So we’re sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the bus and minding our own business. Cop car rolls up and cop gets out. Walks over to us and the two other guys waiting at the bus stop and asks all of us for ID. Demands to know where we’re going and whether there are any warrants out for our arrest. Turns out none of us are wanted for anything, so after calling in our information, he gets back into his car and drives off. Business as usual.
We live in an area with virtually nonexistent public transportation–buses run just a few times a day–so only the poorest of the poor are without a vehicle of some sort around here. If you see someone walking by the side of the road (no sidewalks here either) or waiting for the bus, you pretty much know at least one of the following must be true:
- They are too old to drive.
- They have a disability that precludes driving a vehicle.
- They had their license suspended or revoked.
- They are very poor.
Since we do not appear to be #1 or #2, we must be #3 or #4, and you know what that means: likely CRIMINALS!
Of course being poor doesn’t make you a criminal, but that’s something the cops around here don’t quite seem to grasp. Being stopped by police simply for walking by the side of the road or waiting for the bus is a common occurrence here. Often these stops are accompanied by a search where the officer will pat you down and ask you to empty your pockets. I estimate that my partner gets stopped and searched by police maybe 3-4 times a year. Just for being poor.
Sometimes they do arrest someone based on these random searches of walking or waiting poor people. Usually for drug possession. Occasionally someone has an outstanding warrant, but it’s rarely for a serious offense. The reason I know this is that triumphant reports of arrests resulting from so-called “routine pedestrian stops” regularly appear in the local paper. They’re announced on the radio too–usually with the arrestee’s full name and address. And nobody seems to think there’s anything wrong with any of this. After all, it’s just poor people being harassed by the cops. Who are doing an awesome job keeping the area safe by keeping an eye on us undesirables.
Whenever I hear someone remark that talk of a police state is exaggerated and overblown, I can pretty much guarantee that they’re white and at least middle class. Must be nice, encountering a police officer and not having him immediately think–and act like–you’re a criminal. Not to mention going through life with the knowledge that cops are very unlikely to stop, question and search you unless you’ve actually, you know, done something illegal.
But, hey, what’s the big deal? Why not answer a few questions and submit to a quick search and warrant check if it helps keep the community safer? Unless, of course, you do have something to hide? My guess is that the people who think this way would change their tune quickly if police were in the habit of harassing folks like them. But while I’m obviously opposed to a scenario where everyone is subject to random stops and searches, such a scenario still wouldn’t be comparable to singling people out on the basis of race or poverty.
The truth is that what happened today affects me far more than I would like to admit. As my partner says, this goes beyond concern about the obliteration of the Fourth Amendment or a violation of privacy rights; this stuff hits you on a primal level. All those people driving past us in their cars and trucks? We’re not like them. We’re less than. The community we live in? We’re not part of it. The community must be protected from the likes of us. Those are the messages we got today. When those messages are repeated often enough, they can affect not just the way you see the world, but also the way you see yourself. And that’s not a good thing.