"Does anybody else notice that we look like the bad guys in an 80s action movie?"
Throughout my suburban upbringing, the police were less of an organization and more of a concept – a vengeful god that people were always threatening to call down in order to bring justice to kids doing skateboard tricks in the cul-de-sac after 9:30 or the neighbor who let his dog shit on other peoples' lawns. What cemented the fearsome mystique of the police was that for how often people threatened to call them, they seldom actually followed through and did it. On the rare occasions that I did see a police car in my neighborhood, it was always a sure sign that one of the retirees living in the tract mansions up the street had finally deployed the nuclear option. (Or that one of my octogenarian neighbors had died in the night and somebody had to take a report.)
When I got to high school, I found that kids there had practically turned provoking the police into a sport. They had a game called Commando where one team would try to get from one end of the neighborhood to the other by any means necessary – alleys, backyards, parking lots – while the other would prowl the streets in their parents’ BMWs and Dodge Denalis trying to hunt them down and tag them before they got there.
I never participated because sometimes neighbors called the police, at which point it was every man for himself. I heard that once the police caught a couple guys from the waterpolo team hiding under some lady’s deck, and they yelled at them for a solid 20 minutes before calling their parents.
No, I wanted no part of that. Growing up white in the suburbs, having a policeman yell at you is about the scariest thing imaginable.
The unauthorized senior class tradition was to spraypaint the word “BOOYAH” on the road leading up the hill away from campus. Every year the principal threatened to invoke the police, and I guess my senior year she was finally serious about it. Due to a crippling lack of school spirit I wasn’t out painting the hill, but the legend goes that they had just finished painting the "H” when a couple police cars silently crested the hill and then hit their lights and sirens.
Most everybody put their hands up and surrendered, but one girl dove into her Mercedes and raced off doing 85 down a winding two lane road past golf courses and rural mansions. The cops chased after her for several miles until she got caught at a roadblock, where she surrendered and was peacefully taken into custody.
The next day at school it was all anybody could talk about, and the intensity of the police response grew to Grand Theft Auto proportions throughout the day – first she’d only been chased by one cop, but then it was three cops, and by eighth period apparently they’d had a police helicopter following her. I called bullshit at that point, because I couldn’t imagine that the police would even have a helicopter in a town like Salem.
Whatever the details, the girl who led police on a high speed chase still walked at graduation a couple weeks after. That fall she was in my freshman class at the University of Oregon. She currently works as a personal trainer.
I wonder if that’s how things would’ve panned out if she’d been a black guy.
A couple years before that, during the summer when I was 16, Alexander and Brent and I found a small watermelon in a park. For whatever reason, we spent the afternoon running around downtown Salem photographing the melon on bus benches or drab concrete plazas between municipal buildings.*
*And do bear in mind this was before Facebook, Instagram, and smartphones – we were taking these pictures on a digital camera, and back in those days we weren’t doing it for the regrams or pins or upvotes or likes, we were doing it because we were bored, goddamnit.
Eventually we wound up outside of a grey windowless building made of concrete slabs that housed police headquarters. Wandering around outside in search of something funny to photograph our melon in front of, we stumbled upon a pair of jet black heavily armored trucks parked around the side of the building. Our jaws dropped – because who the hell knew our suburban police department had tanks!? These things certainly never showed up in my neighborhood after somebody’s house got TP’d.
“C’mon!” Alexander said, grabbing the melon and starting toward the armored monstrosities with Brent in tow. “Let’s put this on one of the tanks and get a picture!”
“Woah, woah, no, guys!” I shouted, gesturing to a security camera mounted on the wall pointing at the vehicles. “What are the cops going to think when they see two random guys messing with their tanks?”
They paused to consider that. Then, Brent started pulling the collar of his shirt up over his nose.
“We’ll just cover our faces!” he said, and immediately Alexander was doing the same thing.
“No, guys, that makes you more suspicious! Masks are always more suspicious! We’re all going to get shot!”
That persuaded them, and we settled for putting the melon just outside the security camera’s field of view for the picture. No nearby policeman spotted us and opened fire. And even if one of them had seen us, and even if we’d had our shirts pulled up over our noses, and even if we’d been licking and dry humping the armored cars they wouldn’t have shot us. They probably would’ve yelled at us and told us to go the fuck home.
Because we were just three teenaged, unarmed white men in broad daylight. What would they want to shoot us for?
I think that throwing rocks at the police and burning your neighborhood to the ground are counterproductive ways to seek justice – especially when many of the people instigating these violent actions have come from outside of Ferguson. But then again, I’m a white guy who grew up in a white neighborhood in a white town in a white state, so I’ve got no frame of reference for the demons being exorcised in Ferguson right now. I’ve spent my life being protected and served by the police.
I imagine I’d feel differently if I’d grown up black in Ferguson or any one of the hundreds of towns like it. If I’d grown up attending failing schools, facing limited job prospects, and knowing that the deck was thoroughly stacked against me. If I – and everyone else I knew – had been harassed by a racist, violent, militarized police department for as long as we could remember.
Under those circumstances, I imagine I would’ve been out on the streets for the past two weeks too, because what’s happening in Ferguson would probably feel like the closest thing to justice my community was going to get.
Truman Capps once had a police officer in traffic yell at him to turn his headlights on, and he's still pretty shaken up over it.