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Culture
Police, Violence and Change

10 Jul 2016

standoff
Location of Houston's little-known police-ninja standoff in Memorial Park, circa 1991. closeup
The lower closeup shows Memorial Parkway at the bottom, a jogging path, and the utility break above them. In between is the the area that was heavily wooded, but the drought of 2011 thinned it out considerably.
About 25 years ago on a beautiful Saturday morning in Houston's Memorial Park, police were summoned to a remarkable scene: a group of 15 or 20 black-clad white men wielding sticks, chains and wooden swords had surrounded a smaller black man in what appeared to be a sinister situation. The group was not out in the open but hidden behind a stand of trees in a clearing for power lines.

The men watched the police emerge from all directions - five squad cars creeping carefully through the broken field, two officers on horseback and a helicopter hovering above. The leader of the black-clad group, a former Army Ranger captain who was later recommissioned for service in Afghanistan, told his compadres to continue. He walked casually across the field to the nearest police car with his hands clearly empty. None of the police had dismounted or left their vehicles. He talked to several officers for five minutes through their open windows. The black man waved at the squad cars to show there was no problem. Soon everyone was waving and the police left without further ado.

No doubt you're wondering how such an event, which has achieved legendary status in certain circles, would turn out today: I am too, which is why we stopped training in the open. We were training in Japanese bujutsu (battlefield) arts alternately ascribed to the ninjas and the samurai. The young man in the middle, a good friend also named Dale who spoke with a peculiar English accent that marks native Virgin Islanders, was in the middle because he was the best student in the class, and given a difficult training assignment: to be surrounded by a motley crew who attacked in no particular order, with no predictable method, and to defend as necessary in standard single attack-and-response style. I was one of the newbies on the outer ring. Like the most of the others I was uncertain and hestitant. I was starting to learn that hesitation is a major cause of defeat in battle.

Fast-forward a dozen years: I was practicing a Chinese sword form with my training jian, a straight two-edged tai chi long sword which weighs two kilos (four and a half pounds) but which cannot be sharpened into a live blade. Because of the rainy weather and water-soaked ground I was practicing in an empty parking lot in my apartment complex rather than the secluded space I preferred. I should have known better: I was in full view of the street, and a police substation was only a quarter of a mile away. When a cop drove by and made a fast U-turn I prepared myself.

As with the incident in the park, I continued my practice - this time slow, smooth, continuous - rather than stop and seem to act guilty. As he drove into the parking lot the cop instructed me by PA to drop the sword; I placed it casually on the ground and stood, raising my hands so he could see they were clear. As he stepped out I chatted with him easily, telling him I was a tai chi teacher. Soon the city cop was joined by four deputy constables and deputy sheriffs. I invited them to inspect my sword to verify that it could not cut; they also inspected my sword bag and found nothing but my ID. The lead cop hefted the sword, realized the weight was serious, and commented that it could probably still do damage, as can any long piece of metal, but lost interest when he saw the blade could not cut. He consulted with his peers, then came back to mej. His body language told me we were cool. He said they had "voted 4 to 1" to let me go; the one turned out to be a female constable who had introduced herself with a big fat lie that I had diplomatically let slide. As he was leaving the lead told me I had an outstanding traffic warrant that I needed to take care of - a warrant that gave him every excuse he needed to arrest me! I didn't even know about it, but you can bet I took care of it.

The starting moral of this story is that there are clearly ways to deal with police officers without making them feel angry or threatened; otherwise I and my buddies would all have police records, or worse. Make yourself their friend, or make yourself their enemy, and they will treat you accordingly. Keep in mind that when they stop you now, they are concomitantly terrified that they are about to die. Some have earned that feeling but most have not. Help them feel safe and they will help you feel safe. The last cop who gave me a speeding ticket, about six years ago in small town Texas, thanked me for my courtesy, which made me think courtesy is not common.

That's the starting point, but let's be honest: I'm white. It saddens me to witness this truth, but my skin color gives me a tremendous advantage in credibility even today. I experienced two incidents as a young man, both times in the company of black friends, that drove home the fact of police racism. While mild compared to today's horror stories, each event taught me something.

The first time I was 18 in Fort Worth in 1972, still in high school, and had discovered an adult night club that illegally served alcohol to teens; I took my best friend Galen, whose skin is about the same tone as President Obama's. The cop-bouncer at the door waved me in but stopped Galen; he didn't ask either of us for ID. A year later that club, and its sister club in Dallas, were closed by a civil rights lawsuit for their discriminatory policies. Today Galen is a college professor in Pittsburgh.

The second time I was 20 in Austin, attending the University of Texas. A group of us held a street party on a block west of campus bordering some of the hippie dorms and co-ops where we lived. We did it by the book, complete with city council permission, one-day beer license, insurance, damage deposits, the whole nine yards.

The afternoon that we set up for the night party, police showed up to cordon each end of the block, just after we brought in a flat bed truck to deliver the beer kegs and for the bands to play on. My buddy Newell, a wiry guy who had very dark skin and corn-row hair, was helping unload the kegs but was stopped by the cops as a suspicious character. Newell was about my age, one of the musicians scheduled to play and one of the organizers. I was embarrassed for both of us: Newell had to have the cops call me over to vouch for him. They didn't know me from Adam, but because I was white I could vouch for him. I did so and the cops slinked off immediately to find another suspicious character. Today Newell is a professional musician in Portland.

You may have noticed by now that nowhere in this hodge-podge of anecdotes lies a fixed and certain lesson. Anyone who views these matters in absolutes makes the most grievous error of all. These are mini-lessons of the type that most of us experience throughout our lives, for better or worse. The incidents involving the police, if they occurred today, might turn out much worse than they did then; or because of my skin color, go no worse than before. It's impossible to say. So let me take this away with one last anecdote.

I attended a multi-day martial arts workshop in Atlanta in 1990, a Tai Kai led by Japan's most famous teacher of ninjutsu, Masaaki Hatsumi. Although this is off topic I can't help but note that at the back of the room on the first day I met a famous spectator, Fred Rogers. Yes, Misterrogers was watching ninja training. In one of his trademark sweaters. Contrary to popular mythology, Misterrogers never served as a navy frog man in World War II; never fought at Iwo Jima. Doesn't wear a sweater to cover Navy tats. But he was interested and had lively chats with some of the teachers. He autographed my training schedule, now long lost.

Back to topic: I trained a lot with a blonde German with a similar body type, which made it easy for us to work together - that, and his English was pretty good. He wanted to know one thing about America, one thing only - how bad was the racism, really? Pardon me for my prejudice but I choke when a guy with a German accent asks about racism. Mostly I was floored by the question because I not experienced seen racism recently, not since 1983 anyways (I had a manager at work who was terrible), and there was little racial violence in the news. When I told him things seemed to have gotten a lot better, I was thinking about the problems of Turkish immigrants in Germany, as three of my family members were Turkish immigrants to America in 1960 and fully integrated in American society, which was not allowed in Germany.

If he asked me the same question today I would have to give a different answer. Since then we have seen new black segregation, racial violence in public schools, growing inequality in education, and an increasing chasm between police and non-police. This has happened even as racially mixed marriages have become common and non-controversial, even as we have elected a two-term "black" president, suggesting that the general public has far less problem with race than police do. Non-whites get the worst of the police problem, but it's not isolated to them: both of my children, as young adults, have been assaulted or abused by police in non-arrest situations.

Most of the proscriptions we hear for fixing police-public problems seem to focus on changing police behavior, but I think we also need a better understanding of the stresses of that job. Street cops need as much R&R as we give our professional combat soldiers: soldiers who survive combat without PTSD do so with a lot of R&R. Their needs are attended to. It's not a full solution, but it is important. Police officers never get the breaks, never get the time off, never get the attention except in a negative way. How can that produce the good results we all want?

They also need ongoing psychological counseling - not psychiatry, but counseling. It needs to be a requirement, because when a police officer seeks counseling voluntarily it is a stigma. It hurts his reputation, goes on his record and damages his career. If they all receive it as a matter of course, that problem can go away and the ones most who need the attention can get it without fearing penalty.

As I say, these are bits and pieces without a single point, but they go in this direction: Handle with care your interactions with dangerous people, handle with respect everyone from whom you wish respect, and handle the police as fragile instruments rather than blunt force weapons. When police stop seeing themselves as weapons the police can start being our friends again, and when we can stop seeing police as predators we can be unafraid to offer our friendship.


You may also like this related article: Why Do We Train? (147)
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