The media are filled with reports of the shooting to death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. The story thus far depends on who is telling it. According to self- described witnesses, Brown had his hands up and was asking not to be shot.
According to information derived from police, Brown committed a strong-arm robbery of a convenience store, taking a $50 box of cigars and pushing aside the storekeeper. He and his friend then walked down the middle of a street, blocking traffic. When a lone officer stopped his car and told them to get up in the sidewalk, a fight broke out. The officer’s face was injured, a shot was fired inside the patrol car, and the fatal shot was apparently fired outside the car.
Local and state police, as well as the FBI, are investigating. Not waiting for the results of the investigation, demonstrators blocked the streets. Riots and looting broke out. The original store that was robbed – which happened to be owned by Palestinian immigrants – was looted and trashed. Finally the governor was forced to declare a curfew and put the state police in charge.
Having lived through the Rodney King riot in Los Angeles in 1992, and having seen fires approaching through our bedroom window, I am acutely aware of the danger of unchecked public anger. Having seen regular Army and Marine patrols in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, I am acutely aware of what may be required to quell unrest – which ultimately took 53 lives and caused over a billion dollars in damage.
The high numbers of African American men in jails and prisons, and the history of police racism, are real problems. Whenever a tragic incident such as this one occurs, the accusation of “racial profiling” is sure to be made. Profiling does occur. In fact, I may have been a victim of it myself.
The knock on the door.
Late one evening, I answered a loud knock on the door to find three uniformed Los Angeles Police officers. They explained that a 16-year-old attempted murderer had escaped from a work detail that had been clearing brush from the hillsides.
They entered and asked to see our ID. My wife and I had been living in that house, which we own, for 30 years. No one would mistake me for a 16-year-old. Nevertheless, we were asked for our ID to prove we belonged there. I showed my driver’s license, not my faculty ID. My object was to move things along, not to bolster my ego.
The officers looked through the house and yard, exchanged a few jokes with us, and went on to the next house. I was grateful to them for protecting us from an attempted murderer, not angry at them for disturbing us in our own home. They were polite and cheerful with us, because we were that way with them.
I knew that if I treated people well, they would usually treat me well. I learned that without attending an Ivy-League university. I learned it in early childhood. And as an older child, I learned that if I went looking for trouble, I would probably find it.
My mother’s family had come to America to escape pogroms in Russia. And my father’s eldest brother had been murdered in the Holocaust. But my parents never taught me to think of myself as a perpetual victim. So I didn’t.
We were invaded late at night. We were asked for ID in our own home. Clearly this was an example of profiling. Oh wait – my wife and I were white, as were two of the officers. The third, the one in charge, was Asian. So maybe it was just cops doing their job.
The hand on the pistol.
The house next door was being remodeled, and construction trucks often blocked our driveway. Every day I had to pick up large nails before I could drive out of our garage. One day I complained to the contractor, saying, “How would you like it if I put nails in front of your car?”
The contractor responded, “If you touch my car I’ll kill you!” I thought this was probably bluster, or the result of too much alcohol or cocaine, but I called the police to be safe. I told the operator it was not an emergency. When the police arrived, a male officer stayed in the car, and a female officer got out to take the report.
I thought I was calm, but my voice may have betrayed anger. Thoughtlessly, I suddenly reached into my pocket to get my wallet and prove I lived there.
At once the officer took a half step back with her right foot, started raising her left hand in front of her, and placed her right hand just above the butt of her pistol. I recognized that she was preparing to draw her weapon and assume the Weaver stance.
Note that this was midday in an upscale neighborhood. I am of medium height, fair skinned, gray haired, and wear glasses. I hardly look threatening. But my pocket could just as well have contained a small handgun as a wallet.
I apologized for my sudden movement. The officer did not apologize, nor did I expect her to. She was doing as she had been trained, to protect herself, her partner, and the public. We completed our business, and the police drove away. They had learned of a non-incident, and I had learned that I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.
I had learned something from the officer. I didn’t expect her to learn something from me. Regardless of how much I knew about a number of things, I recognized that she knew more about police work than I did. As Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
This was a clear example of police over-reaction based on race. Oh wait – both the officer and I were white. So maybe it was just a cop trying to go home after her shift was over.
Driving while white.
My car was in the shop, so I drove a rental car to work. On the way, I was pulled over by a police officer. He told me the tags on my license plate had expired. I showed him the rental papers and jokingly remarked that the company might be going broke if it couldn’t afford to register its cars. The officer greeted my good humor with a smile. He told me to remind the rental agency when I returned the car.
On the way home, I was hot and tired. Another officer pulled me over for the same reason. I held the rental papers out of the window and said in an irritated voice, “I know, I know, it’s a rental car.” The officer greeted my ill humor with a frown, asked for my license, and wrote a “fix it” ticket in my name. That way, if the rental agency didn’t renew the registration promptly, I would be fined.
Even more irritated, I asked how I could register a car that didn’t belong to me. The officer kept me waiting for perhaps five minutes, while he lectured me on my responsibilities as the driver of a rental car. None of this made any sense, but − as I realized later − it did serve to punish me for contempt of cop.
This was a clear example of rudeness and profiling. Oh wait – both of the officers and I were white. So maybe it was just an example of my actions being reflected in their responses – in one case friendly, in the other case hostile.
In the Stone Age, parents taught their children to keep away from saber-toothed tigers and to avoid irritating cave bears. If they had not done so, the human species would not have survived.
In modern times, parents and other adults should do something similar. They should teach kids to act politely in order to be treated politely. They should teach kids to smile in order to be greeted with a smile. They should teach kids to avoid irritating people who carry guns. They should teach kids not to go around looking for trouble.
Most important, they should teach kids not to think of themselves as perpetual victims. There is nothing that predisposes to unhappiness, bitterness, and antisocial behavior so much as thinking of oneself as a victim.
Military personnel aren’t the only ones who need survival training. So do all young people. Otherwise, we wind up with teenagers in juvenile hall or the morgue, and adults who unthinkingly turn a normal encounter into an angry, bitter confrontation.
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