There is much in the news today about police culture and police violence. The deaths of so many unarmed black people by police has gotten public attention as indeed it should. It ranks up there with other issues related to inequality and class and racial divisions that our country needs to address and reform. These stories, however, are real life experiences that I have encountered, which I think in their own way reflect on policing and the relationship between police and ordinary people, and they are all true–at least as true as all my stories are, which benefit from occasional embellishment.
Note that while these stories are not intended to be moralistic or political, as one reads them it is not hard to ask the question if I had been a person of color or a poor person or an immigrant or, or….would my encounters with law enforcement have had different outcomes. My last post in the series will deal with that question.
Cop Story One: The Dragons
In 1958 when I got my driver’s license, my parents purchased for me a car for my 16th birthday from my uncle, who owned a used car business. The car was a souped up 1952 Chevy painted bright blue, with a blue interior, blue seats and a blue nob on a blue steering wheel that allowed the driver to make a sharp turn using only one arm, presumably with his other arm around his babe sitting next to him. The car had whitewall tires. The hub caps were “spinners,” sort of what all cars have today but a rarity in 1958.The rear axial had been lowered a few inches so that it would look cool, sort of like a motorboat planing on the water. If the car even had a muffler, it must have been small because when you hit the gas, the car roared like a rocket ship. The car’s pickup was superfast, and my friends encouraged me to head for the drag race track as soon as I could.
I loved the car! All my friends were envious. Several complained that life was not fair and that a wussie like me did not deserve such a hot car, now christened “the Blue Beast.” For the first time—probably the only time– in my life, I was a cool dude.
On the second or third day of owning the vehicle, when I was feeling a little more secure driving, I invited two of my high school friends to join me for a “spin,” as we called it in those days. My best friend, Allen, presented me with a black metal plate, the size and shape of a regular license tag with a small metal chain to tie the plate onto the rear bumper just below where the rear tag was. On the black plate was the word “Dragons” in silver letters. We secured it to the rear bumper. Hey, neat, I thought, how cool was this!
The spin took us through downtown Nashville, on a very busy weekday morning at the tail end of rush hour during our spring break. I had been driving for about a half hour when the Blue Beast came to an abrupt halt right in the middle of one of the city’s most congested intersections. I desperately hit the starter button. Nothing. Again, no luck. We were blocking traffic in all four directions. Some rolled down their windows and shook their fists. Others shouted obscenities. I am sure my face was turning bright red. My hands were shaking. Allen and my other friend, Mike, looked at each other with sheepish grins and then bolted out of the car to watch the drama from the sidelines. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed them pointing at me and laughing.
The police arrived pretty soon, which was fortunate, because I could see a mob beginning to form. One cop, a big burley guy, arrived first and then another, a smaller guy with a thick mustache, who began directing traffic around the car. The burley cop asked to see my driver’s license, called a tow service, and assured me that they had everything under control, which I interpreted to mean keeping me from being attacked. Then, the second cop looked at the rear tag. “Hey, Mickey,” he said, “We’ve got a Dragon. This guy is a Dragon! Check the car for weapons!”
“What?” I exclaimed.
“I know the Dragons,” he snarled. “They are mean sonsofbitches and dangerous.” His reassuring smile moments earlier turned into a skeptical scowl. I could swear I saw him placing his hand on the handle of his revolver. It was like a scene from one of those horror movies where in moments everything turns into a nightmare. I glanced at my friends still observing the action with amusement but not knowing what was happening with me and the cops.
He made a call on his VHF or “walkie talkie” as we called them in those days, and the reply came back in loud static, “Cuff him and bring him in.”
In horror, I realized what was happening. I was being arrested.
I waved to my friends to come back fast and blurted out to the cops that I was innocent, “Look, I am not a Dragon. I don’t even know what a Dragon is.”
“Well,” said the burley cop sarcastically, “then how come you got a Dragons license tag on your bumper?”
“It was a birthday gift, sir.” I blurted out, “My friend gave it to me. He is coming over right now. He will explain.”
The two cops gave each other skeptical looks as Mike and Allen arrived on the scene, initially chuckling but when they realized what was going on, showed looks of alarmed surprise.
The interrogation of my two friends took only about five minutes. With serious expressions and repeating “sir” after every sentence, they confirmed the facts: that yes, the Dragons license plate was a gift, that no, they had no idea there was a gang called the Dragons, that we all were students at Montgomery Bell Academy, and that I attended church and Sunday School every week and as far as they knew had never committed a sin. They did not say “and besides, he is a wussie,” for which I was grateful.
The two cops conferred in low tones, checked back with headquarters, and then said with their skeptical frowns still on their face, “Ok, we are letting you off this time,” and drove off. By then the Blue Beast had been towed and the traffic backup had dissipated. The three of us looked at each other and burst out laughing. Someone called a parent to pick us up, and a week later I picked up the car from the mechanic, who had replaced the broken universal joint with a new one. Life returned to normal. But with no Dragon’s tag on the Blue Beast.