*One weekday evening a couple of years ago, I was driving home from the grocery store. I was almost there—had made a right turn onto my street, gone a block and was waiting for the red light to change, when seemingly out of nowhere a Los Angeles Police cruiser came from behind and up to my passenger side. The officer at the wheel lit me with the megawatt floodlight attached to his door. I powered down my passenger window.
“What’s with the wide turn?” he asked tersely. Behind that powerful beam I saw a uniformed man who looked to be in his late 30s, wearing a mustache and a scowl. White. His baby-faced partner, also white, leaned forward in his seat, shot me an impassive glance, then sat back–after which I could only see his hands, feverishly typing away on the car’s computer keyboard, presumably imputing my license plate number.
“What wide turn?”
“The one you made when you turned onto this street just now. If someone had been sitting on that light [going in the opposite direction], you could have hit them.”
“But no one was there,” I said. It was dark. The street was empty, the neighborhood’s stark middle-class tranquility broken by our idling engines and the incessant cackle of the cruiser’s communication system.
“Did you hear what the fuck I just said? I said IF there had been someone there, you could have hit them.” The guy was beyond angry. His quiet rage made no sense here. “I didn’t make a wide turn,” I calmly insisted. “And if I had, there was no one going.…”
And then I caught myself. I remembered that I was attempting to reason with a man who believed a city-issued gun and badge gave him all the permission he needed to talk to a fifty-something citizen as if he were a truculent, disobedient child.
“You know what, officer,” I replied, backtracking, “you’re absolutely right. I could have hit someone making that turn. I need to be more careful.” Silence. The grimace on the officer’s face told me that he knew what I was doing: complying, but in a way that told him he was being utterly ridiculous.
“Well…NEXT time,” he stubbornly responded, “watch where you’re driving.” With that, they sped off. When I put the key in my door at home, I was still shaking–out of fear, at the idea that if I’d spoken in anything less than an unassertive tone, made a move deemed “aggressive” or “combative”—if I’d taken one of my hands off the steering wheel to put my car in park or turn off the engine or, God forbid, reach for my registration in the glove compartment—just like that, things could have escalated. And I shook out of anger because I felt violated. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t speeding, wasn’t driving erratically, wasn’t playing music loud. I was guilty of making my way home. Even after the officer stopped me, my civility only seemed to further incite his ire.
That night I didn’t feel safe, even at home. Suddenly, I felt like it didn’t matter that I was law-abiding–at the depraved discretion of a cop, I could simply disappear from the street—from my own abode–never to be heard from again.
I am not anti-police. I respect and appreciate the challenging task the dedicated men and women of law enforcement undertake each day in fighting crime. I’m acquainted with couple of mid-level law enforcement officials. They’re good people.
But the officer I encountered that evening harassed me and then went on with his life, unaware and unconcerned with how it left me.
It wasn’t the first time in my life that I’d been stopped by police for no reason. And what I went through was nothing compared to the verbal and physical assault that is routine. If you are a person of color in America–particularly if you are male–instinctively, you grow into the comprehension. It’s like puberty: no one teaches you that some police are prone to bedevil you because of who or what you are; one day, you just wake up knowing that it happens.
You come to learn the societal triggers. For instance, it was tough being a person of color in L.A. during the volatile days of the Rodney King riots. And the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted was an exacting time to be black in America, too. White folk were seething at the not guilty verdict, especially in L.A. So were some white law enforcement. Likewise, when Barack Obama was first elected President, in certain smug faces we intuitively knew not to celebrate too heartily.
And now, in Los Angeles during the fascinating days of the Christopher Dorner case, people of color old enough to know the signs, can feel a familiar, polarizng weight in the air.
I believe Christopher Dorner is a cold-blooded murderer. The young couple he is charged with killing as revenge on LAPD had their whole lives ahead of them, and he took that. It’s just horrible. And chances are, the officer whose life he took didn’t even know the particulars of Dorner’s situation; he was simply doing his job. I don’t know a single soul who doesn’t say that what Dorner allegedly did was absolutely, unequivocally wrong. He flipped. He’s gone mad.
However, much of the contents of Dorner’s now infamous manifesto, labeled rhetoric by LAPD, the press and the white general public, is all too familiar to black America. We’ve known of the rancid, pervasive culture of racism and sexism Dorner wrote about LAPD—inside law enforcement agencies across the country–for as long as any of us can remember. It’s just a fact of life.
Thus, when LAPD chief Charlie Beck announced that a $1 million reward–the largest in the city’s history—is on Dorner’s head because law enforcement officials on his hit list exist in constant fear of harm at any given time, too many of us understand.
When Beck says the idea of the unknowing is “scary,” we can relate. He says that Dorner’s targets simply don’t deserve to live in the shadow of this kind of terror. He’s right. Thus, those of us for whom the threat of systematic harassment is a way of life–women of all persuasions pulled over by police only to be asked for a date; the poor, the disabled and the homeless who are routinely treated like second class citizens—to Chief Beck and company, with anguished, conflicted emotion, we say, Welcome to our world.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via: [email protected].