When the officer approached my son and me, all I could think about was the gun on his hip and what might happen if I said the wrong thing.
I had just gotten off the bus and was securing my six month old son in his stroller when the cop called out to me.
I looked over to see a short, uniformed white man quickly approaching me. My stomach dropped. My mind began racing as I tried to come up with something I could have done wrong enough to deserve to be stopped by police. My eyes went to the gun on his hip before scaling back up to his stern, smile-less face, totally lacking any humanity. His expression was blank and communicated nothing about how I should react.
He held out a slip of paper.
“Want a Slurpee?”
I blinked at him then looked down at the paper. Then back at his face. “Um. No. I’m okay…”
He nodded towards my kid. “Maybe he wants it. Pretty hot out here.”
I didn’t bother explaining that my son was far too young to drink a Slurpee and that I wasn’t devoid of common sense enough to give an infant a drink that’s mostly food coloring and sugar. I wanted to get away from him as soon as possible so I took the coupon and mumbled thanks.
I waited a beat to see if there was anything else. It appeared there was not so I continued on my way.
This event occurred over a year ago but I still remember it vividly. I remember that sinking, gut wrenching feeling of fear.
There are details to consider. I was in an area that I was familiar with but didn’t frequent: the bus transit center across from the local mall. It’s not a dangerous area — there is the occasional rough-housing from teens or display of public drunkenness but I’m from DC and these things don’t bother me or, in my opinion, warrant a police presence. It’s an area where poor and working class people, mostly black and brown, pass through. That’s it.
There’s always an imbalance of power whenever any civilian is approached by a police officer. Another factor to consider is that I’m a Black person being approached by a white authority figure. This raises the stakes. We can push that further by acknowledging that I’m a woman being approached by a man in a position of authority. That raises the stakes again, further adding to the imbalance of power. Factor in the infant and the environment and the fact that I went to a Quaker school for 13 years and am vehemently against the use of guns and maybe you can understand why I was as afraid as I was. Then again, maybe you can’t.
What I wondered and later asked a couple friends when I relayed the story was, did this cop know what he was doing? Was it an intentional attempt to intimidate me? Did he maybe just think the kid was cute and might want a Slurpee on a hot summer day? How deep or shallow was his self-awareness? As a Black woman who often travels on public transportation with a young child, I am highly self-aware. I’d be dead by now if I wasn’t. I cannot afford the privilege of not assessing every inch of how I may be perceived by strangers, even if I do not internalize the assessment. I have no idea how it is to float through life without understanding how other people see me.
Both friends said that he was probably not trying to intimidate me. “Maybe he thought you were cute and just wanted to say something to you.” This had not occurred to me, I suppose because he was a cop. But aside from being a cop, he was also just a man, and men approach women all the time without considering that they may be intimidating them.
I remained calm in this situation. In my bones, I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. Later that summer, I saw five cops detaining two very drunk people outside of the Trader Joe’s that used to be across from the transit center: a white woman and a black man, both loudly yelling that they were innocent, the man demanding that the cops let go of his wife. I wondered what would have happened if I had had a drink or two and been approached by a cop. Or if I had stolen a soda from a corner store. Or if I had anxiety. Or if I was autistic. Or mute. Or anything. Had those drunk people done anything wrong, I mean really wrong, not just illegal or mildly offensive? Or did the cops escalate the situation by approaching them with the potential of violence: five guns, strapped to their hips?
My unpleasant reaction to cops comes primarily from the fact that they walk around with guns. I am and have always been amazed that this is something the public seems to accept without question. Guns sole purpose is to perform a violent act. I don’t see how they fit into a civilized society. What reason is there for guns at a public bus stop or a mall or a liquor store? What purpose do they serve aside from intimidating people and escalating otherwise minor situations? If we saw a civilian walking into a department store or an office with gun on her hip, most of us would think that was insane and unnecessary. But cops are just people. What makes them any different?