I followed a link on the site of a complexity theorist I know to this story by Ben Allen on this interesting site (which is mostly about complexity theory). Anyway, this story is not about complexity theory. It’s about innocently dropping some kids off in a black neighbourhood and ending up with a gun to your head.
I’m writing this because the horrific news out of Ferguson, Missouri—the killing of an unarmed man and the subsequent assault on the populace and media—has been bringing back memories an experience I had with the police ten years ago in Chicago.
I should be clear about why I’m choosing to share this. It’s not because I think my own problems are particularly deserving of attention in comparison to the violence done to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other recent victims of police violence. In fact, what I experienced was relatively tame in comparison. But that’s kind of the point. This incident instantly brought my white privilege into sharp focus, in a way that has stuck with me ever since. Issues like racial profiling can be somewhat abstract for white people. I hope my story can open a new entry point into these issues for those who rarely experience them directly.
After college, I joined Teach for America. I was assigned to a high school on the West side of Chicago, where I taught math and coached the chess team. The school and the surrounding neighborhood were nearly 100% black. (Yep, Chicago is segregated.) It was also a rough neighborhood in the sense that drug dealers and prostitutes operated openly within a block of the high school, and students talked about gang warfare the way those at other schools might gossip about the Homecoming dance. I was not a great teacher in that environment, but I felt a strong bond with the students—especially with those on the chess team, who would squeeze into my tiny Civic every month or so to face off against other teams, often from much more affluent suburban schools.
One Saturday, we got back to the West side around 10pm, and I decided to give each of the team members a ride home. After I dropped the last student off, I got back into the car to head home. But as I tried to start out, there was another car right next to me, blocking me into my parking space. And the driver was looking at me.
I didn’t know what they wanted. Maybe they wanted my parking spot. To try to get out of their way, I pulled forward a bit. But they moved in parallel, blocking me in again. We repeated this dance two or three times. They motioned to me to roll down my window. But seeing as I had no idea who they were, I thought this was probably a bad idea and kept my window shut.
Then the driver and passenger got out, walked in front of my car, pulled guns out, and pointed them at me.
As a child, I frequently had nightmares in which “bad guys” would shoot me with guns. I started to feel like I had slid into one of those nightmares. It didn’t feel like reality—it felt like a dream that was happening to me. I thought maybe I was mistakenly mixed up in a criminal conspiracy, and they were going to kidnap me or worse.
They shouted “PUT THE FUCKING CAR IN PARK!” I complied. Then one of them yanked open my car door and put his gun to my head (literally, it was touching my temple). He shouted “TAKE YOUR FUCKING SEATBELT OFF”, which I did as well as I could given how much I was shaking. He then pulled me out, put me in handcuffs, and bent me over the trunk of their car.
It was at this point that I realized I was probably dealing with the police, rather than some criminal organization. I told them I didn’t know they were police. One of them responded “Who else would be going the wrong way down a motherfucking one way street?”
Ummm, I guess this chain of logic might have occurred to me if I wasn’t scared shitless by the fact that strangers were blocking me in and pointing guns at me.
The other one, who still had his gun to my head, said “We don’t want to hurt you, we just want to know your source!” I had no idea what they were talking about. I told them that I was a math teacher at the local high school. His response was “Oh yeah? Well how long have you been doing heroin?” They continued to interrogate me and searched my pockets as I told them about the chess team, the tournament, and the student I had just dropped off.
After a minute or so, it became clear to them that I was not, in fact, a heroin user. It was remarkable how quickly I shifted in their view from “junkie” to “white do-gooder”. Within sixty seconds, their tone of voice changed, they took me out of cuffs, and their started explaining why they had taken the approach that they did.
Their explanation went like this: The corner where I had dropped of this student was a well-known herion point. White people are so rare in this neighborhood that those who are around after dark are usually there for the drugs. Transactions often occur in the buyer’s car, with the buyer driving the dealer around the block as the deal is made. So I fit the profile of a heroin buyer. When I failed to stop for them, they escalated by getting out and drawing guns. When I continued to creep my car forward towards them (unintentionally, since I had no idea what I was doing at that point), they felt they had to escalate further my opening the door and putting a gun to my head.
It almost makes sense, except that they never identified themselves as cops. They were in an unmarked car and never bothered to show me a badge. Because they read me as a heroin junkie, they assumed I would be familiar with the routine of being pulled over by an unmarked car. Just to emphasize the point: They were quicker to pull their guns on me than to show me any kind of police identification.
The next week, I told the chess team what happened during practice. I’ll never forget what one of them said to me next: “Mr. Allen, I’m sorry you had to go through that, but you know what that makes you? A black man. We go through that shit every day.” He then told me about a time the cops made him strip to his underwear and stand outside in the middle of winter for hours, cuffed to a police car, before they released him without charge. All of my students had stories. They all had stories of the cops treating them as if their time, their dignity, and even their lives were worthless.
I did end up filing a complaint with the Chicago Police Department, but I was unable to ID the officers. I had (and still have) a clear mental picture of one of them, but none of the photos they showed me matched him. So the case was dropped.
What do I take from this experience? For one thing, some very real anxiety. It still haunts me sometimes when I’m trying to sleep, and I was shaking when typing this out. But I also try to accept it as an alternate-reality window into something I would never have otherwise experienced. For a brief moment in time, the usual dynamics were reversed: I was profiled for being a white person in an all-black neighborhood. Because of the color of my skin and the block I was on, the cops read me as a criminal and treated me like one. But only for about a minute. Once they realized I was not a junkie, my white privilege reasserted itself and suddenly they were there to serve rather than threaten me.
As a white person with financial and educational privilege to boot, I can be reasonably certain that I will not experience such an incident again, unless I choose to return to a situation like urban teaching in which the usual rules become twisted. But imagine (and I’m talking to white folks here) if you had no choice. Imagine if you could never tell whether the cops—the people who are supposed to protect you—would arbitrarily read you as a criminal and decide to threaten your life before even explaining who they are or what they want. Imagine how that might change your concept of safety, the way you present yourself outside, or even your plans for any given evening. That is the reality that my chess team described to me. It is the reality that underlies the headline-grabbing incidents like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Trayvon Martin. It is the reality that millions of people live every day.