This past weekend I was out walking my dog and admiring this year’s bumper crop of political campaign signs. We’ve got your McCain/Palin signs and your Obama/Biden signs and a whole gaggle of local election signs for people that, as a grad student, I barely care about. Nonetheless, I’ve been pleased at the level of political awareness in my area.
That is until this weekend when I noticed a Buick with foreign plates stop at an intersection. A college-age male then jumped from the back seat, ran across a different street to someone’s yard, ripped up their Obama/Biden sign, and retreated back to the car.
I’ll admit, I debated intervening for a moment or two, trying to decide whether or not I had just witnessed a crime. Ultimately I decided I had to say something- both because interfering with someone’s political speech like that is a problem and because there’s no way that, were that his house, he would remove his own yard sign in such a manner.
I approached the car from across the intersection, keeping in front of it until I swerved around the front to knock on the driver’s side window. Inside the car were five males of about the same age who all looked Indian* and were very well dressed. The driver had a large diamond stud in his ear. After a brief hesitation I pantomimed rolling the window down and the driver complied:
Drek: What exactly are you doing?
Driver: What, man? He just wanted an Obama sign.
Drek: (pointing at the house) Do you live there?
Drek: Does he live there?
Drek: Then that isn’t your sign. You just stole that sign. It doesn’t belong to you.
Driver: Okay. Well, what do you want me to do about it? (shrugs)
Drek: (pointing to the house) Is that your property?
Drek: Does that yard sign belong to you? Is that your property?
Drek: Then what do you think I want you to do?
Driver: …put it back?
Drek: You bet your $#@ I want you to put it back.
Driver: All right, you guys, put it back.
At this point two things happened. First, I looked at the guy in the back seat who originally stole the sign. He was grinning during this exchange but stopped as I glared and began to unbuckle his seatbelt. At the same time, an unmarked black SUV pulled into the lane next to us. I pulled my dog closer to clear the way for it to pass, but to my surprise it stopped and rolled down its window.
Police Officer: Is there a problem here?
Drek: Yeah, these guys are stealing yard signs.
Police Officer: That’s a problem. Why are you guys doing that?
And before I knew it the officer was out of his car, checking license and registration, getting all the occupants out of their vehicle, and lecturing them rather aggressively on the fines for ripping up people’s signs. I don’t know if he issued a ticket or not because the officer dismissed me fairly early on, not least because the driver of the car admitted that they had stolen the sign. All the same, I felt reasonably good about confronting the men and getting some random homeowner or renter their sign back.
Later, however, I found myself wondering at the weirdness of the entire situation. I’m a big gangly white guy.** The cop was an even bigger white guy. We were, essentially, coming down on people of color. So far, this sounds like the beginning of a tale of hardship. Thing is, I actually witnessed these specific people stealing a yard sign- it isn’t like it was racial profiling. And in addition, the white “establishment” was coming down on people of color for tampering with the candidacy of an African American. There was no white conspiracy here, just a random guy who was angry at something he saw, and a cop doing his job. And the weirdest part of it was that I was doubting myself for reporting a crime I had actually witnessed just because the perpetrators were of color.
And I’ve gotta be honest- I think that’s just a little bit racist.
* No, not Native American. I mean the sub-continent here.
** Or so I would have you believe.