On Friday, I wrote an essay trying to make sense of the senseless killing of George Floyd. As part of that essay, I told three stories about my personal experience with racism and police brutality. One of those stories, in particular, generated a lot of feedback from readers, many of them wondering if there was more to it than what I was able to convey in that brief amount of space.
There is more to it. There’s actually a lot more that I remember about that incident…
I was sitting in a police station in Washington, DC, handcuffed to a chair…
I had been arrested because I had interfered with what I thought was a rape. The woman in the car was screaming “Rape!” It turned out the man she was accusing was a cop. So I got arrested for interfering with his arrest.
As I was sitting there waiting to be booked, three patrolmen brought in a middle-aged black man in handcuffs. The black man was well dressed and wore what looked like expensive glasses.
I don’t remember what he was charged with. I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was looking at the three other handcuffed men in the room, who, like me, were seated and waiting. Two were black. One seemed to be Latino. One of the black men was young, like 16 or 17. The other one was about five years older than me, in his early 40s. The Latino-looking guy looked to be in his 20s. They all looked scraggly, tough, and poor.
To me, they all looked GUILTY. But since I had been, in my mind, wrongly arrested, I wondered if they might have been wrongly arrested too. I felt a warming kinship to them. But I could see when they looked at me, a clean-cut white man in a suit and tie, that feeling of brotherhood was not reciprocated.
This little anagnorisis was interrupted by the stentorian voice of the desk sergeant. “I don’t like your tone of voice,” he admonished the middle-aged black man in front of him.
The black man stood there, silently but with his head up and the slightest trace of a smile on his lips. It was a posture of careful defiance.
The room was quiet now. The policemen that had been milling around in the background stopped talking.
The desk officer took the bait, beginning with a foray of small insults. I remember one – repeatedly calling the black man “four eyes” – because even back then it seemed so puerile to me. And thus a verbal fencing match began.
I don’t remember how long it lasted. It felt like half an hour. It was probably less than three minutes. But the battle wasn’t the least bit fair. From the start, the black man had the advantage.
In a crescendo of anger and frustration, the desk officer hurled increasingly juvenile insults at the black man, who remained calm, but was now responding, basically lecturing the cop as you might lecture your adolescent son about the advantages of keeping his temper.
I was, and still am, impressed by how stoically this handcuffed black man was standing up for himself at a moment when he was so clearly in danger. As a young man that disliked authority, I had many times found myself in situations similar to the one he was in now, and had learned from experience how well meekness works when confronted with an adversary with a handgun.
So I was at once astonished and awed by the courage of this man who, I realized, was much closer to me in terms of affluence and education than our three fellow detainees. But I was also afraid for him. I remember thinking: “Is this the first time he’s ever been arrested?”
Sure enough, moments later, the desk sergeant got up from his seat, came around from his desk, grabbed hold of this man that had just made a fool of him, and dragged him past me and down a corridor to the holding cells.
The only sound in the room was the shuffling of shoes as the three arresting officers followed their sergeant down the corridor and out of view – or so they must have thought. I had a clear view of the corridor and even a bit of the inside of the cell into which they pushed the black man.
The sergeant went into the cell. The three cops stood at the door watching as the enraged and humiliated loser of the debate beat the shit out of the victor.
The sergeant emerged from the cell and locked it. The other cops followed him back up the corridor. I noticed, for the first time, that one of them was black. I studied his face. It seemed troubled. But so did the other two faces. Maybe it was my imagination.
As the sergeant neared me, he realized that I had probably seen the entire obscene (literally, obscene… look it up) performance. He grinned at me, dust-clapping his hands as if to say, “Well, I guess I showed him.”
Since this show was directed at me, the drama had shifted and I was now an actor in it. This was act two and the audience was watching.
So I said – because I couldn’t stop myself from saying it – “You must be proud. You’re a real tough guy.”
He glared at me and I imagined the headline: Journalist Hangs Himself in Jail Cell. Then he lowered his eyes a bit… and walked past me.