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summer 2006 / from the editor :: email this story to a friend

Cop Talk
By Amanda E. Doyle

It was, truly, a beautiful Saturday when I headed up to Old North St. Louis for a bike ride highlighting both the Word Up project and the Riverfront Trail. Uncharacteristically, I was early (my mom being in town might have had something to do with that), and so while a small group waited to see if any others would show up by our 10 a.m. start time, we circled our bikes on the 14th Street mall and sat chatting on the benches across from Old North's greatest landmark, Crown Candy Kitchen

At a few minutes 'til 10, a St. Louis Police Department van pulled up in front of where we sat and an officer got out. I assumed he was on his way to Crown Candy (seems like half of the force must be there some days at lunch), until he strode in our direction. "What are you guys doing up here, going on a bike ride?" he asked. Our fearless ride leader said yes, and even proceeded to explain a little about the poetry project we were going to see, handing the officer a flyer. He looked it over a little skeptically ("poetry," you could almost hear him snort), but offers a little "Roses are red" ditty that I take as harmless teasing. The sun shines, a breeze blows, I swear a bird might've even chirped: all is well with the world! We can all get along!

Then the other shoe drops. "Well, don't wander too far in that direction," he advises, with a vague sweep of his hand that encompasses...what, exactly? It was kind of a west/north/south sort of sweep. "It gets pretty dicey pretty fast." My hackles were up immediately, because though I live in south city, I've spent a fair amount of time in various northside neighborhoods, and have felt welcomed and safe and engaged. "I can just see somebody chasing you all down on these bikes or something," he added.

Most of the group good-naturedly agreed we'd keep our wits about us and that we felt quite safe riding the poetry path, and then one of the participants — a resident of Old North — said, "We should be fine: I live in this neighborhood and walk and ride through here all the time."

The police officer looked him up and down and offered his verdict: "You don't look like you live in this neighborhood."

This man is white, and has lived in several locations in the neighborhood over the past 20-odd years. He replied that it was true, and the officer then further tried to find a pigeonhole for him: "Let's see, up in that area on Hebert that's getting redone?" No, actually. Not all the Caucasians in Old North St. Louis are confined to one block.

"Well, it's pretty quiet up here right now, so you might want to go ahead and get started." Move along, in other words, because you don't belong here.

I must confess, the neighbor in question handled himself much better than I would've in the same situation. He took it in stride, told the officer a little about his history in the area, and thanked him for his warning. I was pissed off, not least because both my mother and my mother-in-law (who, thankfully, have spent enough time in the city to know not to believe every ignorant rumor that gets repeated in their presence) were with us.

Officer Friendly? I am not, as a rule, a cop-basher: I think these folks have a thankless job that exposes them on a daily basis to the worst our city and our fellow man have to offer, a position that unfortunately renders them more calloused and prone to worry than the average citizen. I think they have too many demands placed upon them for too little money, and I don't know how they or their families deal with the reality that every day at work could end in actual physical harm. Beyond that, I was raised in the era of Officer Friendly, and by a Marine Corps dad, thereby imbuing me with a healthy respect for authority.

That being said, this encounter with this officer brought back every bad thing I've ever thought about police officers in our city, and made me wish there were some kind of mandatory training that could force them to see something besides the received conventional wisdom that seems to have the strength of capital-T Truth among their ranks: The City is Dangerous. The North Side is a Wasteland. Good White People Should Stay Home in Safe White Neighborhoods. The Poor are Animals.

We talked about it on the way home, and my husband made a point that had come up before, in a long and complex discussion of police residency requirements: the more officers are permitted to sequester themselves anywhere but the city where they serve, the more coming in to work every day becomes an exercise in parachute tourism, a place where "the other" lives, not anything to do with the officer on patrol. The less informed officers are allowed to be about reality and changing neighborhoods (for both good and ill), the more they will rely on what "everyone" knows about certain places.

That officer probably looked at me and saw a hapless white girl at the beginning of a naïve misadventure that could leave me robbed, hurt or worse. I looked at him and saw a city-bashing malcontent whose worldview was clouded by racism. Neither of us would have served well as ambassadors for our causes in the moment we met.

© 2006 The Commonspace