I just got back from a walk to Amigo’s for milk and sugar, to add to guess-what.
On the way there, I saw a man sauntering up the block ahead of me, wearing the dark clothes, cap, and heavy, accessory-laden belt of a policeman. I noticed how vulnerable he looked. For a second I asked myself whether he was male of female. When he passed into a patch of sunlight, the sight of his auburn colored, precision-cut hair beneath the back of his cap confirmed the former.
I hoped that I would reach him before the light changed at the corner at Ellis Street. Casually coming up beside him, I could greet him and tell him that it is nice to see an officer out for a walk in the neighborhood. I wondered whether he was on patrol or perhaps just talking his break by going for a walk. I hoped to ask whether the cops were on foot patrol these days but did not speed up my pace to reach him before he reached the corner.
Can you imagine? A policeman in uniform, because still on duty, leaving his loud, back-slapping companions at the station and taking his break not at the proverbial water cooler but out in the sunshine, walking in the plain air, and looking around the same way I do? He did not stop at the light to cross the street but turned left instead.
I reached the corner as the light turned green and crossed to Amigo’s. I looked to my left as I did but could not see him. Then as I stood at the register paying for my milk, sugar, and pan dulce rolls, I saw him walking east on Ellis. I asked the shopkeeper whether the cops were on foot patrol these days.
“No. Something happened. He is just looking around,” he answered.
“I was just thinking,” I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have them just walking around, so we could say ‘Hi’ and they could get to know us and feel like regular humans?”
I lived in Baltimore in the 1970s, in Manhattan in the 1980s, in Oakland in the 1990s, and in San Francisco since the turn of the century, and I have read a lot of articles in newspapers and magazines, from the Baltimore Sun to the New Yorker, about Community Policing. Today I have a gut-level understanding of it. I really wanted to introduce myself to the cop, maybe start to get to know him a bit, and be known to him myself by name eventually.
Crossing Ellis heading home, I saw a squad car parked on the other side of the street, probably his. I began to imagine a world in which everyone encountered the police routinely, day to day, and the police walked around as ordinary citizens, albeit armed and in uniform, like the rest of us. (You might argue that being armed precludes their being ordinary citizens, but believe me, there are plenty of gangstas walking around this neighborhood right now in uniforms of huge baggy clothes, one hand holding up their pants, who are themselves heavily armed.)
In this real world, a two-ton monster made of vicious metal and glass, screaming and flashing pitiless lights, descends on you and disgorges two policemen who accost you, block your freedom of movement, and more likely than not cuff you while intoning the ritual chant, the magic formula, “Under Arrest”. By the magic of those words your identity, your innocence, your intentions and your needs become irrelevant. Your descent into the Inferno of dehumanizing powerlessness (see Bruno) has begun.
And the men and women vomited onto the street by the squad car must feel like big, juicy, delicious targets. They must live each day with the wariness of small rabbits or fawns, desperately trying to see in all directions at once lest they be blindsided by the pounce of the cougar hidden atop the rock ledge overhead.
What if we were all humans? What if we shared the streets, parks, and other public spaces with people just like ourselves, some of whom were equipped to help any of us who were in danger, whether by accident or at the hand of another? What if we weren’t always isolated in boxes of stone or of steel and glass?
Wouldn’t we be less fearful of one another if we were more vulnerable to one another?
And would not the small chance that frail, timid Justice has to lay her healing hand on us all be made just a little bit stronger?