Law abiding — and afraid of the police
Iwalk home from work most days. For those who know Baltimore, you know you can get several distinct experiences of the city in one 20-minute walk. You move from a bustling downtown to a high-end residential strip with a zig-zag or two, but the catch? There’s another stretch — a vortex — between my downtown office and my home mere minutes north.
For about two and a half city blocks on Howard Street, I walk a world where roughly half of everyone I see is either right in the middle of a Heroin Lean or about to score a hit. The other half is made up of differently abled people waiting for a bus, or students who’ve just been let off one city bus and are waiting for another. Oh, and always a bunch of pigeons gnawing on discarded chicken wings. I am so close to my delightful high rise-building that contains all manner of comforts inside, but first I must cut through this urine- and weed-drenched veil of human despair.
At 4:57 p.m. on most days when I approach this bit of the continuum, there are great throngs of teenagers and grown folks alike who are also in transition — at this crossroads in their day — on the way home. The other day, I cut through a group of teens and the frisson of sinister excitement that one can feel when a fight is brewing. The air was thick with it. I cleared that hurdle with ease; I was incidental to the growing melee. I dodged and weaved through bodies and got all the way to the end of this portal of economic disparity and spiritual dead zone only to encounter something more frightening.
A group of adult men, easily 10 or more, were involved in a physical altercation. It was hard to know who was participating and who was simply spectating. I saw a man get kicked, punched and chased when he tried to escape. I had no context, but I went into metaphorical pearl-clutching mode. All my middle-class/I-have-a-Keurig/I-prefer-cabernet sauvignon/I-justgot-back-from-a-beach-vacation sensibilities were violated. I also thought “We need some order here. we need someone to intervene and help.”
I pulled out myphone to call 911. I looked at it. I put it back in my purse.
I thought it through. I had no idea what happened before I got to the corner, no idea what had started this incident. I didn’t think it was OK, but I also knew that if asked, I wouldn’t be able to say with any authority who did what, who started what.
But I could see clearly that no guns were drawn, nor was there any indication of possession of weapons by anyone. It was a street fight that everyone would likely walk away from.
But if I called the police, I had no confidence that order would be restored, that the peace would be returned.
I did think it possible, maybe even probable, that one of these guys — or more — might end up shot or beaten up without cause. That they all — those fighting and those merely there waiting for the bus — might end up in handcuffs. Or the morgue.
I chose not to call the law because I didn’t think they’d be arbiters of order or fairness. I thought they might worsen the situation.
I have heard and read black people saying of late “If I’m in trouble, please don’t call the police.” It’s not arrogance or hubris behind this statement. It’s fear.
Recently, a young black man had his car stolen and called the cops, and he was placed in cuffs and hauled in. In a grocery store parking lot, with groceries and evidence of his car’s whereabouts on his lo-jack app, he was still the one cuffed. It was a turning point for me.
I thought about the man I saw being kicked, and I realized I thought he was safer in that situation than if men with government-issued guns and sticks showed up.
I am a law-abiding person. I never do anything even remotely shady. I have always thought of myself as someone who’d never have anything to fear from police. I don’t get into trouble. I’m not mouthy with authority figures. It’s my thing to want to comply.
But on this day, I felt like I’d be handing those men over to legally sanctioned abuse or death if I attempted to “help” the situation. I’m still unpacking this: I am a middle class, higher-educated black woman with no criminal record. And I amafraid of the police.