leave.
The difference between the two passersby is a crucial gap in society. Those who feel protected and those who feel vulnerable. Those who admire police officers (and want to thank them blindly and profusely) and those who fear them. Those who are thankful that they can live their lives in safety because of those who serve and those who just want to live their lives, but can’t, for the same reason.
Experiences with law enforcement are different depending on the people and places involved. But the moments that stick – to me and to others – are those encounters tense with vulnerability and fear. Some, like me, know these moments from a rare experience thanks to our privilege. Many don’t know them at all. But a number of people also know these moments all too well.
This fundamental difference in how we live our lives is an obstacle to real change that can improve the lives of those on the other side of the law’s enforcement. I was nervous for the person in the backseat that day in New Haven, but what I was feeling was probably nothing compared to what he was dealing with. The woman who drove by knew nothing about the situation, but she blindly expressed gratefulness to the uniform standing next to me. These different perspectives, on Centre Street in Boston, on Hughes Place in New Haven, on every street in the country, are something that I can’t get out of my head. If we are going to be able to create a society where there is less police oppression of minority communities, we need to make an attempt to understand how those communities experience the police presence.