On the one-year anniversary of the Rodney King trial, my son, John was home for spring break with a fellow student. We were living in Shirley about a mile or so from Smith Point Beach. At the time, they were both music students and had been working on music all day. By ten pm they had worked up quite a thirst on this unseasonably warm April night, and decided to walk the couple of blocks to Seven Eleven to get a drink.
They were in a jovial mood, so they were parodying Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni in pseudo operatic voices. As they turned the corner, they noticed a car parked on the grass with two men inside. A man dressed all in white got out of the car and said something like,
“Who said do you smell pork?” My son and his friend ignored him, thinking it was just some troublemaker out looking for a fight. Then the man shouted,
“Hey, big mouth, I’m talking to you!” Another man had gotten out of the car and he was wearing all white as well. At this point John, who is mixed, black and Italian, became afraid, thinking that they were members of the Klan or something and both bigger than him. So having been a track star, he did what he was trained to do, he ran. He ran as fast as he could until he was cut off by a police van. Thinking that the police had come to his assistance, John pointed to his pursuers and said,
“Those are the ones you want!” It quickly became apparent that the police were there to arrest, not assist him. Without knowing what crime he had committed, he raised his hands in surrender. At no time had the undercover cops in their unmarked car ever identified themselves as officers of the law. Without hesitation he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and beaten by at least four officers, including one woman. He was put into a chokehold so tight, that if he hadn’t bitten someone’s hand, he was certain that he would have died.
John’s friend, a white boy, was not the runner that John was and was quickly apprehended and put in the unmarked car. It was only when he yelled for them to stop, did they stop beating my son. Only the two undercover cops were even aware of an observer. Then the verbal abuse began. A threat of being left over night in a cell with a large oversexed cellmate with a large sexual organ is my polite way of stating what they actually said to him. They asked him who he thought he was, Rodney King. They informed him that there were no video cameras there. When he demanded to have his rights read to him, they said,
“Who do you think you are, Martin Luther King?” Then two officers ominously entered the back seat of the police car where they had placed him, from each side and hit him in the crotch with their police radios. When my son smelled beer on their breath and accused them of being drunk, they were arrogant enough to admit that they had had a couple of beers before duty.
It was an incidence of profiling. In his case, he and his friend were pretending to sing opera and the undercover cops assumed that they were on drugs and possibly carrying them. The irony of this whole situation is that if my son had spent less time on his studies, practicing his instrument, or running track, and more time hanging out and using drugs, he probably would have realized that they were undercover cops and not run.
John was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest and told that if he stayed out of trouble for six months, there would be no charge and a sealed record. That he had no arrest record and twenty letters of character, should have made it clear that my son had never been in any trouble before and was therefore unlikely to get into trouble within the following six months.
My sorrow and frustration fomented into a deep and scathing hatred of cops. It mattered little what ethnicity. To me the word cop was synonymous with corruption, brutality, and everything bad in the world. I knew that I was profiling cops just like they had profiled my son but I felt justified because of the atrocity they had committed upon him.
A few years later, I was teaching at a high school. I drove an adapted van that was equipped with hand controls and a lift that hoisted my three- wheeled scooter into the rear. I have secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which gradually worsens. It was becoming increasingly more difficult for me to walk to the back of my van with a walker to retrieve my scooter. Upon witnessing how arduous this procedure was for me, a school security guard asked if I needed help. I refused and when he asked again, I refused again. After all, what was a security guard but a wannabe cop? One day he saw my van pull into the parking spot and just came over, opened the back of my van, took the scooter out and brought it right to me.
“So okay,” I consoled myself, feeling very grateful for his help. “He isn’t actually a real cop”. Exchanging pleasantries, he told me that his name was Mike. He mentioned that this job was his part-time job and he had to leave early to get to his full time job, which was… yes you guessed it, a New York City police officer. Cognitive dissonance set in. I was unable to reconcile my vitriolic mindset with my gratitude and that I actually liked the guy. He was interesting, soft spoken and pleasant. He was a Kung Fu master and spoke Chinese although he was not Asian. He was Buddhist and went to China every year to study with a teacher. So what I did then was what every prejudiced person does when they discover an individual who doesn’t fit the profile of those individuals they perceive as undesirable. I made him a special case. I told myself that Mike was different, not like the other cops.
As the bitter winter set in I was forced to find another location for parking. Reluctantly I chose another spot and braced myself for the onerous task of trudging through slush to the back of my van and retrieving my scooter on my own, because Mike was posted at a different location. As I pulled into the new spot, another security guard asked if I needed assistance and this time I agreed without resistance. The man informed me that he was Big Mike and the other one, although he towered over him was Little Mike. Big Mike was middle aged and affectionately called the other Mike, Grasshopper. He was interesting as well. He designed and made wood furniture. He was witty, humorous and yes he was also a cop, but retired.
The weather was abominable that winter but Big Mike shivered with me through rain and snow. Always cheerful, with pleasant conversation he escorted me up to the door and opened it for me.
John eventually changed majors and graduated from Cornell University with a double degree in physics and engineering. He is an accomplished string bassist, a wood carver, and a prize- winning photographer. He is an electrical engineer and designs software. He is a true Renaissance man. What he experienced was horrendous and should never have happened but he at least got the opportunity to live his life and fulfill his potential.
The fact that my son was home on Spring break from college, which he attended on an academic scholarship, is as irrelevant as the fact that Trayvon Martin was an honor student. Trayvon Martin died because he was profiled as a criminal. As far as I’m concerned, he didn’t deserve to die that way if he had been caught coming out of a condo with a flat screen, or even if he was a troublemaker in school, failed all his classes, and was dealing drugs on the corner. Let the punishment fit the crime.
Individuals are unique, multifaceted and complex. You can hardly know the person who shares your breakfast table nonetheless, someone you’ve never even seen before. We need to continually examine and reexamine, our thoughts, intentions and motives if we are to move forward as a society. Whether you believe that Zimmerman was justified and defending his life, or a cold-blooded killer, one thing rings true, if he hadn’t profiled Trayvon Martin as a criminal, he would have never pursued him and Trayvon would not have died. The crime was profiling, and of this crime we are all complicit.