As a person who was once arrested, jailed, and tried for a crime he did not commit, I have always been nervous around police officers.
When I was beaten and robbed at gunpoint just three months after my arrest, I insisted to the police officers that I was fine when they arrived at the scene. I had been hit in the head several times by the butt end of a gun and was concussed, but I didn’t want to tell the officers about the extent of my injuries. Even though I had done nothing wrong, I was so nervous around law enforcement that I just wanted them to leave as quickly as possible.
It made no sense, of course. The police officers were compassionate, professional, and kind to me that night. My reaction was probably in part the result of the torture and terror that I had just experienced, but I also remember thinking that these were the same people who had questioned me for weeks, lied to me repeatedly, and eventually had taken away my freedom, my livelihood, and my future without cause.
After answering their questions, I attempted to drive myself to the hospital. It was only about two miles from the restaurant where I had been robbed, but in my concussed state, I was unable to find it and was forced to call my girlfriend on a payphone for help.
This is not to say that I understand the threat of police brutality or racial injustice in any way whatsoever. I am a white, straight American man who does not suffer from any mental or physical disability and is reasonably intelligent. These unearned characteristics might place me in the luckiest cohort in the history of the world.
I am more privileged than I will ever fully understand.
I walk the streets absent of the fear that my black, brown, immigrant, and female friends feel on a daily basis. I do not worry about discrimination, injustice, racially motivated attacks, physical assault, or rape.
Nevertheless, because of my past experiences, I am always nervous when in the presence of a police officer. Even my friends who work in law enforcement make me nervous to a degree. It’s irrational and ridiculous, but it’s true. Yesterday, as I rode my bike across the front lawn of our public library in order to avoid a construction site, a police car drove by, and I panicked.
Thoughts filled my head:
“Is it illegal to ride on the library’s front lawn? I don’t have any ID on me. I’m a school teacher. What if they arrest me? I don’t have a mask. I’m not wearing a mask. Am I supposed to be wearing a mask when I’m out riding my bike? What if they put me in a jail cell with other people without a mask?”
As stupid as it sounds, all of those questions and more raced through my mind as my heart rate elevated and adrenaline shot through my body.
If I’m feeling this way as a result of something that happened almost 30 years ago, I can’t begin to imagine how my black, brown, and immigrant friends are feeling after witnessing the murder of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and so many others. Add to this the violence and injustice that Americans don’t see and almost never witnessed before we were all walking the streets with high definition video cameras in our pockets.
Yesterday I heard the police chief in Houston, Texas interviewed by CNN, and he gave me some hope. I know that the majority of police officers in this country are professional, righteous men and women who are doing one of the most important jobs in our country. I know that they place their lives on the line for people like me every day.
My mind and body don’t always react as if I know this, but in my heart, I know that most police officers are good people doing an incredibly difficult job.
But I also know that racism, sexism, and wanton brutality exist in law enforcement, too. I know there are some bad cops. Genuinely evil people who wear the uniform. Murderous, racist cowards like Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis and the four officers who stood by and watched a man killed in broad daylight on the street.
This is not an isolated incident. It happens far too often.
But this police chief gave me some hope. He reminded me of all the police officers who have died in the line of duty protecting and serving the citizens of our country. He reminded me of the cops who lost their lives racing into the burning towers on 9/11 to save their fellow Americans. He reminded me of all the police officers who have entered schools and theaters and malls where an active shooter is lurking, waiting to do them harm.
In the days and weeks ahead, I will listen carefully to people of color in hopes of better understanding what their lives are like in America today. I will try to find ways to help wherever I can. I will speak with openness, compassion, and honesty to my students when they ask me about the protests taking place in our country. I will remind myself at every turn of the privilege that I enjoy and the limits that it places on my capacity to understand the plight of others.
And I will remember the wisdom of Art Acevedo, Cuban immigrant and police chief of Houston, Texas.
I think the world would be a much better place with more Art Acevedo’s in positions of power.