When I was in junior high school in the 1960s chains were really cool. All the tough guys liked to wear leather and have some type of silver chain hanging down out of their jeans pocket; you know, like the ones some bikers attach to their big black wallets. I couldn’t afford leather, so the chain was my choice; particularly since I found one on the ground one day. I quickly made it my own.
To look really cool you needed to carry yourself in a particular way; you had to saunter, mosey along as you walked, never in too big of a hurry. And you needed to have a rather surly look on your face; like you were mad about something that had happened, or were ready to be mad about something that was about to happen.
Being cool was tough to pull off in front of your parents, or others who really knew you well. But it was important that you perfect your nods, and other subtle movements, especially in front of strangers, so that their perception of you (I am speaking from a male perspective BTW) would be that you were not someone with which to be trifled; rather, you were a dangerous sort if angered.
You had to portray yourself in such a way that if a person were to encounter you and a wild lion on the tundra, they would have a hard time deciding from whom to run. Got it?
Now THAT . . . was being cool.
That’s why The Fonz was so cool in the 1970s TV hit show, “Happy Days.”
Even after I quit wearing that silly chain when I went to high school, I still tried to maintain a certain amount of cool. However, in my senior year of high school, walking home at 3:00 AM, traversing through the parking lot of some apartments near my girlfriend’s house, an officer of the renowned TPD (Tucson Police Department) decided to stop me and put me in his car for questioning.
Now I knew that I was a good kid and all, and that I hadn’t broken any laws or anything. I was merely making my way home in the darkness, being my regular cool self, making sure that if anyone was awake to see me they would not try to mess with me because I was portraying untouchable, unchallengeable coolness to the max (that’s the way you stay free from trouble, you know).
Actually . . . that’s precisely WHY the patrolman stopped me and put me in his car to question. A young man. After reasonable hours. Roaming through a private area. And being super cool and comfortable with himself.
It reminds me of a number of young girls I have seen who like to dress like they are “wicked city women” (a term my high school history teacher liked to use), decked out like prostitutes, welcoming all comers to the party. But when approached for favors they react insulted, and indignantly protest that they have been unjustly treated and completely misunderstood.
Odd, isn’t it?
We like to dress the part, and we want strangers to think we are in the play, but when the curtain comes up we want to be able to sit with the audience.
When my wife’s niece was recently pulled over by a car with a flashing blue light she felt uneasy. It was not just the fact that she was being stopped by the police (which is scary enough); it was that she didn’t feel right about it somehow. She had the presence of mind to stop in a public area and call 911 for help identifying the patrol car.
Turns out it was a hoax, the kind you read about or see on the television. The “officers” seemed to have the right uniforms, and the right colored lights in their car, but they were not, in fact, law enforcement officers. They were just playing a part for personal gain and mischief. When they saw she was on her phone, and unwilling to open her car door and engage in their charade, they quickly fled the scene.
When we dress a certain way and attract attention to ourselves, or when we carry ourselves in such a way as to portray a “tude” that spells danger, or when we put ourselves in places that “gangstas” are known to frequent, we cannot very well say we’ve been totally and completely misunderstood when we receive the suspicion that portrayal invites.
The world in our minds, created by television, movies and the like, makes it possible for us to pretend we are something entirely different from what we truly are, then cast off that costume and step back into “the real world” at will. And so, we do this day in and day out.
Until one day . . . we find ourselves in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time, or the gig is up when a police officer sees our portrayal rather than what we truly are on the inside (of course, that is all he/she can see at that moment), and it is not only TOO LATE for us to cry “foul,” it is also completely unwarranted.
When I was 14 years old I ran to investigate a house my brother and I were house sitting; we heard sirens and wanted to make sure there was no fire, etc. I was apprehended by a rookie police officer from TPD; his sweaty hands shook as he quickly braked his patrol car, jumped out to apprehend me, then handcuffed me and put me in the back seat of his cruiser.
Other patrol cars converged, and a total of 12 officers discussed the unfolding situation. A Ford Mustang had been stolen in the vicinity, and supposedly I fit the description of the young driver. An older friend of ours was present as well, and he was cuffed, too. My friend thought we were both roughly treated, and vowed to get his father involved in getting back at the officers responsible.
Forty-five minutes later we were released. But not before a friend went by in a car, looking on at the alleged “criminals” being held in custody (I was a little embarrassed). I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens. Had I resisted, showed an uncooperative attitude, or portrayed something other than an appropriate level of obeisance, the results might have been catastrophic.
Looking back now, I can see I was profiled – “the act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior.”
Good thing I wasn’t wearing my chain, huh?
If you dress, act, and look innocent – most people (especially law enforcement officers) will suspect you might be innocent (unless they have some reason to suspect otherwise). If you dress, act, and look dangerous – most people (especially law enforcement officers) will suspect you might be up to no good (unless they have some reason to suspect otherwise).
And so . . . if you dress like a thug or behave in a threatening way, whose fault is it if you are perceived to be a thug? It matters not if your particular community venerates thug attire, nor does it matter if your manner and demeanor do not reflect what is truly in your heart. Because no one can know that but YOU.
This life ain’t no movie you are starring in, you know!
So, I have some words of wisdom from the late Jim Croce:
“You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.
You don’t spit into the wind.
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger.
And you don’t mess around with Jim.”
Do police officers sometimes overreact? Are some of them guilty of brutality? Do some use their badges as shields that authorize them to use unreasonable force, or to foment rebellion so they can use ostensibly justifiable deadly force?
Indeed, they do. Sadly, they do.
But let’s not complicate the already difficult issues and injustices by thinking we can portray ourselves one way and then claim abject innocence when others identify us as the very image we have portrayed.