Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Brief Reflection On My Privilege

I feel like the country I love is bleeding out. Words are poor bandages, but still I am compelled to write and so I offer this brief reflection on privilege in the hopes it may lead others to similarly reflect.

I was stopped by the police—twice—on a walk from the strip mall where I’d eaten lunch back to the hotel where I was staying for a business trip. The stops occurred just a few weeks before Covid-19 shut down most of the country, in a commercial sector filled with upscale strip malls, chain stores, and mid-priced business class hotels like the one where I was staying. I was wearing a gray hoodie, jeans, and gray sneakers. I was on the sidewalk; the walk was maybe a block long, point-to-point. I was happy. I’d found a local falafel place with comfortable seating so I was able to write a few pages while enjoying my food, and when I left I popped my earbuds in and was listening to music on an iPod as old as my children. I may have even been singing as I strolled down the sidewalk.

And then the first policeman stopped me.

He pulled his cruiser over to the shoulder of the road and was smiling when he got out of the car. He was still smiling while he waited patiently for me to take out my earbuds so I could hear him.

“Are you Joe?” he asked.

“No,” I told him, supposing I did look a little suspicious in my hoodie—the little yellow “Life is Good” logo over my heart would have been hard to read from a distance. “I’m not Joe. I’m Dan Waters.”

“Okay,” he said, and then he got back in his cruiser. I watched him drive away. I hadn’t felt afraid or even irritated. If anything, I felt amused that saying “I’m not Joe” was enough to send him on his way. It was like I'd cast "Dispel Policemen" with that short incantation. I was singing again in moments.

I was approaching the stoplight at the intersection of the hotel access road no more than a minute later when I spotted the second cruiser. It was waiting on the other side of the red light and somehow looked expectant. Even before the light turned green, and before the cruiser’s flashers came on, I knew this other vehicle was also going to stop me. 

I proactively removed my earbuds. Sure enough, lights still flashing, the cruiser rolled to an abrupt stop on the shoulder in front of me. This time two policemen got out. One, the driver, had his hand on the holster at his back hip.

I still was not afraid. Unnerved, maybe, but I really didn’t think his gun was going to leave the holster.

“Hey there,” he said, smiling. I thought it was a “we gotcha” kind of smile, smirky.

“Hi,” I replied. No fear. “I’m still not Joe. Your colleague stopped me down the road just a moment ago.”

He looked at his partner, eyes narrowing as he tried to get that cop telepathy going.

“Would it help if I gave you my drivers license?” I said, hoping to cut through the confusion. The offer surprised him, just a little. “I’m staying at the Hampton down this street.”

“It might,” he said, and his hand came off his hip and he dropped the smirk, exchanging it for a pleasant smile.. “I’m really sorry for the hassle.”

“No worries.” I replied, because truly, there weren’t any.

I gave him my license; he glanced at it and gave it back. He apologized a second time and before driving away he turned to his partner and said, “The guy we’re looking for looks exactly like him.”
I thought it was a funny thing to say, because the cop and I looked similar. We were both white and bald; he was a few years younger than me and a bit bigger—swole, my son might say--but it would be hard for a casual witness to differentiate us in a line-up.

I walked the short distance back to the hotel thinking primarily about two questions, questions I’d be turning over in my head the rest of the day and on into night as I waited for the sleep that so often eludes me when I’m on the road for business. The questions still haunt me.

How would I have felt in and after that situation if I had been a person of color?

Would that situation had even gone the same way if I had been a person of color?

Despite being confronted by the police twice in five minutes, I did not have a single moment of doubt where I thought that maybe—just maybe—things wouldn’t go my way. I was abundantly certain the confusion would be cleared up with a few words and an ID card. I never thought the police would find my earbuds, my hoodie, or my general demeanor disrespectful. I never thought speaking to them before being asked a question would be a strike against me, and I never once thought that the brief exchange around a mistaken identity or false accusation would end with me in handcuffs or with a knee on my neck.

Not everyone in our country has the freedom—the privilege—to be that confident and fearless in interactions with the police.

Innocence is not enough, by the way. The fact that I wasn’t “Joe” alone wasn’t enough to ensure I could speak freely and act under the assumption there could be no possible negative repercussions for my actions. Even though I apparently was a dead ringer for this miscreant “Joe”, in the first instance all I had to do was boldly declare I was not Joe and the encounter was over.

Does it work the same way for everyone?

 Is a simple declaration of innocence, without any tangible proof, all that is needed to peaceably end confrontations with the police?

Not for everyone, it seems.

Over the next few hours as I replayed the event in my mind, I realized that I’d stepped toward the second cruiser before the police had fully exited their vehicle. Could that have been construed as a hostile approach? Were my hands visible? Did my smile appear friendly, or insolent? Did I reach for my back pocket—where I had my wallet, not a gun—too quickly?

It doesn't take a narrative genius to imagine several different outcomes for these two interactions. No creativity is required to paint a tragic ending when society has provided plenty of them in similar situations. Change mine and Joe's ethnicity and perhaps the story gets told in exactly the same manner--but probably not.

Is it fair to say, that of the many benefits I enjoy as a middle-aged white man, one of them is the benefit of doubt? I have fifty years on the planet enjoying that benefit, that confidence, that lack of fear. My childhood in the seventies, my adolescence and young adulthood in the eighties, my life here in 2020—are likely to have been very, very different than another person’s. Society and culture spent those decades teaching me not to be afraid; society and culture taught many other people over the same time period that they have every reason to be afraid.

Privilege results in many things, but one of the most prevalent—and most polarizing for people who don’t take the time to try to understand it—is the ability to move and interact in society without fear. The realization that many, many people we live, love, work, and interact with every day do not enjoy that very basic freedom should be both sobering and actually terrifying to all of us. The reality that the freedoms we consider to be inalienable rights are routinely denied to people simply because of who they are flies in the face of the things we think we believe in and stand for.

Until we live in a world where people can live without that fear, we live in a broken world.

In the end, I was grateful I was stopped by twice by the police that day. It led me to think deeply about a disease our society must cure. It led me to have more empathy for those who don’t have the freedoms I enjoy; empathy is a path to understanding and understanding is a path to action.

But then again, it is my privilege to be grateful. All I had to do was say my name.