Monday, April 3, 2017

Listen, hear...

This has nothing much to do with martial arts, but I'm putting it in this space anyway. Bare with me, please.

Last summer, my Beloved and I were on our way to grab a bite at our local mall. At the entrance of the mall is a stoplight. As it was red and there was another car in front of us, I'm pretty sure he came to a complete stop before turning right onto the mall ramp entrance. Unfortunately, the police officer who pulled us over didn't think so.

Since this wasn't long after Sandra Bland's mysterious in-custody death, the journalist in me sat up and began to look for any strangeness in the interaction. But since it was also the first time I'd been in the car when my Beloved was pulled over, most of my attention was drawn to him - how he sat (nice and straight), where he kept his hands (in plain view on the steering wheel) and how he handed not only his license and registration over when asked but also his gun permit and military ID. He also calmly told the officer he had the gun he was licensed to carry in the vehicle.

When the officer finally let us be on our way with a warning to come to a complete stop next time, we sat there for a few minutes while he put everything back into his wallet and glove box. Still not quite over how calm he'd been during the stop, I asked him how he'd managed to remain so non-vexed.

"Do you know how many times I've given that exact speech this month?" he asked. I had actually had no idea the tall, dark-skinned fella with the loud, deep voice (that, in 18 years, I only ever heard him raise at track meets when he's screaming out encouragement to the athletes he coaches) got pulled over so often.

About two weeks ago, it happened to him again. He was leaving school during his prep period to run to the bank and got pulled over for not slowing down enough in a construction zone. He said the officer who pulled him over knew him ("Hey coach - is that you?" the officer said when he saddled up to his window) and let him off with a warning.

"But what if I had gotten a little loud or my license wasn't straight? It might have turned out very differently," he said.

He's probably right.

Tonight, a friend I work with called me about an hour after a phone conference we were supposed to have. He said he was unable to make it because his wife's car had broken down and while they waited in front of her office for the tow truck to arrive, the police tapped on their car window, asking for license and registration - responding to a report of "suspicious activity." While they were explaining their wait for their tow, the CEO of his wife's company came out of the building, got a ride across the parking lot to her vehicle and left, never even acknowledging them or the police. As the thought drifted through their minds that maybe she had been the person who made the "suspicious activity" report, the tow truck driver pulled up.

I wondered what might have happened if neither he or his wife remembered their wallets, if the tow truck driver had gotten lost or their "What's the problem, officer?" came out a bit harsher than intended. Not gonna lie - it made me a little nervous.

Well over 20 years ago, my then 30-something brother was enjoying a movie in a suburban Philadelphia theater. He called me fuming because he'd just been forcibly removed from the theater when one of the attendants said he "fit the description" of some person who'd apparently done something wrong. It was so long ago that the particulars are fuzzy, but I remember that he came over right away and asked for help drafting a letter to the police department that had handled the whole thing so terribly.

Each of these situations made/make me feel so powerless, but since none of them happened directly to me, I can only imagine what the heck my Beloved, my friend and his wife and my brother went through as it was happening to them.

Sure, police have tough gigs - I get that - but there is something so humiliating about the being accused of things you know you didn't do simply because you look a certain way or happen to be where you aren't expected to be. No law-abiding citizen should ever be put in the position of hoping the police believe their story when that "story" is the God's honest, plain, boring truth.

Driving to get take-out, waiting for a tow truck or watching a movie shouldn't really ever be humiliating experiences.

And remaining calm or simply complying with all requests slowly and deliberately should keep everyone out of harm's way, but they don't always. The tone of your voice shouldn't determine if you make it home or not, I don't think. But unfortunately, sometimes, it does.

After their respective incidents, my Beloved, my friend and his wife and my brother all wrote letters as a way to try and recap what happened or as a way to let somebody know that what was experienced wasn't kosher. I'm writing this now for the same reasons - but also because I'm upset and don't really have any other recourse. I'm not looking for excuses or tales about that one time you or someone you know were treated similarly and it wasn't racial profiling because you aren't a person of color. So if your inclination is to "ya, but..." a response - just. don't.

Words aren't written just so you can disagree or explain them away. Sometimes they're there so the person writing them feels heard.

Listen and hear - then empathize and understand. It may not ever be your reality, but that doesn't mean it's any less real.

It really is just as simple as that.

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