On Tuesday this week while I was teaching, I received a torrent of texts from a neighborhood text chain. The text chain is typically used for neighborhood safety, letting people know if your house was broken into, or if something suspicious is happening, or if you hear gunfire on your block. I find it useful even though I don’t know everyone on it, and I think having it is important. I have certain questions about who is on the chain and who is not, and what that might mean, but I will put that aside for a moment. The texts that were coming through detailed a robbery on Tuesday afternoon. Most of the folks on the chain seem to be highly aware of who is responsible for most theft in the neighborhood, so the question was asked: why can’t the police catch these guys? They’ve stolen thousands of dollars worth of items from my neighbors, including (insanely) someone’s entire security system.
As I was returning back to my house, texts were coming in about Hamtramck police apprehending what seemed to be two people from the house where the suspected robbers stayed. Beyond that, folks were talking about going to a community meeting with the police in our (Detroit) police district later that night to discuss all of the issues we had been facing. I was not going to attend for a number of reasons, but primarily because it was my intention to attend Write Down Detroit, Write A House’s reading series. I left for MoCAD and listened to Morgan Willis and Darcy Brandel deliver a lovely reading and Q&A .
My friend graciously gave me a ride home after the reading and as we pulled down my street, she decided she wanted one of the books I had put in my Little Free Library a week earlier. I exited the car to fetch it, and as I stepped into my yard a Detroit police cruiser flew down my short street, blocking her car in. They turned the lights on only after parking the car, perhaps to activate the dash cam. Three officers exited the car, one approaching me, another my friend in the car, and the third walked up to my elderly neighbor’s house, though he quickly returned to the vehicle. The officer that approached me was white. I calmly turned to him and said “what’s up?”. He asked me what I was doing. As far as I could tell I was standing in my front yard. I explained that I was getting a book out of my library to give to my friend. He asked about the library and I explained that it was mostly for the kids in the neighborhood. He replied that it was the nicest thing that he had heard all day. I let out a slight laugh, and he said “no, really”. I wasn’t laughing because I didn’t believe him, but because of the irony that the nicest thing he’d heard all day was the most unpleasant moment of mine. He apologized and said they were likely wasting our time, that they had stopped because my friend’s car was “blocking the street”. He took my name and birth date down because he said he had to, because the dash cam was on. He then returned to the vehicle.
I remained on my lawn, watching the interaction between the cop who had approached my friend in her car. My friend is white, and the cop is African American. I caught the end of their conversation, and heard him tell her that they were investigating narcotics activity in the neighborhood. He then said "you don't look like you're involved with that, but she does", meaning me. When he said it, I immediately responded “Me?!” The officer made no reply to me, and refused to acknowledge my engagement. He instead returned to the vehicle, ran her information, and a minute later, after I was told I could approach my friend’s car, the cop who had taken my information jumped out of the police car, threw my friend’s ID on her passenger’s seat and they took off.
I was furious when I got inside my house, but the reason may not be obvious. It wasn’t that I was offended that anyone might see me as suspect—I’m actually quite used to that, even as a light skinned black woman. It would be reasonable to question if this was profiling or merely insult, but I would argue that it serves the same function, regardless of what the intent behind it was. I know I have had it easier than many other people in my life, and have personally dealt with far worse situations with police than what happened this week, so being asked what I was doing in my own front yard was barely worth blinking over. What boiled my brain was that the black cop had felt totally comfortable in saying what he had said to my white friend, but when I called him out on it, he treated me like a I was a ghost.
I went off on the text chain, trying to figure out what was said at the police community meeting that might have provoked the situation. From there, I discovered that my neighbors had spoken to Special Ops, which was who had stopped us, and that in the meeting the police had been presented with a list of issues, amongst which were the racist attitudes that alienated people and held them back from calling the police in the first place. I also found that the police had at some point told a white male neighbor he should get a concealed carry license and always carry a gun in the neighborhood at night, and that they had told another neighbor, a white woman, that she should just move out of the neighborhood altogether. I pointed out the latter neighbor that regardless of the fact that a white person had gone to the community meeting and named racism as an issue between police and the community, it didn’t really matter because it always seems like an intangible problem. More pragmatically, the DPD faces all kinds of challenges in not having certain equipment and so on, so I also told her that no matter what had been said in the meeting, drug busts are far more lucrative than some of the other issues that had been brought to them. I only point that out now to say that I understand that from a police perspective, investigating narcotics activity might make more tactical sense than attempting to resolve what I think were people’s primary concerns. I don’t agree with it, but I get it, sort of.
I posted about the incident on Facebook with the intention of publicly noting the direct connection between my white neighbors’ trust of the police and what had happened. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t trust the police as a whole, because the bulk of my experiences with them have been negative. When I was a child, my father was once arrested by state police for having a broken tail light…arrested! As a counselor at a group home, I once had to walk a trained male police officer through a sexual assault procedure after he had entered the site yelling “somebody called about a rape!” and then deal with the fallout from his egregious misstep. My cousin had her arm dislocated for legally filming the police as they were arresting her neighbor. My friends have had their heads cracked open by police at peaceful protests. Unarmed people are dying at the hands of police so frequently I’ve lost track of all the names. And still, I felt the need to publicly point to this minor insult to me in order to make the way I feel on an everyday basis appear more rational to people in my neighborhood and elsewhere who might not fully understand that their trust in the police can have unintended negative consequences for the people around them.
The replies were mostly ones of disgust, with some friends basically saying “don’t they know who you are?” To them, that means someone with stature, someone who doesn’t deserve to be treated like a criminal. That upset me, because it is far from the real issue. It shouldn’t matter who I am or what I’ve accomplished, because no one deserves that kind of disrespect from the police, who have both institutional power and deadly weapons at their disposal. There was empathy, sympathy, anger, and calls to write every official in the city. I didn’t lodge a formal complaint because it felt futile for something that, in the bigger picture, felt so small.
Here’s where things get really weird. Thursday morning I received a call from someone who works in Mayor Duggan’s office, she explained that Toby Barlow had told her about what had happened, and she wanted to formally extend an apology from the Mayor’s office. She said she would speak directly to the police captain in my district, who she said would also reach out to me directly. She told me she knew how I felt about the police. I am not sure how she knew, but she said she didn’t want me to get the idea that that is how Detroit police behaved. While I appreciate the gesture, both on the part of my well meaning friend and the Mayor’s office, it all felt so strange.
I worked for Skip Gates at Harvard for a summer when I was in college, and watching the entire beer summit ordeal unfold was surreal. President Obama was heavily criticized for getting involved, and after it was over, Gates did not assemble his powerful network to address racial profiling as he had claimed he would.
One of the most important things I learned from my first long-term relationship is that apologies lose their meaning if they are not accompanied by serious behavioral change. Saying sorry for wrongdoing cannot replace learning to stop oneself from doing the same hurtful things repeatedly. Moreover, it made me wonder if the mayor’s office had reached out to the family of Terrence Killom and expressed the same concern. Even if they have, no apology is going to bring that young man back to life. I know there are plenty of public officials and law enforcement who feel remorse over his death, but I’m certain that family are not the only Detroiters who deserve apologies for the ways police have treated them. It is also worth noting that it was an ICE agent serving a warrant alongside the DPD who killed Killom. Living in a neighborhood where many of my neighbors are recent immigrants, it concerns me that my non-immigrant neighbors might not make the connection that their reliance upon local police could raise a host of other issues for those around them.
The first report I heard about Killom was on talk radio in a car on the night of his death. It was swept under the rug—that he was a fugitive, that police claimed he was armed, the idea was that the media made it seem justified. It was also treated as if it was an addendum to the previous report on Baltimore. Detroit is similar to Baltimore in a number of ways, with a number of African Americans and other people of color in both the police force and in public office, but with the same institutional issues that exist across the country. There were plenty of people in Detroit who watched what transpired in Baltimore wondering if Detroit would be next. There are a few things that could course correct the potential for unrest, including an end to tax foreclosures, water shutoffs, and police brutality, as well as sustainable fixes to the unemployment rate, overcrowded schools and public transportation system but those things all seem unlikely in the immediate.
One of the major issues with police killings, beyond the fact that they happen far too frequently, and overwhelmingly to black people in this country, is the precedent that has been set by the absence of indictments and convictions. If this is the legal system we’re sticking with as a nation, the message this precedent sends to law enforcement is that they don’t have to think twice about using lethal force in any instance, because there’s a high likelihood they won’t see a day in court, let alone a day in prison. If that’s the case, that police can say or do whatever they so please without fear of repercussion, then we are better off looking to our own communities for solutions, safety and protection.
Today marks the five year anniversary of the death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and the officer who killed her is currently back on duty. We don’t need apologies, we need real justice and peace. A cop murdered a seven year old child in Detroit and still has his job. That’s how the police behave, that’s how the courts behave, that is reality. We need to do better for our children, our communities and ourselves and think more critically about the institutions with which we chose to engage. I don’t want to be questioned for standing in my own yard, or be insulted and then ignored. I don’t want my neighbors being robbed. I also don’t want anyone to rely on robbery or the suffering of others as a means of survival. In order for all of those things to be possible, it would take a drastic shift in public policy and social behavior.
I’m up for that challenge, are you?
Casey Rocheteau, Inaugural Write A House Recipient