“So how do you feel about all this police business going on?”
I kept a poker face. Quite a set-up.
My partner and I visited his old family friends over the holidays. I asked “Don’t we need to call these people and let them know we’re coming?”
“No, Gavin. It’s small-town Connecticut. We just drop in.”
(I’d be livid if people interrupted my frenetic Christmas preparations.)
The police question was popped by an 83-year-old man, a friend of my partner’s parents. I’ll call him “Big Al” and his wife, “Little Alice”. They’re salt-of-the-earth people. Big Al was a painter, by trade, Alice a stay-at-home mom (of 4 kids). And, by the way, they’re “all about” gays and kids.
When Big Al asked about police current affairs, I was like, “Oh, really? We’re going there?”
“You know. The protests in New York and the cops getting shot,” Al unnecessarily clarified.
I knew I was on thin ice: it was the holiday; I was in enemy territory. No need to offend.
“Well,” I seized that bait, “Obviously the indiscriminate shooting of the two cops in Queens is horrendous. But in the other cases, there are ambiguities in what was right and wrong. Michael Brown in Ferguson seems to have menaced the cop and tried to grab his gun and that was just plain stupid. But what’s abundantly clear is that he didn’t deserve to die.”
Big Al started to interrupt. I held up my hand to finish.
“As for Eric Garner on Staten Island, that poor man certainly didn’t deserve to die. He was in a choke hold.” I saw Al and Alice shifting uncomfortable. I quickly finished: “Yes, he was selling cigarettes illegally. Yes, he resisted arrest. But he didn’t deserve to die for something so minor.”
“But he had a record as long as a roll of toilet paper,” Little Alice countered.
“And these people…” Big Al said. (Oh, great. Can’t wait for where this is going.) “These people with their, their, their…”
“Culture?” I knew what to expect.
“Yes! They have no respect and they cause their own problems.”
I live in such a bubble.
We bantered in predictable ways. They said black people bring on their problems.
I said, “I believe the system is stacked against poor people.”
Then Little Alice said, “You know. There are some very intelligent ones.”
“Ones?” I sputtered. Ohmigod. This is laughable.
“Yes,” she went on. “There’s Dr. Carson on FOX. Do you watch FOX?”
“We don’t have cable. So we don’t watch any 24-hour news,” I said.
“Oh.” Wind out of her sails. “Good for you.”
“But believe me. I wouldn’t watch FOX,” I said.
“That’s what I figured,” Alice laughed, wind back in her sails. “Well, he is very smart.”
I waited for her to make a point. This token smart, black FOX commentator made what point, exactly? But Alice was done. That was her point: there are smart ones. Apparently she needed to demonstrate she wasn’t racist.
Later, when saying our goodbyes, I said, “Thank you for bringing up the police question. We don’t agree, but it’s refreshing to discuss tough topics. I don’t believe in avoiding religion and politics at holidays, or ever. It’s important for us to talk and listen to each other. Dialogue is lacking, these days.”
“Yes, of course. The important thing is to talk!” Al and Alice both said.
Per usual, I configured coherent arguments as we drove away. I thought about what I wished I’d said.
Mainly (and something I hope my kids will absorb): YOU (Big Al, Alice, my kids) are white. You will never know the frustrations of being harassed, suspected or stared at because of your skin.
The deaths in Ferguson, Staten Island (and countless elsewhere) went unpunished, but that was just icing on the cake. The protests in New York and around the country demonstrated frustration with a culture of suspicion, a national culture of unfair treatment.
But most of all, white friends and family, we don’t know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of racial profiling or “stop and frisk”. And until we’ve tried those shoes on, we’re unable to condemn how others feel, how people of all colors feel about police actions, or how police feel about their jobs.
So, Big Al: that’s how I feel about the “protests and police situation” in New York.