I was held up on Friday night after the Folk Festival just a couple of doors from my house. You can tell I was held up because in a picture of the scene, I'm in the center foreground with my hands held hat-high.
Except I'm not wearing a hat. I'm wearing glasses, a flannel coat, a white t-shirt, khaki pants, and my house shoes. Standing to my right is my eleven year-old Lab, and on my left is my forty-five year-old partner. He's wearing a knit sweater, orange shirt, jeans, and Birkenstocks.
And I'm in the center with my hands held high like some bank teller in a cops and robbers movie.
In the obverse of this picture, two guys with guns face me. The police officer on the right has blond hair, a handsomely chiseled face, and he looks too young for a razor. The officer to my left is dark-haired and rounder, and is maybe a year or two older.
This is how it happens.
My partner, our dog, and I are enjoying the October night in front of our house, admiring the jack-o-lantern light in the window and the trail of bats hanging from the porch roof. A squad car drives down our street, spots a light on us, and then speeds to the corner and turns quickly into the most dangerous intersection in our neighborhood.
I make a joke to my partner about him looking like a suspect.
As we continue talking about the porch that needs painting before winter sets in, a second squad car drives by, slows down like the first, and then again speeds to the corner and through the dangerous intersection. "Donuts must be ready," I joke.
My partner and I saunter along our block like the residents we are, admiring our neighbors' decorations while our dog snifs the dry grass a few paces ahead of us. That's when both squad cars pull up directly across from us, turn a spot on, and the dark-haired officer barks, "Jason?"
"Is your name Jason?"
"No," I say.
"Are you sure?"
By this time both officers are out of their cars. The blond officer, his hand on his weapon, orders, "Get your hand out of your pocket!"
So I raise my hands and keep them high. Neighbors begin to gather on their porches, looking at the criminal accosted by the police. No doubt some of them are thinking, "Look who they got! Wonder what he did."
The lead cop tells me I fit the description of a suspicious person wearing a white t-shirt and khaki pants. He asks my name, address, date of birth, and social security number. After I satisfy them that this is my dog, this is my partner, this is my house and we're just strolling our block looking at the decorations, they tell me I can put my hands down. They punch me into their computer and let me go.
We walk back to our house, go inside, and lock the door. Out the window, we see the squad cars pull to the corner and speed off.
I write this not to complain or to accuse, and there is nothing particularly newsworthy about my story. It's just something that happened to me and sparked reflection.
I live in what has become known as a "good" neighborhood just south of Carytown. You've driven down our street of two-story frame houses and one-story bungalows on your way to Kroger. Even if you haven't taken note of us, chances are good that you've seen my partner, our dog, and I doing just what we were doing Friday night, admiring ourselves and our neighbors, enjoying the weather and the city.
In 1996, when we came here, the neighborhood was mostly working middle class families whose children had left for suburban neighborhoods and whose parents had begun to leave for the eternal Neighborhood. In our eleven years on the block, we've never been stopped by the police. Not back in the day when we could hear gun shots every week. Or when a couple of toughs mugged our neighbor as he was unloading dog food from his car. Or when some people were selling crack out of the house down the block to walk-up customers.
Back then, when the neighborhood was "in transition" as they say, the police didn't find me to be especially suspicious. But apparently now I am. A suspicious looking guy with a white t-shirt and khaki pants.
I confess that the whole incident, but especially the "Take your hand out of your pocket," scared the heart out of me. Isn't that what someone shouted before they murdered Malcolm X? I trembled visibly before the officers.
I remember that after they told me I could go and they were sorry for bothering me, I said, "Thanks for keeping an eye on the neighborhood." I guess what I was thanking them for was keeping an eye on me. Cause you never know.
And for a while there, they seemed intent on proving I was the suspicious Jason. Who knows, maybe in this Guantanamo century it could indeed be shown to be the case. Or maybe they don't have to prove it. Vague suspicion seemed to be enough.
But upon further reflection, I connect this incident with another recent unsavory event in my life. The week before, in Kroger, I cornered an employee and drew on my authority as customer in a dispute over how an item rang up. I knew I had the law and store policy on my side, so I demanded the employee's particulars and I wrote them down.
And now I wonder if the behavior of the police, which I found truly terrorizing, is connected in some way to my behavior toward a person I could assume authority over. It is a shameful possibility for me to consider.
What a neighborhood I live in, what a city, what a country.
What a person I've become.
Patrick Tompkins lives in the Carytown South neighborhood.