“Freeze. Hands in the air.”
The officer planted his feet, pointed his gun at my chest. It was three days after Christmas.
“Get the hell out of my classroom,” I said.
I saw doubt in his eyes. He tried again. “Get down on the floor.”
I didn’t move. He got on the radio, his gun still aimed at my chest. I could hear his supervisor curse, then tell him to leave the room. It was an exercise. The school was supposed to be empty, but no one had told the teachers.
When I stood my ground, I was instinctively confident that I had the right to be in my classroom. In that milli-second flash, I “knew” the officer would back down. As my wife gently pointed out later, “that was really stupid.”
But there it was. All of my past interactions with police led me to the instant assumption of safety. As a small boy I zigzagged down the center of my street on my bike, followed slowly by an officer in a car who then advised me to “look backwards in the future.”
While in college, I watched an officer calm and then disarm a man who had just threatened his wife, and then me, a surprised bystander, with a very large kitchen knife. The police have been on my side.
There is no way to know how the officer would have responded to a black man standing in front of him, refusing to follow his directive. What is clear, from talking with my students, colleagues and friends, is that no black man would have shared my assumption of restraint. To respond as I had would have invited aggression.
There is also no way to know what I would have done had I been the officer that morning, if I had pushed open that door to find an unexpected black man. What I do know is that even after 28 years of walking the halls of Riverside High, of training, experience and conscious effort, when I see a black student inappropriately out of class I have to work to un-assume “trouble.”
Let me explain.
I racially profile students. I carry in my head a complex stew of experience and stories. I also witness a daily reality in which the overwhelming majority of students in trouble are black and Latino. There are many social, cultural and economic reasons for this – as my colleague the social studies teacher says, “350 years of American history.” These explain the reality but do not alter the experiences which shape expectations.
So when Durham’s police chief, José Lopez, says that Durham officers do not racially profile, I am skeptical. Even with training and clear professional guidelines, I suspect our police are just as human and just as flawed as I am.
The experience of blacks, arbitrarily stopped, is too universal to deny. The fear is real, the pain is raw. These are my students, my colleagues, my friends. To say “Black Lives Matter” is to hear their voices.
And yet, I am troubled. I can’t speak for other parts of America. But here in Durham, the police that I see, and the officers I know, are professional, respectful and courageous. I have seen them step in front of danger to protect people of every race. I know that they never know which house call, which building search, could be the one that explodes.
When I speak with my students, colleagues and friends who are black, their experience with police is mostly the same. A recent survey showed black Durham citizens with a higher level of support for the police than white citizens. But they also know first-hand the incidents that drive mistrust, that drive anger.
Every institution needs safeguards. The police are no exception. Cameras and independent prosecutors are necessary steps; a willingness to acknowledge mistakes, and apologize for them, would be a leap forward.
We need more ways for our police officers to know the people in the neighborhoods they serve, and for those of us in the community to know our police. I know that when I see in the hallways a student I know, of whatever race, there is no profile. There is Manny, Chuy, Muhammad. Even when they are in the wrong, I know their stories, their hopes and their fears, and they know me. We talk to each other.
I believe we in Durham will move forward when we find ways to listen to each other and to seek out each other’s stories. We all need to know each other.
I don’t know what that looks like in a city the size of Durham. I know we have taken some steps already. We have community police substations, we have an effort by officers to know and help the homeless people in their precincts. We have the March for Life Foundation bringing communities and police together in poor neighborhoods.
This is our home. We need each other.
Steve Unruhe is a math and journalism teacher at Riverside High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org