Keeping Allies at Bay

Many people who care deeply about the Henry Louis Gates incident will steer clear of it because of the racial component and the high dudgeon. Maybe I’m not so wise.  At the risk of sounding  ”I know what it’s like … .”

I’ve been harassed by police for idling my car outside of a grocery store, waiting for a friend to bring out his groceries. I gave them the wrong look as they passed, I guess, so they circled back to berate me on the pretext that the asphalt in front of the store was a fire lane. Never mind that it was after 11:00 p.m. and the parking lot was empty.

I held my tongue - even pretended to get a little weepy - and collected their car number. Once home, I called the sheriff’s office, saying I had gotten some help from some officers and wanted to get their names to ”write a nice letter or something.” The next day I called back and spoke to their Senior Deputy, Deputy Arnaldi, about what was at a minimum rudeness and to me very threatening. It turns out that Deputy Tuller was a training officer bringing a young man named Vargas up to speed on how to intimidate and offend the public.

Also in college, police came to a party of mine because of a noise complaint - well-founded, I’ll admit. Instead of quieting the party, they drew my roommate outside and claimed they needed his ID, but refused to let him get it. Instead, they encircled and harangued him. It appeared to me that they were trying to draw him into violence. It’s a tribute to his lifelong decency and dignity that he didn’t take the bait. My roommate was black, and the inference I drew from the circumstances is that the police had it in for him because he was black.

I was a little more assertive this time.  I demanded the name of the ringleader. He responded by asking me to come talk to him on the street, but I guessed that he would have stronger grounds to arrest me there so I declined.

His name was Abel Pibo. Abel Pibo of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department is a stain. If he has family who loves him, they should know that other people feel very differently.

Next up, law school. In the summer between my first and second year, police officers in South Dakota invented a reason to convert a tail-light stop into a full-blown search of my car and passengers, complete with a drug-sniffing dog and a camera crew from a television show called ”Real Stories of the Highway Patrol.” The car, which had been broken into by thieves earlier in the trip, was ransacked again, by “law enforcement.”

My assertiveness grows. To render the television footage unusable, I stood just off-camera swearing like a sailor throughout the search and the re-staging of events the officers did for the camera crew. Every combination of the filthy words I’ve ever known passed my lips twice.

Why recite these incidents in such detail? Why tell you what I think of Abel Pibo? To convey the depth of feeling I have - and so many of us have - about police abuses of power. 

I’ve been lucky, of course, because I haven’t been arrested - even as I’ve gotten mouthier with age. And it’s entirely clear to me as a person who resides in the upper echelons of society (putting aside traditional categorizations) that much worse is happening to other people.

It’s not about being anti-police. During those college years, I worked in a nightclub where we often relied on and worked with local police. I won’t use their last names, but Bill, Sid, and Dennis (aka “Sergeant Idol”) are great guys. When I got decked by a guy wearing a ring and had to get my chin stitched up, Sid was ticked! I had never seen him scurry around quite so much. And I appreciate it.

As Tim Lynch noted, Radley Balko captured what won’t be taught in this evening’s teaching moment: “[T]he issue here is abuse of police power, and misplaced deference to authority.”

Radley tells the story of our friend Brooke Oberwetter, who was arrested at the Jefferson Memorial for dancing on his birthday - perhaps, more accurately, for asking why she wasn’t allowed to dance there on his birthday.

At a cross-ideological panel discussion on civil liberties post-9/11 some months ago, I told the story of Brooke’s arrest and the slightly over-righteous commentary about “the state” in one of the videos.  A co-panelist from the NAACP observed to my delight (paraphrasing), “So your ‘the state’ is our ‘the man!’” It was an absolutely hilarious comment - and a delight because it crystalized the common interest we all have. Police abuses I’m quite certain fall disproprtionately on African Americans.

With regret, I report that the NAACP is seeking policy changes that aren’t grounded in these common interests.  They want anti-racial profiling training and race and gender sentivity training.

These things won’t address the issue most central in the Henry Louis Gates incident, or the issue that will bring more communities and constituents on board. Unfortunately, this approach to the matter is keeping allies at bay.