While living in Boulder, Colo., in the early 1970s, I made friends with a family that had recently moved there. Glen had been chief of police in a suburb of Cleveland and moved his family to Colorado for a better climate. He took a job as a policeman in Boulder and enjoyed the work until his chief required all officers to wear a helmet whenever not in their patrol car. Glen said that emerging from the car wearing his helmet seemed to immediately strike fear in the people he encountered. The helmet probably signaled that the officer expected trouble. Glen quit the Boulder police force when he couldn’t persuade the chief to allow him the discretion to wear a helmet or not. He never went back to law enforcement as a career.
Boulder was then a town without many crowd-control issues. When there were demonstrations, they were confined to the University of Colorado campus. The largest were in response to our country’s secret bombing of Cambodia and right after the Kent State University shootings, when National Guard troops shot and killed unarmed students who happened to be passing by an anti-war demonstration.
Flash forward: I was working as a mid-level administrator at Clark College in Vancouver. Occasionally, interns from counseling graduate programs were assigned to our staff. One of these interns was a smart, good-looking football player and student body president from Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Raised in Pasadena, he was a well-spoken, middle-class guy. He was also black.
One day he told me about a project he was working on. Clark’s administrative council had to review his idea. The council was about a dozen top administrators, all white men over 50. “When I come into the room they all freeze,” he said.
“Sure they do,” I responded. “They’re afraid of you.” That may be the heart of the troubles in Ferguson, now spreading to other cities.
As National Public Radio news people put it, we’re having a “national conversation” about police and race relations. I add the word “again.” We have a systemic problem. The pattern is too similar in cities all over America, even in Portland: A white police officer kills an unarmed black man and grand juries don’t indict the officer for murder, manslaughter or even negligence. One legal commentator on NPR has pointed out that it’s very difficult to indict (much less convict) a police officer because it’s difficult to prove intent to commit a crime. In other words, these are accidents.
Looking at the situation from another perspective, police officers in regular uniforms have become rare in urban crowd-control situations. Being totally armored police in riot gear, wearing face masks, carrying clubs and shields, turns police into anonymous automatons from demonstrators’ (or rioters’) perspectives. Humanity on both sides has been muted, if not obliterated.
We all know the meaning of eye contact, how it connects us and explains us. An inability or unwillingness to look each other in the eye is, for most of us, an automatic signal that something isn’t right between us.
If people on the street reacted to Glen wearing a helmet, think of the fear instilled in people, black or white, facing police in riot gear or confronted with military-style equipment. Dealing with one’s feelings in those situations requires training. Proponents of non-violence train demonstrators to develop high levels of interpersonal trust to help them feel safe in spite of their fear. Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown were both huge men, yet officer Wilson was afraid of Brown and acted, not from his training but from emotion. Being heavily armed doesn’t necessarily disarm fear.
This is a legacy we’re all living with: Stereotypes. If a bunch of educated white men are afraid when a single black man enters the room — even a single black man in a business suit — we’ve got an ingrained problem. Add the income disparity that now fuels de facto segregation and we have fewer and fewer opportunities to break down these prejudices through contact and familiarity with the “other,” whether white or black.
Living in small towns in rural areas doesn’t give us many opportunities to have relaxed encounters with people who are culturally and racially different. We’re lucky that our police are also our neighbors, and I applaud Chief Flint Wright’s attitudes about not bringing more military equipment into the local policing environment. That would distance our police from the population in a way that would breed more fear than trust, and fear isn’t helping us.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who has lived in “inner city” as well as coastal rural areas. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.