So I'm in my tavern of choice, shooting a few games of pool with an acquaintance. There's a huge crowd filling the rest of the place, and I mean wall-to-wall. As I scan the Joneses and Millers I noticed one... wait, two, no, three . . . six (?) . . . nine (!) uniformed officers of the law present. Fully armed, too, I may needlessly add I have an uneasy awareness of guns. I do not have a great respect for people in general. I fully believe that our biggest flaw as “thinking, reasoning” human beings is that we habitually create things we cannot control.
Never been particularly comfortable with armed people nearby. I have this nagging, worrisome micro-phobia about possessors of weapons of possible mass destruction: their capability, outlook, judgment, and plain old personal attitude problems.
Today's soireé turns out to be a retirement party. Another moment's thought and rationality and rationalization kick in and I shrug it off. And I continue missing the six ball.
And then I see my buddy (let's call him “Mike”) at the bar, squeezing in to grab a beer. The bartender gives him a big smile, shakes his hand (Mike is a regular and, in ineffable Willy Loman style, well-liked), and hands him a pint. Mike sips, eases languidly back against the bar, casually eye-sweeps the crowd. Once across, once back. Then his eyes narrow, hand stops in mid glass-raise, and his body tightens. He stiffens because he realizes he's the only African-American man in a bar full of partying cops, cop families, and cop-shop staff.
My game's done (bastard six ball undid me), so I pack the cues away, shuffle over and snag the seat next to him. A quick “Hey buddy, whazzup?” and we settle in, facing the bar, eyes away from the gendarmes and entourage.
I know this guy for a few years; he's on one of my pool teams, always been easy to get along with, excellent sense of humor, and quite often a snazzy dresser. (Again, like Willy Loman, Mike is a salesman and appropriately appearance conscious.) So, yeah, I've seen him pissed off because he's playing like shit one night or maybe he had a shitty day selling Hondas. I've seen him after a few beers, cheerful, joking, and suavely flirtatious. But I have never seen him like this: truly and sincerely frightened. And not just frightened; part of what his face is saying is the knowledge that this is now a day gone really bad.
We have an African-American man (the only one in the whole entire bar) amidst a raucously white armed party. Seriously: what could go wrong?
Spoiler: nothing did go wrong. We hung out while he drank his beer, talked casually about how his job sucked, spent some time on the somewhat back and forth of the local weather, and of course the way some of our cohort shoot pool. And all the while there was this bigass shadow over his head, and you could see it in his face the whole time: ONE black guy in a white cop bar.
At one point, after a change-of-topic silence, he turns to me. “Ever walk into one of your top ten nightmares?”
I can see the effect this situation is having on him. I can't know it intimately cuz I, purely by benefit of my skin color, can do almost anything in this bar and probably walk out on my own steam. I've seen the numerous videos of black men and boys (and women and girls) beaten and/or killed by white cops. By virtue of genetic roulette I'm safe and sound, completely without the daily onus of being a walking, shopping, breathing, talking, running, driving target. His face is telling me different things, but the craziest of all is the look that (I think) says “I'm fucking tired of feeling this way. I'm fucking sick of being scared. I'm fucking had it with having to have this possibility hanging over me every minute of my life.”
Maybe the cops in this bar are the good ones. Who knows? I'd like to think so. Our small city is a very forward, progressive town. Hell, our mayor wants to provide our town addicts with a safe place to shoot up instead of having them OD in a playground. But then again, wait . . . two years ago the police used heavy duty military equipment to raze a family home with a depressed guy inside, all because they were trying to serve him a summons he didn’t want to accept. In his own home. The guy, terrorized, committed suicide. African American boys have been accosted and beaten by our local cops; a lesbian, hands cuffed behind her, was deliberately jostled around in the back seat of a cop car. She had not committed a crime.
Cell phone cameras capture more and more instances of police act in over-the-top ways. I just rewatched the video of the Chicago cops shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times.
So maybe we're both a little justified in being suspicious and uneasy.
The guy I was playing before I camped at the bar is a cop. Good guy, from what I can tell. Don't know him all that well. Good shooter, plays fair. Dunno what he'd do if it came down to having to either protect Mike or side with The Brethren. (White cop, by the way.)
That's the thing: who knows? I'm not black, nor am I a cop. I have no inside info on either camp. I'm a middle-aged white dude whose most deadly brush with the law was wearing a set of handcuffs and having some over-the-top bravado screamed into my ears because of a nickel bag in Ewen Park. I don't put myself in daily danger because my job requires that I possibly go up against dangerous criminals. I don't have to worry about getting home in one piece . . . simply because I have white skin.
But I do know we need to change some economic and sociological bedrock issues before we can stand behind some of the things our jingoistic schoolbook rhetoric claims to already have in this country . . . like equal protection. Because hard-working, honest, law-abiding people should not have that look on their faces when all they want is a fucking beer and some downtime.