I woke up the other day at 3 am and there was an armed standoff a few houses down, four kids in a jeep, an armored tank, and at least ten police cars, surrounding them. A tank! Teenagers! Come to find out, they were black teenagers who’d borrowed a jeep on a joyride. I felt like I was living in a war zone.
Here’s my usually-peaceful house. I moved into this integrated neighborhood, because I wanted my kids to grow up around a variety of people. It’s also a mixed income neighborhood, and when I chose it, I thought that would be a great way for them to break open the dominant race-class associations. That worked, for the most part. The neighbor across the street is an African American city councilor and the people in the apartments down the street are of every race, as are the people in houses, up the street.
When we moved here, my white friends were pretty worried about whether we’d be safe. And we have been safe. But stuff happens. The apartment parking lot next door gets really noisy. (Sometimes at 3 am when I want to sleep.) Sometimes I hear domestic fights. Once, a runaway teenager came to my front door. Twice, there were needles in my front yard. And occasionally I’m sitting on the sofa, looking out my front window, and what appears to be a drug deal is going down.
So I’ve been thinking about when I call the cops. I want to be a good neighbor. I want us all to be safe. I want to sleep at night. And yet I know that the police in my town have disproportionate responses to some of my neighbors…. an armored tank, for teenagers out on a joyride, because they happen to be black.
I’ve met the police officer on my beat. Officer Mike is African American, and seems to do his job well. I called Officer Mike about the needles, under my fruit trees, and he came and said, “probably diabetes.” I was grateful that Officer Mike knew the difference between heroin needles and medical ones… and that he was willing to take them home.
(One of the really helpful interventions a white person can do in an integrated neighborhood is simply to know your black neighbors and your local police officer.)
But I didn’t call them about the black teenager who rang my doorbell. I asked her where she would be safe, and I drove her to her aunt’s house. I found a her a hoodie because she looked freezing.
When I’m seeing exchanges out the window, a car lingering, a car or pedestrian rushing up, money or things changing hands, I generally call, and I try to be as clear and specific about details as I am able. Who wants drug dealing on your street?
The police are our public servants, and I think they’d like to be our partners in public safety. Sure, some of them have bias to work on. We have some serious injustice in our country. My friend Dave Cooper is all in, on that project. (www.improvingpolice.com) But you and I can do our small part on the public safety project, by thinking carefully, instead of asking the police to take care of our own fears.
When I see people having a chat, hanging out of their car window, I don’t call the police. I drive around the block, to give them space to talk. That’s not good or bad; it’s just different.
When it gets loud, music and shouting, though, I also think that’s mostly cultural differences. I shut my window. Or if it’s a nice day, I wander over there, and say hello to the neighbors.
I work hard to consider – what’s culture? what’s crime? what’s my part? Who wants to live in a war zone? Even if it’s not literally a tank, it may be a metaphorical one, messing up my black neighbors’ lives.