But, come to think of it, I have something in common with the esteemed professor Henry Louis Gates: Nineteen years ago, I was held at gunpoint by three policemen right outside my own studio door. And I’m unmistakably white!
The incident started innocently enough, and rather the same way that things unfolded in Cambridge, Massachusetts: There had been a series of break-ins in the neighborhood.
I was living in Augusta, Georgia, at the time. My wife’s and my apartment was too small for sufficient studio space, so I rented a large room from an attorney who worked downtown. It was a great space in a big Victorian house. It even had an adjacent bathroom, so I could wash my pens and brushes in peace. At $250-a-month, you couldn’t beat the price!
All the houses on the block had been turned into assorted firms and agencies — lawyers, mortgage brokers, government offices. The house next to my landlord’s practice served as a parole office. However, some of the private firms were a bit lax about security, and during that hot summer of 1990, a string of burglaries occurred in the neighborhood.
Early during the crime spree, a man entered the law office where I rented my studio, a little after 8:30 in the morning. He grabbed the purse and snatched the necklace from the secretary who came in before the attorney, his legal assistant or I did. After that, the attorney wired the house with an alarm system, but he rarely set it properly. Late one night, some burglar broke a first floor window and crawled inside the house. However, some noise outside the building apparently scared him, so he crawled back out and ran off without stealing anything.
The next morning, the attorney reported the attempted break-in, but only fit a board, unsecured, where the window pane used to be. He planned to repair the window later. At 6:15 p.m. that same afternoon, I got up from my drafting table to get a sip of water from the fountain in the hallway right outside my studio door. Afterward, I looked out the window next to the fountain and saw some cops looking up at me from the parking lot. I didn’t think anything of this because, as I mentioned, the law firm was right next to a parole office. Cops often chatted, or cooped in their squad cars, in the lot.
So I returned to my drafting table. Nearly 20 years younger than I am now, I wasn’t yet dependent on bifocals, and rarely wore my glasses while drawing. I wasn’t wearing them when, ten minutes later, I heard what sounded like someone fiddling with venetian blinds downstairs in the attorney’s office. Or maybe it was just the breeze coming through the unsecured window? The noise passed, and I resumed my work.
A few minutes later, I heard some more rustling of the blinds, followed by some shuffling and heavy thuds. Startled by these noises, I got up from my table and stepped into the hallway to see what was going on. My door was only a few feet from the stairway that led down to the parlor and the front entrance to the house.
Suddenly I heard a man shout, “FREEZE!” I glanced down and saw three cops at the bottom of the stairs. However, not wearing my glasses, I wasn’t sure whom the cops were shouting at. Fearing there was a burglary in process, I started to duck back into my studio.
“I said, FREEZE.” came the voice again. “DON’T MOVE OR WE’LL FIRE!”
Eyeglasses were no longer required. At that instant, I realized the cops were shouting at me! And that their guns were drawn! I froze in my tracks — and although the cops were at the bottom of the stairs, it felt as though the barrels of their firearms were firmly planted in my sternum.
“But…But, I work here!” I blurted, “stupidly” thinking that my rental situation would explain everything.
“SHUT UP!” another officer replied. “Put your hands up, or we’ll SHOOT!”
My hands shot up faster than he could finish his sentence. In my right hand I was clutching a Faber-Castell #2B pencil, its point in need of sharpening.
“I’ve got a pe-pencil in my hand. Should I drop it?”
“QUIT YAMMERING! Keep the hands up, and slowly march down the steps. Don’t turn, bend over, or do anything but step.”
…I should point out here that I was, and still am, the skinniest person most people have ever seen. At least for someone who isn’t either a hostage or terminally ill. And I was “armed” with nothing but a blunt pencil. Were I a violent and deranged criminal, I suppose I could have suddenly run down the steps and tried to gouge one of the officer’s eyes with the pencil, being brought down in a hail of gunfire. Instead, I ceased talking and robotically descended the stairway.
Once at the bottom, one of the officers grabbed the dangerous pencil away from me, pulled my right arm around my back and forced me, face-down, to the floor.
“You said you work here, huh?” another office asked? “Where are the keys? NO, don’t try to reach for them. Just tell me which pocket?” I told them, right-front, and that the key was used to unlock the door from both inside and out. The officer fished the key case out of my pocket, they stood me on my feet — and, with my right arm still yanked behind me, directed me to the door and said, “Okay — open it!”
I might also point out, here, that one of the three officers was black. They marched me to the front door, which I opened for them. At that point, two more officers came running up the walkway, guns drawn, and surrounded me.
“Ah, forget it — false alarm. Guy works here.” One officer turned to me and said, “Tell your boss to fix the window.” With that, they turned, laughing amongst themselves, got into their squad cars and drove off. No one offered an apology. Not even a friendly goodbye. I’d been a waste of time and tax-payers’ dollars.
I look back on it now like an episode of “Reno 911,” only none of the officers was wearing micro-shorts. Nevertheless, I was mightily shaken, and the next day informed the attorney that I would be leaving the studio at the end of the month. I suggested he waive any requirements of the lease agreement and that my security deposit not be forfeited. He immediately agreed.
Still, all these years later, I can’t help but wonder: Had I been Aaron McGruder, the great African-American cartoonist and creator of “The Boondocks,” would I have been shot when I tried to duck back into my studio?
So, my sympathies with Professor Gates only go so far. I appreciate his outrage and think that police “protocol,” though correctly followed, can border on the Mickey-Mouse. When the suspected perpetrator is a man who appears older than his 58 years and is hobbling on a cane, fumbling with the lock, chances are he indeed lives in the house. And a clueless, skinny guy clutching a pencil is probably being truthful when he says he works in the building. Still, the police know not to trust too much. And the heat they pack, which I could clearly feel even from 20 feet away, should be enough to shut anyone up — even an esteemed Harvard professor who is a pal of Barack Obama’s. There’s always plenty of time, after the police have left the scene, to vent one’s outrage, demand resignations, bring lawsuits or what have you.
As for Barack Obama, the Gates episode just adds to his current, and growing, stack of woes. Obviously, holding a “conversation” about race, especially when our historic, first black president is doing the talking, is a dangerous minefield. As always, President Obama speaks in measured tones on the subject. Yet even the unfortunate insertion of a common adverb, “stupidly,” could trip him up. And it sure got in the way of the serious health care debate, which has been tripping up presidents for seventy years.
Someday, when President Obama is again navigating the tricky subject of race in a press conference, I’d like to hear him remind Americans that he is half white. But that no one thinks of him as America’s first “mixed-race” president. That “black” is always the default mode for mixed-race in this country. That before he became Barack Obama the Phenomenon, he was, in the eyes of many white Americans, just another black stranger who might be walking up behind them on a street in Chicago. And that someone like his beloved grandmother might have felt uneasy, or downright fearful, in the presence of such a man. Despite immense progress, we’re still a considerable distance from the “Promised Land.”
…By the way: After the beer fest at the White House on Thursday, is Officer Crowley going to demand that Obama and Gates take a breathalizer test?
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