Today I turn 60 and in light of what is happening here in America I wanted to examine my place in history and my experience with law enforcement and how it has informed my beliefs.
A short history: I am not black or brown. I am a white male of european descent. My ancestors emigrated from Switzerland to the United States in the mid 1870’s to escape religious persecution and enforced military service. Being of the Mennonite sect of Protestantism they were passionately pacifist and did not believe in, or support military actions. They were mostly farmers and craftsmen.
I have had a life of privilege. Growing up on a farm in a small community – not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. As a white man I have had many more opportunities than many people of color. I do not say that to brag or feel guilty about – but to simply acknowledge a fact. We owned the farm as it was handed down to the next generation. We insulated ourselves and kept to our own community – unless there were some few brave souls that would venture out through church missions in an effort to proselytize and convert others to our way of thinking and believing. The bottom line is – we always “had” – there was a sense of ownership and therefore entitlement. The vast majority of people of color have never had that and it is completely disingenuous to wonder, “why there are so many problems in communities of color?”
I have had job opportunities that a person of color would not have – I have had access to things that people of color do not have. I live a relatively comfortable life. So yes, I have white privilege.
I did not stay on the farm and since 1979 have lived in urban environments. my life is not without it’s “troubles” and my experiences with police from an early age have helped inform who I am today and my sympathies for communities of color as they struggle with police brutality, racism, oppression, suppression and a lack of opportunities economically (including business and land ownership).
Like many I have been appalled, enraged and deeply affected by the brutality of police that we have been seeing in America. Sadly, this is nothing new – what is new is that white people are also starting to protest and starting to experience the same injustices and crimes of law enforcement. While George Floyds brutal murder may have been the “straw the broke the camels back” law enforcement injustices have a long history. I’ve decided to look at my own history with law enforcement. I know not all cops are bad and maybe even the majority are good. But, there has been a long history of acceptance of bad police behavior, of officers who have been able to act with impunity. I have not been beaten, gassed or arrested for speaking my voice. I have however experienced police harassment which has impacted me forever.
I remember growing up – there was an image of a “friendly neighborhood cop” that was perpetuated in television, movies and the news. TV shows Like THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, MAYBERRY RFD, and many movies portrayed police whose primary function was as social responders. That image eroded over the 60’s and 70’s into a more aggressive function of law enforcement. And today the police have been militarized and have become a para-military organization viewing the communities they serve as war zones. And some wonder why people are afraid of and hate the police? I remember hearing one police officer say, “To catch a criminal, you have to think like a criminal”. And that type of thinking is part of the problem because that officer has streamlined his perception of his job and limited it to catching criminals. He was looking at every situation through that lens. That is a bias that will often lead down the wrong path. If you are only actively looking for criminal behavior you will start to, mistakenly, see any and all activity as potentially criminal activity. And eventually you will start making the jump (even involuntarily) to ” To catch a criminal, you must act as a criminal.”
My own distrust of law enforcement started soon after I started driving (1970’s). There is a small town called Smithville, Ohio that had a reputation for speed traps and police agressively ticketing people. One night at around 11PM I was driving my date home and our route went through Smithville. Knowing the reputation, I decided to drive 5 miles slower than the speed limit to be safe. However that did not stop the local police officer from pulling me over and harassing me and my date.
He asked for my drivers license and began to question me, why was I out driving around?, where was I going? etc. I asked him, “If I may, can I ask why you stopped us?” His response was both surprising and annoying. He said, “Because you were driving slower than the speed limit. Most people drive faster. I thought you might be intoxicated or up to something illegal.” I explained I was just driving my date home and was planning to go straight home after that. So he let us go. But my date and I were both annoyed because, FUCK!, you can’t even obey the law without getting stopped.
A few years later: (warning – white privilege alert!) I was driving north on Route 57 toward Rittman, OH I was doing 70MPH(Miles Per Hour) in a 55MPH zone. A highway patrol officer pulls me over. Very politely asks for my license and asks, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Of course I did, I was in a hurry to get home and had the cruise set at 70 since it was late at night and no traffic on the road. But I lied and said, “no”. He told me I was going 70MPH. I pretended to be surprised and sort of lied again saying, “I thought sure I had my cruise set at the speed limit (which was sort of true because the speed limit a few miles back was 65MPH to which 70MPH doesn’t seem so bad). He then noticed my last name and asked if my sister was so-and-so. Not sure where this was going and surprised by the question I said, “Yes, she’s my sister.” He went on to talk about how he used to have crush on my sister and had decided to let me go with a warning. He also said, “As long as you don’t go more than 5 miles over the speed limit we don’t stop people.” No ticket. Just a warning. It all felt weird and somehow not right. So even though I breathed a sigh of relief. I benefited from my white privilege in this instance but it still led to build my distrust of law enforcement. Because I knew it was wrong.
For many years after that I was able to stay away from law enforcement officers and situations. I already knew I didn’t want to have to deal with the harassment that comes with a run-in with law enforcement.
Then 9/11 happened. The HOMELAND SECURITY ACT was put into place and everyone became afraid. Americans became afraid of each other in ways that had never happened before. Law Enforcement, now a para-military force, was looking for anyone and anything that might be used in a crime. Camera’s became an item of threat.
I purchased my first camera in 2009. If you follow this blog you know that I love photography. You also know the nature of my photography and subject matter. Since then I have been stopped by law enforcement several times for taking pictures and in one instance was told that they had the right to confiscate my camera for any reason they might find suspicious.
On one occasion I was just walking down high street in Akron, literally just carrying my camera looking for anything that might grab my attention and a cop stopped me to question what I was doing and why.
In Cleveland, Transit police literally tracked down me and a friend who were taking urban photos and had photographed one of the transit trains. The train operator called police on us. They tracked us down several blocks from where we took the photos. There were three officers and they were ready for action. They even threatened to take away our cameras claiming it was illegal to take pictures of transit trains.
On another occasion a captain in the Akron police department emailed me to inquire about my activities at a location where my car was spotted. It was an abandoned auto garage and a passerby wrote down my license number and called it in because they thought I might be up to something “untoward”. I directed her to my blog – which she had already found before she emailed me – and she said I was okay and nothing would happen. So why the harassment? It’s because they want you to know they are watching you.
And one last time: My friend and I were at an abandoned observatory, car parked outside (no attempt to hide – obviously our big mistake). We had been there for maybe an hour. We happened to look out the window and saw a police car parked behind my car. We thought, “Oh crap, here we go again.” We went down and talked with the officer. He said he was just calling in backup because he saw a car with an out of town license plate and thought there might be a dead body on the property or some other “goings on”. We explained what we were doing; two crazy white guys taking pictures of abandoned places – and he let us go.
It’s such bullshit. Is it me or have cops taken this notion of “prevention” to unrealistic extremes? Anyway I’ve had it with cops. I don’t like them and don’t trust them. Brutality and harassment need to end. Period.
Now keep in mind. I was not ticketed, arrested or fined in any of these situations. And even though I experienced police harassment, if I was black it would have been a different story. So yes, I support Black Lives Matter and other protests against police brutality and unnecessary force. It’s way past time for a change!!!!!
An indirect situation/addendum: A couple of years ago I was called for jury duty. A black man had allegedly discharged a weapon at night and police chased him down and arrested him. All the evidence was circumstantial, police officers couldn’t even be sure he was the person who discharged a gun – but (in police thinking) because he ran he must be guilty – and it was the Akron Police VS. Defendant. As part of the questioning process to be on the jury we were asked what we felt about the only evidence being circumstantial (i.e. no direct evidence and no corroborating witnesses). I was against such evidence. They also questioned repeatedly about our opinions on police and police procedure. The attorney for the police was very aggressive and empirical as he tried to defend the police actions and use of insufficient and circumstantial evidence against this black man being tried. Well you can imagine my response to that based on my experience. Needless to say I was dismissed and did not have to serve on that jury for that poor man that was tried (I had already determined his innocence).
In closing, in part, when I look at the reasons my ancestors left Switzerland (persecution and enforced military service) maybe there are genetic markers of protest that, in addition to my experiences, have also informed my views. Feelings and ideas stretching back through my ancestors. And While I am physically unable to participate in marches/protests – I am there in spirit.