Events in the news reminded me of an experience I had a few years back while renovating an old fixer upper in the countryside. The house had electricity, but it was a mess of cleaning, painting, and light carpentry at the time. Cell phone coverage was spotty and I didn’t even have a smart phone. There was no internet service or TV and my favorite radio station didn’t come in clear enough to listen to. I had plenty of paper books on hand, but I missed the internet, particularly in the evenings when I like to catch up with correspondence.
It was a gorgeous summer evening so I took a walk with my laptop to a local restaurant where I could hop on their WiFi. I had been taking most of my meals in town for months so this wasn’t unusual. But this time I arrived just after they closed so I sat on a bench on the sidewalk and checked my e-mail there.
Half an hour later a police car came screaming down the road at high speed. I looked around curious about what was up. This was a small town in the wine country, not the big city. The squad car stopped directly in front of me and a cop came out fast and furious – straight at me. The car headlights blinded me and I stood up in a hurry. I was smiling nervously. Cops don’t like it when people smile at them. They interpret it as a sign of disrespect. You aren’t taking them seriously. It took about thirty seconds for him to realize I was harmless. It was a very long thirty seconds. I’m a lot of things (not all of them noble) but threatening isn’t on the list. Then there was a more measured conversation and some vague warnings about nothing in particular. I hadn’t actually been doing anything wrong. After our brief but intense exchange he drove away and I walked back to the house.
I later asked around and pieced things together. The manager at the restaurant across the street (a place I frequent often) saw a shadowy figure who might be getting ready to rob the place near closing time after a lucrative weekend shift. Maybe the laptop was being used to communicate with other criminals in on the operation. He called the police to be on the safe side. A dispatcher relayed that information to a patrol officer in the vicinity who sprung in to action. At each step along the way the description of the situation became more sinister.
To this day I’m not sure how things might have played out if I hadn’t been a middle aged white guy. I could have ended up in a pool of blood by that bench if circumstances had been slightly different.
I was born in 1967. That was a particularly bad year for race riots in America. 1992 was another bad year as the Rodney King riots unfolded. We’ve seen numerous protests in recent months all across the country, mostly because so many incidents are now recorded and are available for public scrutiny.
The usual conversation defaults to three camps. First, white people who view racial unrest as evidence of how violent people of color really are. Second, black and brown people who know from direct personal experience that they’re treated differently by society in general and law enforcement in particular. And third, the awkward sometimes well intentioned, sometimes ineffectual, sometimes productive, sometimes self-serving folks who attempt to negotiate a better future for everyone. I’m fifty now. This racial peace and justice thing is a long time coming… It appears to be a problem we really don’t want to solve.