31 August 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson -- What a Suburban Kid Learns About Police

I grew up in upper-middle class suburbia. I learned to read in the sixties, from books created precisely for kids like me: relatively well-off, white, well-fed and economically secure. I never thought that this life, the one I lived and that I saw reflected faithfully in books as soon as I began to read, was anything other than representative of all of America.

Sometimes the kids in the books had trouble. Their puppy was missing or their kitten caught up a tree, or they got lost in a neighborhood they didn't know well. They always found a policeman who, kindly and helpful, would rescue the pet or help the kid find her way home.

Every once in a while a policeman (they were always men, back then) would come to our classroom and tell us about never getting into a car with a stranger and how to call them on our phone in an emergency. We suburban kids were taught that the police were our friends, adults we could always turn to when we were in trouble. We knew them to be kind, to have our best interest at heart, and -- maybe most important -- to be just like us.

When I moved to Washington DC in 1990, at the age of thirty-five and having lived the same sheltered (though I didn't know it was) suburban life all my years, I worked at a residence for homeless pregnant women, all of them black, poor, and hungry for most of what I had forever taken for granted as simply there for me. For all of us.

The culture shock I experienced warrants a long essay of its own. But right now I'm thinking about how shocked I was to find out that these women distrusted and disliked police. As much as anything else that turned upside down my complacent, blinkered view of life in this country, the realization that these women did not and could not trust those I'd learned to count on implicitly shook me to my core.

Now I watch and hear people who grew up a lot like I did talk about Michael Brown and the policeman who shot him. And though I deplore their lack of understanding of the realities of being black and poor in America, though my frustration just about explodes when I hear them reflexively defend the officer while casting all the doubt they can on Mr. Brown, I know where they're coming from. I have been there.

The difference for me is that I got to leave there for the discomfort of others' reality and do the most radical thing in my life: listen and allow myself to be taught.

I'm no saint. It took me years to stop fighting and resisting while my ivory tower was demolished. Then it took me years to learn how to actually listen. These years during which the patient ones and the not-so-patient ones were willing to teach me despite my angry denial were painful in the extreme. But today they seem a quiet and achingly slow miracle of acceptance, good faith and welcome.

The kind of acceptance and welcome so frequently not offered to the very ones extending it to me.

The kind of acceptance and welcome now being withheld from the parents, family, friends and race of Michael Brown.

 And that's what breaks my heart.

Thank you for reading my blog. You can leave a comment below or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.


  1. I, too, grew up in an all-white suburb (that made sure it stayed all white with burning crosses on the lawns of African Americans who tried to move in as late as 1961). I also saw the police as people who would help, as people who would befriend us in our need. I remember specifically when that changed. In 1967, my (then) girlfriend (now wife) and I were working in a civil rights education project in a rural area near Tuskegee AL. Almost every time we had a few of our black students in the car with us, we were pulled over by the state police on some pretext and questioned. They went through the entire drill: ID, registration, "Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where are you going?" etc. This never happened when we were alone in the car. I realized then how differently the police treat African Americans than they treated whites.

  2. Yes, David, I had an experience like that when I lived in Pittsburgh in the early 80s. I was driving a black, male friend from a meeting we'd both attended when I was pulled over by a cop. The (white) cop asked questions, wanted my registration, then finally asked if everything was OK. Puzzled, I said yes, and he let us go. I was baffled about that for years. Until, that is, I moved to DC in the early 90s and lived with people for whom that sort of thing was a daily occurrence.