In my previous column, I mentioned, somewhat in passing, the importance of being aware of one’s own biases. While the average human can never truly be bias-free, and keeping in mind that some biases are less unfounded than others, it’s nevertheless helpful to be honest with ourselves about whatever biases we have. For me, as a child, I always identified with authority figures. As a young movie buff, I rooted for the cops to catch Bonnie and Clyde, I thought Dean Wormer was being way too lenient with the drunken statutory rapists who were bringing down the GPA at Faber, I would have been the first one to blackball disrespectful loudmouth Al Czervic from Bushwood, and c’mon, has anyone considered the effect on market stability and job creation should the Empire and its orderly rule be replaced by a group of desert-dwelling theocratic nerf herders?
Needless to say, in any “cop vs. citizen” conflict, my bias has always compelled me to take the cop’s side. Plus, there’s a bias I learned from going to school with thousands of wacky-named black folks. Having had friends named Lushus, Yoonique, and Prinsesses, when I hear someone named Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds make claims about a traffic stop gone bad, my inclination is to immediately write her off as completely full of shit.
But sometimes life has a way of kicking your biases right in the drumstick ’n’ biscuits.
In 2003, I decided to move to El Segundo. Don’t let the name fool you—there’s nary a Mexican in sight. The town was named after the Chevron refinery that employs many of its residents. But don’t let that fool you, either. Far from a rough-and-tumble blue-collar burg, El Segundo is a sleepy beach community with one of the lowest crime rates in the U.S. Thanks in part to its isolation, bordered on the west by the ocean, the south by the refinery, the north by LAX, and the east by Northrop Grumman and L.A. Air Force Base, El Segundo is left alone by almost everyone who doesn’t live there. The beaches are deserted, the Laundromat is open 24/7 with no security guard, and the post office lobby requires no after-hours key to enter.
El Segundo can’t trumpet the fact that it’s majority white; that would be “racist.” So instead, when you move there, you get a welcome package of “fun factz” about the city, including, coincidentally, the population stats. When I moved there in 2003, the population of 13,000 was approximately 85% white, 6% Asian, and the rest “other.” El Segundo cops have a reputation for being hard-assed. But armed with my white privilege and Jew card, I drunk-walked through that town for almost two years without incident. Cops, all white, would often see me wobble-walking down the residential streets at 3 a.m. They’d wave, I’d wave back.
Twenty months, never a hassle. I left at the end of 2004.
Cut to 2009. Issues with the redhead who’d eventually “out” me drove me to seek a weekend vacation without really leaving town. I just wanted some peace. So I told Red I was flying somewhere. Hell, I forget what destination I cooked up…Moscow maybe, or Muncie. I had her drop me off at LAX, and I hopped into a cab to El Segundo, my relaxing, peaceful former hometown. With her thinking I was away, I could look forward to a weekend of beaches, booze, and serenity. I checked into my hotel and headed to “Main Street” (if you know El Segundo, you’ll know why that deserves to be in quotes) to begin my barhopping. Five hours and four bars later, I closed the night at the Purple Orchid, El Segundo’s answer to the question “What’s the lousiest excuse for a tiki bar in all of North America?”
After closing time, I left the bar and walked down to the beach. No question, I was quite drunk. And I just wanted to lie on the beach listening to the sound of the waves and watching the light show of departing flights from LAX. Around 3 a.m. or so, I began the trek back to my hotel. About a block into Main Street, I saw a cop car parked by a side street. The car started up and began to follow me. A few seconds later, the whoop of the siren was heard.
“Didn’t you hear me tell you to stop?”
I truly had not. The street was deadly silent; I would have heard a cockroach fart. The cop had not said a word to me until that moment.
“No, sir. I’m sorry,” I replied.
“Don’t move,” the cop said as he exited his car. He was a black man, salt-and-pepper hair visible even with his hat on. He was fiftysomething years old. He shined his flashlight in my face.
“You been drinking?”
“Yes, sir, I have. I’m walking back to my hotel.”
“The Travelodge on Sepulveda.”
“Lemme see some ID.”
I slowly reached for my wallet, slowly pulled it out, slowly opened it, and slowly removed my ID. I performed every action with the determined sloth of Steve Austin delivering a slow-motion punch on The Six Million Dollar Man.
“Where were you drinking?”
“The Purple Orchid.”
“Uh-huh. And where you headed now?”
“Like I said, my hotel.”
“Where you coming from?”
“The beach, sir.”
Salt-N-Pepa cop smiled like Sherlock Holmes having caught Moriarty in a fatal lie. “You just told me you were at the Purple Orchid. Now you say you came from the beach. Why can’t you get your story straight? You’re lying to me, aren’t you? Where have you really been?”
Right then and there I realized, oh shit, he’s looking for a fight. He had asked me two separate questions, and I had answered each one truthfully and accurately. And now his game was to make it appear as though I was changing my story. He was playing mind games with a drunken man, and I knew that the purpose was to provoke me. In the softest voice I could muster, I said, “Sir, you asked me where I’d been drinking, and I had been drinking at the Purple Orchid. But that was over an hour ago. Now I am returning from having been sitting on the beach. So that’s the answer to your question of where I’m coming from.”
“Yeah, sure,” he huffed dismissively, chest puffed out. “Don’t fuck with me. You contradicted yourself, and that gives me cause. This is not looking good.” At that point, I figured I was boned. I saw a cell in my future. And me, a nebbishy Jew germophobe who would’ve preferred death in a gas chamber to having to use Auschwitz’s communal toilets. So much for my weekend of serenity.
“Stay here.” The cop went to his car to run my ID. I knew what he’d see: nothing. I’ve never so much as gotten a jaywalking ticket. I saw disappointment in his face as he returned. He looked me straight in the eyes, flashlight once again blinding me. He wanted to run me in, but would it be worth his time? Other than being intoxicated, I was clean. So he said nothing…he just kept that damn flashlight shining straight in my eyes, saying nothing. Minutes went by. Again, I felt I was being tested…how long could he do this before I became “combative”? But I knew to keep quiet. I refused to give him cause. So he decided to use my inebriation as cause.
“You know, I think you’re too drunk to be on the street,” he growled.
At that very moment, a minivan taxi turned down Main Street and began heading our way. The cop saw a way out, a way to get me “off the street” without losing face. He waved the cab over. “Will you take this man to the Travelodge?” he asked the driver.
“Sure,” the driver said. The cop told me to get in. “You’re lucky that cab came by,” he barked. “Never let me see you around here again.” I walked to the cab. The calm I’d previously displayed did not find its way to my hands. I fumbled with the sliding minivan door handle, unable to make it work. Suddenly, the cabdriver opened the front passenger door and pulled me in with great strength, whispering, “Get in, get in now, I think he’s about to change his mind.”
The cabbie waved to the cop and drove on.
“I know that cop; he’s an asshole. I didn’t mean to pull you, but he was starting to walk over.”
I looked at my savior. Oh, crap…a Muslim. Dave the noted GOP Islamophobe just got saved by a fucking Muzz. I expressed my gratitude, drunkenly and effusively. The young cabbie smiled.
“No problem, my friend. Why are you so troubled tonight?”
We sat in the Travelodge parking lot for a half hour, talking. He didn’t care about taking other fares, and he wouldn’t accept a dime from me. And I insisted, repeatedly—hell, I was going to pay him four times the fare. But he wouldn’t take it, no matter how hard I tried. He saw me get safely to my room and he drove off. Tariq Haroon; I’ll never forget his name. I thought about the irony of the evening: A law-and-order conservative hassled by a cop, a neocon polemicist saved by a kind Muslim who went the extra mile for a Jew-y stranger.
The next week, I took Tariq out to lunch to express my gratitude. I still try to keep him in mind when I find myself getting perhaps a tad too overreaching in my dislike of Islam. But what truly stayed with me after that night in El Segundo was the memory of the cop. He was clearly trying to entrap me, and just because I was too smart to fall for it doesn’t mean others in that situation wouldn’t have. And sure, even before my experience in El Segundo, I knew that cops could be the aggressors, the provocateurs, the jerks. But sometimes it takes a little personal experience to drive a point home. Prior to that night in 2009, I’d never had a negative interaction with a cop. Not once. So I’m glad I got to experience things from a different perspective, even if my “negative interaction” was extremely minor and, in the end, completely harmless.
Last year, after the arrest (and subsequent death) of black motorist Sandra Bland, officials released the transcript of her traffic stop, and it really struck a chord with me. Specifically the part where Trooper Brian Encinia clearly played the same type of “intent to stir shit up” word games that Salt-N-Pepa cop had tried on me:
Encinia: Hello, ma’am. We’re the Texas Highway Patrol and the reason for your stop is because you failed to signal the lane change. Do you have your driver’s license and registration with you? What’s wrong? How long have you been in Texas?
Bland: Got here just today.
Encinia: Okay. Do you have a driver’s license? [Pause] Okay, where you headed to now? Give me a few minutes.
[Encinia returns to his car for several minutes, then approaches Bland again.]
Encinia: Okay, ma’am. [Pause] You okay?
Bland: I’m waiting on you. This is your job. I’m waiting on you. When’re you going to let me go?
Encinia: I don’t know, you seem very really irritated.
Bland: I am. I really am. I feel like it’s crap what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over and you stop me. So yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so [inaudible] ticket.
Encinia: Are you done?
Bland: You asked me what was wrong, now I told you.
Bland: So now I’m done, yeah.
Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?
Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?
Encinia: Well, you can step on out now.
It was an ugly trick—purposely provoking her, repeatedly, to tell him “what’s wrong,” in order to use her quite reasonable response against her. Why ask if you don’t want to know the answer…unless the question itself is a trap. I don’t know how I would have felt about the Bland case had I not had my El Segundo experience, but I do know that the person I am today can’t view Encinia’s actions as anything other than disgusting and indefensible (and I’m hardly alone in that opinion).
I’m still inclined to be skeptical of claims made by someone named Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds, but I’m a bit less willing to dismiss her story out of hand. And while I’m not quite ready to agree with Dickens’ Mr. Bumble that “the law is a ass,” I will admit that, to some extent, my eyes have been “opened by experience,” all thanks to the white city with the black cop who tried to trap the drunk Jew.
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