On Privileges that are Not Universally Shared

The definition of the word privilege in a dictionaryAnyone who knows me knows that I walk my dog early each morning — lately I’m regularly going to a nearby park where, well, Izzy goes regularly as well. But every now and then I change it up a little — variety is the spice of life and all that — and so I park here and we walk there or park over there and then we walk here. Sometimes I park in one of the lots but other times I pull over off the small loop of a road and park on the grassy shoulder.

This past weekend, after a successful walk and just after getting her loaded into the back of the car, I noticed in my side mirror a park employee’s pick-up truck turn the corner, behind me, while I was getting my safety belt done up but before starting the car. It slowed to a crawl as I watched, pulled up right along side me, and then stopped — his open passenger window directly across from my open driver’s side window.

The employee, an older man, wore a tan uniform of some sort. Not someone who cuts the grass, I thought to myself. Security maybe? Who knows. Do they patrol this park on weekends?

Across his front seat, he said:

“Is there a problem…?”

“No,” I answered, deciding that his leading question didn’t need an elaborate answer.

Now, the punchline to this encounter, which I learned after a short give and take conversation, was that I’m apparently not supposed to park on the grass. Replying that I didn’t see a sign saying that was likely not the best idea but he drove on, having made his point, I guess.

Given what’s going on in the US right now — or, as many would say, what’s been going on for years but only now are cell phones catching it all — it was an instructive encounter. For the initial query was clearly accusatory and a challenge; for despite his question he wasn’t poised to jump to my aide, as if I had the hood up and was standing there worrying about a dead battery. No, it was a question that pretty obviously provided an entrée to further scrutiny — after all, he had decided that there was a “problem” to sort out and, presumably depending on my answer, he was going to get to the bottom of it. As for my answer, while not hostile, it was uncooperative — signalling that, from where I sat, there was no problem at all and he could just move right along. For, if you think about it, simply saying “No,” and thereby challenging his judgment and the undisclosed criteria he had used to assess the situation, was rather different from blurting out something like:

“Well, officer, I was just walking my dog — she’s a 9 year old boxer, there in the back — and I’m heading off to get a coffee.”

You could say that I escalated the situation, I guess — though, let’s be frank, he had created the situation in the first place, by his opening move, which just as easily could have been:

“Excuse me sir…, please don’t park on the grass.”

Now, I know that this short encounter was nothing like what happens to others when a variety of officers pull them over; it was nothing like that — and that’s the point . For the fact that I was able to be curt (but, sure, polite) and that I was able to implicitly criticize the local parks commission for apparently not posting signs about the grass (or should I just know that?), and then have him just slowly drive away after making his point, signals all sorts of things about that officer and myself — traits and treatment that not everyone in this country shares.

I have no idea if he was armed (presumably not — or am I being naive?), but it’s not unimaginable that our exchange could have taken a sharp right turn at any moment, that he could have decided I was being uncooperative or a smartass. He could have pulled over his truck, in front of me, got out, asked me to get out of my car… Show some ID… What’s with that dog barking in your car…? I admit that I have no idea what powers a park security officer does or doesn’t have (why don’t I know that?), but surely he’s got a radio or a cell phone and the local police could easily have been notified of some suspicious character with unwashed hair and a sweat-stained ball cap making trouble in the park at 7 am.

That didn’t happen, of course — and the “of course” is the key. For while it might have, there’s plenty about me that was visible just through that open driver’s side window, that likely signaled to that gentleman that, although deserving a warning, I didn’t need much else.

Maybe it’s equally naive of me to think that race was playing a role in our encounter (if you hadn’t figured it out, yes, we were both white) but it’s a park in which I’m one of the few white people in the mornings; our city is no different from many (most?) US cities in terms of racially-defined parts of town and, perhaps given where this park is located, I’m in the minority when it comes to its early morning users. (Like motorcyclists passing each other we all wave — the dog walkers and the speed walkers.) So race is always and already an operative category in that park — the question is whether that little dance the officer and I did was enveloped in it.

I’ll never know for certain, but, reflecting back on those few moments and the attitude I know that I had when being challenged (and which I assume was pretty visible to him) — it’s clear to me that I didn’t feel the need to deescalate the situation (as many African-American parents teach their children about interacting with the authorities) and I wasn’t ready to defer to his authority by signalling to him my compliance and thus inferior status (apologizing or blurting out more than was asked of me would have been a good way to do that). For I felt that I had freedoms and authority in that situation and, given that he soon drove off, I’m guessing that he felt that too.

It’s just grass, after all….

(But then again, it was just a tail light, or a hoodie, or selling CDs or cigarettes on a sidewalk, or going to get Skittles, after all…)

While I don’t know how to fix the current spiral of violence in the US (from the too often repeated tragedy of black people being killed for what started out as a seemingly routine traffic stop to the horrendous Dallas sniper shootings of police just last week), I tend to think that one of the ways to at least start to see it as a problem to be tackled is for more people who look like me to reflect on little moments like that one in the park, so as to consider issues of identity and status that may be far more local than we had at first thought — issues of power and the ability to negotiate (or not) that, despite the admirable rhetoric of the country’s founding documents, are not universally shared and — let’s be honest — never have been. Whether they ought to be, and then how to work toward that goal, are questions citizens really will have to grapple with for themselves — and it’s pretty clear that many are doing that right now. But if you’re not, and if you don’t see all this as a problem, then mulling over an episode like mine — called out for being parked on the grass — might be just the place to start.

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