Babysitting While White

February 20, 2012

Babysitting While White
I’m a little late to posting this story — the story of a white grandpa who was detained for talking a walk with his black granddaughter. Hasn’t anybody noticed that white people and black people sometimes marry? It’s not like a dog walking a giraffe down the street to see a white grandpa and a black granddaughter — or any number of mixed race combos. Grits For Breakfast posts:

As soon as we crossed the street, just two blocks from my house as the crow flies, the police car that just passed us hit its lights and wheeled around, with five others appearing almost immediately, all with lights flashing. The officers got out with tasers drawn demanding I raise my hands and step away from the child. I complied, and they roughly cuffed me, jerking my arms up behind me needlessly. Meanwhile, Ty edged up the hill away from the officers, crying. One of them called out in a comforting tone that they weren’t there to hurt her, but another officer blew up any good will that might have garnered by brusquely snatching her up and scuttling her off to the back seat of one of the police cars. (By this time more cars had joined them; they maxxed out at 9 or 10 police vehicles.)

I gave them the phone numbers they needed to confirm who Ty was and that she was supposed to be with me (and not in the back of their police car), but for quite a while nobody seemed too interested in verifying my “story.” One officer wanted to lecture me endlessly about how they were just doing their job, as if the innocent person handcuffed on the side of the road cares about such excuses. I asked why he hadn’t made any calls yet, and he interrupted his lecture to say “we’ve only been here two minutes, give us time” (actually it’d been longer than that). “Maybe so,” I replied, sitting on the concrete in handcuffs, “but there are nine of y’all milling about doing nothing by my count so between you you’ve had 18 minutes for somebody to get on the damn phone by now so y’all can figure out you screwed up.” Admittedly, this did not go over well. I could tell I was too pissed off to say anything constructive and silently vowed to keep mum from then on.

As all this was happening, the deputy constable who’d questioned us before walked up to the scene and began conversing with some of the officers. She kept looking over at me nervously as I stood 20 feet or so away in handcuffs, averting her gaze whenever our eyes risked meeting. It seemed pretty clear she was the one who called in the cavalry, and it was equally clear she understood she was in the wrong.

A supervisor arrived and began floating around among the milling officers (I have no idea what function most of those cops thought they were fulfilling). Finally, she sidled up to repeat the same lecture I’d heard from the young pup officer who’d handcuffed me: “When we get a call about a possible kidnapping we have to take it very seriously,” etc., etc.. By this time, though, I’d lost patience with that schtick. Interrupting her repetitive monologue, I explained that I could care less how they justified what they were doing, and could they please stop explaining themselves, focus on their jobs, and get this over with as soon as possible so Ty and I could go home? She paused as though she wanted to argue, then her shoulders slumped a bit, she half-smiled and replied “Fair enough!,” wheeling around and issuing inaudible directions to some of the milling officers, all of whom appeared to continue doing nothing, just as before. Not long after that they released us.

Ty told me later that back in the police car she’d been questioned, not just about me but about her personal life, or as she put it, “all my business”: They asked about her school, what she’d been doing that evening, to name all the people in her family, and pressed her to say if I or anyone else had done anything to her. Ty was frustrated, she said later, that they kept repeating the same questions, apparently hoping for different answers. She didn’t understand why, after she’d told them who I was, the police didn’t just let me go. And when it became clear they wouldn’t take her word for it, she began to fear the police would take me away and leave her alone with all those scary cops. (I must admit, for a moment there I felt the same way!) On the upside, said Ty, when they were through questioning her one of the officers let her play with his flashlight, which she considered a high point. Don’t you miss life being that simple?

Part of the answer, of course, to Ty’s Very Good Question about why I wasn’t released when she confirmed my identity is that I was in handcuffs and she was in police custody before anybody asked anyone anything. “Seize first and ask questions later” is better than “shoot first,” I suppose, but it’s problematic for the same reasons. I found out later police had told my wife and Ty’s mom that I’d refused to let them question the child – a patent lie since they’d whisked her away into the back of a police car while I was handcuffed. I wasn’t in a position to refuse anything at that point.

How hard would it have been to perform a safety check without running up on me like I’m John Dillinger and scaring the crap out of a five year old? I didn’t resist or struggle, but they felt obliged to handcuff me and snatch the kid up for interrogation away from any adult family member. Nine police cars plus the deputy constable all showing up to investigate the heinous crime of “babysitting while white.”

I understand that the police are supposed to investigate when accusations are made, but what’s with the entire lack of reason and sensitivity? Why is this so often the case these days? I know there are good and reasonable police officers — a couple of them are my friends. But, I read about more and more abuse of power and other police state tactics and it’s worrisome.

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