In a fit of masochism and guilt, I agreed to spend yesterday evening in Northern Virginia. We're not talking right-across-the-river-from-D.C. (where I live) NoVa, but the end-of-the-train-line, need-a-car-to-get-around part. My friend was picking me up from the Metro station, where I walked out past the bus stops and waited by what turned out to be a semi-busy street.
Pacing near this entrance to the Metro complex, I was daydreaming as usual, so I didn't see my friend pull up to the stoplight. He wound down his window and waved out his hand to get my attention. I nodded and made some hand gesture of acknowledgement as the light changed and he turned into the lot, circling around and pulling up beside me. I got in. And that is all. But it struck me getting in that this was exactly the kind of circumstance that could get some women in some parts of the country arrested for "manifesting an intent to commit prostitution". Like, exactly. I've never had to worry about this sort of thing, though, because I look like who a lot of cops think they're here to protect.
The only correlate I have to stories of routine street harassment and cruelty by cops is how often I haven't been bothered, arrested, or abused. And let's just say I'm no angel. I have absolutely walked the streets of so many cities drinking alcohol from travel mugs, ducking into dark parks and alleys to sneak a joint or a kiss; purchased drugs and even untaxed cigarettes in the relative open; and generally engaged in the kind of semi-suspicious and minimally-criminal public behavior that I'm certain would get someone with darker skin or more testosterone at least harassed (if not arrested or assaulted) many times over.
I wouldn't be writing about any of this right now except that I woke up this morning and read Brian Doherty's post here about actress Danièle Watts. Watts—who appeared on Weeds (where she played a cop) and in the film Django Unchained and now on the new TV show Partners—was handcuffed and detained by police officers in Studio City, California, after being affectionate with her husband in public in the middle of the day.
"Today, Daniele Watts & I were accosted by police officers after showing our affection publicly," wrote her husband, raw foods chef Brian James Lucas, on Facebook. From the questions the officer were asking, he said it was clear that whoever had called them in thought that Watts, a black woman, was a prostitute and he, a white man, was her client (something "that happened to her and her father when she was 16" as well).
Because of my past experience with the law, I gave him my ID knowing we did nothing wrong and when they asked D for hers, she refused to give it because they had no right to do so. So they handcuffed her and threw her roughly into the back of the cop car until they could figure out who she was. In the process of handcuffing her, they cut her wrist, which was truly NOT COOL!!!
I wish everyone had the privilege I've had to not just break dumb laws without really fearing repercussion but even simply to go about regular life without being treated like a criminal. Incidents like this one with Watts, however, show how it's not merely about the attitudes of cops. Excluding everything the officers did or didn't do once they showed up, there's still the fact that someone seems to have called them on an assumption that this young black woman cozying up to a white man must be a prostitute. Absent anything the cops did in Chris Lollie's case, there's still the fact that someone called them in to investigate a black man suspiciously sitting idly. There's the fact that in my decade of living, working, walking, loitering, and sometimes breaking the law in cities, no one has ever called the cops on me.
If there's any non-bleak takeaway here, it's perhaps that decriminalizing the bodily autonomy of adults in terms of things like drug use and prostitution would give cops and busybodies a lot less cause or pretense to investigate and harass. I'm beginning to believe anything that lessens the amount of contact that cops can have with the public is pretty much a net gain for public safety and well-being.