Why you should care

Because it only takes one well-placed bullet to ruin your whole day.

I had been arrested. Under circumstances so ridiculous that the judge even said, “You realize this is ridiculous, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” I snorted incredulously, until I realized that he meant my part in a charge that had been summed up as “False Information to a Police Officer” and “False Impersonation.” I Clarence Darrow’d my way through a defense that put those philosophy classes to use — “You have either impersonated someone or you haven’t. ‘Falsely’ impersonating them makes no sense.” The judge agreed and dropped the latter, while giving me six months of probation for telling a cop who was ticketing me $80 for driving a moped between two bollards in an unmarked but possibly “restricted” zone at Stanford that my name was Abraham Lincoln.

In lockup, my “slap on the wrist” was celebrated by the forgers, attempted murderers, drunks and shoplifters I was locked up with. In lockup, the mere presence of a Stanford kid with a Mohawk, though, rankled at least one of the cops, whose repeated attempts to hurt my feelings would have been, well, hurtful, if they had not been so risible: “Hey. Who cuts your hair?”

“I’m sorry,” I laughed. “Did you say something?” He glowered. I laughed. What wasn’t laughable, though? Hours before, when they brought me in and had me stripped naked in a security cell. I had heard that they were looking for me, so I dutifully went to see what all the hubbub was about. This was natural, as I hadn’t remembered. And I hadn’t remembered because, being a New York native, pre-Giuliani, my relationship with cops was pretty much a non-relationship.

Note the absence of guns. Or, rather, the presence of guns and the absence of the idea that they needed to be used. And me alive to tell the stories.

“We have to take you in,” a blonde cop said. Drugs, guns, brass knuckles? No, no, no. Having never been arrested before, I had assumed I’d get to keep my clothes once arrested. In the pocket of my pants I had a small pocketknife. I wasn’t hiding it. I had just forgotten it was there. Maybe. But when we got to the lockup, they put me in the security cell and said, “Strip.” I had done an article on the constitutionality of strip searches, but this seemed neither the time nor the place to argue. Off came the clothes and tossed in were green coveralls.

But searching through my clothes, the city cops found the knife and, smiling, mocking, turned to the campus cop. “Didn’t you say he was clean?” The now-shamed cop pulled out his nightstick, held it in front of him and started advancing on me. I was naked and I raised my fists. The other cops jumped between us. Something he seemed thankful for. Me? Neither afraid nor angry. I understood his shame and, what’s more, without them helping him, stick or not, he didn’t stand a chance. Credit the bodybuilding, boxing and wrestling.

That shit escalated fast, though, and walking across Stanford campus, coming back from studying at the library a few weeks later, an unmarked police car pulled up to the curb next to where I was walking. A cop in tactical coveralls jumped out, made his way across the front of his car. “Let me see some ID.”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“ID.”

“Do I need an ID to operate these shoes?”

“Hey, fucking wise guy…” and he stepped back, pulling out his nightstick. It was Big Game Night, and students from Stanford’s crosstown rivals at Cal showed up, as per tradition, to commit all manner of devilment. I was walking alone, books jammed under my arm, Mohawk now shaved off. Up to very little but homework and now, a good head of New York dudgeon at clear-cut bullshit. Bullshit that was now seeing him running at me with his stick raised high. I threw my books to the ground and started getting ready to move under his striking arm when another car screeched up.

This time? A marked police car. “HEY! What are you DOING?!” When the nightstick cop realized they were not talking to ME, he started to stutter through some sort of explanation. ”Well, um, ID checking and…”

“Leave him ALONE. That’s Eugene Robinson.” The wrong kind of fame in the right kind of place, since I’m guessing he knew my name out of a 6,000-person student body because of previous bullshit stops where I said very much the same thing. Thankful, but only a little.

Note the absence of guns. Or, rather, the presence of guns and the absence of the idea that they needed to be used. And me alive to tell the stories.

In the current environment, I’d have finished up on my back in a church. Instead, I lived. Through these and the cops in Oklahoma who stopped me for going two miles over the speed limit on the Oklahoma Panhandle while I was on a book tour. They approached the car with guns drawn. I rolled the window down.

“Can I see your driver’s license?” Their fingers were inside the trigger guard. Gun-safety folks always suggest riding your index finger along the outside of the trigger guard. Unless you’re going to shoot.

“Certainly.” And, no sooner did I sound out the last syllable of that word, I could see them relax. They holstered their guns. They had been expecting 50 Cent. They got Obama. And me? Neither afraid nor angry. They were not rude, so no need for anger. But they had been afraid. And I had no reason to be and therefore wasn’t. The sun had just set, and it was only the three of us alone on a stretch of lonely freeway.

The raw animal fear and agita that mark these exchanges is now a beast unto itself.

That was then. Now? Fear ratchets up fear and highly trained professionals who are poorly served by their unions, who fail to admit that there’s any problem at all, are both upending things and having their lives upended. “You guys are the problem,” one of the good guys, a longtime cop friend, says. “The news media. You’re creating this problem. And where are you when good things happen? How come you’re not writing about that?

Because the day that everything goes right is not at the heart of what constitutes news, or drama. And the media may be part of the problem, but the raw animal fear and agita that mark these exchanges is now a beast unto itself. Driving my then-9-year-old daughter to her gymnastics class, I get pulled over. Her mother had called to tell me something about what I needed to tell the coach and I put the phone on speaker. He had looked up to see the phone in my hand.

“Driver’s license, please.”

“It’s in the trunk.”

“Driver’s license, please.”

“It’s in the trunk.”

“Driver’s license, PLEASE!”

Thinking he wants me to get it, I say, “OK” and start to open the door to go to the trunk to get it. He thrusts his hips into the door, shutting it on me, and he puts his hand on his gun.

“STAY IN THE VEHICLE, PLEASE.”

“Don’t do this.” Not angry. But now, finally, afraid. To teach through teachable moments, you have to be alive first. And there are lots of things I want my 9-year-old daughter to see. Lots, at this point, I don’t.

So I sit back, saying as calmly as possible so that I am sure he’s listening, because he hasn’t been so far: “If you need to see the license, it is in the trunk of the car in my gym bag.”

He snaps to and says, “Actually,” now taking his hand off his gun, “I don’t really need to see it.” He checks me out, accepts my explanation and lets us go.

She has a father, still has fairly neutral or positive feelings about cops, the cop still has a job and I sit here wondering if I was just lucky or if this is the way the system is supposed to work.

OZYTrue Story

Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.