After he gets done working at his restaurant job or playing League of Legends, our 19-year-old son Henry likes to take a walk down to the lake or around our neighborhood to clear his head, listen to music, and enjoy the still of the night.
That’s what he was doing on 48th Street a few blocks from our house on a recent Tuesday night around midnight when a cop car bolted in front of him, jumped the curb and up onto the sidewalk, forcing my boy, a Colombian-American and lifelong citizen of Minneapolis who was wearing jeans, a baseball cap, backpack and earbuds, to stop in his tracks.
“They almost hit me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, WTF?’ I didn’t know it was a cop car at first, I thought I was getting jumped by somebody. I had nothing on me, just a bottle of water.”
Out of the souped-up, tinted-windowed crime-fighting vehicle jumped two amped-up Minneapolis cops, who threw him up against the hood of the car and handcuffed him under the streetlights of South Harriet Avenue. After repeatedly asking what was going on, the cops finally told Henry he was a suspect in “an attempted burglary” that had happened on 48th & Pleasant.
“I told them I was walking from my house [the other way] from Bryant, and they didn’t really care.”
What you need to know about my lad is that he can handle himself. Last month when he was coming home from work on the bus, another passenger had a seizure in front of him, and Henry blew by the flummoxed bus driver, helped the guy off the bus, dashed up the street to the firehouse and got the paramedics to the scene, hopefully in time.
When the cops moved to search his backpack, Henry calmly told them that they’d handcuffed his arms behind his back over the backpack and that they were going to have to take off the cuffs in order to get to the backpack. The cops didn’t believe him and repeatedly attempted to yank it off my son until they finally uncuffed him and searched the empty backpack to their satisfaction.
To a backdrop of new and wholly warranted scrutiny of the Minneapolis Police Department, from Al Flowers’s police brutality case to Chief Harteau’s signature moment thus far, of skipping a community meeting in the wake of Flowers and the Ferguson riots, to weekly stories about racial profiling and questionable police tactics to an increasingly encroaching and annoying police presence (“show us your papers,” as one oft-stopped pal puts it) on the traffic-heavy but altogether big-city safe and civilized streets of South Minneapolis, Henry — who is a legal adult and has no curfew and as an American citizen has every right to take a walk at any time of day or night that he chooses — picks up the story of one kid and one otherwise quiet night in his well-to-do lily-white neighborhood:
“They put me in the back of the car without even telling me anything. I had to ask them a few times before they said where we were going, to 48th & Pleasant. They weren’t treating me bad, but they were treating me like I did something. We got to the house that was supposedly robbed, I was sitting in the back of the car and there were like 10 cops and six squad cars around that block. Then I heard on the radio they had another guy on 45th & Pleasant and the cops got back in the car and let me out and gave me my stuff back without a ‘Sorry’ or anything; they didn’t even drive me home after that.
“They did technically arrest me, but they didn’t say I was under arrest and I didn’t want to make it seem like I was trying to get away from them. …
“It was ridiculous. I didn’t even know what to do, so I just played it like a guy who hasn’t seen all the crap cops pull. I just let them do their job. People want to antagonize the cops, but if they want to check you out for a burglary, you have to let them. When they let me out, I wasn’t really sarcastic about it, but I said to them, ‘Thanks for protecting the neighborhood, guys. You’re great.’”
Will he still go out? Does he feel safe in his own neighborhood — from the cops?
“I’ll still go out, but just tell them next time that they should know me, like, ‘Oh, that’s Henry.’ I’m in this neighborhood. What is community, man, if you’re just going to be arresting people left and right and not asking questions? Maybe you should get to know the people. That’s the thing: Do cops alternate? I really don’t feel like they are consistent neighborhood cops, I feel like they’re just people who get called to do their job somewhere.”
This summer when coming out of a show at First Avenue, I saw eight cops on foot, bike, and squad cars aggressively descend on a scared black kid walking down Hennepin Avenue in a scene straight out of 1958 Birmingham. No report of it appeared anywhere, proving yet again that scenes and stories like that are commonplace; I still wonder what happened to that kid, who looked about as dangerous as a mouse, and how many of his civil rights were broken that night.
Last summer the Star Tribune reported that of 95 payouts totaling $14 million for police misconduct since 2006, only eight of the cases resulted in discipline for cops. Which is to say that the police do not police their own, so it’s up to the citizenry, weary from the cumulative claustrophobia that comes with constant surveillance and cop cars buzzing around, harassing, and filling quotas, to remind all concerned that, as one post-Ferguson community activist put it, “We’re watching.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at email@example.com