In August I was profiled by my local police.
Now given that I am so WASP I buzz, a person without even a traffic ticket, the circumstances of that event bear some explanation. It also shines a harsh spotlight on our obsession with profiling. It was confirmation to me about what people unlike me have come to experience as a routine part of their life in America.
Since 9/11 the progress we had made after the 60s against racial, ethnic, and other forms of profiling died along with the victims of the Twin Towers. Almost immediately our cherished notions concerning the presumption of innocence – under siege at various moments in our history but we thought reclaimed – were once again at risk. We put security way ahead of good sense and the Constitution. And we bear the burden of that fear and distrust today.
Rather than focusing on specific individuals whose actions were illegal, the nation’s many police entities from local to federal, were schooled in post-9/11 “threat assessment” of entire groups. Obviously Muslims were prime targets. Then came immigrants coupled with lies about how they helped usher in Al Qaeda operatives and drug cartel members across the border, to Black communities who were supposedly all thugs and murderers. The militarization of the police, seen so profoundly in Ferguson, MO, added to the police response of “guilty until proven innocent and that’s not bloody likely if we don’t care.”
The criminalization of groups, guilt by association, risks corralling the innocent and missing the truly guilty. It means spending tax resources surveilling people going about their daily lives without a shred of justification for that use of police resources. It means that we already are indulging in Trumpish notions that you punish the truly guilty and their families because, in a world of perceived universal threat you can’t be too careful.
We can observe that while data show that it is white people who commit the most and worst crimes, who populate the largest segment of domestic terrorist danger, the surveillance is nowhere nearly the same in time, effort, and presumption of guilt. White people get a pass on being part of risk assessment even when the evidence piles up that they are dangerous.
That is, until they ‘sin’ by being in the ‘wrong company’. And that’s where my story lies.
I have made many friends of homeless people in my neighborhood. I’ve helped them get into housing and other resources, and I am very fond of them all.
In August one of the men, Mexican American, lost his mother very abruptly. He and his decades-long friend, another homeless man, were devastated. The mother, whom I did not know, was the iconic immigrant – a woman fiercely devoted to making her children into good citizens, to assuring they have lives of hard work and success as human beings. She had two boys, two girls, and while her eldest child, the man I know, is out of work at the moment, he’s a good man without a criminal record. The same is true for his siblings all of whom have achieved working class success including two who own their own homes.
That’s a story to be proud of. That’s a woman who achieved the American Dream. She embraced her extended family and community. She always had pots of rice and beans ready for anyone who came her way. She fed, scolded, nurtured, admonished, and supported anyone who needed her. That said, she also had a large number of nieces and nephews who came under her laser-like scrutiny but with less success. One cannot save everyone, not even this Tiger Mother from Mexico.
Because I knew her older son and his long-time friend, I went to her funeral. I wanted to be supportive to them in their sorrow at losing this amazing woman who’d shaped so much of their lives. The son was with his family, but I drove his friend down and went in with him.
The funeral was simple, in the chapel of the cemetery where her ashes were to be buried, but it was lovely. There was an excellent singer, the priest was uplifting, and the testimonials to this woman were tearful and heartfelt. There was real grief among those who’d known this woman, but a celebration of her life as well.
Just before the service started, three men came in, dressed in their best – clean, pressed shirts over clean jeans. No one said much, but there was a palpable ripple among the attendees. My friend whispered to me that those were cousins, men whose lives were, shall we say, checkered. Later I learned they had ties to the Mexican Mafia drug gangs. But this day they were just men in sorrow, attending to the Rite of Christian Burial and crying for this woman they, too, had lost.
Because I knew only the two homeless men and had hugged and spoken with them both, I did not stay for the reception though the one I’d driven down chose to remain. Thus I was the first and only person out of the chapel parking lot through the main exit. And I quickly became aware that I was being followed – so closely I often could not see the grill – by a city police car. I took surface streets back to my home, followed for over five miles by this police car. I am registered, have my sticker, obeyed every traffic law (oh, boy did I!) even slowing in school zones when school wasn’t yet in session. The officer peeled off finally, taking the freeway onramp back toward the cemetery.
I wasn’t freaked initially – thought it sort of funny - until I began to think about what it really meant. Later I told my friend what had happened after I’d left him. He had once worked for a florist delivering flowers to cemeteries, and he said one time the police had raided a funeral just as he arrived, arresting several people with outstanding warrants.
Now that’s tacky as all get out, but it’s at least understandable since there were warrants. It’s also understandable when a major mob or gang figure dies that surveillance of attendees might be appropriate. That’s a crime boss, a leader, a thug.
But this was the funeral of a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She had a faultless life. No one was arrested at or after the funeral meaning there were no warrants, no reasonable justification for surveillance. Even the three men with dubious histories are currently not wanted by authorities.
But the family was Mexican American, they had family members with dubious pasts, and that alone was enough. The entire family, friends, and I were criminalized by simply being together. We presented no crime, no risk, no threat to anyone. But we were just there. Together.
The issue of “risk assessment” is clear. By once again ramping up the 1920s “Palmer Raids” notions of threat from a group rather than actual acts, of Jim Crow-style racial profiling, of presumption of guilt simply for being who you are as Japanese Americans know from the internments, we have once again abandoned crucial foundations of democracy: innocent until proven guilty and ‘out of many, one’.
I have known and opposed the reversion to atavistic profiling intellectually. Now I know it as fact. Nothing will happen to me since I am shielded by massive white privilege and professional status. But it infuriates me that a good family, one like all of ours, one that just has ragged boundaries about its family members, is a target of the police. What this message tells us, if we let it, is that to prove you are a good American, you have to re-segregate your life, keep ‘suspicious’ people away from you, give up family and friends you love so the police won’t profile you.
The ideology of Donald Trump does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in walled and gated communities, in profiling, in fear. It exists because too many public authorities encourage that fear of ‘the other’. No one thinks about the power of inclusion as a way to ameliorate crime and extremism. No – we have to circle our own wagons and keep ‘the other’ at bay. Failure to do that, even for white middle class people, puts us under the spotlight.
I know that when I make this public locally, and I will, police will tell me it’s my own ‘fault’ for expressing my compassion to the ‘wrong’ people.
No it’s not. It’s the fault of a society that has relinquished its core values in the name of expedience and in the service of racial superiority. That is the death of democracy, of our humanity if we let it continue.
I for one won’t let it happen. Not in my life. Not for my friends and their families. I will not become like a 1930s ‘good German’. Not in my America, not now, not ever.