A couple of years ago, I was buying some propane and other irrelevant items from a small business in a town just a few miles outside of St. Louis City.
As I fumbled for some change from my pant’s pocket, my police badge fell onto the counter.
Upon noticing the badge, the clerk, a white man in his fifties I’d guess, asked if I was a cop.
I admitted that I was and he asked me where I worked.
When I told him I worked in the City, he said, “I don’t know how you do it.”
“It’s a challenge sometimes,” I responded.
The very next words out of his mouth were, “How do you deal with all those niggers?”
He said that out loud in the place where he works, right to a stranger’s face.
I remember being taken aback and very pissed off that he assumed I was the sort of person who would enjoy continuing in wherever this conversation was heading. I’d never been in this place before that day.
I grabbed my change and my already paid for items and just left, without saying another word.
Like a coward.
As cantankerous as I can be, I really don’t much care for unnecessary confrontation. I get enough of that at work and tend to spend my free time with people who don’t push my buttons, my own kids aside.
This encounter was in the midst of the Ferguson riots, when tensions about race were high here in the St. Louis area. It was still well before Trump had emboldened certain people to just say whatever they want, other peoples’ feelings be damned.
In certain parts of the country, we’ve not come so far at all.
I suspect that this man’s view of black people comes from what he sees on a television set or reads in the news. It’s possible he’s never had a conversation with a human being who wasn’t nearly identical in most respects to himself.
There are still areas where people can live without having to associate with others who aren’t like them in nearly every single way.
It’s easy to hate people when you don’t know them. When you can con yourself into believing that people are not like you, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to their plight. When you can take it a step further and make yourself believe that certain people are not only unlike you, but are inferior to you, then you can not only turn a blind eye to the plight of others, but you can actively participate in being a major cause of that plight.
Slavery is a perfect example of that.
Slavery didn’t happen because people in power thought they were dealing with equals. They used blacks, Indians and even other whites, but they were white “criminals” or Irish or Catholic, or something that made them unlike and inferior to the powerful land owners of the time.
I’ve not physically been back in that store since, but mentally, I’ve been there many times again and made some sort of stand to put this guy in his place. I’ve kicked myself for not doing something to at least initiate debate in there a few dozen times. To even say something as simple and lame as, “That’s really not nice,” would have been better than just leaving without saying anything at all, which I did.
He’s not even the first guy to ever approach me and say something that I’ve found so ridiculous and offensive. When I was a bagger at a grocery store, my beloved St. Louis Cardinals baseball team was a team built perfectly for playing on Astroturf fields.
They were skilled and they were fast. Many of the best players were black.
Old men would make small talk with me as I bagged their cheese and oatmeal, mostly about baseball, and how the problem with the Cardinals was that they had too many…*old man looks around* “black players” on the team.
I remember thinking, uh, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee are my favorite players, sir.
More recently, a man approached me in the parking lot of a gas station as I was getting into my patrol car to tell me out of the blue that, “there are a lot of black firefighters in this city.” He went out of his way to blurt this out to me for reasons that are still a mystery.
“Uh, I’m a police officer sir,” I said as I got into my car and left.
Always avoiding that unnecessary confrontation.
I do appreciate people who boldly stand up for what they believe in, even if it’s something I don’t agree with. They don’t mind, and sometimes they actually enjoy the confrontation.
Some might say by not standing up to these people that I’m part of the problem, but I don’t feel as though I owe anybody an apology for how I’m living my life.
The clerk in the store who insisted that he didn’t know how I did it (my job) wasn’t the first by far.
Eighteen years ago today, I sat in a chair as a brand new police recruit for the first time ever.
Back then, I’d left a job at Anheuser-Busch to try policing. My dad had done it for a few years here in the city, and it was something I just needed to get out of my system.
I got razzed by instructors who were appalled that somebody would leave Anheuser-Busch to work for the police department.
“Who does that?” They asked.
Yesterday I caught myself, now an instructor, razzing a new recruit who left Coca-Cola to become a police officer.
“Who does that?” I asked.
Circle of life, I guess.
Well I did that, and I’ve been asked dozens of times over the years since, “How do you do it?”
I’m sure all officers get asked that question from time to time.
It’s hard to describe, really.
How do you explain to somebody the joy of catching small kids looking at your badge and all the knick knacks on your gun belt and telling their mommy or daddy excitedly, “look, a police man” after you catch eyes and exchange a smile or a wave?
How do you describe the peace of buying a homeless man lunch and taking five minutes from your day to be the only person he may talk to all week?
How do I put into words the rush of participating in community meetings to try finding solutions to real life problems along with everyday people living in fear in those communities? It’s difficult to explain the high that comes with catching the bad guy or having your lunch bought by a total stranger or to have people approach you nearly every day and put out their hand to shake it while saying, “Thank you for your service,” or “Thanks for what you do.”
Or even now, I can’t really describe the joy I get from teaching tomorrow’s police officers what I’ve learned over these past eighteen years. What I know is theirs. My experiences are not mine to hoard. I will share with them all I know and all I’ve learned from being a police officer myself for eighteen years now, so they can duplicate my successes and hopefully, avoid my same failures.
I have the advantage of teaching them from that officer point of view as well as from the point of view of an attorney. I like to pretend I’m unique in that respect. Many attorneys teach officers, but not all of them have eighteen years of police work to add to their lesson plans.
Today I teach, but tomorrow, I may be in a knock down drag out fight with somebody on the streets again.
Maybe it’ll be with a man who is on drugs and beats his wife and kids and dog, and maybe somebody will see the fight and say, “I don’t know how you do it, officer.”
Maybe I’ll dust myself off and make eye contact with the crying wife and kid as they’re hugging on the porch, trying to figure out what they’ll do next for food or money or shelter.
Maybe I won’t be able to describe to you why I do what I do, but maybe you’ll see what I’m looking at and turn to notice those people on their porch too, and it’ll tug at your heart strings just a little bit. Maybe then you’ll know why I do what I do, which may not be the same as how, but is so much more important anyway.