I have been robbed at knifepoint Chicago and Brooklyn. These robberies could only have been prevented or deterred by the kind of huge police force with a presence every ten yards that is only imagined by dystopian screenwriters and novelists. And this is not a police force that I want. For me, there is a vague line between being comforted by the presence of security forces and being frightened by them. In response to some violent incident in the University of Chicago vicinity when I was there decades ago, the university’s security force started patrolling the campus and environs with German Shepherds after dark. That sight always made me more fearful with my unconscious thought no doubt being, “It must be incredibly dangerous if campus cops have to go out with dogs.” I may have been wary before, but those animals told me I should be really scared.
My reaction should hardly have been surprising. People of my generation had watched those nightly news shows in which police led by Bull Connor had attacked civil rights demonstrators in the South with clubs and fire hoses and dogs. The images of those canines’ canines ripping into human flesh could not be forgotten and were brought back to me on those campus nights. The year before I arrived there, Martin Luther King, Jr. had led civil rights demonstrations in Chicago protesting segregated housing and police practices. While dogs may not have been used to quell the demonstrators, Chicago authorities and the police had not given an open-armed welcome to these criticisms of their city. Even though I had not been part of those civil rights demonstrations, hostility between minorities and the police and the city’s administration were high.
Although I had not participated in those civil rights demonstrations, I was part of the anti-Vietnam War movement. My three years in Chicago was a time of Yippies, Weathermen, the counter-culture, SDS and SNCC, mass demonstrations, tear gas in Grant Park, and what were labeled police riots. Like many who opposed the war I wore a kind of uniform of distinctive clothing. Our hairstyles, facial hair, and glasses made us identifiable with the result that insults, the finger, and threats of violence from others occurred. Half-way through law school I moved several miles west from the university neighborhood to a white working-class neighborhood peppered with George-Wallace-for-President signs. I could feel every eye on me as I walked down the street. Porch conversations stopped as neighbors interrupted each other so all could stare at my passage. I was followed by a manager in the grocery store. I was told that I was unwelcome in a neighborhood bar. For the first time in my life, I had an inkling of what many black people must feel every day of their life, but mine was not a permanent condition. After months, as those I encountered realized that I was polite and respectful (and had a pretty girlfriend), most accepted my presence, often nodded, and sometimes even smiled at me. The grocery clerk came to ask about the not-yet-spouse, neighborhood kids sought me out for conversation (they told me that they called me “hippie man”), and I even made some friends.
Even though I came to be accepted in my new neighborhood, I also started to feel what many blacks must feel every day — a wariness of the police. I had seen recurrent paragraphs in the local papers about violence coming out of a traffic stop with the driver injured or even killed by the police. Back then I did not know the phrase DWB—driving while black, but I and my cohort had more than a little fear of being stopped by the police; call it DAW, driving while anti-war. Weekend parties were periodically interrupted by a phone call from someone who had been arrested and was in a precinct lockup. A collection would be taken for bail money. The conversation that black parents had with their kids now applied to us: Don’t flout traffic laws; if stopped, keep your hands in the ten and two positions on the steering wheel; don’t make any move until the police tell you to; be respectful and polite even if it you think you were stopped for no legitimate reason. I followed this advice the four times I was pulled over driving my VW during my three years in Chicago. (I have been stopped three times in my fifty years of driving since then.)
However, while I was wary of the police, I did not approve of the demonstrators who shouted “pigs” at them. Those individual officers were not the enemy. I assumed that they had come from the same lower economic strata as I had, and I felt a kinship with them. Furthermore, I saw a societal and governmental system of racism and war leading many officers to be trapped in their roles. The way to win the hearts and minds of those police officers was not by yelling epithets at them.
I may have also been different from my longhaired university colleagues not only because I abhorred yelling “pigs” at the police, but also because, although I found many actions by the police reprehensible, I came to appreciate police work more and more. I did and do believe that laws need to be enforced and that is often a difficult, scary task. This was reinforced on my only Night-with-a-Cop. The Chicago Police knew they had a public relations problem. One way to counteract this image was to allow students (it may only have been law students) to spend a night in a squad car with a cop on patrol. I drew an overnight slot on a winter night. In those days, Chicago used one-officer patrol cars, so it was just me and the officer. As we drove up and down the streets assigned to him, I was struck by how lonely this was. Normally for eight hours he was alone in the dark, and since I was still shy around adults, it was not much better for him with me along. Think what it would do to your emotions and psyche if you drove at 3 A.M. around city streets by yourself night after night.
It turned out to be a quiet night. We got few calls. I only remember two. The first brought us to the scene of a fire. The fire truck was blocking the narrow street with hoses strewn about and ice accumulating in the cold weather. We were there because a very drunk man was driving his already beat-up car into the pumper’s bumper. When there was no effect, he would do it again and again. He kept shouting with slurred words, “Get out of my way! You’re blocking the road!” Bang; no effect; more shouts. The officer politely got the man to park his car at the curb and then convinced him to get out of the car. The officer made a call, and someone came to take the man away, either to sober up or to be charged with drunk driving or perhaps malicious mischief.
Although this all seemed a bit humorous, the other call I remember — the report of a “domestic disturbance–was not. The building was a five-story walkup with an unsecured entrance. The officer had put in a call for backup assistance, but he was the first to arrive, and as was the protocol, he went in without another officer. The apartment was on the top floor. It seemed as if people from every apartment had poured into the hallways and landings to watch the two of us walk up; but no one said a word. I realized that the officer had no idea what awaited him at the end of the climb: people yelling at each other; someone hit with a cast iron pan; people crying and hugging and forgiving; a butcher knife imbedded in a gut; a person with a gun; two people with guns. Of course, I was scared, and I admit I lagged a floor or two behind him. When I entered the apartment, I saw a group of people. One person had been cut on the forearm, probably by a steak knife on a table nearby, and another young man had apparently already said that he had done it. The officer was calm and polite and said that he was calling for medical assistance for the one but that the other would have to be taken into custody. This brought howls of protest that was not necessary: “It’s over.” “He’s sorry.” “He was provoked.” But the young man was handcuffed and taken out of the building followed by many staring eyes and now some mutterings about “the police.”
I thought about what it was like walking up five flights night after night for twenty or more years not knowing what situation awaited at the top. Some of the time it was going to dangerous for the officer and might require instantaneous decisions with tremendous consequences. And, of course, I was thankful that this was not one of those nights.
I had similar thoughts a few months later. The woman who lived in the apartment behind me banged on my door. She was close to hysterical. She had returned home finding her doors bolted from the inside. She had just kicked out a boyfriend, and she was afraid that he was lying in wait for her. I called the police, and a lone officer quickly came. Backup was coming, but that responding officer broke into Jean’s apartment alone. I was a few feet behind him (this time definitely wondering what the Hell I was doing), but I again realized that the cop had no idea what waited for him on the other side of the door. This was his job—to go into places that might be dangerous and, at least some of the time, were. Again, this time, I am happy to report, it was not. The ex-boyfriend had destroyed much of Jean’s new furniture, which was her pride, opened a back window, jumped the five feet to the backyard, and fled.
I had a dangerous encounter with the police a few years later when I had moved to Brooklyn. During a commercial break in The Rockford Files (an all-time great TV show), I put the garbage out and found my block swarming with police. I asked an officer what was going on, and he said that there had been a report of a shot fired. This, of course, concerned me, but what really got my attention was that a cop was crouching behind my car on the opposite side of the street with his gun drawn. He fired at the roof line of a house a few down from mine, and another officer screamed, “What are you doing? The shots came from the other side of the street!” The trigger-happy cop came running across the street and took cover behind someone else’s car. He was now fifteen feet from me, and I could almost smell his adrenaline, excitement, and fear. I wondered about his training and discipline. He, in all likelihood, had been shooting at another cop who was trying to get into position across from the apartment building in mid-block, fifty yards from my house where the shot was fired. A stand-off occurred and a negotiating team arrived. I eventually went inside glad not to be one of those cops under fire.
With the hatred, fear, and disgust engendered in the anti-Vietnam War days, I got the merest inkling of what it is like to be black in this country, but I also knew that this white boy could never really understand. With those police encounters, I got the merest inkling of what it is like to be a police officer in this country, but I knew that this civilian could never truly understand.
(continued October 2)