Two black men were sitting in the dark on the brick wall across from our house the other night. It was late, in the middle of that odd, late-winter heat spell of a few weeks ago. A police officer rolled around the corner in his car, saw the men, was immediately suspicious. Normally there’s nothing going on down our street that causes a police presence late at night, but lately the police have been hot-spottin’ out here, checking through the area to make sure nothing’s going on. The cop slowed down to a stop in front of the two men. One of the men turned and said in a low voice to the other, “Watch him shine his light over here.” And so the cop did, pointing his piercing spotlight into the two black men’s eyes, blinding them. They squirmed and squinted, ducking their heads a little and putting up their hands against the glare. They knew better than to look away. You want to really arouse a cop’s suspicion? Try to get out of the way when he’s shining a light in your eyes. That’s a quick trip to the back of the police car.
I’ve often wondered why cops do that—shine their light directly in a suspect’s eyes. Me knowing nothing about police work, I’d shine the light somewhere around mid-chest, where you could watch the movements of their hands, or pockets from which weapons might come. It’s an old basketball trick. Don’t worry about the head. It goes where the body goes.
Then again, the face might be the key. Back in the South, in the old days, there used to be a crime called eyeball rape, looking at a white woman with lust, for which many a black man was jailed or hung. “Getting sassy” was an offense, too, back then, though not one that ever made it on the books (“sassy” coming from the term “to ridicule” from the Mende folk in Sierra Leone, by way of Carolina, one of the many African words that made it, unacknowledged, into American English usage). I do remember in Carolina that there was a place on the traffic ticket marked “Attitude” with boxes for “Good,” “Moderate,” and “Poor” for officers to check and then judges to consider when giving out your fine. But, anyhow, those days are long gone…
I think, for cops, it may be a power thing, shining their lights in a suspect’s eyes. Intimidation by blinding. Something like a pin in chest. If the suspect turns and flees, he’s clearly done something wrong, and chased down and caught. If he stands and winces in the light, he’s submitting to the cop’s authority, acknowledging the cop’s ability to hold him—without even touching him—until the cop decides to let him go. It’s the perfect nonviolent assault, leaving no marks, and, therefore, no possibility of consequences to the cop. None of those brutality allegations.
(And if you don’t think shining a bright light in someone’s eyes is an assault, try walking down Telegraph or San Pablo avenues one night, flashlight in hand, turning it on random people that you pass. See how long it is before you get yourself arrested. Or, more likely, assaulted. In the not-non-violent way.)
Anyhow, back to the night in front of my house.
Like a cobra staring down its prey, the cop held the two men in his bright glare for a moment. Then, without a word, the light clicked off, and the police car rolled away, slow, down the block towards Allen Temple. The police officer didn’t say anything to the men. He’d made his point. He was watching them. If they were up to something, they needed to get their asses up and moving and not be there when he got back.
I don’t know who the police officer was that night. We get a lot of that out here in the flats of far East Oakland, faceless, nameless cops, roaming through our streets. They come and go like wraiths. We never know who they are, or where they live, and we can only discern why they’re out here by watching the news or reading the paper. They never stop and introduce themselves.
I don’t know who the police officer was that night, but I do know who one of the men was, sitting on the brick wall across the street from our house. His name is Frank. His mother lives in the house over there; it’s her brick wall on which the two men were sitting, talking, getting some cool night air in that recent heat spell.
I don’t know how long Frank’s family has been living in that house. Thirty years? Forty, maybe. They moved in sometime during the years I was gone. Frank doesn’t live at the house across the street any more, but he’s always over there. He’s a Vietnam veteran, I think, though it’s nothing we’ve ever talked about. Mostly, we talk sports. He’s a Raider fanatic. He calls me a Raider Hater. We often meet in the street between the houses when I’m leaving for work or coming home. During football season we can be out there for a half-hour or more.
In the mornings, he comes over to cut his mother’s lawn and pick up the trash that the passersby have left during the night. On Monday nights he puts out the garbage bins for his mother, and more often than not, he’ll come across the street and put out ours, too. Once, when my mother had to be rushed to the hospital, he watched the house for us. It’s that kind of neighborhood. He’s that kind of person. I don’t know who that cop was that night. But I know who Frank is.
If you’re looking for a dramatic ending to this story, there isn’t any. Frank didn’t get shot, or put in jail. The policeman never came back. All you have is a cop rolling through our block, checking out suspicious black men, putting them in their place. A fairly typical night in our neighborhood, in Oakland, at the millennium’s turn.
In a recent debate at Oakland City Council over his tenant eviction ordinance, Oakland Councilmember Larry Reid remarked that the American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t live in East Oakland. Cut out the first word and the last, and the man is onto something.