A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
There are bad cops. Trigger-happy. Vengeful. Crooked. Prejudiced. There are also bad teachers and bad priests. When the public trust is broken by “bad apples” in any helping profession, it’s not uncommon to paint the entire group with the same brush. Because cops have high visibility in local communities, their bad behavior makes headlines more often than not. We then understandably become disenchanted with those who pledge “to serve and protect.”
Yet I’ve never been afraid of the police.
Police have been afraid of me, however.
Growing up in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood, I had little or no exposure to them. A friend of our family was an officer in the Rochester, NY force. Although I thought him a little John Birch-like, he seemed harmless enough.
The Nixon-era temporarily altered my perception of the “men in blue.” Television images of the 1968 Democratic Convention, with the Chicago police in their riot gear unleashing snarling dogs, tear gas and billy clubs. Protesting kids getting dragged away kicking and screaming by heavily-armed officers. Years later, the epithet “pig” crept into my vocabulary when I marched on my college campus against the Vietnam War. But cops were never my personal enemy. In fact, I’ve since found them to be quite helpful when I join marches for social causes on the streets of New York City and Washington DC. One even asked where I got my t-shirt in opposition to the war du jour.
So now I’m trying to wrap my brain around the events of the past year when police officers in several American communities clearly demonstrated a lack of restraint (at best) toward unarmed African-American males, and the justice system seemed to look the other way. Although some of them were committing petty crimes, I quickly jump to the defense of the gunned-down young black men. How can I not? There have just been too many incidents of late. And too many white people seemingly not outraged, perhaps even emotionally complicit, reminding us all of the deep-seated prejudice lurking beneath our socially-appropriate veneer. It’s no wonder protesters have adopted the slogan, “Black Lives Matter.”
As a white female, long past middle age (according to the actuarial charts), I view police as my protectors. But that doesn’t mean that others don’t have reason to fear them. Yet I wonder if the bigger problem isn’t that the police are afraid of us. So they shoot first. In my two most recent personal police encounters, I could tell the police officers were afraid of me. I saw it in their eyes and heard it in their voices. And that scared me because it was hard to intellectually reconcile. They were the ones with the guns and all the power. Why would they be afraid of me?
The first incident was when I was pulled over for speeding three years ago. I had my golden retriever puppy in the back of my new SUV and was hurrying to get to a safe place to let her out to “pee.” The officer took what seemed like an inordinate amount of time reviewing my motor vehicle operator documentation while my almost-housebroken puppy whined for relief. I got out of my car and opened the hatch to let her out, only to hear the officer yell out his window, “GET BACK IN YOUR VEHICLE! RIGHT NOW! GET BACK IN YOUR VEHICLE! NOW!” The only thing missing was a bullhorn. Although the words sounded tough, I detected fear in his voice. I had a little blonde puppy on a leash, so I started to explain her toileting needs to him, but he continued shouting his directive: “GET BACK IN YOUR VEHICLE!” I didn’t understand; it was the middle of the day in a well-traveled intersection. As he handed me the speeding ticket, he warned me to NEVER get out of a car when an officer pulls me over. “Yes, sir,” my beaten-down response. But was all his chest-thumping really necessary? I wondered.
I later became aware of the statistics surrounding police officers being wounded or killed during routine traffic stops. But still…was there any room to apply common sense to this encounter?
The second time, just a few weeks ago, a police officer was in his parked car staging a speed trap near my home. Prior to his presence, an electronic sign had been there advising motorists of their speed. Whenever I walked my dog (the puppy in the previous episode), the machine would light up “5 mph.” So when I saw the officer there, I thought it would be a nice human interest story for him to hear. I pulled my car up next to his, rolled down my window, and said, “I have a funny story to tell you.” He stared at me, scowling. I got out and walked toward his official vehicle trying to look as harmless as possible, arms at my side – and then I saw it: Fear. Fear in his eyes as he closely watched me, unsmiling, his neck tense. I peered into his passenger window while relaying the story to him. Although the punch line didn’t merit such a grand reception, he let out a big laugh when the anecdote concluded – the kind of laugh you might have when you’re issued a stay of execution. Or a clean bill of health following a biopsy. A big relieved guffaw. He thanked me profusely, said he’d share the story with “the other guys,” and explained that the sign must have picked up the metal on my dog’s collar, thereby treating her like a motor vehicle.
But as I drove away, I felt sad. Sad that I had scared a cop by simply stopping to talk to him. Sad that we’ve all become so fearful of each other. Sad that people who are fearful have such ready access to guns. Sad that “Stand your Ground” has been so misappropriated. Sad that we pat down old women in wheelchairs in airports. Sad that I’d prefer not to have a man wearing a turban on my airplane. Sad that we need reminders that “black lives matter.”
Understandably, minorities are more afraid of police than Caucasians are. But I suspect that police are afraid of everyone. Something they can’t admit as individuals or as a profession. Despite the tough image and all the tricked-out weaponry, they’re just people – mothers and fathers, sons and daughters – who are in harm’s way every time they don their uniforms. I’m thankful that they’re willing to serve and glad that no one in my family is in that dangerous profession.
But something’s terribly wrong in our culture. (How else would you explain that there are advocates for the right to open-carry weapons into a school building?) Law enforcement agencies simply represent a microcosm of the whole.
In the wake of 9/11 and the resulting issuance of color-coded danger warnings, we’ve become an increasingly fear-based society. Is it possible to calm ourselves down so we don’t lose the sense of humanity necessary to ensure civility in all of our institutions – law enforcement, government, business, health care, education? It’s time to re-examine all of our threat-assessment protocols: Who or what are we sacrificing in trying to quell our fears? As a nation, we need to re-calibrate our collective moral compass to examine where and why we have strayed from a sense of community to uber-rugged individualism: Me first. Kill or be killed.
I’m sorry that I frightened you, officers. That was not my intent. Now I wonder what would happen if former Officer Wilson publically apologized to Michael Brown’s family for making a terrible mistake in killing their son. And admitted that he had been very frightened. It wouldn’t make it right, but it might make it better. For everyone.
— by Patricia A. Nugent writing for Vox Populi