Do you know what a criminal looks like? I know I don’t. I know that there are people who make me nervous, who give off a vibe that makes me uncomfortable, but does that mean they are bad? Given recent events; Ferguson, what happened to Eric Garner in NYC, Trayvon Martin, and countless other people, mostly men of color who have been unjustifiably murdered, it is way past time to really examine our own fears, prejudices and notions about what a criminal looks like.
Several years ago when I was managing a Whole Foods Market store a man called me to complain that the police officer who was hired to work at the store during the evening hours had been following him. I have no idea if his perception was accurate, but he believed he had been watched by the officer. I didn’t know the race of the person I was speaking to, he didn’t tell me. I have no idea what he looked like at all. No one had approached him, or tried to keep him from leaving, he just didn’t like how he felt. Then he explained to me that he didn’t look like a criminal.
Sometimes it is difficult for me to hold my tongue in these moments, but I did my best. “Sir” I said “can you tell me what a criminal looks like?” I went on, “because I have been working in retail for over ten years, and I have caught all kinds of people stealing, and it would be really helpful to me if you could tell me what a criminal looks like, so I won’t have to bother people like you.” Of course he instantly realized the stupidity of what he had said, and tried to backpedal, but it really wasn’t necessary. I had made my point, and I hope he was able to take something away from our conversation.
There certainly are criminals who are young, black men, wearing hoodies, but there are plenty of criminal who wear suits and ties, and are white. The majority of young men of all races walking around in hoodies are not criminals, or thugs, or anything other than young men trying to grow up in a country where it seems OK to kill them because they look menacing merely because of the color of their skin, or their choice of clothing. I do not know exactly what happened with Michael Brown, and at this point not a lot of people do, but I do know that no matter what he was doing it didn’t warrant being gunned down. There is no story that anyone is going to be able to tell that will convince me otherwise. And I feel terrified that so many people are rallying in support of Darren Wilson.
What I see, from hundreds of miles away is a police force that views the citizens of Fergusen as their enemies. A police force that is closing ranks around a man who murdered a young man needlessly, a police officer who stole a boy from his family and community. A man who, rather than standing up and saying ‘I was wrong, I was scared, I made a terrible mistake’ is hiding from the community he has betrayed, and being harbored by his peers. He is being lauded as a hero by fools and bigots, and the media, specifically FOX News.
The events that have transpired in Ferguson both are and are not about all police. Just as there are criminals and thugs in hoodies, there are criminals and thugs in uniforms. But there are also heroes in uniforms. There are police officers and police forces who protect and serve the communities where they work. They respect and value the lives of the people who pay their salaries with their tax dollars. Being a police officer is a dangerous job, and the proliferation of guns and ammunition available in the US makes it an even more dangerous job, but they knew that when they choose their career. They are equipped with weapons, and sticks, tasers, and bullet proof vests. Walking the street anywhere should not be a dangerous activity, and the threat posed should not come from those whose job it is to protect those streets.
Criminals look like you, and me, and Trayvon Martin, and Steve Martin. Criminals wear hoodies, and dresses, and high heels, and bow ties, and baseball caps, and driving caps. I once had a thief arrested who looked like a PTA mom, she had coiffed blonde hair, and was wearing pearls and a twin set. She was stealing about $200 worth of groceries, and at her hearing, she told the judge she was preoccupied because her mother was ill, and she forgot to pay for her groceries, though she had remembered to put them into her reusable bags, and stow them in the bottom of her cart… She was let go, and I believe it was because she didn’t look like a criminal!