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Thus far, this has been the only time someone has called the cops on me – excluding those late-night noise violations at university for my 21st birthday parties. Plus a few routine traffic stops back home, two of which involved routine racial profiling. I’m lucky. There are far too many stories when these police encounters didn’t go well.
What if Ms. Angie had notified the guard, and he’d then decided to take things into his own hands? What if the police had come in pointing guns as they are want to do? What if my mother weren’t clasping tightly to my hand – as far as they knew – a senior citizen in need of (their) protection, a long-time customer of the bank discussing the mortgage on my grandparent’s old house? I have to wonder about these possibilities, to be sensitive and aware :-(. To be Young, Gifted and Black :-).
Like Charles Ramsey, “I knew something was wrong” when I saw two cops circle the bank and enter from two different directions. They weren’t there for banking and there weren’t any other customers. This was hubby’s (then boyfriend) first visit to my hometown, so I’d explicitly warned him to sit down while we waited in the lobby for my mother to handle her business. It was a small branch, yet still, like many banks at the time, the safe sat wide open, as if for inspection. Hubby was hovering. I even gave him change so he could get a lollipop from the charity pot sitting on several teller stations. You’d think someone would come over and offer a tour.
I had entered the small office once or twice. I greeted the agent speaking with my mother, then let momma know where we waited. Meanwhile, hubby insisted on wondering around – he’s generally restless. He was looking at all the posters promoting the bank’s services. Incredibly high-interest rates! Few savings options! He’s fascinated with the levels of credit exploitation permitted in America; the average German has net assets while most all us Americans have debt! He couldn’t even understand how a nation would let its population not have access to a basic bank account – as a right. He measured everything by good German standards.
How do people in America live with such instability! At that time, all this was totally foreign to him. At least in our neighborhood most folks were homeowners, so hubby and I understood one another on that. We’d both grown up taking care of our family’s homes and helping the neighbors. We’ve mowed many a lawn and trimmed many a hedge. We still do now.
Angie Smallwood’s branch has now closed. After being heavily frisked, ID-ed and having the car license plates checked, the manager told us that Angie Smallwood had been involved in “5 or 6 armed robberies.” He explained – in that managerial tone where you know you’re being handled – that Angie had become suspicious because of hubby’s foreign accent. I found that part hilarious and yet most plausible then and there, in Louisville, KY. In spite of their constant romanticization of their European roots, they couldn’t communicate with one actual F.O.B. standing right in front of them. As a European, hubby needed this education about his own whiteness.. He even came up with his own phrase for the phenomenon “those are not my white people.”
I suppose the manager was suggesting that Angie Smallwood was trigger happy. Or, perhaps he was just trying to elicit our sympathies. It’s not as if we were going to cause a scene, the cops were still standing menacingly by. Of course, my husband blurted out why they’d placed someone so traumatized on front desk duty anyway? I am also not certain if they expected my mother to continue her business with them, or if they even cared, but the cops did ask hubby and I to leave – as if my mother was just going to go back inside. At least the manager could have apologized to my mother. He could not.
“Like I said, we just got a call about a potential crime.”
What if my mother didn’t have outstanding credit, or relationships with other banks, and therefore didn’t have other options? Angie’s antics would have just ruined that. This was the most disrespectful part – their staunch, comprehensive reminder that there’s systemic power behind their individual prejudices. Their silences. My silence.
My silence: I had already policed myself. I dressed for success, sat calmly in a visible area, not made any noise and not touched anything save for the flyer next to me on the table. I used my best diction and inside voice when I made sure to smile and greet every staffer I could see. I showed them my teen as if to announce “I’m not a threat.” If all that hadn’t disarmed them, it occurred to me – yet again- that they could not be appeased.
No level of respectability would protect me in public – we were all a part of a system, and as far as they were all concerned, everyone was just doing their job. Imagine, not only could the cops not offer any apology, they couldn’t even stand down from their hostile posture and tone. I actually felt sorry for them – as big, armed and trained as they were, they acted threatened by us!
At the time I thought they’d refused to de-escalate the situation, perhaps pride? The cops had no kind words for my mother whom they’d found out was there on legitimate business. Naw, they escorted us outside and menacingly watched us drive away. Sometimes I feel that even screwball ‘Police Academy’movies from the 80’s showed more emotional intelligence than that.
Though hubby usually drives, momma insisted that she take the wheel under the cops’ eyes, worrying they’d then challenge the foreigner’s right to drive. Yet, now I’m convinced they couldn’t have de-escalated the situation. Cops’ weeks of training doesn’t routinely include conflict resolution. They don’t know no better. They just got a call, and so they could no longer be human.
Educate cops. Arm them with de-escalation tools so that the public sees their power. Arm cops with non-violence so that they model this behavior for our society. Teach cops to be able to identify emotional distress as much as any professional would. Don’t let a weapon be their only peacemaker.