Where I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, one of the most violent neighborhoods in New York, there was an alley alongside the building where my family lived. The alley was a semi-public place: I played in that alley; guys and girls snuck moments to feel each other up in that alley; and drug users got high in that alley. My mother’s second-floor bedroom window overlooked that alley, and one night while we were watching television, there was an argument over a crap game and someone was shot and killed there.
When I was about 10 years old, a friend and I entered that alley at the same time an officer walked in at the other end. His gun was drawn, and, instinctively, we both turned and ran. The explosion from that gunfire is a sound I’ll never forget. We got out of that alley safely, but since that day I’ve had a bit of fear of police officers.
Fear of officers is clearly a black thing. I’m reminded of this after watching the video seen around the world of a much-talked-about snowball fight on 14th and U streets during the area’s first storm. From the video, you see a mass of people throwing snowballs both at each other and at passing cars.
When snowballs hit a passing Hummer, a man gets out and confronts the racially mixed—but predominately white—crowd, while clearly holding a gun in his left hand. Later, as he speaks into a radio, it’s clear that he is a police officer.
He wasn’t the only cop on the scene to draw a gun. A uniformed cop responding to a report of a man with a gun steps out of his marked car with gun in hand as well.
The officer overreacted, and he should be reprimanded. But he wasn’t the biggest idiot on the scene. The biggest idiot was the guy who, snowball in hand, reared back and took aim at an armed officer. With Mariano Rivera-like accuracy, he fired a snowball and connected with the officer’s face.
Did I mention that the officer, already pissed off, was holding a gun?
In throwing a snowball at an armed, angry man, that man callously put his life—and the lives of everyone else around him—in jeopardy. It’s doubtful that he knew, as he threw the snowball, that the guy was a cop. What if he hadn’t been a cop, but a passing thug who didn’t take too kindly to being disrespected? A thug might have been inclined to light up the clown who threw the snowball at his face, and everyone else around him.
In an era where everyone has a camera, the video of the incident has gone viral. The reaction of the officer has outraged many people. As I read several comments at the end of some of the stories and videos relating to the incident, some of that outrage is misguided.
The officer involved is black, and quite a few commentators thought race had something to do with the incident. One of the comments described it as a typical reaction to an overzealous black cop.
Another called the cop “racist, picking on those white kids. If those kids were black he would have let it go.”
My favorite reaction was from someone who wrote that had the incident “been reversed, i.e. a white off-duty cop and a predominately black crowd of snow ball throwers, I’m sure Al Sharpton would be in D.C. right now blowing things out of proportion and making it a racial incident.”
Let’s reverse the incident. Let’s say there were several hundred black people at an intersection throwing snowballs, or anything else. Someone would have called the police and reported a riot. A report of a riot would have led to the response of riot cops. And the response of riot cops would have meant a forceful response to control the incident.
And it was also a great place to hang out 15 years ago. But I can remember then standing on U Street, about a half-block from where the snowball fight occurred, and seeing a black guy get a bit overzealous in his response to an officer who had asked him to move along.
The more belligerent the guy became, the more police reinforcements showed up. The guy—who was loud, but never cursed—was pounced on, restrained, cuffed and carted away. Everybody on U Street knew the deal—you didn’t mess with the police.
Those folks at 14th and U don’t know anything about the old Shaw. To them, the new Shaw is a place where you can bogart an entire major intersection during a storm, throw objects at moving vehicles—which is crazy, since that could easily cause an accident—and think you can get away with it.
And not only do you hit an officer in the face with a snowball, you also stand toe-to-toe with him and shout, “Fuck you, pig” directly in his face, as the video shows (with other uniformed officers standing by and doing nothing). Honestly, I looked away when the guy said that, because I knew what was coming next. When I looked back at the screen, the dude was still upright and not, as I expected, stretched out on a mound of crimson-colored snow.
What I found fascinating watching the video is that people got a chance to express their true feelings in the faces of police officers and apparently suffered no repercussions.
When that officer 36 years ago stood at the other end of that alley and recklessly fired his gun, I wish I could have asked him why he pulled the trigger.
When confronted by officers who have pulled me over through the years for no reason, I would have liked to ask them why they did it (instead of sitting still in the car, with my hands on the steering wheel, and not saying a word).
When the white male officer in Prince George’s County, Md., told my daughter two years ago to place her hands against a car and proceeded to frisk her, I wish I had told her that when pulled over by police you never ask, “Why?” My daughter did that—she asked why—as officers searched the car she and three other students from American University were riding in following a bogus traffic stop.
In response, the cop pointed a flashlight in her face as she sat alongside the other students on the curb. He didn’t answer the question; he just laughed. The next week I drove to my daughter’s school and explained the rules of DWB (Driving While Black).
I’d like to think that the video from Shaw demonstrates progress. I’d really like to say that the restraint we saw—aside from the officer overreacting—at that snowball fight is restraint that’s practiced in all of Washington and its suburbs, and not just in its privileged areas.
I’d really like to tell my daughter that the next time she’s confronted by police, she can ask any question she wants. In reality, I can’t tell her that. Telling her that would be putting her life at risk.
Some people who were at 14th and U during the snowball fight say the video doesn’t lie. But, seriously, for people like me it isn’t telling the truth.
Jerry Bembry is a veteran news and sports writer. He is working on a book with Bill White, the former president of the National League.