When I was 15, a friend and I took the regional bus from about 60 miles north of San Francisco to the middle of San Francisco. If you’re at all familiar with the Bay Area, you know that anything along a that particular 60 mile half-radius is bound to be suburbs. Charming, track-housed, quiet, and very, very white suburbs.
I was myself a very, very white suburbanite (or the child of two), and though my friend appeared to be “exotic”, it was clear she didn’t hail from the barrio. Our clothing, our speech and mannerisms, our very cluelessness were strong indicators that we did not belong in the pre-gentrified Mission District of San Francisco in the early 90s.
We were there by accident. I mean, we were in San Francisco on purpose, but we weren’t supposed to get off the bus there. A responsible adult was waiting for us at the bus station a few stops away. But did I mention our cluelessness? So, there we were – two suburban girls with backpacks, wandering around looking scared and confused in a complicated part of town. But we didn’t want to call home (on a payphone, because early 1990s) because that would be admitting that we weren’t quite as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as we pretended to be when securing permission to make this trip in the first place. So we asked a cop in a patrol car where the heck we were, and how to get where we were going.
It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what was said. I doubt we were very coherent, or that the officer was intentionally dodgy, but the result of that short conversation was that the cop in the car negligently waved us in a direction that was away from him.
I was horrified. I don’t mean I was scared (although I was intimidated by our circumstances), I mean I was filled with righteous indignation that this Officer of the Law didn’t immediately drop everything to personally escort us to safety. Clearly, I was operating on the Sesame Street model of law enforcement. Setting aside for a moment the wisdom of two and a half intervening decades, why was I so certain that a police officer would help me?
Because, quite simply, I’d grown up believing that. I’m only being slightly facetious when I call it the Sesame Street model. From the time I was old enough to toddle, my family, teachers, tv shows and books had shown me, either explicitly or by example, that cops were friendly, helpful authority figures who would protect me. Lost? Find a cop. Scared? Find a cop. Dropped your ice cream cone? Okay, so that one wasn’t taught to me, but it’s not a stretch for a good little girl to make that connection. And who would nay-say me? All my friends lived in my community, looked like me, watched the same tv shows and read the same books I did.
So, to have my expectations so rudely quashed by the heedless attitude of a real life cop was an affront to my worldview. And because I was a well-behaved, middle class, white girl, I was certain that my world view was the Correct and Authentic One(TM).
And that is the extent of my bad experience with law enforcement in America.
Cut to 25 years later. In the space of days two men were violently put down by law enforcement officers at opposite ends of the country. I could say “murdered” but that’s a term we apply to victims, and of course, the narrative of well-behaved, middle class, white America refuses to identify black bodies as victims.
I find it difficult to know what to say to that. I am implicitly a part of that narrative, even when I explicitly speak out against it. The violence done to black and brown people in this country is not for me to publicly be outraged about – it’s not my lived experience and it’s not my voice that should be heard. At the same time, People of Color have been screaming their outrage since the founding of this country and nobody is fucking listening. When the first thing out of the mouths of people who would never consider themselves racist is, “We should wait until all the facts are in,” instead of “Why the hell are our cops killing citizens??” – we know that we live in a racist society. When more outrage is expressed by white America over cops killing dogs than cops killing people, what could I possibly say to make them see the truth? And yet, as a white American, it is incumbent upon me to speak out to other white Americans, and keep speaking out – even though it’s not my voice they should be listening to.
There are important conversations to be had about the militarization of our domestic police force, about the culture of toxic masculinity that pervades institutions of authority, about the actual risk-to-benefit ratio of concealed carry and open carry gun laws. Predictably, they will all take precedence over the more necessary conversation about our racist society. Predictably, they will overshadow the tragic statistics showing how people of color are targeted by law enforcement at staggeringly disproportionate rates to whites. Predictably – because it happens every damn time.
It happens because I survived my “bad” encounter with a cop. That’s what it boils down to: I, and the people who look like me, are not really affected by police violence against people of color. When I log off my computer at the end of the day, I will go to bed safe in the knowledge that I’m actually safe. That if I need to call law enforcement in the middle of the night, they will come to my rescue, not blame me for my victimization. That the odds of my white teenage daughter surviving a routine traffic stop unscathed are astronomically greater than a same-aged black youth. I can choose to look away, I can choose to not say anything. I did make that choice, for a long time. But to paraphrase a man who would know, I don’t want to be the only one left standing when it finally does affect me.
We can’t pretend this isn’t happening. We can’t carry around a bottomless bucket of sand to bury our heads in. Our friends, neighbors, countrymen are dying and if we’re silent, we’re complicit. Speak. But more importantly, listen.