First off: I am and have always been TERRIFIED of police. The few encounters in my life I’ve had with officers have been beyond nerve wracking, and they weren’t even pertaining to vaguely criminal activities. But I’ve always been terrified because I’ve seen the power each officer wields and what it can do to a psyche. I’ve also never trusted human nature in general when showered with power, no matter who or what race or gender they are. I know where the balance of power lays right now, but I wouldn’t trust human beings were the balance to swing to another quadrant. Human beings, in general, are scum, as a majority. Introduce power into that equation and you will have nothing but strife. Look at history. It will never change.
I have been stopped a few times for either speeding (so they claimed) or not properly stopping (so they claimed) at a stop sign. A couple of times I’ve had to deal with police in the matters of vandalism to my car. Only once, in S. Florida, I was “profiled” by an officer and pulled over: it was late one night and I was driving back from my family rental house with a painter’s ladder on top of my beat-up, cheap Escort, after having helped my parents paint the walls for new tenants. I was let go, because all my papers were up to date. But he still followed me until I turned into my neighborhood.
All these times were filled with tension and dread within my chest, profusely sweating from the way I was spoken to/barked at, or treated, to just the general menacing environment created by officers of the law, designed to “serve and protect” the neighborhood.
Second off: I appear to most people to be a white man. In fact, despite immigrating from Romania and obviously being of Romanian origin, I am a mixed person: Romanian/Dacian/Thracian, Greek, and a bit of Lebanese. In geographic areas which tend to get a lot of sun (Los Angeles where I very briefly lived, Florida, where I lived for 4 years, and now North Carolina, where I’ve lived for the past 10), my skin color turns quite brown especially in the summers. A quick aside here: while living in Florida and being unemployed initially, one day I went out without a shirt, in just a flappy fishing hat, and began to do yard work in the front of our house. My wife at the time was working from home and hadn’t noticed that I had left the house. After hours of concentrating on her work, she glanced out the window of her home office and saw what she thought was “an African-American man for some strange reason pulling weeds from our flower bed.” She thought I was a renegade gardner of some sorts, but she truly thought I was an African-American man.
Basically I’m saying that in the eyes of most police officers I am one of the entitled white citizens (though I’ve never considered myself that) in the community. I am sure that there were plenty of times when state cruisers were driving alongside my car, profiling drivers, who took a look at me and decided that because I was a white man of a certain age, driving a certain kind of car, I was “safe” or ok not to stop and harass and check for this or that.
But even given that privilege, and I fully realize that it exists for men like me, I am filled with dread at just the sight of cop lights. The most recent encounter I had with an officer was last year just as I had dropped off my daughter at her mum’s house, after a weekend spent with my wife (her stepmum) and me. My daughter lives in another city, about 120 miles away. The every-other-weekend routine/drive I’ve been making now for 8 years is almost automatic. I can do the drive nearly with my eyes closed. I know every nook and cranny of her neighborhood, every shortcut, as well as the long, paved highway system that takes me there (rest area at mile 78: clean bathrooms, easy to get in and out of).
But it appears that while I was stopped at a stop sign in her neighborhood, waiting for other traffic to clear the road I was going to turn on, I ran the sign. It’s impossible, yes, but…there were the lights on full blast behind me eager to fine me for the infraction I had just committed.
At first, I thought the officer was driving either a very large SUV or a panzer… or a small tank. This “car” was like nothing I’d ever seen a police officer drive before. Mind you, it had been a good 10 years since I’d been stopped for anything, so I was…out of touch with the equipment and/or vehicles PDs had upgraded to in the ’00s. I suppose the militarization of our PDs had escaped my keen eye. It’s how it goes if you’re given privileges and extended the benefit of the doubt. You don’t realize. You don’t even think about the police when it’s not part of your life in a certain way.
Anyway, so this Dodge Charger sedan looked basically like something out of The Road Warrior: all black, propped up on very high wheels/tires, a thick, black battering ram or guard or whatever you call those thick, iron grill things on the front, tinted windows…it really looked like an armored panzer to me. It was extremely intimidating, just the vehicle itself. Mind you, my daughter lives in a very sleepy suburb of a very small town in central North Carolina. What I’m saying is: it’s almost, nearly, Mayberry. But Mayberry’s police patrols its streets in German panzers, it seems.
The officer that stepped out of this all-black tank was, I thought, initially a robot. Or a Terminator. Robocop. This man was a good 6’4″, at least 235 or 240 lbs., all muscle/iron, kevlar jacket underneath his uniform made him look twice as bulky and intimidating, he wore wrap-around sunglasses that reflected everything back at me with a weird impunity, and had a belt around his muscular mid-size that housed not just the standard automatic black revolver, but a slew of devices (taser? pepper spray? blackjack?) that announced menacingly how badly my ass would be damaged (or terminated) if used upon me.
Long story short: I got a warning, you see. Because I wasn’t just a white man dropping off his daughter in a sleepy, Mayberry-like town in North Carolina on a Sunday afternoon…no. I was a white man with a brand new, family-type Honda Civic, with no vehicular infractions in the last 10 years, clean shaven, wearing a fairly nice shirt, a short, tight haircut, and a box in the back seat full of YA books, color pencils, art pads with cartoon drawings of cats and dogs and faeries, and other art supplies. Never mind I had come to a full stop at the sign…that wasn’t why I was let go w/a warning. Never mind I obeyed the law…I fit the officer’s profile of “a safe citizen.” (If he’d read all my activity on Twitter, I bet he’d have arrested me.)
What went down in Ferguson recently, and what’s been happening really for many decades if not hundreds of years regarding race relations/gender relations and culture and immigration here in the States, is terrifying to me. For a “civilised” country, one that in some respects is still at the forefront of technical innovation (think: Apple, Google, etc.) and a “leader in the free world,” it’s mind boggling to repeatedly witness inequities perpetrated upon people of color, women, LGBT people, immigrants, and any other productive members of our neighborhoods by over-armed, trigger-happy PDs and paranoid officers.
In fact, just last week while I was driving down to Charlotte, NC to speak before a wonderful group of writers, I witnessed a state patrol car cruise alongside my vehicle, officer make eye contact, move ahead, slide in between a group of cars, slide over all the way to the right hand lane where he got behind a car driven the speed limit by an elderly black woman, and pull her over. Clearly the state patrolman was profiling drivers. And skipped over me because, once again, what he saw was a “white” man driving a new-ish family car, wearing a suit jacket and nice shirt.
I am an immigrant, yes, but I’ve been a citizen of the United States for nearly 30 years. On legal paper I am an American. On legal paper, I am a white male. But I’ve never been able to identify fully with white culture here. I just haven’t. I don’t have much in common with the white middle class (does that even exist anymore, the middle class?) to which I seemingly belong. No possessions or materials are important to me. I don’t buy (though I was once blind, now I can see) the American Dream: ownership. This is why both my wife and I made a conscious decision to get rid of everything that we owned (home, cars) and just rent things. Because, really, not many people (at least that I know) truly OWN anything. If you’re on a 30 or 15-year mortgage plan for your home, you don’t own that home. The bank does. And the bank makes sure you pay it plus the value of two more of your homes in interest (over a 30-year period). Oh I know, I’ve “owned” two homes before. I’ve had amortization schedules. I’ve re-financed for 15 years down from 30. I’ve had lenders try to over-lend to me, telling me how I’d be able to afford a house clearly unaffordable and excessive for my lifestyle. But I digress here…all I mean to say is: I am not interested in most things (white) people deem vital or important to their lives. I am not interested in material things other than books and a pair of shoes that don’t get wet in the deluge that we seem to get here in this state year-round. I don’t care for cars or shopping or stainless steel appliances or granite countertops or a big yard on a cul-de-sac, etc. etc. etc.
But I do understand the privileges afforded me by police departments. These privileges contribute to my being alive. It sounds drastic, but it’s true. And I get that. Every day.
If despite all these privileges I seem to enjoy based upon a certain profile that tells police officers that I am a productive member of society, I continue to be terrified of the law enforcers…I have to truly wonder (and feel/empathize): what must it feel like to be a person of color in America now, at the end of 2014, in light of what has been happening…well, not even recently, but always?
What kind of life is that for a human being to have in this…”the greatest country in the world?”
And what is to be done about a corrupt system? Voting isn’t it. I refuse to vote for a system of Duopoly. Voting doesn’t right anything. So then what? Revolution? Is that possible in this, the “land of plenty”?