One block from home after a Black Lives Matter event, blue strobes flash in the rearview mirror. The irony does not escape me. I bend to pull my wallet from under the seat. Beyond irony, a stunning privilege. I feel around the floor. My hand closes around leather. I pry it out and set it on the passenger seat.
I will not get shot tonight. I know this with a certainty borne of 44 years of never having lived in proximity of gunfire. I’ve neither witnessed nor known intimately anyone who was shot at school, in neighborhood crossfire, or at the hands of police. My grandfather saw combat in Europe but never talked about it. A childhood friend returned to Colombia where armed battles hijacked neighborhood streets and kept her family sequestered in their house for days at a time. She wrote me one letter about it. I never heard from her again.
Here’s what did happen: on a Wednesday night in high school 30 years ago, a group of buddies and I piled into two rusted-out cars and drove out to Bob’s Big Boy. Thespians, madrigals, debaters, A/V crew. The disaffected, the curious. One boy wore a trench coat and carted the theater’s flash-pans and pyrotechnics in the trunk of his ancient sedan. He fancied himself an amateur collector of replica weapons from colonial battles and Renaissance fanfare.
We carried one of those mock guns into the Bob’s Big Boy.
The boys told the server that we had it. They showed it to her and explained that it was fake, offering to put it back in the car if it bothered her. She’d served us every Wednesday for months prior so she just laughed and waved us on. In our ecstasy of teenage self-absorption, we plowed through brownie sundaes and black coffee. Our Camel cigarette butts littered ashtrays and spilled out onto the table. We left a mess no doubt eclipsing our measly tip before heading out to the parking lot.
They screeched in from all sides. Surrounded us, pinned us in place. They poured from their strobing cars and leveled their guns at our bellies. Bullhorn, staccato whoops. Don’t move, drop your weapons, hands where we can see them.
It went down like every cop show you’ve ever seen. Scripted, right down to startled terror on our adolescent faces.
Each of us had a pat-down while a second officer looked on. If eight of us, then sixteen of them. A policewoman searched me, asking, “What’s this in your pocket?” On instinct, I reached down. She put a firm hand on my arm and pushed it back up. “No, just tell me.” Surprisingly gentle. “It feels like a pill.”
“Advil,” I managed. To my own ears, it sounded like a lie. It couldn’t have been – my mind had collapsed to a claustrophobic passageway far too narrow for deceit. I couldn’t see my friends. Too complete a contraction of vision. My brain registered only a swarming mass of officers. Lights, weapons, crackling radios, hands on my body.
They freed all of us but one. M, hands cuffed behind his back, ducked into a cruiser. They took it all from his trunk, all the weapons. We hovered at a distance while they held up each item, chuckling, marveling. I caught a glimpse of their take on all this. The oddity of us. The absurdity.
We filed into someone’s car. Stress abating, attention fading. At the Montgomery County police station, we lingered and paced with a couple of seething parents. We hung around ready to offer a statement or bail out our friend, or do whatever polite and acceptable service might help.
M finally ambled out. Both amped and weary, he offered up a sort-of smile. An adult in our midst handled the administrative minutia. I didn’t have to think about it. My education in matters of criminal justice consisted of freshman year civics and occasional episodes of Hill Street Blues. What in my life could possibly have necessitated this knowledge? In our neighborhood, we didn’t even lock the front door.
They charged him: Assault With a Deadly Weapon. Well before the black coffee and brownie sundaes, a woman in a passing car had seen a beater full of teens waving a handgun around. She panicked. Assumed we were waving it at her. A bored cop explained to us that if a person thinks it’s a weapon, then it is.
The intersection of privilege, gun violence, and policing looks like this: Not one bullet was fired. Even in the absence of a concrete threat, a sizeable fraction of the county police force responded to the call. The officers witnessed each other. They respected gender. Performed proper procedure.
A force needed urgently in more vulnerable pockets of the county showed up to a suburban chain restaurant to kid-glove a bunch of middle-class, mostly white kids.
Our parents, at the other end of a phone call, arrived in a heartbeat. They had the resources and pull to keep things in line.
And us, a group of teens who have every reason to believe that standing around in a police station will not lead to further trouble. No records among us. No experience of abuse at the hands of the cops. We understood without question that the police served us. The station belonged to us. It existed because of our families’ votes and tax dollars. Some of ours too – although middle class, we weren’t loaded. We worked in decent, low-wage jobs selling movie theater tickets and lifeguarding at the local Y.
So concludes my most traumatic encounter with guns and police. It does not comprise the totality of the narrative, of course. Drinking and drug-dabbling got me busted a few times. Activism in high school and college had me facing off with cops and even bailing out compatriots who’d put their civil disobedience training into action. A judge once sentenced me to mandatory family counseling after a mini-sting of a beer-soaked Assateague Island camping trip. Carving out the time for court-ordered therapy absolutely thrilled my single-at-the-time working mom.
The only gunshots ever fired in my proximity were my own. Summers in Oklahoma, my grandpa took me down to the illegal dump on the Washita River. A couple of 22s, a shotgun, a paper sack full of ammo. Target practice on rusted coffee cans and discarded bathroom fixtures. Granddaddy Bill taught me how to rest the butt against my shoulder and align the sights. He told me to prepare for the kick, especially with the 30 gauge shotgun.
It left a bruise. But in the split-second of the kick, the old tipped-over toilet detonated like a land mine. As porcelain exploded out in every direction, a new kind of power surged through me. This version of power I’d only understood as abstraction before. Now the awesome, terrifying intensity shivered along my bones. Throbbed in my veins.
The power to destroy. To annihilate.
Which is all to say, I knew from a very young age what could happen when a gun is leveled at a belly. But I’ve never seen it happen to a human.
Notice how this memory, over thirty years gone, still sits right up under my skin. How the echo still cracks against shoulder and vibrates through my marrow.
Children live with this much closer than I ever did. This power rides shotgun (pardon the pun) with them as they move through their days. It exists either as a threat or something they’ve claimed. Or, in many cases, both. They live with it when they ride the bus, sit in class, run the gauntlet from corner store to home. Through this movement, they carry the bruising, explosive scope of this power.
Consider how the proximity of such power changes a person. Most likely not for the better.
Armed, facing off, surging. We find it harder and harder to see one another. The offgassing of fear shimmers, wobbling the scene and everyone in it. Cortisol floods. Fight or flight.
The mind fails to operate in anything other than an immediate way when glucocorticoids wash through the circuitry. Any effort that draws on creativity, empathy, imagination, design, nuance, investigation, critique – really, on any higher-order thinking – shuts down. Intricate work drowns in the tidal wave of perceived threat.
Do we know this? Are we willing to consider the possibility that we are saddling whole swaths of fellow citizens of this planet with a legacy of rage and trauma, simply by keeping a steady stream of weapons on the market?
More than two months have passed since the March for our Lives brought millions of kids, families, and supporters of sane gun laws out into the streets. This month and next, in many of the same states that were upended by school shootings, polls are open in primary elections. The countdown to November has begun.
What will we do with what we know? What story will we let the future tell? To whom will we give the power to determine the distribution of protection, of freedom?
Of the right to grow up knowing one’s own life matters?
Image: Pinterest, “Police Baby Joey,” unknown source