I’ve changed how I think about the police.
When I was younger, I used to think that the police were there to protect us from crimes, and to keep the peace. Now, my thoughts are more complicated than that.
I still think the police are there to protect me from crimes. But that’s because I’m white, and that’s not a privilege I take lightly.
About 95% of the residents of my neighborhood are black. I live on a quiet street, quiet in part because half the houses that used to be here have been torn down and replaced with empty lots. This is the first time since I moved here, almost two decades ago, that all of the houses (seven right now) have residents.
Last week, for four days, there was an event going on at one of the other houses. I didn’t know what the event was, but for four days, our normally quiet street was congested. Cars were parked on both sides of the street, and there were cars parked in the empty lots as well. Nobody was being particularly rude (even the loud music only ran for a few hours in the evening), but I was concerned that this was going to be a regular thing now.
And, frankly, it was both illegal and a safety risk: There’s only supposed to be parking on one side of the road because then it’s not wide enough for emergency vehicles. As it was, when UPS came to deliver a package for me, the driver had to creep his way down the road at less than five miles an hour as people shouted, “UPS! Yeah! Give me a package!”
I’d been sitting on the porch hoping to wave the driver down as he passed on a side street, so he wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet. Unfortunately for him, he chose to go around the other way.
In another world, in another neighborhood, I would have called the local police. The police would have come by with the spirit of keeping the peace and found out what was causing the congestion. Everything would have been settled amicably.
But this is not that world, not for our black citizens. This is a world where a call to the police for assistance can turn violent, even deadly, quickly.
Last month, Dyma Loving called the police after a man pointed a gun at here during an argument. Video shows Loving getting upset but not aggressive towards the officers, who proceed to assault her, ending in her arrest.
In February, Chicago Police threw a 16-year-old girl down a flight of stairs before dragging her down to the next floor and tasing her repeatedly. Her “crime”? She had refused to put her cell phone away in class. She was initially arrested for assaulting the officers before school security footage was released. The footage clearly shows that she was attacked first. Her father, who had come to the school to pick her up, watched the assault, worried that his daughter would lose consciousness, or worse, in front of him.
Not all victims of police over-reaction and abuse of power are black. Last year, for instance, Justine Damond was killed by police responding to her 911 call. In testimony Thursday, officer Matthew Harrity (white) testified that while he was scared by Damond apparently thumping on the police car, he felt his partner Mohamed Noor (black) was not justified in using lethal force in shooting her.
This is a stark contrast to how police act far too often when one of their own are on trial: Circle the wagons. Deny wrong-doing, even when there’s video evidence. Claim the victim did something wrong, that the officers were scared, that they were justified in their reaction.
If an officer hears a random noise outside their vehicle and shoots into the darkness, why is their fear reaction justified when the victim turns out to be a black man but unjustified when it’s a white woman?
I had a nightmare last night, just before I woke up. Police came to my house to tell me about ghosts that lived in it. I told them I didn’t know anything about it, and that they needed to get off my property. Things escalated until I threatened to report them and asked for their badge numbers, and they physically restrained me and told me to calm down. In the dream, they didn’t beat me, they just held me and yelled at me.
The dream continued to the next day, when a group of black women from my neighborhood worked with the prosecutor to get me a week in county jail for assault and obstruction. I was cussing up a storm about police, but even in the dream I realized how different my reality was from theirs: For yelling at the police, my biggest risk is what had happened. Their biggest risk is being shot dead in the street.
Even so, I woke up scared of my own worst case scenario: A week in jail for trying to get the police to stop trespassing. It was only when I calmed down that I realize what my subconscious was really processing. If that worst case scenario was frightening for me, how must it be to live with that as a best case scenario?
So I’ve stopped thinking about calling the police in my neighborhood for something as mild as too many cars parked on my street. The risk that things will turn out wrong is too high.
I realize, naturally, that in yet another world, I would have just walked down to my neighbor’s house and asked them what was going on, or asked someone passing by. I blame my social anxiety, my conditioning, and my still-fading expectation that that’s one of the things police are supposed to be for. I’m still adjusting to a new world where people resolve conflict by talking to each other.
The parking problem has gone away. It turns out that it was apparently a wake. I’m glad that I didn’t interrupt their mourning space to complain about the parking, and I’m certainly glad that I didn’t involve the police. It might have turned out fine but… it might not have.
And it’s that “might not have” that hovers over me now whenever I think of the police. When I see a police car pass by in my neighborhood, I wonder: Are they one of the good ones? Are there any good ones, or are they all capable of having a bad day turn into grief and a national headline?
This is only one product of a racist system. Police officers, with their tasers and their itchy trigger fingers, are a real danger in themselves, but they’re also part of a much larger system. A system that desperately needs to be dismantled.