An earlier version of this post appeared at the Good Men Project in 2011.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but you will have to come with us.”
Those were the words I heard the first time I was detained by police the spring semester of my sophomore year, caught with a small plastic film canister of cocaine in my pocket. The officer who cuffed me was firm but vaguely apologetic, an anachronistic quality that reminded me of the cops on Adam-12, one of my favorite childhood TV shows. I was placed in the back of a squad car, questioned for a few minutes while someone ran my history, and then released with a friendly warning. The coke was confiscated.
The last time I was handcuffed came just over a decade later; sheriff’s deputies broke down the door to my apartment to rescue me and my ex-girlfriend from what was for all intents and purposes a murder-suicide attempt using gas from the kitchen stove. (I’d called another friend to say goodbye, and she had wisely dialed 911.) I was drunk and high and half-addled from the huge amount of gas I’d inhaled, but momentarily able to stand. When one deputy handcuffed me, I said something to the effect that I wasn’t going to try and hurt him. One of the very few things I recall clearly from that night was his reply: “Sir, it’s not me I’m worried about right now. Why don’t you sit down?”
Though my parents raised me to have nice manners, I have no illusions that it is my particular personal charm that has – on these two occasions and several others – engendered such politesse from assorted officers of the law. (And forbearance: I’ve been “detained” and cuffed at least five times in my life, all before I was 31. But I was never actually arrested, much less charged with a crime.) I doubt it has much to do with a run of good luck, either. The deference and the genuine kindness I’ve been repeatedly shown have more to do with the color of my skin and my class than anything else.
In college, I had a roommate named Oscar. Mexican-American and dark-skinned, a first-generation college student, Oscar had none of my bad habits and (as far as I could tell) the same basic good manners that I did. Participating in an anti-apartheid protest our freshman year, Oscar had been roughed up by campus police when he resisted arrest – a charge he eloquently denied. He spent five days in jail and was eventually sentenced to probation and community service.
A little over a year later, in the fall of 1987, Oscar’s brother Sam had his skull fractured by sheriff’s deputies in a small Central Valley county jail. He’d been held on an open container violation – a lesser charge than the one for which I was detained but never arrested earlier that same year. Sam experienced severe seizures for the rest of his brief life. He committed suicide in 1989, not long after his brother and I graduated from college.
Oscar had been the first person to take me to church; after college, he stayed in touch with me for years as I struggled to get sober. After getting out of another nasty scrape, I repeated an old line about God showing special care for babies and drunks. Oscar– not unkindly but with an unmistakable edge — replied that the Lord seemed to be doing a much better job of it with white middle-class kids. “Any more cops apologizing and calling you ‘sir’, Hugo?”
Oscar had earned the right to be bitter, and to remind me that these second chances were due as much to white privilege as to divine grace.
That white middle-class privilege meant it took me a long time to learn that justice is not color-blind. Young men of color learn that lesson much earlier. In college and grad school, I was stunned by the stories of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of police that I heard from African-American and Latino students and colleagues. Their anecdotes of being stopped for “driving while black” or for “looking like a gangbanger” fit with the sad larger story of criminal justice in this country. Even now, black and Hispanic young men are far more likely to be arrested – and locked up for longer — than their white male counterparts. Though many individual cops are not bigots, only the hopelessly naïve or the deeply prejudiced could believe that these higher rates of incarceration are because young men of color simply commit far more crimes.
As someone concerned with sexual justice and ending rape, the reality of a racist justice system has shaped how I think about solutions to the problem of violence against women. Feminists and their allies have fought hard to stiffen penalties for domestic abuse and sexual assault. Getting law enforcement to take sexual violence seriously (and to stop slut-shaming survivors) is tremendously important. But while rapists deserve punishment (and, if possible, a chance for restorative justice), we should all be concerned that those punishments will be meted out more severely to poor and dark-skinned men.
The struggle to end sexual violence can proceed simultaneously on many fronts. We need to change hearts and minds as much as laws; we need to rethink our dim view of the male capacity for self-regulation and our outdated obsession with what rape victims wear. But ensuring that rape is taken seriously as a crime involves shifting the views of cops, D.A.s, and judges as well. If those of us who advocate for the victims of violence don’t remember that the prison-industrial complex punishes some perpetrators much more severely than others, we’re trying to solve one problem while compounding another.
This doesn’t mean that those who are in danger shouldn’t call the cops if they find themselves threatened. Discouraging the victims of rape and assault from involving the police because of institutionalized legal racism just compounds injustice; women should never be asked to protect their abusers with their own bodies. But those of us who advocate for women and children should partner with those who advocate for prison and policing reform. Fighting rape and racism needn’t be a zero-sum game.
I didn’t deserve to escape arrest for cocaine possession. I didn’t deserve to avoid prosecution for attempting to kill another person as well as myself. Sam didn’t deserve to have his skull beaten in for having an open can of Coors in his car. What we both deserved was respect, and what we both deserved was justice. Only one of us got the former, and arguably neither of us got the latter. Sam’s dead, and I got away too easily for too long. Our stories aren’t just anomalous anecdotes; they reflect patterns of policing that are old and enduring in this country. And those patterns need to change.