Monday, September 9, 2013

Object Lesson Outside My Window

I want to take a little break from the usual today and talk about something that happened outside my window today.

For a little background, I live in a large apartment complex. The two biggest windows in my house face out on a parking lot that services several buildings. The view is as lovely as you would expect, but the combination of the open space and the unintentionally good acoustics formed by the surrounding buildings make it the perfect forum for the neighborhood voyeur. In this story, I am that nosy neighbor.

You see, around four o'clock this afternoon, I heard a police siren. My heart went pitter patter, I sprung out of my chair like a startled cat, and raced over to the big glass door to my balcony to see what the disturbance was. I got there just in time to see a cop block in someone who had just parked in front of the building kitty corner to mine, a stone's throw away from my 1.5 story window. I had the instant gut reaction that most people do when they see a cop pulling someone else over: relief that it wasn't me, and a nagging curiosity about what this other human had done to attract the attention of The Law. 

I raced back to my room to get my tea, then cuddled up on the sofa, watching out my balcony door like it was a television. The door was open and between the building acoustics and my nearness to the action, I was able to hear most of what was being said. The scene was proceeding as you would expect - a clean cut, white, male cop was standing next to the window of the car, asking for the driver's license and registration. The windows of this car were just tinted enough that I couldn't really see the driver, and because the cop leaned down to talk to the driver, I didn't hear everything that was said, but made out "You have to be in control of your vehicle at all times." My mind was racing - had the driver been speeding? Weaving? Swerving? But despite my voyeuristic thrill, I didn't expect much to come of it. The person would get a warning or a ticket, and then the cop would leave, and my entertainment would be over. But the cop didn't give the driver a ticket. He asked the driver to step out of the car. 

The driver was a black woman. 

I immediately got a sick feeling in my stomach. Every nerve in my body was screaming shit just got real. And no small part of me was like you shouldn't be watching this. You're going to get in trouble. The woman got out of the car and turned to close the door with the cop standing behind her. Then he pulled her arms behind her back. She had exactly the reaction I think anyone would have if a cop suddenly pulled their arms behind their back: she shouted "No!" and pulled away, which made the cop hold her arms tighter and pull out his handcuffs. He said, very calmly, that she needed to stop resisting him, and she insisted, as calmly as she could, that she wasn't going to resist - that she hadn't meant to resist, and was not going to fight him.

He handcuffed her, and about this time the woman's husband - a very tall, very large black man - stepped out of the building. The husband didn't approach, and the cop didn't react that I could see, but the driver started begging the cop - please, please just let him get the keys out of my pocket. I thought, so if she was taken to jail, her husband would still be able to use the car - that maybe it was his car, and that was the root of the problem. There was a muffled exchange I didn't hear, and then she said "Just let him get my son and let him get the case out of the trunk." The officer agreed, and the husband went to the back seat of the car and pulled out a little boy - maybe 5 or 6 years old. The boy immediately ran for the front door of their building, while the husband went around to the back of the car, opened the trunk, and pulled out what I'm pretty sure was a foil-covered cake pan. Not case, cake. 

The driver then asked the cop to let her get her cell phone from the front seat, so she could call someone to let them know she wouldn't be there (I couldn't quite make out who or where), but he said no, and guided her over to his car and made her get in the back seat. The part of my mind that wasn't reeling thought this woman was definitely going to jail - that she must have been driving without a license, or something else that would get her arrested. But maybe 10 minutes later, the cop came around and let her out of the car and handed her a ticket. As soon as she was out of the cop car, the husband came back outside but stayed carefully near the front door of the building. Once she had the ticket, the woman booked it back into the apartment building, but the husband stayed outside until the cop had driven away. Then he went and opened the back seat of the car and pulled out a big bunch of shiny silver metallic balloons - you know, the kind you get for a special occasion. Like a birthday.

Now again, I wasn't standing right next to them. I didn't hear every word or see every detail. I don't know why the woman was pulled over in the first place. But from everything I saw, my best inference is that the woman was probably wrangling her kid in the back seat, or the stupid balloons, and probably swerved while she was driving. And from everything I know about how the world works, if she had been a stressed out white mom, with a little blonde white son sitting in the back seat on his way to a birthday party, the cop probably would have let her off with a warning. If you had told that cop that one of his fellows had pulled over a white woman and cuffed her in front of her child, I bet even he would be horrified at the prospect. But the driver wasn't white.

The whole time, I was sitting there in horror, thinking to myself over and over again, this woman's life is being ruined right in front of my eyes, for a traffic ticket. That the officer felt the need to use force because she was black and he was scared, and because of it she was going to go to jail, and be considered a criminal, and lose her job and her reputation, and end up trapped in a cycle of poverty over a couple of fucking balloons. Every nerve in me was screaming at me to do something - but what can you do when the person in the wrong has all the power?

Maybe the worst part for me was that a few days ago I walked to the mail box on the other side of our complex to send a letter. On the way back to my building, I saw a large, heavyset black man standing on our narrow sidewalk, and instinctively stepped off the curb to walk across the parking lot to avoid him. I got about six steps before I realized what I'd done - just far enough that I would have looked like an even bigger idiot getting back on the sidewalk, but I could have died of my own shame the rest of the walk home - especially when I saw he was outside playing with his son. The same son that same man had to take out of a car so he wouldn't have to watch his mother being put in a cop car a few days later.

So I can't pretend I don't understand what was going on in that cop's mind. Above all, cops always have to be in control of the situation - for them, it is often literally a matter of life and death to do so, and their own safety comes before the dignity of their suspects. And the fear law enforcement have of African Americans is as deeply engrained as it is self perpetuating. Hell, it was perpetuated today. That kid is almost certainly going to hate, fear, and mistrust the police for the rest of his life. And when one day he is a grown black man, when he one day gets pulled over by a white cop on suspicion of blackness, what happened today is going to color that interaction.

But the very worst part is that while for me this was shocking, almost beyond belief, a story I feel compelled to share, for my next door neighbors, this was nothing more or less than 100% everyday reality. This isn't an isolated incident, or even an unusual one, and it isn't just a police issue. Speaking very broadly and very generally, white people in the US instinctively fear and mistrust black people, and that's a prejudice that - even if you're aware of it, even if you know the absurdity of it and are trying to squelch it - colors every interaction, often completely unconsciously. Which means that fixing the problem takes more than awareness, it takes intervention. And while I'm sure as hell not brave (stupid?) enough to walk up to a cop and point out that he's being a racist, I hope that you and I will both find the courage to draw attention to unreasonable, unfair, discriminatory treatment, because...

...how would you have read this post differently if it were written by a black mother outraged by what had happened to her and her family, instead of an uninvolved white observer?

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