Some things stick in your mind. A bit over a year ago I was in Chicago, riding downtown. I wasn’t supposed to be there, the ride having been arranged through friends without going through the public affairs office, so I didn’t write about it at the time. The cop, who I’ll call John, has left the force. So I will.
Nothing dramatic happened. The neighborhood of his beat was black, and what today is called poor. It wasn’t really. We barely have any of what people in West Virginia in 1950 called poverty. Today the word means living at a basic level materially, with only one television perhaps. But if physical poverty isn’t there, other kinds assuredly are.
The neighborhood was residential. We decided to get out of an unmarked car and walk. “Unmarked” doesn’t mean much, since people in the neighborhoods quickly recognize the latest confiscated clunker used by cops. “Plain clothes” doesn’t mean much either. In those regions a white face is either a cop or a miracle. The residents don’t much believe in miracles.
The houses were single-family, a bit run down and the worse for wear, but not falling apart or trashed out: Pretty much ordinary lower middle class. Kids ran here and there, colorfully dressed and hollering about kid stuff. On seeing us, they ran up to investigate. Pretty soon we had seven or eight.
“Hi, Po-leese!” said a girl of maybe ten. So much for undercover. She wasn’t being a wise-acre, and was in fact completely friendly. The boys wanted to know whether we shot many bank robbers. Guy stuff. They assumed I was a cop, “reporter” not being a category familiar to them outside of television. I shamelessly impersonated a police officer.
We kidded with them and the boys pushed forward with big grins and lots of curiosity and told us they wanted to be po-leesemen too or Army soldiers when they grew up. The girls charmed us. We couldn’t help it. Guys are guys.
And I thought, as I always do when captured by children in the ghettoes, “Nothing wrong with these kids. They’re just…kids. Suitable for everyday use. Riding bikes. Falling out of wagons. Playing cowboys and Native Americans.”
It wasn’t profound analysis, but it was accurate.
For reasons of literary symmetry, it would have been nice if the gangbangers had appeared at the other end of the block. Actually it was a good bit and several blocks later, but there they were, in front of a corner convenience store. (For people who don’t have transportation, these become the only stores.) Judging by their colors, they were either Vice Lords or wannabes, but I couldn’t prove it. There were, I think, six. Clothes were ghetto-bag, with pants legs falling in pools around their ankles.
They weren’t friendly. They slouched and leaned and looked at us hostilely. John said something on the order of, “How’s business, guys?” He either knew or assumed that they were crack dealers.
There’s a game that gets played in these meetings. The bangers profess undying innocence. “What? Officer, we don’t do that stuff. That’s bad. We just hangin’ but we ain’t slangin.’ “
They knew he didn’t have probably cause for a search, and anyway, even if they were actively dealing, they wouldn’t have the stuff on them.
I can’t remember what John said. Usually there’s kidding back and forth. “I know you gentlemen would never do that. You’re stock brokers, right?” “Yeah, that’s it. That’s what we are.” It’s friendly in form, but not in substance.
Often the question arises, “How come you figure we’re sellin’ drugs? Man, that’s racist.”
Usually the answer is, “Because I’ve seen you doing it on this corner for over a year,” but I don’t think John knew this bunch well.
We went on.
What bothered me, what often bothers me in similar circumstances, is seeing bangers, kids in their teens, definitely involved in the drug trade, probably armed, with a good chance of being involved at least peripherally in murder–and knowing that five years ago they were running around and hollering, “Hi, Po-leese!” and being just kids.
I can never quite understand how they get from A to B. Yeah, I know, they want to be like the big kids, who hire them to be lookouts, and all the rest. I know about young unsocialized males. I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Today they’re great little kids. Tomorrow they’re Vice Lords. Ain’t spoza be that way. But it is.