Police Actions: Some Blues Are Not Colorblind
By Ryan Masaaki Yokota
As a 20-something adult trying to make it in Los Angeles today, I would say there are enough problems to be woeful about without having to put up with harassment and blatant discrimination from the police department. Yet time and again, the police have intruded in my life with subtle and discriminating forms of harassment that have shaken my faith in law enforcement's expressed goals: "to protect and to serve."
The most memorable incident occurred on my birthday in 1990. My roommates and I jumped into my car to go to a club and celebrate my birthday. Driving in Hollywood, we passed a squad car that was giving someone a ticket. We didn't think anything of it, and continued to roll down the street, when suddenly, the police came up behind us and flashed their lights. I was at a loss as to why they had pulled us over, especially considering that I had broken no traffic laws and no one in the car had done anything out of the ordinary.
The police officer came up on my left side and asked for my car registration and license. At one point, he asked me about a beach parking sticker on my front windshield. This struck me as an odd question, but I explained to him that I used to live near the beach and that's where the sticker was from. (In retrospect, I can see the officer suspected I had stolen the car and was trying to verify if I knew what the sticker was about.) After running a full check on my records, he came back to inform me why he had pulled us over.
"Okay, now," the officer said. "Why did you guys flick us off?"
We sat in the car and looked at each other in amazement. No one in the car had even paid the officers much interest in passing them by, and we certainly hadn't flicked them off.
"Come on now, which one of you did it?"
In response to his questions, we explained that we hadn't done anything of the sort, and that we were just driving to a club to celebrate my birthday. He didn't believe us, and got increasingly angry as he tried to force a confession from of us. We continued to explain that we hadn't flicked him off and were innocent.
Eventually, having reached his fill of us, he let us go (especially since we had violated no law), but before he left he threw a little barb at us.
"Next time you flick someone off," he said, "make sure you have the balls to admit you did it."
This from an "officer of the law." This from a police officer who had nothing better to do on the mean streets of Los Angeles but to pull over a bunch of teens and harass them on mere suspicion of having "flicked" him off. It made me wish I had flicked him off.
But this wasn't the first time I would be pulled over and asked ludicrous questions by a police officer. Incidents such as these occurred time and again throughout my college years as I watched people of color receive discriminatory treatment from "law officials."
For instance, I remember a time when police broke up a Westwood party I was at which happened to be full of people of color. In response to that party, six squad cars were sent to the location, where police officers harassed and pushed the people inside to leave, and even arrested a youth.
Yet, not much more than a few weeks later, I passed by another party in Westwood, composed predominantly of white people. This party was huge and burst beyond the house, spilling into the streets and blocking an intersection. In response to this party, which was twice as large as the other party, the police sent exactly one squad car. The squad car didn't even try to break up the party, despite the way it blocked traffic, and the police officers that came stood outside their cars and smiled and laughed with the party-goers. As I said, the biggest difference was that this time the party-goers were all white.
Lately, I've noticed the increased presence of police cars driving along city streets without license plates. Within the last three weeks, for example, I've seen at least four police cars driving around without plates, and it makes me wonder if they are driving without plates so if they get out of line, no citizen will be able to identify the squad car number.
Finally, the last noteworthy incident occurred just last Tuesday as I drove down Santa Monica Boulevard to visit a friend of mine late at night. I must admit that I had been going a bit fast, but considering the weather, roadway and density of traffic, I was driving at a pretty safe speed.
I pulled up to my friend's house and a squad car came up right behind me, flashing its lights. Two police officers came out of the car. One came up on the right of the car and flashed a light so that I could not see his face. The other came up on my left side and got my license and registration. After I gave him those two pieces of identification, he proceeded to interrogate me with questions about where I was going and where I lived. I told him, and he then asked if I had any warrants out on me. I responded that I didn't, and then he asked a question that really struck me:
"When was the last time you were arrested?" he asked me.
Notice this question and break it down. There was no "innocent until proven guilty" in this comment, no respect for me as a person. Not only was the question absolutely unrelated to the reason he pulled me over, or to anything related to a warrant (all of which can be valid questions), but revealed that he had already made the assessment that I was probably some ex-con driving a hot vehicle on my way to commit some crime, based on my race, color of skin and clothes.
The key question to ask is whether a white kid who had been pulled over would be asked the same kinds of questions. The answer is probably no.
I've heard many more stories that are worse and more blatant than these examples. Friends of mine have been pulled over and shoved to the ground without adequate reason. One was picked up and interrogated without cause. And as the Rodney King beating amply demonstrated, people are getting beaten to a pulp today in modern-day lynchings.
These stories are demonstrations that people like Los Angeles Detective Fuhrman exist everywhere within the police department and many practice varying degrees of discrimination and harassment, from the subtle to the blatant. Yet they all fit under the same rubric of discrimination and racism, with the police element in the United States even attempting to systematize such racism by developing mug shot books of Asian youths merely suspected of being criminals.
Asian youths today, along with other youths of color, are treated like criminals and gang-bangers regardless of whether they are or aren't. The saddest thing about this kind of treatment is the way in which this contributes to low self-esteem and a sense of "someone's always out to get you" among the youths of today. If you are always treated like a criminal, you often start believing it's true.
There exists today an increasing criminalization of being young and of color, as can be seen in the racist connotations of the "Three Strikes" initiative, Proposition 187, and the atmosphere of fear produced and beamed into the rooms of every American today through such shows as "COPS," "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol" and "America's Most Wanted."
Yet, in the midst of this growing government repression, there has been no significant push by the California public to draw the line in the sand, saying there has been enough racism and discrimination by our elected "leaders." With approval given through silence on the part of the California peoples, the law enforcement branch of government has increased its encroachment on our civil rights.
It seems rather clear: Now is the time to push for a critical review of law enforcement agencies that control our streets. Solutions such as civilian review boards and greater community governance of police, combined with greater punitive measures against those police officers convicted of violating an individual's civil rights, seem increasingly necessary in this time of fear. It's time to draw the line before the lessons of Fuhrman become lost and before the tragedy of Rodney King is repeated again.
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