In Others’ Shoes
By Gilah Yelin Hirsch
While I was traveling, I received an email from my house-sitter in Los Angeles announcing that my car had been stolen. It wasn’t where she had last parked it. I was briefly shocked by the news and then asked her to file a police report and notify my insurance company. I had lived at the same address for 45 years and I had never experienced anything untoward before. Three weeks later I received another e-mail from my house-sitter saying that she had found the car. She explained, apologetically, that she had later remembered the right parking place and all was well. I asked her to report the good news to the police and the insurance company.
I returned to Los Angeles two months later and re-entered my life. Late one busy Friday afternoon, as I was driving south on Main Street in Venice, I became irritated by a big black SUV driving on my right in the slow lane, windows open, blasting loud rap music. The driver was a young black man. We drove side by side for several blocks. In my rearview mirror, I noticed a police car with lights on some blocks behind us. I thought, “Oh finally, they are after the car with the noise that’s disturbing the peace.”
I continued to drive in the left lane next to the SUV. Soon there were 2, then 3, then 4 cop cars with lights and sirens screaming behind us. “Oh, my god,” I thought, “what did he do?” and I drove along, allowing space between us, waiting for him to be pulled over.
Suddenly there were 5 cop cars with speakers blaring,
“Pull over, pull over to the side!”
The SUV was not pulling over, and just then the 5 cop cars surrounded me.
“Stop, pull over to the side! Pull over to the side!”
I was startled — they were after me.
Guns drawn, the police yelled,
“Throw your keys out the window!” I obeyed.
“Place both your hands on the steering wheel.” I obeyed,
I was utterly dismayed. What was this about? Surely it was a mistake.
They ordered me out of the car — slowly — with my hands in the air. Their guns were drawn.
“You are driving a stolen vehicle.”
I said, “This is my car.”
“Paperwork is in the glove compartment,” I countered, fearful of those guns.
They held me at gunpoint away from the car while one officer located the documents and another grabbed my wallet for my driver’s license.
My car was registered as a stolen vehicle, I was a fugitive from the law, and they had located both the criminal and the stolen property.
Traffic had been completely blocked by the 5 police cars — as well as mine — in the middle of a very busy street. I was humiliated. I told them that I had been in Europe, that my house-sitter had reported the car stolen, then found it and I had asked her to report it found. I realized then that she had not made that second report to the police or to the insurance company. Finally, I was allowed to leave.
To be held at gunpoint by policemen had been terrifying and I felt shaken in every way, in my body and my mind. But something else took hold even more deeply — from the depths of my soul. From the beginning of the incident I had believed that the young black man in the SUV beside me was the offender. I never questioned that the police might be after me. I felt disgusted with myself for assuming that he had been the target. Although this happened to me several years ago, that experience has been front and center recently as I have watched the injustice of dreadful police killings of black people.
I have been a professor of art for close to 50 years at the Dominguez Hills campus of the State University of California that is adjacent to Watts and Compton.* Our student population has always been predominantly black and brown, and I am white. I have maintained many friendships with former students reaching back four generations and have heard chilling horror stories about police brutality from my students. Over the years, I visited families whose husbands, brothers, sons, and boyfriends had been incarcerated and/or had died in neighborhood shootings. I knew these stories first hand. I identified as a progressive liberal, had marched and protested in Berkeley and Oakland in the 60s and in Compton in the 90s and 2000s.
But this had happened to me. I had been stopped by 5 police cars, each with two cops, and put through something I had only heard about before. I had been treated aggressively with guns drawn and aimed at me. I was ordered into submission by policemen who barely listened to me. I was treated as a criminal for an endless hour. I felt the fear, the sense of hopelessness of being a victim of a system more powerful than I was. My long-standing sense of safety was deeply shaken — I could not just assume that the police were my friends. I had to question what I had unknowingly taken for granted for so long because of my skin color, and my eyes had been opened to the unrecognized bias that had been in my own way of seeing.
I can imagine how differently this might have played out if I had been a black man or woman. I could easily have been shot dead, killed by strangulation with an officer’s foot on my neck, shot while sleeping in my bed next to my boyfriend, or shot in the back 7 times and paralyzed from the waist down. And, those are just the events of recent months that have been witnessed or caught on cell phone cameras. Now we can all see what is happening. We are all having our eyes opened to the injustice that is real in our country. Everyone can see what was easier to hide in earlier years. Seeing allows those of us who might have been comfortable in our assumptions to question them and to have a chance to walk in another’s shoes — as I did when the police surrounded me.
(The image that leads my post is a painting — “Grounded in Light” — that I completed in July. It represents the many masks we are using today to protect us from the pandemic virus, and also the many masks, one on top of another, that we wear as we build our personality traits throughout our lives.)
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* Following the Watts Rebellion in August,1965, the Dominguez Hills site was selected in order to provide the mostly minority nearby neighborhoods with the best accessibility to a college education.
This story was first published, September 18, 2020 in WINN (What Is Needed Now)
Gilah Yelin Hirsch is a painter, writer, filmmaker, and professor emeritus of art at California State University at Dominguez Hill, Los Angeles.
Gilah’s website is www.gilah.com