Today I was arrested. I was cuffed and booked and fingerprinted and mug shotted and thrown in a holding cell until someone could pick me up. This was around 2:30 am so I guess technically July 16th. Grow up. I was 45 miles from home. Not that long ago, I would have known plenty of people up at this hour on a Saturday night. Now, not so much. The grand total of people I know where I live is probably less than ten and includes my wife, my son, and my wife’s parents. One of those options is a toddler (and he’s a terrible driver) so when my wife didn’t answer, guess who I called? The silver lining of having to call your in-laws from jail in the middle of the night and ask for a ride is that you likely have set their expectations so low that they will be easier to meet from now on. Asking to borrow the lawnmower doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. For added tension, when you have a history of drug and alcohol abuse and have lied about an arrest in the past, they are going to need some convincing before deciding that you aren’t hiding a relapse.
I broke the law. I am guilty. I had no driver’s license so the cop was right in not allowing me to just drive home with a ticket. I didn’t know I didn’t have a license: I have recently completed all of my requirements to get my license back after 6 months and had an occupational license until June 18. I failed to realize that on June 18th, the occupational license expired and I would not have any license at all until I went to the DMV and paid $200 in fees. I had assumed that I simply would have the same restricted driving privileges until getting that done. I am inherently lazy and that coupled with a local office only open two days a week made it prettt easy to procrastinate for a few weeks. Now, I was not driving back from work anyway so still knew I shouldn’t drive, but was unaware that I COULDN’T. Ignorance of the law does not exempt you from it, of course, but now at least there’s some backstory.
Ok, I realize that “white privilege” is probably not actually trending today. I’m cheating. There are just a few thoughts pulsating through my mind and I need to write it out.
This would be the third time I’ve been arrested. I don’t particularly enjoy being arrested so I’m not sure why I keep doing it but I’m getting pretty good at it. The first two times the arresting officer was very understanding and even somewhat apologetic. It wasn’t unpleasant, considering the circumstances. THIS time, Deputy McSnuggles was a bit more dickish. Keep in mind he did nothing wrong and I am 100% guilty here. The point is that today I learned a little bit what it feels like to be treated like a criminal.
The difference here, I think, was that the officers in my prior arrests did not go into the encounter assuming I was guilty or lying. This time, though, the cop pulls a guy over at bar time and driving without a license but insisting he has a license. He’s driving back from a Brewer game and was convicted of a DUI less than a calendar year ago but claims to have not had a single drink in 3 years (this is true- I had been impaired from a medication I was prescribed when I got my DUI, but the officer wouldn’t have known that and it’s the same amount of guilty anyway).
So yeah. I look pretty criminal-y. What happens if a cop thinks you’re lying is pretty much a lesson in power and fear and dick-swinging. I’ve never been slammed into a cop car while cuffed. I knew it happened but I was not prepared for the sheer violence of it. As he’s going through my pockets he has me tell him everything that is in them first. He finds everything I listed, plus a reciept from a gas station.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” He demands, “What else are you hiding?! What else haven’t you told me?”
Holy shit. It continues in this fashion until I am thrown into the back seat of the police car and excessively restrained. Don’t misinterpret this as a quest for vindication. I actually think cops should be able to be dicks within reason and he wasn’t necessarily out of line. But when you’re cuffed and exceedingly aware of the taser or firearm, it’s fucking terrifying. I actually thought I was about to cry at one point. From the moment you’re arrested until your bond is signed, you are at the complete mercy of law enforcement. For a few hours you get to experience the world as powerless. Kind of like, um, a prisoner.
So this is what I felt compelled to write about and forgo the sacred rules of this blog:
I was scared while having nothing to hide. I was not carrying a weapon, legally or otherwise. I also have a skin tone that doesn’t historically lend itself to being a police brutality victim. Now imagine someone who is all-too-conscious of decades of being targeted by law enforcement and has recently seen a video of a guy who looks like him get abruptly shot and killed while trying to disclose a legal firearm. Is it not entirely possible that a cop can operate within the rules of their job and not be overtly “racist” but still be more likely to escalate or feel threatened when pulling over a black man than a white man?
It is undeniable that black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated in this country. Even the loudest “Blue Lives Matter” advocate acknowledges that occasionally a bad apple will beat the shit out of or just kill the wrong guy. So you’re already going in to every interaction with suspicion and distrust and maybe a little hatred.
Racism still happens even when people are not aware of it. It is a primal instinct to fear something that is different than us. It is actually an evolutionary advantage to categorize people and things immediately upon seeing them. It’s how we make sense of the world. We make some assumptions about everybody before we even say hello. Most of these are harmless and a lot are probably accurate. Stereotyping is not inherently bad. Denying that it occurs most certainly is.
I like to think of myself as fairly progressive on the equality front. I don’t engage in overtly racist acts and I do not actively hate a particular type of person. This does not mean that I’m not guilty of prejudice. In a lot of ways, this kind of passive ignorance is more harmful than the KKK hooded figure we think of when we think of a racist. Most people are not dropping N bombs and most people have no idea that they are capable of treating someone from a different background any differently than Great Aunt Dotty. Passive racism or unconscious racism isn’t going to lead to some civil rights activist condemning you so it is considerably tougher to identify and constructively define.
We like to think of racism as a thing unique to the South, where everyone presumably has a backup Confederate flag and a good lynchin’ rope at the ready. Guess what? Here in the Midwest, a white guy and a black guy with the same amount of pot do not get punished at the same rate.
We don’t have more black prisoners because more black people are criminals; we have more black people locked up because we treat them as criminals and deny the same advantages a white person is given economically, socially and educationally.
Our cities are overwhelmingly segregated (looking at you, Milwaukee). We get nervous in a “bad” neighborhood because we’re constantly being reminded in the news of the disproportionate violence and homicide in a “bad” neighborhood. This serves to further alienate us and increase suspicion of each other. The funding goes to areas with more “hope” or opportunity and this devolves into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I will never know what it is like to be a black person in America. I can read about it and I can understand it intellectually, but I cannot understand it on an emotional level. I don’t live it. It’s something that’s out there, but rarely in my world. It is much more dangerous to believe you “get it” than to acknowledge your own ignorance. And this is all ok, but only if we can understand that we simply don’t understand.
Black people are treated worse than white people in this country, and we all contribute to the disconnect. Stop pretending like you don’t have some biases and start trying to understand it. I am a racist. You are a racist. Get over it and work towards something better.