So many stories of racial intimidation in America involve a routine encounter with the police. It is as if the police have not shaken off the taint of their history of enforcing the laws of segregation. Even today such encounters are full of implication, both real and imagined, and often imply an insult. But is this always to do with race, or is the insult found in the impartial slap of authority, by its very nature bigoted and bullying?
Driving down a back road on Cape Cod on a July evening three years ago I saw an unwelcome blue flash in my rearview mirror. After I pulled over, the cop approached my expensive car on foot. I knew what he wanted. Unable to reach my registration in my glove compartment, I undid my seat belt and popped open the glove box, and at that moment the cop was at my window, in a defensive posture, as though he thought I might be reaching for a gun.
His shriek startled me. “Put your hands on the steering wheel! Forty in a 30-mile-an-hour zone! And you’re not wearing a seat belt!”
As I explained that I had been wearing it, and took it off so I could reach my registration, he screamed again.
“Did you hear what I said! You’re speeding, you’re not wearing a seat belt! And you’re giving me lip!”
I said, “Why are you yelling at me?”
“Because you’re lying!”
This went on for longer than I expected. I noticed that he was young—in his mid-30s, not tall, with a belly full of donuts, and a pale harassed face. But he was not a local cop; he was a state trooper—odd to find a well-armed statie on a side road. I followed the Zen formula, not resisting, letting him scream himself into silence, and when he was done I sat by the roadside with a $200 ticket in my hand. The rest of his scribble was illegible: I wanted to know his name so that I could complain about his rude behavior.
I got out of my car and approached his patrol car, still flashing blue; my arms were raised, the ticket in my right hand, and at this point I walked across the border from Yarmouth, Mass., into China. The cop began bellowing at me through a high-volume loudspeaker. “Return to your car! If you come any closer you will be arrested!” And more—threats, commands, intimidation megaphoned into the summer night.
You get the idea. It was perhaps not an unusual traffic stop—10 miles over the speed limit, a seat-belt issue—and I felt the iron thumb of police authority pressing on my humiliated head. One intemperate word or gesture and I could have been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
The vehemence of this encounter startled me—it was hostility combined with insult. The thought that stayed with me was that if I had been black I would have taken this angry, stupid, gratuitously aggressive man to be a racist—just as Henry Louis Gates, having misplaced his front-door key during an arduous transcontinental flight, took for racist the policeman who arrested him as he sought to force his way into his own home in Cambridge, Mass.
After the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, President Obama offered his view, saying, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” Perhaps true, but so what? The implication of looks equating to innocence (or guilt) is illogical and emotive and divisive, and indeed racially charged.
Many more people could respond, “If I had a son he’d look like George Zimmerman.” And would that make him a trigger-happy neighborhood-watch captain? Or would it turn him into a hapless defender of the sanctity of his neighborhood? Actually neither one. It makes him that diabolical creature, The Other.
In this vein, Brian Williams on Rock Center interviewed half a dozen high-profile NBC journalists and newsreaders who gave examples of how victimized—largely by policemen—they felt as blacks in America. They believed their experiences to be uniquely racial, yet I was reminded forcibly of my own encounters with hostile policemen.
The Trayvon Martin killing is lamentable, and its aftermath has produced different versions, distortion, ax grinding, and contradiction. It is necessary that it be investigated as a homicide. Whether it is an example of a hate crime or racial profiling remains to be seen.
I wish the president had held his fire and instead directed the public’s attention to the passionate and illuminating speech he gave at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia in March 2008 as a presidential candidate. “A More Perfect Union” is the most penetrating assessment of the state of race relations that has ever been delivered by any American politician. Though it was seen as electioneering at the time—tepidly acknowledged by Hillary—its judicious counsel and wise tone are what we most need now in this modern version of Rashomon in Florida.
Paul Theroux’s new novel The Lower River will be published in May by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.