this election makes me feel very odd sometimes.

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:

Driver: Yeah?

Drek: What exactly are you doing?

Driver: What, man? He just wanted an Obama sign.

Drek: (pointing at the house) Do you live there?

Driver: No.

Drek: Does he live there?

Driver: No.

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:

Drek: (pointing to the house) Is that your property?

Driver: No.

Drek: Does that yard sign belong to you? Is that your property?

Driver: No.

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.

11 thoughts on “this election makes me feel very odd sometimes.”

  1. I studied police records once. Tearing up and taking down political yard signs is a very common crime, I’m sure the police had been dealing with it before. (Complaints about other people’s signs being too close to the sidewalk, too big, etc are also common, btw.)

    “Foreign plates”? Or do you just mean out of state?

    Regarding head trips on yourself about race, this is what we all do one way or another. You can run the head trips both ways. You ask yourself whether you would have acted the same way if the guys were white. And you can ask whether your interpretation of what you were seeing was affected by the ethnic-racial appearance race of the perpetrators. I think asking ourselves the questions is better than not asking, because whatever racial prejudices we have are typically below the conscious level. In short, I don’t think asking the questions makes somebody racist. For unconscious prejudice, it is the unwillingness to ask the questions that reinforces the problem.

    And, just in case folks’ fear of the r-word is too high to see what I mean, I’m not saying you would have reacted any differently to white guys tearing down the signs or been any less willing to entertain their claim that they just wanted the signs for themselves (rather than were vandalizing an opponent). I think it is a good thing to reflect. Where folks working on these issues have gone is to try to get themselves sensitized enough that they ask the same questions when the perpetrators are white: would I be having the same reaction to this crime if the people involved were not white?

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  2. a Buick with foreign plates

    Damn Canadians, they are all alike.

    But seriously, I am less struck by the race issue than by the fact that you’d confront five men in a car. Gender tells me that this is a situation to steer clear of, regardless of race. Good on you for being bold, but frankly, I’m glad you’re safe.

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  3. There’s nothing wrong with confronting people of color for doing something illegal. What would be racist is if you would not have done the same thing had the car been full of white men. I think that’s where a lot of people of color’s issues are with law enforcement – it’s okay to enforce the law, but do it for everyone.

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  4. Olderwoman: I generally agree with you, but I did find the whole experience to be a good one to reflect on race-wise. As a side note, though, I actually do believe that they just wanted an Obama sign. Problem is, that doesn’t justify stealing someone else’s and, in any case, it would have been impossible for the owner of the sign to tell political “repression” from enthusiasm in this case. My brother-in-law recently got very angry with his neighbors for stealing his sign and I didn’t want these guys to spark bad feelings in the neighborhood.

    Auderey: Sorry about that.

    Tina: Well, before anyone gets too impressed at my “bravery” I should note that I didn’t realize there were 5 guys in the car until it was too late to veer off. And, you know, I have a history of poor decision making. That said, my dog usually serves as a good deterrent. She’s friendly, but hyper protective and defines threatening behavior fairly liberally (e.g. my wife and I are allowed to laugh at jokes, not other people). Had it started to turn ugly, I think she would have had a thing or two to say about things.

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  5. The issue with race is that even thinking about it as a categorical determinate of behavior or belief is racist. Sometimes that’s impossible to avoid.

    In relation to this decision to confront them – I can’t believe you’d actually get upset about someone taking a yard sign. I would just hope that they put it in a highly visible place. =P

    Reading your comment though, I can understand how some personal connection to someone who had a sign stolen would affect you.

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  6. A bunch of long-winded thoughts:

    *The racism of the police/prison system is not in one place (i.e. racial profiling) and is not just about individuals acting racist. It is systemic — it is all over the institutions: in profiling, in sentencing, in uses (or not) of judicial discretion, in crime laws themselves (drug laws are the most obvious case). Bringing a group of youth of color into contact with the police means, yes, they are going to be exposed to institutional racism. There doesn’t need to be any intention here for this to be the start of a “tale of hardship.”

    *Regarding racial disparities in punishment, Ann Arnett Ferguson’s work comes to mind (doubtless lots of other work as well). She shows a continuity between punishment practices in schools and court systems such that people of color are subject to the harshest penalties possible, and whites are more likely to get softer penalties at the principal’s/judge’s discretion. Which is to say, a group of white youths may have gotten to leave that officer with a stern lecture and a “don’t let me catch you out here again.” Youth of color would be more likely to leave with formal sanctions. Ferguson also points to, where race meets class, the uneven allocation of resources for navigating court systems (needing to rely on court-appointed lawyers, rather than having money to hire private counsel).

    *I would add to olderwoman’s questions the question of what else could you have done, after the situation was unfolding, since you didn’t call the police, they just happened along. For example — you could have said to the officer “Oh we are just chatting, nothing’s going on here.” Given the institutional racism of the police/prison system, you could have decided that an instance of petty theft was not worth exposing these kids to that system. In some ways, it seems your initial concern about the signs was motivated by some sense of “citizen’s duty.” So I guess I’m asking for an expanded sense of citizen’s duty that would include challenging unjust systems of policing/imprisonment.

    *There is interesting work in critical legal theory about race and property rights, and the legal construction of property owners as violable subjects. I think the classic piece on this is “Whiteness as Property,” by Cheryl Harris. Might be interesting to look at.

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  7. “The issue with race is that even thinking about it as a categorical determinate of behavior or belief is racist. Sometimes that’s impossible to avoid.”

    Aftersox – I have to disagree with your definition of racism. Although race and ethnicity are social constructions they are still “real in their consequences.” This doesn’t just mean that they are real to the extent that discrimination and prejudice exist and different racial/ethnic groups exist in different structural locations in social space, but also real in that different racial and ethnic groups DO often have statistically different cultural beliefs and attitudes about the world, and often act in different ways as well. Whether these cultural differences are often due to structural placement (which I would argue) is a discussion for another time.

    Implicit associations about any group are dangerous, because they can lead to harmful behavior. Additionally, stereotypes can influence the way we treat people before we get to know them as individuals. However, I do not believe that merely thinking about race as a category is any worse than thinking about class or gender or religion or age as a category. There ARE differences between categories, but thinking about them does not make one racist, or classist, or sexist, or ageist, etc… Acting as if those differences are true of all people within that category, or treating someone differently based on their category is where I believe the problem comes in. Channeling our thoughts to be less prejudicial is the first step in that.

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  8. Recently I had a similar experience, which made me think a lot about the intersections of race and gender and our expectations about police behavior.

    From my apartment, I heard (without seeing) a dispute between a man and a woman in the street. The man sounded kind of nutso, very aggressive and threatening. I said to my husband (who had been in another part of the apartment and didn’t hear all of the altercation) “I think we should call the police – I hear a fight outside and I think a man is going to hit a woman.” He picked up the phone and dialed the police. As he was doing so, I managed to spot the couple on the street, and they were black. My neighborhood is very racially and economically mixed, and to be honest, from the man’s yelling voice, I knew he was probably poor (and likely drunk) but hadn’t guessed his race. Or probably I did, but I wasn’t conscious of it. I watched as they continued to fight. The man was hitting cars with his fists, stomping around, and I remained convinced that he might hit the woman. She got kind of aggressive, too, grabbing his cell phone and throwing it to the ground. He shouted something like, “if that is broken, someone’s going to die.”

    Then three police cars pulled up, and a bunch of white male cops got out and started questioning the couple. My husband and I both started to worry that we were about to witness some racist policing, maybe police brutality – we feared the worst. I suddenly felt horribly guilty. My husband wondered if we had done the wrong thing by calling the cops. The couple immediately became calm and acted like nothing was going on. The cops treated them both respectfully, to my relief. Because the woman insisted that nothing was wrong, the cops just told them to move along and stop making a disturbance. I think the man might have gotten a ticket of some sort.

    So on one hand I was relieved that my fears about racist police didn’t play out in this situation, but I was frustrated that nothing was done to prevent the violence that I still strongly suspect was about to occur (and may have occurred later that evening, in another location).

    So this got me thinking. I wonder how the police would have handled the situation if the man and the woman were white, or the woman were white and the man were black. Are police less likely to intervene in instances of domestic violence if the perpetrator and victim are black? If so, it would reverse what we typically mean by selective enforcement.

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  9. @9: The questions you raise bring to mind the “restorative justice” movement, principles of which I was thinking about in my above comments. The basic idea is how to reorganize responses to crime through community-based and community-building programs.

    So a few resources for further thinking on this:

    *Introduction to restorative justice
    http://www.restorativejustice.org/intro

    *INCITE, an organization specifically working on anti-racist, restorative justice approaches to domestic violence
    http://www.incite-national.org/index.php?s=35

    *An article from the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare that looks at restorative justice and domestic violence
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0CYZ/is_1_31/ai_n6065939

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  10. @akphd

    20/20 or Dateline did a series of programs about race and people’s reactions in the spring (I think). They set up scenarios with kids vandalizing, one group white, one black, and watched peoples reactions. How many called the police, how many directly intervened, etc. They did the same with kids sleeping in a parked car, and a man and a woman arguing too. I can’t remember the show but the reporter was John Quinones.

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