Civil Society

Civil Society

“Why do you care so much?” said a white friend to me during a debate about suspect profiling. “Don’t take it so personally–the police aren’t after you in the black middle class.


“Why do you care so much?” said a white friend to me during a debate about suspect profiling. “Don’t take it so personally–the police aren’t after you in the black middle class. If you need something to be angry about, get angry at the young black males who commit the sort of crimes that make it so hard for the rest of you.”

There are any number of rejoinders to comments like this. I suppose I could do a disingenuous little reversal about “the young white males” wilding in suburbia; I suppose I could point out that his comment turned an issue of civil liberties and state force into a matter of moral uplift–not that I have anything against moral crusading, but it’s not exactly a substitute for constitutional protections, restrained use of force and good policing. But, bottom line, I’m really tired of being told that I take things too personally.

“The truth is,” interjected another friend, who is black, “that it is personal. Black middle-class citizens are stopped much more frequently than anyone else in the middle class. Middle-class blacks are a bridge between the segregation that still keeps most black and white neighborhoods miles apart, not just physically but conceptually. Most of us arrivistes grew up in black neighborhoods. We know how differently you’re treated when in public with white friends and when you’re alone or with black friends. We live strung between the annoyingly contradictory projections dumped upon us by the larger society: (a) that you know nothing about the privations of the inner city because you drive a BMW, and (b) that you should understand why driving a BMW marks you as someone who is most likely a common thief.”

Yes, I think, this might indeed be a tad personal. But the comments of both friends helped remind me that just because it’s personal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any less a matter of principle. I think of yet another friend, who was arrested in Chicago a few weeks ago. Deborah is someone I’ve known since we were students in law school, some twenty-five years ago. These days she’s a law professor, a commercial law expert and the co-author of a textbook on contract law. Deborah was sitting in her car at a gas station when out on the street she saw police searching a car and patting down two girls and two boys who appeared to be Latino. As she put it, “My son, who wears his hair in dreadlocks, was stopped on his way back to school after spring break because the light over his license plate was out. I didn’t know why these teenagers had been stopped, but it couldn’t hurt to sit there, on private property, and just watch.” But one of the policewomen saw her looking, came over and ordered her to leave.

“I said very politely, ‘I’d rather not.'”

A second cruiser was summoned, and Deborah was taken from her car, handcuffed, driven down to the station and chained to a bench for hours. She was finally released on her own recognizance at 1 am, with three charges lodged against her. The first was failing to wear a seatbelt. (“The car was stopped,” she protests.) The second was described on the citation as “obedience to police”–in big block printing as though to underscore the heart of the matter–followed in parentheses by the actual charge, “blocking exit to gas station.” The third claim was that Deborah had failed to register her address with the Illinois Secretary of State. (At the time, Deborah, a New York resident, was teaching at a Chicago-area university for one semester. The statute in question–who knew?–requires anyone whose current address doesn’t match the one on her driver’s license to register within ten days.)

Deborah, like me a child of the civil rights movement, came of age in a time when court-watching and arrest-witnessing were considered civic responsibilities as important as voting. “I tried to explain to the officers why I wanted to stay and watch. I guess I badly underestimated the touchiness of the police on this subject. But I hardly thought I would be arrested just for having an opinion.”

Deborah paused as she told me this story, then laughed. “Oh, and there was this really strange moment when the arresting policewoman was filling out one of several attempted reports of the incident that she completed and then ripped up. Finally, she turned to me and asked with exasperation, ‘What are you?'”

Deborah has one of those visages that suggest an ethnically and racially diverse range of, shall we say, political possibility. “African-American,” she answered. The officer, who appeared to be white, seemed incredulous and grew even more annoyed.

“Why do you care what happens to Latinos?” she snapped.

With that, Deborah said, “I decided that silence was the more prudent course.”

About two weeks after Deborah’s arrest, the Supreme Court, in its 6-to-3 decision in Chicago v. Morales, struck down Chicago’s broadly worded anti-loitering statute, which had allowed, as the New York Times concisely put it, “police to arrest anyone who, refusing an order to move on, remained ‘in one place with no apparent purpose’ in the presence of a suspected gang member.”

It is good news, this holding, but I’m also a dissent-watcher, particularly when the minority is composed of consistently and radically conservative ideologues, whose numbers could grow if a Republican President were to be elected. So I paid close attention when dissenting Mr. Justice Antonin Scalia revealed how very “personally” he too takes all this. From the bench he declared: “I would gladly trade my right to loiter in the vicinity of a gang member in return for the liberation of my neighborhood in an instant.”

Should Scalia’s view ever become the law of the land (rather than just practice, however prevalent), perhaps then it will become clear what is at stake when we do not care about Latinos, about poor African-Americans or about minorities who may one day find themselves in the majority. The “right to loiter” is also the right to stand in one place and just be; it is the right to look and listen and witness. When we “trade” away that right, we effectively relinquish the ability to disagree in an orderly, political and public manner. If indeed Scalia’s neighborhood is ever so “liberated,” I hope that he–that we all–do not find ourselves regretting what has been purchased by such loss.

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