As the reaction (and the reaction to the reaction) to last week’s non-indictment in Ferguson ignited a new round of national conversation about race and racism and the police, a video that seemed to sum it all up in a tidy one minute and ten seconds lit up my social media feeds.
While nowhere near as appalling as the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by the NYPD — a crime whose aftermath I am still trying to process — this video, shot in Pontiac, Michigan, certainly looks bad, and it is very likely exactly what it looks like: crazy racism in action. Somebody called the cops on this kid just for walking around outside. Or maybe the cop is lying about that part and took it upon himself to stop the kid.
Either way, everybody pointed angrily to yet another example of the unfair way the police approach black people and the way they approach everybody else, which was my first reaction as well.
But it did remind me of something.
When I went back to my dad’s hometown — Lamar, Missouri, population 2,000 — for my cousin’s wedding several years ago I ended up in jail, along with my girlfriend at the time and my other cousin, the groom’s brother. My girlfriend and I had flown in from San Francisco and rented a late-model convertible because it was summer and we were a young, childless couple with disposable income.
The night before the wedding we had a rehearsal dinner at my grandmother’s house, with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. We all raised a glass or three to my cousin and his bride, but pretty soon my grandparents wanted to go to bed, so a few of us decided to move the party down to my aunt and uncle’s house, where the groom and his brother, the best man, grew up, three blocks away.
So a bunch of us piled into the Le Baron: my girlfriend, my cousin the best man, and his girlfriend. We stopped at the convenience store on the way over for more beer, and the best man immediately opened a couple of them in the car. As we crossed the town square — picture the end of BACK TO THE FUTURE — we saw a bunch of teenagers doing what teenagers do in the summertime in Lamar, driving around the square, parking, talking, driving around the square some more. (Lamar’s a really small town is what I’m saying.) There was a big pack of kids crowded around a pickup truck and as we passed my cousin tossed one of the freshly removed bottlecaps into the crowd. It was at the top of its arc when we all noticed the police car parked just beyond the crowd.
We made it to the other side of the square, and for a moment I thought maybe we might make it to our destination, but then the police car pulled up behind us, the lights went on, I (inexplicably) passed a field sobriety test, and all of us except my cousin’s girlfriend, who’d refused a beer at the convenience store, were taken to jail for open containers.
In the end this turned out to not be such a big deal; even though I had a beer or two in my belly I passed the field test so they didn’t breathalyze me or charge me with a DUI, just open containers in the car. My uncle came down and bailed us out as soon as he heard. (The fact that we all got out this fix so easily, and the low probability of it going so smoothly for someone with more melanin, is not lost on me.) In the end we were in there for two or three hours.
The bulk of the time was spent waiting for Deputy Barney Fife to type up our paperwork, which took quite a while; we heard about one keystroke every five seconds or so. In a cruel twist of irony they finished the paperwork on the best man first, so he was the first one out, leaving my girlfriend and me alone in this 12×12 holding cell, adjacent to the dispatcher’s window, so we could not only hear the guy’s laboriously slow typing, we could hear the police scanner, with all the cops checking in over the radio on what they were up to.
And this is what that video from Michigan reminded me of.
Because as we and I cooled our heels in the drunk tank for two hours or so, we heard something that we still talk about to this day: some cop got on his radio and said, “I’ve got a couple of walkers.”
Then another cop replied, “Better see what they’re up to.”
Sitting there in the tank we laughed about this, and we still quote it to each other to this day. “We’ve got a couple of walkers.” Just walking is grounds to mess with someone on a summer night? I never saw who these walkers were, but I am pretty sure they were white because literally every human person I’ve ever laid eyes on in Lamar, Missouri for the last 41 years has been white.
Living in a city like New York, or anywhere with a workable public transit system really, it’s easy to forget that to the rest of the country, walking places isn’t just unusual, it’s downright weird. In Lamar, everyone (everyone) gets in their car to go anywhere, no matter the distance. The distance from my grandmother’s house to my aunt’s house is roughly the same distance between my house and my local subway station, probably three quarters of a mile. I walk that distance (both ways) almost every day, sometimes more than once, and that’s not even counting the walk when I get off the train on the other end. But if I’m at my grandmother’s and I say I want to walk down to my aunt’s, everyone looks at me like I have three heads and lunges for their keys to give me a ride.
Most of America is a hardcore car culture. Most Americans don’t even consider walking anywhere farther than the end of their driveway. So when they see someone walking, it’s weird, no matter the race, sex, religion, or sexual preference of the walker, and they assume that something is wrong. Why doesn’t this person have a car? Are they drunk? Are they casing houses? Did they just step out of a time machine to save the mother of the future leader of the human resistance in the war against the machines?
So that kid getting stopped in Michigan was probably crazy racist bullshit, but there is at least a possibility that it’s just crazy car culturist bullshit, if we’re looking for a bright side. And after the insanely fucked-up events of the last two weeks, I’m looking for all the bright sides I can find.