“These aren’t marijuana plants,” the policeman said to his partner. He bent down to inspect a second tray of tomato seedlings I was growing outside and frowned. “These aren’t marijuana plants either.” He slowly shook his head with disappointment.
They searched the outside of our home on Cayuga Lake, gave us a warning, and left, but a warning about what? Growing garden seedlings? They hadn’t found anything. I was grateful they didn’t have a search warrant. It was 1968. We were targeted because of my husband’s beard and long hair and my no-bra hippie style. Maybe they knew about our anti-war activities. The police were on “the other side.”
Vic and I were draft and war resistors. In 1967 in a nonviolent Quaker protest, ten of us carried boxes of bandages addressed to South and North Vietnam across the Peace Bridge to Canada. We were held, harassed, and threatened for a day before we were freed. We were scared and outraged. I wrote about that day in Make Love, not War.
At antiwar rallies in the sixties, police were armed and aggressive. I developed a barely conscious negative attitude toward police, “the other,” a shadow in the language of Carl Jung. My projection was on “cops,” no matter what the color of their skin.
After the Dallas shootings last week, my heart ached. Those policemen had lives and families. They were protecting a Black Lives Matter rally. Those people deserved a peaceful march. A young disturbed black man had been trained to use weapons by the US military and had easy access to a stockpile of destruction. He did the unthinkable. A situation that demanded calm became a national nightmare.
While I worried about escalation, I inspected my personal attitude toward police.
In 2007, a policeman stopped Vic for speeding in a construction zone. The officer growled. I was afraid. “The other” invaded our already threatened lives. When asked, Vic said we were going to the hospital to get cancer test results. The officer softened and became helpful. Did that experience change my view of police? Not really.
In November 2012, I was booked for a reading at the American Cancer Society in Rochester. Following Google directions, I drove to a neighborhood with no lights and boarded up windows. It was 6:00 pm and dark.
I parked my car and approached a dark-skinned man standing nearby. He pulled into his large parka like a turtle. “Do you know where the American Cancer Society is?” I asked.
“No, but you shouldn’t be hanging around here,” he said. I was a gray-haired Caucasian woman by herself in, what I later learned, was the shadiest drug- and violence-infested neighborhood in Rochester. I was alert, but not afraid.
I asked another man. “Down that way,” he said motioning toward nowhere, “but do you have five dollars?” I held my purse a little closer to my side.
I saw two elderly black women dragging heavy bags toward the door of an unlit church. “Do you know where the American Cancer Society is?” I asked.
“It’s not around here. You need some help?” they asked, looking me over carefully. “This place is unsafe. See that car in back of the parking lot? He’ll help you.” The car in the back of the parking lot? It was too dark to see clearly. Did I want to approach it? Was it a set-up? I decided to trust these women.
When I got closer, I saw a young policeman in the dim interior light. He looked at me with questioning eyes and rolled down his window. I smiled, unsure.
“I’m lost,” I said.
“You sure are,” he said. “Where you going?” He looked up the American Cancer Society on his computer and saw that google had sent me to the wrong end of town. “Can you get there?” he said after giving me directions.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to try.”
“Follow me,” he said. He inched behind me as I walked to my car. Then he drove ahead of me for five miles to the doors of the American Cancer Society Lodge. That experience got my attention.
There are good hearts everywhere. Good and broken hearts.
The day after the Dallas shootings, I tried to extend kindness to everyone who might feel especially threatened. Nothing fancy, just eye contact and smiles. It’s easy to give good vibes to people of color in my town. Late in the afternoon, I saw a group of policemen on bikes accompanying a Black Lives Matter rally. An officer pulled his bike next to my car. He was unarmored and unarmed with only a light bicycle helmet. How courageous he and the other police were—and how courageous the marchers. Can’t we stop hurting each other?
I rolled down my window and said, “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
“You’re welcome,” the policeman said. He smiled and turned his bike to face me, “and thank you.” I’m sure his family worried about his assignment that day.
We’re a culture that loves to hate. Media rewards aggression and rudeness. We see the videos over and over again. A politician breaks every boundary of human kindness and civility. The media laps it up and spreads it everywhere. Some of us get angry. We’re sure we would never behave like that.
What’s my part in all this?
It’s time to drop the negativity I automatically project on police. My unconscious reaction adds to the problem of dividing the world into them and us. I’ve carried this shadow since I was a girl. I need to let it go. I want to reach out and across and under and over my shadow so I can hear the cries for mercy from both sides.
It’s time to grieve together.
Have you been forced to rethink your attitudes about violence and hatred? How has that changed you? For an article about our experience with a policeman who pulled Vic over when he was speeding, see The Caregiver and the Hero: Who’s in the Driver’s Seat? For an article about the 2013 “Rally for Climate Change” in Washington, DC, see Standing Up for Mother Earth.