Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Crossing the Line

“Donald Sterling accused of racist, sexist remarks in new lawsuit.”
                                                                                                           Los Angeles Times  6/2/14

I stood just inside the doorway of the mall security office watching the teenage suspect, a black kid about sixteen years old.  He sat in a chair at a scarred, wooden table while across from him, a tough, no nonsense, off duty cop named Robert filled out the arrest report.  Between them on the table was a line of six Swatch watches, all the rage in the 1980s.  I thought the watches were ugly, but then what did I know, a college student trying to finance his education by working as a uniformed security guard at a mall.

Robert, a tall, African-American with twenty years on the force, was one of my favorite cops to work with because he took the job seriously.  That set him apart from the other jokesters who moonlighted at the shopping center.  Those cops could always be found sleeping in their unmarked mall rental cars or flirting with the teenage girls who worked the shops along the plaza.  Robert could be found reading the newspaper at the food court, and if you needed him on a call, he always responded.  He never condescended to the security staff or belittled us.  In a way, I admired him because he seemed more enlightened than the other off duty cops.

The kid had the misfortune of trying to shoplift the watches right in front of Robert as he walked through the department store looking for his wife’s anniversary gift.  He saw him sweep the watches from a display into an empty store shopping bag and make for the exit.  Robert followed him out into the mall and arrested him.  The kid never had the chance to run, although he immediately insisted that he paid for the watches but dropped the receipt somewhere.

“Man, this sucks,” he whined.  “I bought them watches.  Paid for ‘em with cash, too.”  Robert ignored him and kept writing out his report.  “Man, can’t a brother give another brother a break?”

Robert stopped writing and stared at the kid.  He glanced in my direction and motioned for me to close the door.  In a single fluid movement he grabbed a handful of the kid’s shirt from across the table and pulled him out of his seat.  “I’m black,” he hissed into the kid’s face, “but you’re a nigger!  I am not your brother!”

There was something about the brutal way he used the racial slur that made my stomach turn, as if he had physically slugged the kid in the face.  The room itself seemed to go dark, and I wanted to run outside for air.  Robert pushed the startled kid back into his chair.

In my job at the mall, we were given sensitivity training before we put on the polyester uniform and the plastic badge.  We were told that if we used racial language or acted in a discriminatory fashion, we would be fired immediately and escorted off the property.  The off duty cops we worked with didn’t follow those rules.  Racist and sexist language was a part of their culture, and they used those words for emphasis and punctuation.  What I found strange was how being a police officer separated them from civilians so completely that cops like Robert stopped being black, or Hispanic, or Asian, and seemed to exist without racial identification.  They were police and everyone else was just everyone else, or simply the enemy.  I witnessed firsthand the “us against them” mentality that would eventually culminate in a black man “proned” out on the payment and beaten by four officers on that fateful night in 1991 when Rodney King went down.

Words today have the same power for me now as they did in that tiny security office thirty years ago.  Words betray the thoughts of the author, and they must always be used cautiously.  They reveal character as well as wisdom and ignorance in equal measures.  Because words are my tools, I am always cognizant of this, and when I see someone’s words detonate in the air around him, I am reminded again how dangerous words can be.

After the uniformed cops showed up to take the kid and the evidence away, I ask Robert about his words.  “Why should you have a problem with one black man calling another one out?” he said.

His glare intimidated me.  “I was just uncomfortable,” I replied, feeling ashamed for questioning him, even though I feel now that I was right to do so.

“Get over it.”

Here in Los Angeles, thirty years later, I don’t think I ever will.

No comments: