Law abid­ing — and afraid of the po­lice

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Sal­imah Perkins Sal­imah Perkins is an edi­tor at Wolters Kluwer; her email is sal­

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.

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