Bearing Witness

One of the reasons I have not said more about last week’s carnage is that13466212_10207666514633545_6483051411548552294_n, at the moment, my most charitable response is restraint. You see, a few weeks ago, when I finally got the physical strength to visit my ailing father in the nursing home in Cleveland, I was stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason–other than perhaps a Soundex algorithm gone awry. (Google it.) I pulled up into a gas station so that he would not have to stand in traffic and rolled down the window. He yelled, at the top of his lungs, “ARE YOU DRUNK? SHOW ME YOUR LICENSE AND PROOF OF INSURANCE. WHERE ARE YOU GOING?”

I told him about the hotel I was headed to (though the law doesn’t require me to do so). As I reached for the glove box he yelled, “YOU GOT YOUR WEAPON IN THERE TOO?”

“Weapon, Officer? Really?” I turned on the overhead lights so he could see me clearly.

After I handed him my license and proof of insurance he handed them back to me and said, “Okay, Sir. Drive safely.” Just like that. As he walked away I called him back to ask what law I had violated. He said something about swerving slightly right to make a left turn and, clearly not wanting to talk about it, replied again. “Okay. Sir. Drive. Safely.”

Experiences like this call to mind all of the times that it has been my duty to deescalate a situation involving an officer, even though I do not have so much as an unpaid parking ticket on my record. Like the time a stranger at a restaurant in Bridgeport, Chicago burst into a single occupancy restroom before I could lock the door literally to challenge me to a pissing contest. I did my business and left in silence.

When I wouldn’t take the bait, he sat at another table later and threw pork rinds at me. Kyle Rader, who writes for this blog, and his wife Verena Meyer witnessed the whole thing. When one of our table guests suggested confronting him, I suggested it wasn’t a good idea since I had been eavesdropping on his conversation to find out who he was. He and his partner were gang enforcement officers in plain clothes. Must have had a bad day and wanted to end somebody.

Bryce E. Rich, who started this blog, can tell you about my encounters with the University of Chicago’s finest: The tap on the window when my car was parked less than two minutes with flashers on to see “what my problem” was. The smile of relief–“Okay, you guys be safe”–after he sees my white passenger in the car, the friend I told him I was dropping off at his apartment.

I could go on, say, about the time I was pulled over with the lie, after my license was cleared, “There is a warrant out for the arrest of the other guy on the registration.”  

“A warrant, for the arrest of my partner, Cliff Chan?”  

“Oh, no.  We would have no reason to arrest anybody named Chan.”

Or maybe about the Geneva, NY cop who stopped me at a sobriety check point with the words, “So, you came all the way from California to party, huh?”

“No, officer. I came to be the new chaplain at Hobart and William Smith Colleges over there. But I tell you what: If you’d like to post up in the driveway at the frat house next door to me, I’m sure you’ll meet your quota for the night.” 

“Hehe. Welcome to Geneva, Sir. You have yourself a wonderful day.”

One day, I will go on. But for now, I’ll be content to step out of line as a Respectable Negro and make some folks uncomfortable with the unvarnished truth. Of course, not all cops are racist–some are family, friends, trusted colleagues. But everywhere I go, I’m black. And that has a way of changing the calculus regardless of the officer’s race.


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About D. Maurice Charles

Maurice is an Episcopal priest and historian of Christianity who reflects on religion and violence, having received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of his ministry has focused on higher education, having previously served as Associate Dean for Religious Life at Stanford University. In 2015 he was appointed Chaplain of the Colleges and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies (by courtesy) at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. Maurice contributes to this blog with his Chicago friends in the hope that personal reflection and heartfelt discussion lead to building beloved community.