Preface: Ah, yes, it’s a bad sign when you see a post with a preface.
I was really angry about the events in Baltimore and angrier about the press coverage. (FYI: calling rioters and looters “thugs” is fucking racist. Call them opportunists or miscreants but by calling them thugs and white ne’er-do-wells by other names, like hooligan, gangster, delinquent, etc., you have made a choice. A poor choice.) So I wanted to write a post about social media and the police. I started it weeks ago but couldn’t seem to get it right. So now it’s almost exclusively about my experiences with the police and it’s a bit of a ramble. I decided that if I didn’t post it unfinished, I probably wouldn’t post it at all. For a while I thought not posting at all was the better option but then I just got sick of seeing it mocking me from the drafts folder so….
My grandfather died when I was eleven. He’d had a stroke and had been in a coma for two months. The adults discussed whether I should be allowed to visit him in the hospital and if taking me to the funeral was a good idea. They decided yes to the hospital and no to the funeral. But my mother and I went to visit his grave occasionally. He’s buried in a large old cemetery with beautiful old trees, gentle slopes, and winding lanes. I adore that cemetery. It’s one of the most pleasant and peaceful places in this city. I don’t find it creepy at all. My high-school was only about a mile away so one afternoon a couple of my friends and I went to hang out in the cemetery after school. The southern part of the cemetery was unoccupied and had a carefully manicured lawn. There we sat talking and goofing off for a couple of hours until it started getting dark and we decided to head for home. Of course the gate was locked.
One girl was a bit freaked out by this but I wasn’t fazed. We walked over to a part of the fence with a nearby tree. Never a tree climber or fence hopper, I would have preferred to wait until the gate opened the next morning. It was a surprise to no-one when I got stuck atop the fence. We asked passing adults for help but we just looked like a bunch of crazy teenagers and were ignored. What seemed like hours later, a policeman happened by. I was very relieved that there was finally an adult who would help me down. First he gave me a bit of a hard time for attempting to break in. We assured him that we had lost track of time and only wanted to go home. He suggested we might end up going home in a squad car. To my credit, I did not roll my eyes: I knew he was full of shit and frankly would have appreciated a ride but my friends were horrified. Finally he relented and lifted me off the fence. But he didn’t put me down right away. He just held me by the waist and told me I shouldn’t be a bad girl. This was confusing to me – I recognised all the words but there was something in his tone that wasn’t quite right.. He told me I had to promise to be good. I was very uncomfortable at this point. He held me against his body for a moment and then felt me up as he released me to the ground. My first experience with police. And sexual harrassment. Apart from that time when I was in grade 3 or 4 and the man in the car called me over to ask directions but when I went up to him he had this weird thing in his lap that made me want to walk away. I had forgotten about that until my twenties when I was at a friend’s farm (and by farm, I mean huge house an hour away from the city) watching an old episode of Match Game: the man had looked a bit like Gene Rayburn. Seriously, there are a lot of fucked up people out there.
When I was 18/19, I lived in London for a little over a year (a 10-part multipost awaits if I maintain the energy for it). I had booked a bed and breakfast for three nights and hoped to find another place to stay after that. I called a few numbers from Loot (a free buy-and-sell type of paper – like a printed Craigslist) and got a couple of duds before I spoke to Roger who had a room for rent in his house where he lived with his daughter and another lodger. It sounded great and it was. The only drawback was that it was a stone’s throw from where John (my first love and at least 8 parts of the 10-part multipost) lived. I decided that it would be silly to let John influence where I lived, whether near or far so I gave Roger a couple of weeks rent and went to collect my things from the B&B. I decorated the room with construction paper chains and tiny flyers for gigs I’d attended and made a plasticine garden and was deliriously happy.
I lived on this quiet dead-end street that the google van didn’t bother to turn on to.
When the other lodger went home to visit family, she let me have her radio. I really enjoyed pirate radio. Then she moved out. Soon afterward Roger and his daughter went on vacation. I had the huge house to myself. Still, I mostly kept to my room but did more cooking in the lovely kitchen. While they were away, the house was burgled. I called the police and they duly arrived, dusted for prints, and took my statement. I was pretty discombobulated and the police, in particular PC Raymond, were extremely kind and calming. I was very impressed.
Fast forward several months. I moved to a flat in an apartment building. I’d had an exceedingly peculiar evening and returned to the flat quite late and was attacked in the stairwell. Again I called the police and made a statement after answering questions about whether I had been drinking and whether I knew my attacker. I called the police station a week later to find out if there was any news but they could not recall me having made any statement. I was not impressed.
Rewind about a year. Shortly after I left the UK the first time, from Enrichment at Oxford, John moved to Boston. I came to visit him in March and we went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston because he wanted to take photos. We lost track of one another in the crowd and I was left to somehow find my way back to the subway station. The parade had been fun and festive but the mood changed drastically when the parade floats had passed. It went from joyful to creepy in seconds. I was feeling my way along a road I hoped I recognised when a young man raced past me on the sidewalk. Shouts erupted from behind me and when I turned to look, two policemen were racing to catch the guy. I moved out of the way and hung back a bit. One of the officers pulled out his billyclub and threw it at the guy’s legs. It hit him and he fell to the ground, skidding face-first on the pavement. When the police caught up to him, they retrieved their club and started beating the shit out of him with it. Then they turned him over and beat him some more. Horrified, I crossed the street to be as far away as I could be from the scene unfolding on the sidewalk. The beating continued for some minutes and in the single glance I made in their direction, I could see that the guy was a bloody pulp. I was utterly freaked out. Alone and lost in a strange city, I saw the worst beating I’ve ever seen in my life. By police. For no discernable reason. There was no weapon because they didn’t frisk him when they caught him, they just went straight to furious violence. I am still confounded by this. I feel a kind of shame for not somehow intervening and trying to stop it but I also understand why I didn’t.
Anyway, after I moved back home from the UK, I moved into a flat with three other women. I chose this flat because although my room was in a poorly constructed addition with no heat, it had slopey ceilings. Downstairs was another flat shared by three roommates. One night they had a party and their guests spilled out onto the porch and the yard. Some neighbourhood boys decided to come by and hurl insults at the folks downstairs, mostly racial slurs but also some homophobic ones. The partiers yelled back and then the boys collected some stones from the park next door and started hurling them into the yard. Someone called the police. After a while, a squad car pulled up and an officer came to the sidewalk in front of our house. F, my downstairs neighbour, went up to talk to him and one of the local kids joined them. F addressed the boy directly, “Why do you think it’s okay to yell racist insults?” Before the kid had a chance to say anything the cop said, “Well why not? Everybody else does it. The world’s built on racism.” I was so astonished that a sharp “What?!” escaped from my lips. The cop shot me a dismissive look and then turned and left. F said he hadn’t expected anything less but I was incensed. I called to file a complaint against the officer. The woman who answered the phone explained that she would take my statement but a complaint would only be filed if the police deemed it worthy. When I called the following Monday, I reached the same woman and she told me that they would not be filing a complaint and that the officer had merely been speaking philosophically. Oh, well that’s alright then.
A couple of years later, I was living in a flat above a store on a main street in a rough but interesting neighbourhood. One evening my roomate (F again) forgot to lock the front door when he left for the night. I didn’t notice until the door opened downstairs and I heard feet on the stairs. Assuming it was F, I didn’t even get up to look until I heard unfamiliar voices. Two drunk guys were sitting on the landing at the top of the stairs. They must have been in their 50’s or 60’s, clearly homeless and out of their minds. I asked them to leave. They refused. They offered me a drink of what smelled like paint thinner. They had a can of Sprite for mixer. I was firmer the second time and told them they had to leave or I would call the police. Again, they refused. So I dialled 911 and let them know that two homeless guys had broken into my apartment, and that I was a young woman alone in the house and that I was scared. I waited forty-five minutes for a squad car. Yes. Forty-five minutes. They were harmless and just looking for a way to get out of the cold but the police didn’t necessarily know that. When F returned, he told me I should have waited until he got home because he said the police would have taken them down to the beach to beat the living crap out of them for disturbing the peace. Since F had called the “the world’s built on racicm” thing, I had no reason to doubt him. I have since learned from newspaper articles that taking people to the beach for a “tune up” is an actual thing.
F moved out but I kept the flat (and his cat, the lovely Simon) because the rooms were large and the rent was reasonable. I had a couple of different roommates but they were often out of town or staying with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Alone again one night I woke to a strange noise. It sounded like someone out on the fire escape. I held my breath trying to locate the noise. It was definitely someone on the fire escape. I got up and turned the lights on and off and on again to let the potential burgler know that someone was home and this would not be an optimal location for a break-in. Frightened, I got dressed and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea since it was pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Then I heard breaking glass from the back of the house. I grabbed my keys and got the hell out of there. Still half awake and scared, I walked up the street unsure what to do. I asked the only person I saw on the street if they could make a phone call for me but they must have thought I was crazy because they ignored me and kept on going. The next person I found stopped his car and said he would make a phone call for me if I would just do this one little thing for him. I declined this offer and kept on going. No more than 5 minutes later I saw a cop car. With immense relief, I flagged them down and explained that someone had broken into my house. “What, now?!” Yes. They followed me to the house. Once inside, I led them to the back room where I’d heard the breaking glass. As I was walking, still scared but happy to have back-up, I thought, “Wait, why am I leading the way?” We could hear that someone was still back there. I got to the door and, still frightened and still unsure why I was in the lead, I opened the door and there was a grubby looking little guy rummaging through my roommate’s desk. One of the officers asked me if I knew this person and when I said I did not, they pushed me out of the way and grabbed him.
They put him on the ground and began asking him questions. One officer stayed with him and another asked me questions in the front of the house. After I’d seen the scrawniness of the guy who broke in, I felt like “oh, I probably could’ve taken him…” but I was extremely frightened when I didn’t know what or who was in my home. Having not taken the hint of the lights going on and off, he was likely not in his right mind (to put if mildly). I was grateful that the police were able to come to my aid.
Apart from jaywalking, I’m a law-abiding citizen. Although I have another half dozen stories about weird men doing creepy things (peeping tom, threatening psycho at the subway station, jerks following me home, jerks asking me to have sex with them for money, strangers making unsolicited obscene comments, a shitty boss who questioned me about my sex life, and all the usual stuff that happens to women every goddamned day), that is the sum total of my dealings with police. There are a couple of bright lights, but there are way too many bad apples in there.
The first guy (the one who took advantage of my situation and felt me up when I was 15) was just a snake who happened to be wearing the uniform. But should we hold him to a higher standard than your garden variety scumbag because he was wearing the uniform? Because he was employed at the public’s expense to enforce the law? Because he was given emblems of authority in addition to his uniform like handcuffs and a gun? From the other angle: was he less worried about being held to account for molesting a minor because he was a cop? Would the deterring fear of being caught or punished just disengage for this guy: and would that make him more likely to do something detestable? Apart from a teeny-tiny erosion of my self worth, nothing really bad happened there. But really bad things do happen. It is reasonable to believe that there is a ‘who’s-gonna-stop-me?’, brazen element within the ranks of the police because it is too easy to imagine an officer saying “who are they going to believe: you, random person, or me, the police officer?” So who polices the police? And how can you know what their motivations are? Who polices them? At some point the buck is supposed to stop at some elected official but that doesn’t exactly make my heart sing.
Do we have reason to have faith in authorities: in the police, in elected officials, teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, and others? Your answer likely depends on how well those systems are working for you. If you are marginalised because of your race, religion, bank balance, or whatever, you might have good reason to be cautious about putting your trust in institutions. If you are poor and black in Baltimore and Ferguson and everywhere inbetween, those institutions are probably not working for you; you might have good reason to NOT trust the police. Or the justice system writ large. (Here‘s a Frontline documentary called The Plea. In it I learned that only about 2% of cases go to trial, the rest are settled with plea bargains. In non-violent cases, the accused gets probation with time served if they plead guilty. But there are multiple costs associated with probation and if you are too poor to pay, you are considered in violation of your probation and are sent back into the system, perhaps to plea out again with more costly probation, etc. About 5 years ago, I decided not to watch Frontline anymore or read Harpers because they made me so angry but although I haven’t picked up a copy of Harpers, I find it hard to resist Frontline.)
I reckon there’s power in numbers. If we all police ourselves and one another (and not in some McCarthy-ist or KGB-informant kind of way), perhaps we can regain belief in the social contract. It requires speaking out. A lot of people are scared to stick their neck out and I can be that way myself. But we can effect change if we want to. On the micro level: intervene when we see some guy cornering a woman who is trying to escape; and say, “Look Sally, I think you’re a nice person but that racist joke is not funny” and that sort of thing. and on the macro level, write your Congressman or Member of Parliament with regard to justice issues. If there is a cause you feel strongly about, by all means, sign the pettition but then take it a step further. I go to rallies in my area even though I don’t enjoy the shouting and am not impressed by sloganeering: I do it because our electoral options are not always terribly broad and because it is a visible means of saying something that’s important. Talk is cheap (thanks, Twitter): but when we see other people speak up, I believe it makes it easier for us to speak up.
Also of note: last week was the 30th anniversary of the MOVE eviction in Philadelphia. There are a few films about this floating around: Let the Fire Burn (trailer here) was where I first learned of what happened so it stands out for me. If you are not familiar with this sad story, I’d recommend looking into it. If you watch any of the films, be sure to have your critical thinking cap on because the producers have their own take on the events, like in any documentary. But because the group is so divisive and the events are so incendiary, it can get hyperbolic.