by Jan Tessier, TPMCAFE
Not long after I became a cab driver in the city of Madison, Wisconsin, I was involved in a fender-bender accident on the city's north side. The officer who responded to the scene ignored the evidence that the other driver, a man in a suit in a rented Lexus, had struck me while making an illegal turn and allowed the man to leave, while writing me a ticket for failure to yield. The officer, a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, was patronizing, dismissive, and did not acknowledge anything I said except to tell me that he knew better. When my boss arrived at the accident site, I was understandably angry with the cop. I spoke with my boss, heatedly explaining the situation and the officer's attitude and behavior. I did not scream, stomp my feet, wave my arms, or use profane or abusive language. What I did say at the end of my rant at my boss was: "Well, I'm only a woman so what do I know?"
When the officer heard that last remark of mine, he exited his vehicle in a fury, screaming at me to put my hands behind my back. I was stunned and looked at my boss, who was also shocked. A couple of seconds later, my left arm was yanked behind my back and the cop was yelling in my ear like a drill sergeant: "I TOLD YOU TO PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR BACK!" I was informed that I was "borderline disorderly" and that he could arrest me for my behavior, and that he was "sick and tired of people calling him a racist or a sexist".
Whereupon, I was handcuffed, stuffed into the back seat of his police car, and subjected to the sounds of the officer screaming at my boss, who did his best to calm him down. The cop harrangued me for a couple more minutes, wrote the ticket, then allowed me out of the vehicle where he removed the cuffs and told me he was releasing me.
I was a nervous wreck for days afterward. The incident triggered issues from childhood, causing something very much like PTSD. I was jumpy, frightened, and afraid to work. After much counseling from co-workers and friends, I finally filed a complaint with the police department, which was terrifying itself. I was convinced that the police would retaliate against me and my fellow cabbies. The Madison police department had a checkered history of civil rights violations, and although I was a white woman, I was also a poor white woman. There was the belief amongst most cabbies in the city that the MPD hated us and we didn't trust any of them, based on their treatment of us over the years. My treatment was further proof of that.
I contacted a journalist that I knew slightly and told him what had happened to me, asking him if he had ever heard of the MPD doing that to anyone else, and what would likely happen now that I had filed a complaint. This journalist, a fine writer named Bill Lueders, obtained my reluctant permission to research the story in order to write it up for his newspaper, the Isthmus. I was wary about having a story done, and even warier when he insisted on a picture of me to run with it. The story turned out to be a blessing, and I bless Bill Lueders to this day for writing it. (He has a fine book out now called "Cry Rape", a terrific investigative work about a visually impaired woman who was raped and later accused by MPD detectives of lying and filing a false report. It's available on Amazon and it's a great read. It explains the police department here much better than I can.)
The story garnered me more attention than I wanted or expected, but it was generally good attention. Total strangers greeted me on the street and even at Burger King's drive-up window to tell me how proud they were that I took on the Madison Police Department. The week after the story ran, the internal affairs investigation ruled that the officer who handcuffed me had been abusive, had detained me illegally, and had violated my civil rights. He was suspended for 11 days without pay and was ordered into a sensitivity training program before he could return to patrol. It was, I was told, one of the most severe penalties an officer had been stuck with, and I received an apology from the head of Internal Affairs to boot. I had won. I had won thanks to Bill Lueders, an honest female officer who had witnessed the incident (unbeknownst to us all), and thanks to those who had encouraged me to file the report.
Why is this story relevant to the Gates incident? This is why:
There are cops who are incredibly hung up on the power part of their jobs. They are always looking for someone to disrespect them so that they can flex their muscles and put people in their place. There are mentally unstable police officers. There are cops who are bigots and cops who are homophobes and cops who hate women. Does this mean that all police are assholes? No, of course not. It just means that if you are a cop AND an asshole, you're a much more dangerous person than someone who is not carrying a weapon with a license to use it.
Seemingly, I have less reason to want to take the side of the police in the Gates incident, and I don't take their side. I'm not taking Gates' side, either. What I want to say is that there are two sides to every story. I was definitely angry at the officer, but it was awful that the officer felt he had a right to put me in handcuffs and detain me and threaten me with arrest because he didn't like me saying something about being a woman. He had no right to do what he did. I, on the other hand, have a right to say: "I'm only a woman, what do I know?" without fear of being arrested. Professor Gates had a right to feel intimidated by a white man with a gun demanding ID from him while standing in his own home. I had a right to feel intimidated and belittled by this cop, because he was belittling me---and because the MPD has a history of doing that with people who are poor or people of color, or both.
Professor Gates was probably angrier than the situation called for, but Sgt. Crowley---who allegedly has scads of training in racial profiling---should have been cool enough and collected enough to defuse Professor Gates' fears. Instead, it became a pissing contest between two proud and decent men who let their tempers get away from them. What should have been a simple contact has now become a national debate.
I earned my perspective because of what happened to me. I know how bad some police officers are and can be. I know that people who have darker skin than mine are highly sensitive to threats from cops, and they have reason to be highly sensitive. I also know some very decent cops and one of my nephews is a new officer and I know that their jobs are tough and require a lot more of them than is normal for most of us. I find myself in the middle of this national argument, and I think it's imperative that people try to walk a mile in each other's shoes.
What happened to me was nothing compared to some of the horror stories I've read about and heard about regarding people being mistreated by police officers. I'm damned lucky. I'm also a better person for having gone through that event. It made me stronger, and more thoughtful. I hope the country can say the same once this incident finally gets resolved.