My neighbor is a white guy a few years older than me. Last week he hiked alone in the East Bay hills. After scaling a peak, he returned down the trail — and noticed a phalanx of police officers coming up. As they approached, they suddenly drew their guns, dropped into crouches, and barked at him to put his hands in the air.
He did as told and then didn’t move (except to quake from fear while staring at the lead cop’s gun). They continued shouting, so many of them so quickly he had no idea what to do. Finally, he heard one ask whether he had a gun. “No,” he said. They told him they were going to search him and he readily let them. Only after they confirmed that he didn’t have a gun did they relax (although he didn’t).
Asked why they came after him, they didn’t apologize, just tersely explained that another hiker had seen a holster on his belt and reported him as a roving gunman.
He did have a holster — sort of. It was a cell phone holder.
“So now you must know how it feels to be a black guy minding his own business when the cops suddenly show up,” I said.
He nodded. But he’s a thoughtful fellow, and said he also felt for the cops. “I’m sure they didn’t want to do that. I’m sure they’d have much rather been writing parking tickets than climbing the hills in search of a lone gunman, wondering whether they’d go home or to the morgue that night.”
Agreed. Still, you have to wonder. Another friend of ours, African-American, has a twenty-something nephew who had never been in trouble with the law — not even a parking ticket. The nephew purchased a bag of groceries, started driving home, and suddenly found himself trailed by several police cars. Fearing the worst, he made two quick-witted decisions. First, he slowed down, not evading the police but not stopping for them either, and continued to drive home. Second, he called his parents, told them what was happening, and kept the phone on.
When he reached home, he surrendered. The officers said they had been called about a shoplifter. They found his grocery bag and went through it — where they also found a receipt. Nonetheless, they arrested him, took him to jail, and left him exposed to the coronavirus the entire time he was in custody.
The irony: the young man admired the police and was considering a career in law enforcement. No more. Instead he has nightmares about cops.
The Fabulous Wife and I lead quiet, insular lives. That we’d know two people endangered by the police since the George Floyd murder suggests such confrontations haven’t gone away, and may be a lot more widespread than we imagine.
Of course, those two instances could also be coincidental. And like our neighbor, we feel for the police. They’re human too. In both incidents they had no idea they were dealing with upstanding citizens.
But jeez, folks, can we please take it down a notch? Between assumptions of the worst that lead bystanders to call the police (and obligate the police to respond) and unapologetically bellicose, sometimes chaotic engagement practices, it’s no wonder many of these encounters go tragically wrong.
And in case you think it can’t happen to you, well, that’s what my retired, white, moderate Republican neighbor thought until a few days ago. And compared to our African-American friend’s nephew, he got off easy.