In spite of the impression my Gravatar gives, I’m a white man. I do, however, have experience with misuse of power by the police.
An experience I had as a high school freshman gave birth to my lack of automatic respect for authority figures. Not everyone in any one group deserves my respect. I give respect when it is earned.
Unlike the media image of scary black thugs that you see on TV, at 15 I was about as non-threatening as a person could get. I had spent the day at a local Shakespeare festival performing with my high school peers. Most of them were seniors. As a freshman I was thrilled to be included in their performing group.
After a full afternoon in tights and stage makeup, three friends and I were on our way home on east highway 8 in San Diego at about 9:00 at night. One of the seniors was driving his compact 2 door car, probably a Pinto or a Civic. I was in the back seat. We were laughing and joking but the first thing I actually remember were the police lights immediately behind us.
We all thought it was hilarious that our friend was about to get a ticket! But he truly didn’t seem to be going all that fast.
My friend pulled the car over to the shoulder and we waited for the policeman to come ask for his license and registration.
Instead, a few inches from my face I heard metal tapping on glass followed by screaming. I turned and saw 2 policeman on either side of the car pointing their guns at our heads shouting, “Get the Fuck out of the car!”
Terrified doesn’t even begin to describe the sudden rush of horror. The four of us exited the vehicle amid additional commands to keep our hands up. I remember having trouble getting out from the back seat as the policemen continued yelling obscenities at me. All the time their guns were pointed straight at our heads. Turns out there were four of them.
Four motorcycle cops had been returning to their station after game day traffic duty at the stadium and run across a small car of drama homos and felt threatened.
After stepping out of the vehicle we were immediately ordered face down, hands spread wide on the ice plant to the side of the freeway. Two of the officers stood five feet away, guns cocked and pointed at two young white gay boys each. The other two officers searched the car.
What they found were tights, makeup, costumes and various other theatre props.
More cops showed up.
At one point they called to the driver to stand up and get interviewed. The rest of us remained face down with guns pointed at us.
I moved slightly and the cop assigned to have his gun aimed at my head ordered me, “Fucking move and you’ll be sorry.” Just like a movie.
By the driver’s telling of the interview, it went something like this:
Officer: “So what the hell did you think you were doing?”
Driver: “Uh, I don’t know what you mean. We were driving home.”
Officer: “Tell me what was going on in the car.”
Driver: “I was driving. My friends were talking.”
Officer: “What else? What’s with the costumes? There’s a stick in there”
Driver: “We were performing at the Shakespeare festival. Those are our costumes. I play an old man. That’s my cane.”
Officer: “WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU DOING IN THAT CAR?”
And things went on in nonsensical fashion like that for several minutes.
At some point it became clear to them that not only weren’t we dangerous but that they’d messed up this traffic stop in a grand fashion. Yet, instead of apologizing they continued to try to save face.
When we were finally allowed to all stand the only they said to us as a group was that they hoped we had learned our lesson…
I did learn a lesson that day. I learned to distrust cops. I learned that there are assholes in every walk of life. Neither a job nor a position in life earn respect by virtue of a uniform or a diploma or a title.
I’m not someone who walks up to a random serviceman and says, “Thank you for your service” as I’ve seen many times. For all I know the guy could have been one of the men torturing fellow human beings in name of my country.
Please don’t misconstrue my lack of immediate respect for automatic disrespect. I’m grateful for good policemen, disciplined men in the military, honest CEOs and humble religious leaders. But these stations in life automatically come with high levels of power and I believe an increased level of accountability should accompany that.
If a policeman has the power to cock a gun inches from my head, he has the responsibility to only do it when necessary, or to apologize and make amends when he has crossed the line. I see today’s problems with law enforcement and torture in the military as the result of a long history of not holding authority figures accountable.
Part of me is grateful for that terrifying experience as a young kid. It helps me empathize with victims of brutality that I see today. Given all other things equal, had I been black, I would likely have ended up in jail on a trumped up charge that day, or killed. And I would have had countless more experiences such as that throughout my lifetime.
Minor as it may seem in the telling of it here now, it was demoralizing and humiliating to go through. Later, once our parents heard the story they were furious and demanded a meeting with the officers’ supervisor. At this meeting nothing was accomplished. The Sergeant did not explain, apologize to us or discipline his subordinates in any way. There was no reason to pull us over in the first place. It was clearly a tribe member defending another tribe member against the outside.
I don’t believe police brutality is excusable and I don’t believe in torture of another human being is ever justifiable. I certainly don’t believe in violent retaliation either but I do believe that our police and our military should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one nor given more leeway.
The same goes for business and religious leaders or organizations. As I’ve said many times throughout this blog if they are to claim fantastic and otherworldly experiences or to exact a strict modicum of behavior then they need to be held to a higher standard. When they fail to meet the expectations of their own teachings then they should fail to maintain our respect.