I have never been arrested … never jailed nor interrogated. I don’t break the law—other than driving over the speed limit a little—so I’ve never had any reason to fear, avoid, or even interact much with law enforcement officials.
Except for a day in December.
It was Friday afternoon, a week before Christmas 2020, and I was in downtown Midway. That in itself was a little unusual, as a healthy respect for the coronavirus had kept me pretty much confined to home. But I needed to pick up some presents at the Historic Midway Gift Store, and I also wanted to take a few photos of a Christmasy Railroad Street to make a Facebook post that promoted shopping in my hometown.
That’s what I told the police officer, the one who followed me in his cruiser as I walked in the Darlin’ Jeans parking lot. I was heading toward the red caboose that blares MIDWAY in bold, white letters; it would make a good addition to my FB photo montage. I kept waiting for the vehicle behind me to pass on by, but I saw red and blue lights come on and heard the short blast of a siren. I was being pulled over while walking around Midway.
The officer said he stopped me because a shop owner had reported that a man “who met my description” had been strangely harassing a customer, getting up in that person’s face as if to “start a staring contest.” I laughed and told the officer it certainly wasn’t me; I didn’t even know such a store existed in downtown Midway (which, due to the retail district’s tiny footprint, is saying something).
The policeman didn’t join me in laughing. He asked what exactly was I doing in Midway? I told him about my quest for gifts and photos, and he continued to look me over with serious suspicion. I went on to say that I’m a Midway native, and I told him my name … like “Bob Rouse” would matter. He was not believing I was innocent. He repeated the details of the complaint and said I fit the description of an elderly male in a green coat.
I didn’t quibble with his definition of “elderly,” nor did I point out that, even in the afternoon light of late-late fall, my coat was decidedly brown. I again denied having ever entered that store and assured him that I certainly did not—I do not—harass anybody. He asked me where my car was. I pointed over his shoulder to where I was parked. He didn’t turn around to look.
So there we stood. There was nothing more I could say to convince him I was not the man he was looking for. He was likely deciding what to do with me—arrest me or let me go. Silence … and then subsiding. He was just doing his job and following up, he said. I don’t blame him a bit, I said, except for the elderly part. I laughed again. He didn’t again.
An hour later, after I told this tale to my wife, she asked why I didn’t simply suggest that we go to the store and let me present myself to the person who had called in the complaint. I said I didn’t know, but when I thought about it later, I did know. Being interrogated like that for something I didn’t do was a scene in bizarro world, and I honestly feared that that in the next scene, the shop owner would say, “That’s the guy.”
I delayed my shop-Midway post on Facebook for a few days. Instead, my post that afternoon was about my experience with the police officer. I did it to poke fun at myself, and my friends commented with astonishment or jokes. More than one wrote, “Only you, Bob.”
I thought then that, in reality, that kind of thing didn’t happen only to me. I thought about people of color—Black men and boys, in particular—and how it happens to them. Throughout that year of Black Lives Matter, I had heard or read again and again that seemingly every Black man in America has had a moment of truth with an officer. In their stories, they described how they were stopped and questioned. That they fit the description. That the police officer regarded them with serious suspicion.
Those police officers didn’t laugh, either.
That evening, I drove to town again, this time for a curbside pickup of supper. As I left my driveway, I felt a pang of apprehension. What if I saw that policeman again? Would he think I was returning to the scene of the crime? Would he stop me? Question me again?
I shrugged it off. This is my hometown, I reasoned. That officer didn’t know me, didn’t know better. I’m friends with the mayor, the county judge executive, and the local magistrate. I don’t break the law. Yet I was happy that I had picked up my food and returned home without seeing a police cruiser.
I had that same apprehension for the next two weeks or so: just a tiny bit fearful that I would be seen by that cop, and maybe he’d pull me over again. I wouldn’t say I was constantly looking over my shoulder, but I was definitely checking for police presence whenever I drove or walked in town.
I’m a white man in a red state, and I experienced what it must be like to be Black. For sure, it’s only a tenth—or a hundredth or a millionth—of what Black guys actually go through. I wasn’t arrested, and the officer never laid a hand on me. Much less a knee … to my neck. And two months later, I hardly ever think of that afternoon, unlike the constant anxiety that people of color must have.
But I think about it a little. And I should, because my perspective became broader. I don’t want to ever forget that day in December.