Saturday, July 25, 2009

Police & Perception

When I was younger, possibly 14, possibly 12, possible as young as 11 or as old as 17 (time and I have a tendency to not get along very well), my father instructed me to always drive to the nearest police station if I were pulled over later in the evening or not on a main road. There had been a rash of sexual assaults reported, many committed by men who were dressing up as police officers in order to more easily gain power over their victims. But some were actual police officers, who already had more power over their victims. So, my father told me to not forget these instances, to always drive to the nearest police station in the event I was pulled over late at night or not on a main road, and to do so if I felt unsafe in any way even if I was on a highway at noon.

They also had me watch movies like The Thin Blue Line when I was young, in order to start conversations about how the police weren't the ultimate authority, that the badge and the uniform doesn't mean perfection, doesn't mean absolute fidelity to the law, doesn't mean that when there is fidelity to the law that it isn't applied differently to different people. This is also the reason my first episode of Homicide when I was about 8 or 9 was "Black and Blue", an episode that wholly revolves around the police department covering when one of its own kills someone and one officer, Pembleton, fighting against the cover up while also delivering a confession to the murder by the murdered boy's friend.

Over the years, through the stories they told about their (black) friends and their (white) friends, that application differential became increasingly clear.

Because of all of this, I don't truly understand the hoopla that accompanied President Obama's remarks regarding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. during his press conference, especially since he made it clear that he didn't "know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that". Especially since he quickly shifted the conversation to a larger one about why those who have been directly affected by situations in which race did play a negative role - and those, like me, who only have tangential evidence for how race does play a negative role - have made the assumption that race did play a negative role here, in this situation.

The best break down I can give, myself, is that I don't think the arrest was one of racial profiling. I don't think the officers - any of them - went into the situation thinking, "Let's arrest a black guy today". I don't even think the woman who called the cops thought that because there were two black men trying to enter a house in the afternoon, it was suspicious. I can give the benefit of the doubt and say that if two white guys she didn't recognize were trying to enter the house to the other side of her, she'd have called the cops as well. I've had the cops called on me when I was trying to break into my house in the afternoon, because I have good neighbors. Over the years, my neighbors have become accustomed to my breaking into my own house and now call to confirm that it was me.

But I do think the race of Professor Gates influenced the dynamic of the ensuing conversation - or, at the very least, I can see where his race would. And I can see where it would because of the excellent write up Latoya Peterson gives in the thread during the conversation ensuing from her post on Gates' arrest. When she says (in comment 102, for anyone interested),
I’m a black woman. I’ve never even been *close* to being in trouble with the law. It just doesn’t happen for me. Plus I grew up in MoCo, I have a great “white” voice and learned to mimic the type of assumptions and entitlement that my white peers (and a few upper class blacks) just knew.


Every last one of my black and latino male friends has been arrested. They may not have been incarcerated. But they have all been arrested. I’ve seen maybe seven or so of these altercations begin. And in each occasion, the tone of the interaction is set by the officer. It’s normally the officer that initiates contact.

And for the life of me, I can’t reconcile these experiences.

I don’t understand why I’m at an out of control party with my white friends, who had a pile of cocaine in the bathroom, and the police come and barely look around, but when I’m sitting on a park bench with my black friend, the *park* police want to come by and harass him for littering since they spotted a cup underneath the bench. (One that was there before we arrived.)

I don’t understand why if the Salvadorean children I baby sat for were threatened with a knife by a white boy in the neighborhood, that the Officer who arrived berates us and their mother, then takes his hat off respectfully when approaching the grandparents of the white boy with the knife.

I don’t understand why I can watch the police get called to my building and watch the man making a ruckus get immediately escorted out, but when I call the police because there are two white guys down the hall screaming curses at a woman who isn’t answering the door, the police want to have a conversation and help solve his problem.

I say this as a person who was mentored by a Montgomery County Police Lieutenant.
I also understand that the very way we talk about race and racial dynamics - how on first pass, instead of writing,
But I do think the race of Professor Gates influenced the dynamic of the ensuing conversation - or, at the very least, I can see where his race would.
I wrote,
But I do think the race of Professor Gates changed the dynamic of the ensuing conversation - or, at the very least, I can see where his race would.
influences how we categorize events at hand. The difference may not seem all that grand, but for me, the difference is huge. In the original sentence, my original thought was that it was the fact that Gates was black that changed a neutral conversation.

But that isn't wholly correct. Race changes the conversation, period. If it were a white professor being questioned about whether or not he lived in this particular house on this particular street, the conversation would still be influenced by race. Depending on the individuals in question, maybe not much. And it might be that Crowley really did act stupidly for reasons wholly separate from race.

There is a part of this that didn't occur to me until I was reading what adelheide said on Ginmar's write-up of her impression of this particular incident:
The part that startles me is that the arresting officer is supposedly an expert on racial profilling and trains other officers how to not to do it. And yet he was completely baffled as to why Prof. Gates was upset about being confronted in his home. I would assume (dangerous word there) that someone trained to not racially profile people would understand that black people have a different experience with the police.
The fact that Sgt. Crowley "had been selected to be a police academy instructor on how to avoid racial profiling" seems to be used as shorthand, along with the fact that he gave mouth-to-mouth to Reggie Lewis, that he isn't a racist. And while that is probably true, I hadn't truly thought about what his being an instructor on how to avoid racial profiling meant in the opposite direction, what it meant for what Crowley himself should have potentially seen brewing in the context of the police's visitation.

These situations are incredibly complex, but there is a reason why many minorities think that Gates' race negatively influenced the arresting officer's actions - and there is a reason why many whites don't think race influenced the decision. It is easier to believe individual actions matter when your individual actions are spun positively, when you are met not with suspicion but with respect. When you aren't pulled over for driving while black, when you aren't questioned on park benches for litter that isn't yours, when these same situations keep happening to everyone you know. It is death by a thousand minute injustices; and those of us who don't have those continuing and continual experiences, for those of us who only occasionally deal with an asshole cop, it is easy to fathom that the way to handle these situations is to be polite, to be unfailingly gracious, to be thankful that a cop has come to your home to make sure you are supposed to be in it. And it could be easier to overrespond to an incident, to one incident after the dozens or hundreds or thousands that came before, incidents that involved you directly or friends or family or acquaintances, and believe that this particular incident has everything to do with your race - when it might only have something to do with your race, and unconsciously at that.


MediaMaven said...

Why are you always breaking into your house?

petpluto said...

In high school, I never had my key on me. I would either forget it in the house or in my locker.

After high school, my father changed the locks and forgot to make me a key. If the front door wasn't left open or if I wasn't in a car with a garage door opener, if no one else was home or everyone was asleep, I'd have to break in.

I pretty much got the breaking in down to a science!