I’m not ready to write about last night yet. The situation is still too close and too vivid. Instead I will talk about the first time I realized I could not trust the police.
As a child I’m sure I had officers come to my school. They were always Officer Good Guy, the hero who saved little kittens and stopped the bad robber who broke in after dark. I’m sure there were children in my class who aspired to be Officer Good Guy when they got older. I never had the sort of inclination. Mostly I wanted to grow up and be a dragon, but I had a fleeting aspiration of being a garbage man for a while, and sometimes thought about becoming a veterinarian. At some point I developed a vague distrust for police, but nothing concrete. I wasn’t into drugs in high school, I didn’t drink or get into fights. I was pretty much a quiet unobtrusive shy little goth, who sat reading in a back corner while others disrupted class, having already finished the next week’s worth of work. I didn’t have a reason to dislike cops yet, I simply felt uneasy around them. They seemed to constantly condescend to people, to treat people as though they were just waiting for you to do something wrong, whether they had reason to suspect you or not. If I had been more aware of the world around me, I would have seen more of the racial issues in how they treated the kids from black and low income neighborhoods differently, and how much my privilege protected me. It wasn’t long before my vague distrust had grounds to grow.
My group of friends would always hang out on a large patch of astroturf on one corner of the square of our town’s downtown shopping center. There was a mall on one side, a movie theater and a series of outdoor shops on the other, another string of shops on the third, and the astroturf rounding out the fourth side of the busy square intersection. Small concerts were held there, occasionally a flea market was set up, but mostly it was a gathering place where you could see a few folks playing guitar in one spot, card gamers in a yu-gi-oh battle in another, the Jesus folks giving a sermon in a third, and kids of all ages with parents and friends just running around and having fun. It was perfectly allowable to be there after dark, so when the sun started setting on the hot summer days, many of us migrated up there from the library park that closed in the evening. It was a place to be out in the open and just relax. I won’t say that some of us didn’t sneak back into the library park to drink, or slip behind the shopping center to do drugs, or hide in the church parking lot to clumsily hook up with our grasping eager friends. But when we were hanging out on the astroturf, we were in plain site just sitting and talking or wrestling around playfully, it was a safe zone for those who weren’t up to something, at least not at that time.
We were sitting on the concrete stair at the corner of the turf, me in my heavy tripp pants and cutesy wolf ears and tail, and my friend Sesshy on my lap. Both of us very small and at the time very feminine creatures, about as intimidating as a fuzzy caterpillar. We were laughing with a few other friends standing around when we noticed the cop standing at the top of the stairs staring at all. My first reaction was to feel creeped out, chills going up my spine. He wasn’t saying anything and the way he was watching us put me on edge. We were polite, asking him if he needed anything, and he just leered at us. Suddenly being one of two cute girls cuddling did not feel safe under his gaze. We asked him again if we were doing anything wrong, if he needed us to leave the area, and he just took a few more steps down and kept watching us eerily. Our other friends split, jogging off across the astroturf. I don’t blame them, they were much less trusting of cops then we were, having grown up in neighborhoods where Officer Good Guy would beat down your dad for going to the corner store in a sweatshirt that just might “match the description”.
We crossed to the other side of the large steps and tried to walk up towards the new flashing tower they had installed with a button you could press if you were afraid you were about to be mugged or raped. The thought went through my mind, if we press it, because we don’t know this man’s intentions and he’s approaching us in a way that feels threatening, who will respond? The cop is already here, he’s the one we’re afraid of. It didn’t matter because he glanced up at it and moved to position himself between us and the button. At that point alarm bells went off and I took Sesshy’s hand and walked quickly away, chattering about all the people we were about to meet up with and how we were going home to our parents, anything I could think of that would sound reasonable and deter him.
The cop followed us to the bus stop. He stood there watching, never having said anything, but still looking at us like a predator. At one point he ignored a few calls on his radio, and then radioed back at one that he was engaged at the time and would respond only to urgent calls. He followed us onto the bus. I was too frightened to take it to our usual stop, because that left a mile long walk, some parts through the woods, to get back home. We got off one bus and onto another, and then when we made our third transfer and got onto the metro, he finally stopped and walked away, leaving us terrified and confused. Did we imagine that he was following us the whole time? Would an officer of the law really stalk two young teenage, seemingly girl-children, half way across town? Why hadn’t he responded when we asked why he was watching or following us, or if we were doing anything wrong? Had we done something wrong, by simply existing as two feminine presenting folk sharing platonic and non-sexual affection in public? And if he had gotten us alone, what would have happened?
I’m much less naive these days. A cop does not follow two teenage girls across two bus lines for shits and giggles. And if we had been breaking any law, we would have been arrested or spoken to about it at the time. We didn’t get raped, but we very nearly could have been. In no terms were we safe at the moment, and Officer Good Guy was not leering at us and following us to serve and protect.
That is not the only story, it is one of many I’ve amassed in a lifetime. I am white, I appear now to be your average cis male even though I am not, I came from a middle class family and grew up in a nice neighborhood, and I don’t make it habit to break the law. I’ve been privileged not to have to break the law to survive at times, and was generally pretty sheltered in my youth. And I have enough bad cop stories to fill a small novel. That doesn’t even compare to the Encyclopedia of Britannica length book series most marginalized folks can write. I don’t trust cops. I don’t trust their training, I don’t trust the system of power they are a part of, I don’t trust their morality in taking a job that requires upholding racist and immoral laws. I don’t believe they can do their job correctly and also be good people, at least not in this system, and in this country. Elsewhere it might be different. Maybe there are places where Officer Good Guy you meet in kindergarten really is the childhood hero he seems to be. But here he is the wolf in sheep’s clothing and I know better then to ever trust a cop.