On a summer night in 1983, I, a white, 18-year-old, university sophomore, sat outside, with my 22-year-old black boyfriend, Ray. Taken by surprise, we were suddenly surrounded by eight uniformed Pittsburgh police officers, thrown on the ground, tossed around, handcuffed, and arrested. When I, lying alone on the floor of a paddy wagon, asked what I had done, I was told, “This is what happens to white girls who love n*ggers.” I was taken to the public safety building, locked in a cell for eight hours, and at my arraignment, learned that we had each been charged with public intoxication, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and disturbing the peace. Not only was each charge completely fabricated, we were never read our Miranda rights.
Not only was each charge completely fabricated, we were never read our Miranda rights.
Ray and I spoke to a lawyer who told us that the sight of interracial couples was infuriating to police, but that we could be sure that none of the arresting officers would take the time to show up at the preliminary hearing. We went to the hearing to find that five of the eight arresting officers, including the one black officer, were apparently infuriated enough to show up. Our lawyer spoke to them and then told us that he felt the best thing for us to do was to shake each officer’s hand and apologize. If we did that, the officers had agreed to drop all but one of the summary charges, for which we would only be assessed a fine. That is what we did.
[We] spoke to a lawyer who told us that the sight of interracial couples was infuriating to police…
What the policemen did not know was that my father was a cop. He was smart and hard-working and had risen through the ranks of the Pittsburgh Police Department to lieutenant, and then had moved to the other side of Pennsylvania to become the successful Chief of Police of three combined townships. He had a career that spanned from 1940s to the 1980s, covering some of the most tumultuous and challenging eras for law enforcement.
I was a sensitive, shy, bookish kid, and my father was my rock, always concerned about how serious and solitary I seemed. He tried to teach me to be careful in this world. To protect myself and not put myself in harm’s way. Not one to talk about himself, when I asked him what it was like to be a cop, he eventually admitted, “It’s scary.” When I pushed him, he described the tension of approaching a stopped car, exposed and not knowing what was waiting for him to get close, and of being called to a domestic, knowing that passions would be running high. He talked about the struggle to stay in control when he saw heart-breaking things, like severely abused children. I once asked him if he had ever shot anyone and he said, “Thank God, no. I fired my gun once, but, luckily, I missed.” I felt scared for my father’s safety, knowing him to be a sensitive, creative, tender man, of extreme intelligence, who played the trombone in jazz clubs and had the soul of a poet and philosopher.
We agreed that our arrest remained one of the worst events of each of our lives, still affecting us in serious ways.
After our arrest, Ray and I struggled to resume normal young lives. Like most victims of bullying, we felt anxious, defeated, and depressed. This was the first time that either of us had been in trouble and we felt that our lives were out of our own control. We became hyper-vigilant, angry, and cynical, showing signs of what I now know to be PTSD. We both felt deeply ashamed and filled with self-doubt. Eventually, Ray and I broke up and went our separate ways. When we reconnected, after almost 20 busy years, we agreed that our arrest remained one of the worst events of each of our lives, still affecting us in serious ways.
Only the most courageous people are bullied. The school yard bully targets kids who are brave enough to be different; those who don’t hide their ideas or style, and those who don’t struggle to fit in. Workplace bullies target those whom they perceive to somehow threaten their position, like talented employees who challenge the status quo. Family and community bullies fix their sights on members who dare to go outside of well-defined, acceptable beliefs and behaviors, like those who join a different religion or political party. Institutional bullies, like some police officers, target those whom they perceive to challenge their power and authority, like an interracial couple brave enough to sit outside together, a young black man driving a luxury car, or an hispanic woman lingering in an upscale store. The people who hide inside or who blend-in pose no threat and, therefore, go unnoticed by bullies.
Only the most courageous people are bullied.
Being brave and, therefore, targeted is exhausting, and sometimes the anxiety, fear, and sorrow come out in ways that, from the outside, look inexplicable. This is true for both individuals and communities who carry pools of pain and fear that cause them to behave in, what some might consider, disproportionate panic and rage. Though in 2008, a Black man was elected to the highest office in the land, the Black community continues to suffer from the effects of institutional bullying. When a Black person is killed by police, regardless of the circumstances, it is traumatic for the community. Though my father died in 1994, I still feel angry and scared when police are targeted. Though my arrest was 33 years ago, I continue to feel vulnerable, sad, and anxious. Sometimes, I overreact to a perceived injustice, and when I am subjected to true bullying, which happens because I still refuse to hide, the intense feelings of loneliness and shame return with renewed poignancy. And I should apologize to the children and the parents of the children who, over the years, engaged in typical bullying of my children. My reactions were not “proportionate.”
To move forward, let’s begin to treat every living being with tenderness and understanding. For their own benefit and the benefit of those with whom they come into contact, everyone in any position of power or authority must be properly trained and held strictly accountable. Let’s support all people who put themselves in danger’s way, and let’s judge every person strictly by how they treat others. Let’s celebrate courage and preserve the dignity of every being. Let’s start now.