The job of the police isn’t supposed to be easy. Suspects aren’t supposed to be grateful when they’re taken into custody. Cops are supposed to be questioned when they stop or arrest somebody. So here’s my question: Why I was stopped by police last month?
I was riding a bike about three blocks from my house when someone yelled at me from inside a squad car. I was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and was riding at night without no front or rear light. Maybe law-abiders practice better traffic safety. But neither of these guys told me I was riding without a light or a crash helmet. I wasn’t a motorist stopped for having a brake light out.
The officers were two big white guys who were probably a good 20 years younger than me.
Are you carrying identification? one of them said.
I shook my head no. They asked me where I lived, and I told them my address and said I could show them the house.
Just stay right there, they said.
For the next five minutes one of them went into the squad car and, I assume, ran my name and address through the computer. Pretty soon they were saying, You can go now. Just doing our job. You said you had your garage burglarized? Then you know why were here.
When I had said I had no I.D. one of them pointed out that I wasn’t required to carry I.D. Hey buddy, this ain’t a police state!
I got home and felt my back pocket. I was carrying I.D. When you’re stopped by the law you’re wigged out and I guess you’re just not thinking straight.
Maybe I should be flattered the police think I’m still young enough to get involved in street crime.
It was the second time San Diego’s finest had questioned me. The first time I was outside a strip mall in City Heights, just a week after I’d moved to town, and I was removing the license plates from a car. OK. I know that could have looked suspicious, but it was my car. I was removing my old Minnesota license plates to put on the California ones. The cops had been eating lunch in a Mexican restaurant. I had just come out of a hardware story, also in the strip mall, where I’d bought a screwdriver and pliers to do the job.
People like me assume that if the police are stopping you they’ve probably got some kind of reason. Maybe they get it wrong — in my case they did both times — but what the fuck. They’ve got a job to do.
Ever since I’ve been a reporter I’ve heard folks in the black community say they are stopped and questioned just for being black. One of the reporters where I work just did a story about police being accused of stopping black motorists for no good reason. It might as well have well have been a story I did 20 years ago. The same accusations. The same denials.
We all live in a human skin but we don’t live in the same world. It’s different for women than for men and it’s different for blacks than for whites. Sometimes you’re treated very differently, depending on your color, and even if you’re treated the same it doesn’t feel the same because you expect to be treated in a certain way, and so you read stuff into what the other is doing or saying.
A journalist named James Fallows used to live in Japan and he remembered going to a meeting full of Japanese men in suits. The Japanese guys were already there, and they looked at their watches when he walked in the door to point out that Americans were rude and never arrived on time. On the other hand, maybe they were just wondering what time it was.
We can all get on the wrong side of power and I guess you never know what that’s like until it happens. And we can all be hated for what people see when we walk in the door. Love is the only antidote.