Police Intrusions

police tapeI’ve got several blog posts in progress: two on transplant ethics and one on Between the World and Me, but as you can imagine, today I am thinking about the police, with whom I had only had neutral and positive experiences until Thursday night. And even to claim that experience as mine is pretty far-fetched. It is probably best to call it a glimpse of police intrusions into daily life that I have been shielded from. That being said, I was present, and it made me uncomfortable, and it made me feel less safe. So what happened?

We had dinner plans with a friend. We went to one of our favorite restaurants, which happens to have bad acoustics, and it was very crowded. After we sat down, a non-white family with a small child sat near us. The little boy was about two years old, and he seemed pretty cranky. He let out several unhappy, loud wails; his parents tried appeasing him and comforting him, but he was not having it. The little boy was loud and disruptive to everyone’s meals, but the parents were parenting, and what else can you ask them to do? I felt bad for them.

Before that family got their food and before we got ours, two white policewomen sat at the table in between us. After a few minutes, one of the officers decided to talk to the family. She walked to their table in her bulletproof vest and with her gun on her hip and suggested that the family leave the restaurant because of the disruption they were causing. The mother immediately adopted an apologetic stance saying that her son had just woken up from a nap, he’d settle down. The father became verbally aggressive and asked the officer if she had kids and told her not to worry about them, their parenting was none of their concern. Before she sat back down, the officer mentioned that all the people in the restaurant had spent money to be there and they were not able to enjoy their meals because of their son’s screaming. The officers decided to get their food to go, but they made sure to say something rude to the family on their way out of the restaurant while also suggesting to us that we try to enjoy our meal.

Meanwhile, at our table we were wondering what the hell just happened. Did we really see a fully uniformed police officer approach a family and criticize their parenting? To me, it felt very much like the police officer was trying to intimidate the family into leaving the restaurant, which doesn’t fall under the directive of “protect and serve.” No one was in danger. The family was angry and hurt, and ultimately they did get their food to go. Before they left, a member of our dinner party approached them to mention how intrusive and inappropriate that interaction had been. That recognition was appreciated, but the damage was done. This non-white family had been compelled to leave the restaurant by white police officers because their child was vocally unhappy.

To be sure, the child was annoying. But he was two years old and his parents were trying to quiet him. And furthermore, I don’t think we can expect parents of small children to stay home all of the time. This family may go out less frequently now, but they probably would have made that decision based on their experience even without police intervention. The policewoman used the coercive power of the state to intimidate the family into complying with her normative idea of parenting and the use of public space. She assumed that her comfort in public was more important than the family’s right to be there. Yet the act of “going to dinner” means entering the public sphere and all of its chaos willingly. Moreover, the officer created the conflict and escalated the situation. Thank goodness the family did not further escalate it, which would have been easy to do.

Tensions are high. This interaction happened after the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but before the sniper attack on the Dallas police. Still, where is the empathy for others? They are tired. Suffering. Doing their best. We’ve got to come up with better ways of connecting. The police officer appealed to the economy as something that everyone in the restaurant shared—we had all paid money to eat there. Surely there is more that we share than this. We’ve got to find it.