To fuck, or not to fuck, the police.

My friend started a theatre company a few years back. They’re small and scrappy and DIY. Free outdoor Shakespeare in a public park at 12th and Catherine streets — a cute, tiny park bordered by a cute, tiny, Section 8 housing neighborhood, just a few minutes’ stroll to the deep-dish pizza place, or the upscale craft beer boutique.

So I walk there tonight with my picnic blanket in my tote bag, and I wait in line for the barbecue food truck, and I get my pulled pork tacos and my side of mac and cheese ($12, but oh, so delicious), and I smile as a bunch of sweet and enthusiastic and talented actors, many of whom are my colleagues and my friends, begin to emerge onstage in their Urban-Outfitters-meets-Bonaroo-inspired costumes (flower crowns! vintage vests!) and we’re here to see Love’s Labours Lost, one of those Shakespeare plays that’s not really about anything much more than the fun of being in love, and the journey of figuring out who’s gonna get there and how.

And there’s a drum set, and ukeleles and guitars and a cello, and they’re all great musicians, and they’ve arranged the pre-show songs beautifully, and I tap my toes to Jolene. I break out into a giant smile at the acoustic mashup of Wagon Wheel and I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It’s a gorgeous night, just September enough to be wearing a sweater, still just barely summer enough to soak in the last of the lovely summer evenings.

It’s still light outside, still just the early stages of the first act, and I’m watching the play, watching the hundred or so people in the audience enjoy themselves, smiling at the sound of their laughter, not even really watching the play so much as letting the evening unfold in front of me, content to be where I am in the world.

I hear some people arguing on the street behind me.

The arguing gets louder.

I turn and I look and then I am standing, I have my phone in my hands, although I don’t need to because one of the company’s members is already on the phone, his voice calm and measured, There is a verbal altercation happening on the corner, behind a white SUV, it is becoming violent, send help, there is a woman with a baby. 

And there was. A woman in a white tank top, holding a small toddler in her arms, screaming at a man as he walked away, flanked by two of his friends, periodically turning back to scream in response.

Until the moment that he wheeled abruptly, and punched her in the face.

Moments before hitting the child.

It got chaotic after that. I wish I could describe it with more specific accuracy, but I can’t. It happened so fast, me watching, frozen, knowing that it was unsafe for me to intervene but wishing that I didn’t feel so fucking helpless, feeling vaguely as if I was watching some horrible scene play out on a screen although it was happening only thirty or forty feet in front of me, right there on the street. The woman crying he hit my baby, help me, help me while she held the toddler to her chest and began to hit back, fists pumping, screaming, punching wildly. Three men, openly brawling in the streets, the pleas on the phone for police assistance growing louder, the play perhaps continuing in the background for a few more lines, a lone police car arriving, a tiny blonde female officer the first on the scene. She dove in — took three steps forward to assess the situation, and then plunged in running — subduing the instigator, the biggest and angriest man,  in a single gymnastic feat, nothing I’ve ever witnessed before, his hands ziptied behind his back before I could really take in what had happened. But it was only her, no backup yet, and suddenly my friends are providing crowd control, get back, stay back, and the woman is still screaming help me fuck you help me fuck you and the other men in the fight are backing off but then running again, towards her, she is still punching and the baby is still in her arms, and there is an old woman on a park bench who is crying, wailing, there’s a child someone help her where are the police someone do something and then like a sudden onset swarm there are four patrol cars, sirens blaring, barreling up the one-way street, a dozen cops, big men running in crisp uniforms, the entire block suddenly a nightmare of red and blue lights flickering off everyone’s skin, angry voices indistinct from one another, help me help me. 

And I stand for awhile near the woman on the park bench, the older woman, who is black, wearing a headscarf, weeping. I stand and I talk to her as she calms down, as the police are beginning to put the fighters into patrol cars, as audience members are beginning to slowly filter back towards their seats. I listen to her describe what she has seen, cross-check her version of the story with her son, bearded and scruffy, who is sitting next to her on the bench. They are shaken. We talk for awhile. We both live in South Philly, on Dickinson Street — although my part of the neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, with a farm-to-table bistro and a vegan coffeeshop around the corner, and their part of the neighborhood is a frequent site of incidents just like this one.

“I just wanted to sit and listen to the music,” the man says, shaking his head. “That’s all we all wanted.”

That’s when I hear the woman yell.

What? NO. Fuck you. Fuck the police! FUCK YOU! 

And then the woman slowly back away, her hands outstretched and her arms up, as an officer approached her aggressively, angrily.  Her saying, wounded and angry, throaty,  I’m going I’m going;  him walking towards her aggressively, a hand on his gun holster, What did you say to me? You better not. Move it. Move along. 

It’s another few minutes before she tells me her story, before she’s able to walk back to the area to see if she can get a glimpse of his badge. Where she tells me that she was just one of the people standing and watching, standing slightly aside from the mostly white crowd, one of the only black people there — that it is her who is told to “Move the fuck out of the way, you ugly-ass bitch.”

“And I said fuck you, because he shouldn’t have done that! He didn’t need to do that. I shouldn’t have said that, but he got me so riled up, and that’s not right” she says to me. She’s calmer than I am. Way calmer than I would have been, if I were in her shoes. “That’s just not right.”

“Besides, I’m not ugly,” she says, quieter. “I got a fiance at home. And I got four kids, they’re foster kids, I had to walk away, I wasn’t going to compromise their future for something like this.”

“But shit. That’s why I don’t call the police when anything happens. That’s why. This. Is. Why.”

The play has started up again, but I’m still talking to this woman, standing there near my friends Nell and Maura, who join the conversation. We talk about how cute her kids are, still playing at the other end of the park. She smiles at us and shares a moment of eye contact, the kind of glance that’s a little uncomfortable between strangers who have just divulged too much, before saying, I think I’m gonna head home, put the kids to bed, maybe have a glass of wine or something. Take the edge off. We laugh and say yes, that we’re so sorry this happened to her, that we hope the rest of her night is better. I look at her and wish, silently and hopelessly, that she knows she’s not ugly, that having a fiance at home isn’t at all the thing that makes her beautiful.

I turned around and saw the microphones, the ukeleles, the cellos gleaming in the sunset, the flower-crown-clad actors gamely trying to start the scene again, and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less than stick around. So I left.

It was still a beautiful night. The sun was still setting, the sky turning a lovely purple-blue-pink, casting a beautiful glow on the picnic baskets and twinkle lights.

I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

I have written essay after essay about how art matters, how it creates empathy, how creating theatre and music and dance and artwork is the pathway towards understanding, towards communication, towards a more peaceful, intelligent, beautiful world.

But in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel like none of that shit was true. None of it fucking mattered.

I was in that park to see a four-hundred year old Shakespeare play about a bunch of people falling in love. That’s what I’m doing with my evening. Watching the ukeleles strum as a child was hit in the face, as a cop said something horrible to a woman, in a racially charged moment of instigation and injustice.

My entire existence feels like those twinkle lights. Sometimes you forget that other peoples’ look a lot more like police sirens.

In two minutes, I saw the best and the worst of police behavior. The one who dove in and saved that baby, despite being all alone, at great personal risk. The one who was a hero. And. The one who racially profiled and antagonized a black woman, an innocent bystander, a foster mom of four kids who had done nothing wrong. The ones who de-escalated the situation, and the ones who did the opposite. In under two minutes. All of that went down. And I was upset. Because I almost never, ever have to see that kind of thing happen.

A black friend of mine posted a link to an article recently that I’m having a hard time digesting, mostly because I’m prone to saying shit like “having a hard time digesting.” It’s called “White Women’s Tears and the Men Who Love Them.” 

And I’m posting it here because I’m aware that I’ve just taken 1500 words to describe a situation in which I have inadvertently made myself the pitiable narrator, and fuck all that, because it sucks and that’s not my intention, but I don’t know how else to talk about this, how else to put this story out there except to do it from my perspective. Comments will be left here, words of support and insight and wisdom, and I will love reading them, but I’m not the one who needs them. A white lady who will never deal with any of this on a systemic level will receive feedback, dialogue, comfort. Not the baby. Not the mother. The words of comfort and support and wisdom will all go to me. How needless.

I went home and drank a bourbon and took a hot shower and felt so very, very, very, very, very, very useless.

Because what I witnessed was not out of the ordinary for thousands of people, my neighbors that I do not know, in the 4th-most segregated city in the country. 

“White tears are a reminder to people of color that white people don’t notice racism on a daily basis; we only notice racism when the media presents it to us loudly enough. We need to reflect on when we cry and when we don’t, and why. In other words, what does it take to move us?”

And I think about Tameka, the woman who was called an ugly ass bitch by the officer. I think about the way our conversation went down:

ME: I saw what happened. That was so awful. I’m so sorry that happened to you.
TAMEKA: It’s okay. Thank you. It’s okay.
ME: No, fuck that, it’s not.
TAMEKA: I mean … yeah. You’re right. It sucked.

And I think about how she was put in the position of having to reassure me.

How fucked up is it that she said, “It’s okay” to me? That a woman who was just provoked by the cops had to then be the stoic one, the one weirdly providing me comfort? Me, the white lady off to the side, the ones the cops ignored altogether?

And what could I have done differently so that she didn’t have to say that? How could I have expressed my sympathy, tried to see if she needed help, tried to just say I’m a person, and I’m here, and what just happened to you is horrible and wrong, without putting her in the position of feeling as if she needed to reassure or comfort me?

Lately I feel like all I’m doing is identifying problems, but not offering solutions.

But how can you? Do you, reading this, have a solution? Because please, just tell me if you do. The problems are so big. The solutions have to be broken down, compartmentalized, made into an action plan. And the problems are just too big. I’m so good at finding the problems, and so, so, so, so bad at offering the suggestions. At proposing anything that can actually activate change.

So I sit and I write and I hope I don’t offend. I sit and I write and I hope that it doesn’t feel indulgent, but know that maybe it is, to talk about how I witnessed some bonafide firsthand racism tonight, and a lot of people will still listen to me, a white lady, about it. I sit and I write and I wonder how Tameka would describe this, why it is that we’re not paying attention to her words instead of mine. I sit and I write and I consider that I made homemade soup today, that I posted some cute new stuff on Instagram, that my life is so very different from ever having to fear that anyone would punch me, or my child, in broad daylight. I sit and I consider that I’ve never been called an ‘ugly-ass bitch’ by anyone before, let alone someone whose job entails ensuring my protection and safety. I sit and I write and I wonder how we can all go on writing and blogging and artmaking when everything is just such a gaping wound, an ugly sore mess. I sit and I write and I sit and I write and I just don’t fucking know.



Did you like this post? Help me keep writing. 

38 thoughts on “To fuck, or not to fuck, the police.

  1. Opening and keeping the dialogue going is essential and it is also one of the hardest parts of the process. Easy to walk away, disengage, bottle up…make excuses. You don’t do that. You question, you challenge, you engage. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you don’t always get it right or if it feels like ‘white guilt’ or whatever…this is how we grow. This is how the walls are broken. Carry on being brave..It is the path to healing. .your posts are challenging and inspiring and what you share needs to be read.

  2. I’ve attempted this comment a few times. It’s never sounds anything but trivial. So just thanks. Thanks for writing about this. And thank-you for looking at the ugly sore mess and having no grand-standing solution and saying ‘i just don’t fucking know’. ♥

  3. We sit here and we write because if we don’t, no one will. We do it because in this hateful world, we are the ones who hope it can be different. We are the ones who will be the voice for the voiceless until enough people come to terms that all life matters, and those now voiceless with have their voice heard. Because they aren’t voiceless, there just aren’t enough people listening to them right now. We write because we hope we can change that.

  4. Katherine, you are a gifted and socially conscious writer. Writing about incidents like this is important. Equally important is taking action. Please consider sending an email to the captain of the Philadelphia Police Department’s 3rd District and tell him what happened. You witnessed the bravery of one policewoman and she should be highly commended. You also witnessed the unnecessary verbal cruelty of another police officer toward a woman of color not involved in the altercation. You could also attend the Captain’s Town Hall Meeting on October 14 at 6:00 pm and speak about the incident either publicly or privately to him afterwards. Here’s the link to the 3rd District:

  5. OK, you are only one person, and you are doing the best thing YOU can do by writing about it… throwing a spotlight on some pretty despicable human behavior, both by the perpetrators and some of the police who responded. I agree with the previous poster that you should report what you saw to the police. It may not help, but maybe it will.

  6. Dear Katherine, I don’t have solutions, just shock and anger at what these women and you experienced. I am glad you voiced it so clearly. What is this world coming to? The lack of humanity to other people’s unfortunate situations all around the world is heartbreaking. This post won’t let me go and I must share it. Thank you for telling this story and how it affected you.

  7. Thank you – that was my neighborhood for 2 years. I walked my dog in that park. My friends are part of that theatre company. I, too, have experienced the best and worst and I, too, know how fruitless “white tears” can seem. But – despite all of that, our tears are needed, our stories are needed. Tears may happen for us one day out of 365, but soon they will lead to more social acknowledgement, lessons taught to our friends and children, and, hopefully, change.

    Continue to tell the story and god bless those who do not have a voice.

  8. That self awareness, I think, keeps you apart from more racially insensitive narratives. Your observations and placement did not seem totally useless at all – you just turned it into something different (your post) which helps… everyone’s PoV contributes. Thank you.

  9. There was a clear departure in our cultures the moment you describe the police showing up. I have no record, no outward personal reason to fear these police. But I am not white, and I have had more negative experiences, including assault, than positive ones.

    A friend, she is a white woman, and I traveled recently. She expressed some outrage over TSA [fill in the blank], citing an extremely invasive search that happened a bit ago. That search was punitive because of a some perceived slight by TSA. She has had one other.

    I told her that I am “randomly selected” over 50% of the time. They throw the stuff out of my bag and leave it out. True to form, as we approached the security desk, they let her through and pulled me aside for another search.

  10. What you can do.

    Challenge racism, white supremacy and white privilege every time you see it. At every opportunity even amongst your family and friends, when it’s a joke or a serious comment. Ask why someone is saying such things. Keep asking why until they come to the heart of it and can see plainly their bias.
    When you see a waiter treat you better than another patron, when you are waiting in line for service and the person in front of you is being skipped so you can be serviced first. Speak up and say no. When anyone tries to offer you privileged treatment and clearly, calmly state why you reject it.

    Racism doesn’t just look like the glaring example of that awful police officer.
    It is also the seemingly harmless assumptions that people are socialized to have. The seemingly harmless thoughts that add up to an officer assuming that woman didn’t have the right to defend herself that way.
    It’s thoughts like black people are inherently different than white people, or if black people cared more then… , or if black people behaved better then…, or if black people worked harder then…
    These ideas add up and are the foundation for systemic racism. White people are not required to do anything to be seen and treated as full human beings. That’s white supremacy in action. That’s why you were allowed to watch unmolested. You are seen as fully human and full humans are curious and concerned and should watch events unfold.

    These ideas need to be challenged, questioned and discussed.
    I can’t do it. You have to do it in your own corner of the world.

  11. Sadley our world had not grown up. You would think with the length of time humans have lived on this planet that we would have acquired much intelligence and control over our emotions. Also love of all no matter what color,what faith or no faith, no matter of language, or ancestry. There are some animals that are more civilized than some humans today. Grow up people, grow up.

  12. Well said. That’s a harrowing story on any number of levels.

    And you don’t need to apologize for “offending” anyone. If people are offended it’s because they don’t get it. That’s not something you need to apologize for.

  13. After the Ferguson thing shone a particularly bright spotlight on racial inequality, I saw a number of articles pointing out that “white privilege” can be used as a tool for change because part of that privilege is the fact that the authorities tend to *listen* to white people instead of dismissing them out of hand. You can be an ally and can help amplify the voices of people of color who might otherwise be ignored. There are a lot of lists of ways you can help, like this one:

    Even understanding that there IS an issue is a step in the right direction. Hang in there.

  14. I have read your blog off and on for well over a year now, and this is the first time I have commented. I thought your piece was well written (as always – it’s why I keep coming back to read what you write) and definitely offers a vivid description of a real problem.

    I am a 100% Police Supporter. I am friends with several police officers. I also work in a field that is NOT law enforcement, but still brings me in contact with some of the segments of society that police often deal with. I also work with our local police force on a volunteer basis.

    Having said that, what the officer said is unacceptable. In every way. I understand that officers have stressful jobs, they are under the microscope in a big way, but his behavior does not help one bit. It is one of the reasons why there is a lot of anti-police sentiment in many parts of the country. However, because I know many police officers, I can honestly say that the overwhelming majority are wonderful people, who care deeply about their communities. The overwhelming majority would never, every say something like this to a bystander.

    I would encourage you to report this incident to the police. But write a nice, one-page letter to the sergeant in charge of that area command on that shift. Briefly describe the incident, and what you observed. Describe the efficiency with which the initial officer subdued the first suspect and how that officer should be commended for acting so quickly at such great potential harm to herself. And describe how another officer acted in a completely disrespectful manner to a woman who was just a bystander, and completely tarnished the uniform and badge that they wear.

    It is possible that nothing may happen. But something might happen. That officer might get called in to meet with his watch captain and have to explain his behavior. He might get referred to counseling so he learns how this can tarnish the good work that so many of his fellow officers do. If there is a pattern forming, his punishment could be worse.

    This may seem like nothing at all, but in the big picture it is something. Let them know what you saw. Let them know that you support the police, but behavior like this causes that support to wane. It causes people to say “I support the Police, but….”

    Thanks for writing your Blog, and giving me food for thought. Keep it up.

  15. Even if statistical evidence were to prove police departments did not systematically treat black citizens unjustly, that is the perception. Although not personally responsible for any wrongdoing, all honorable police officers and administrators should want to take extraordinary steps to alter that perception caused by a small number of bad cops. Of course it’s not fair to be condemned by the actions of a small number of your population. Read that last part again, my fellow white people.

    I am thankful for the many police officers I know, active and retired, who are above reproach. But too many communities in our nation need better cops, and we need all good cops to stop failing to see the misconduct of bad cops, so all people can someday begin to trust law enforcement professionals.

    If police misconduct happens in your community, go in groups to the municipal government meetings and demand the elected officials responsible for your police department reform how they hire and train those people allowed to become cops. Massive civil lawsuits naming the perpetrators and the officials who supervise them are powerful too. The voters have the power to address this problem locally, including voting in officials who will hold police departments accountable and will stand up to the police unions.

  16. Beautiful writing, Why didn’t you say something to the abusive policeman at the time? I’m much older than you, but I would have gotten his name and asked him to apologize to that woman. The white people who see this racism become party to the crime if they don’t stand up to the perpetrators.

  17. I’m reading Rising Strong by researcher Brene Brown, and she says this about sympathy: “Rather than being a tool for connection, sympathy emerges in the data as a form of disconnection. Sympathy is removed: When someone says, ‘I feel sorry for you’ or ‘That must be terrible,’ they are standing at a safe distance. Rather than conveying the powerful ‘me too’ of empathy, it communicates ‘not me,’ and then adds, ‘But I do feel for you.’ Sympathy is more likely to be a shame trigger than something that heals shame” (156).

    In contrast to sympathy are empathy and compassion, the latter of which she defines as “Recognizing the light and dark in our shared humanity, we commit to practicing loving-kindness with ourselves and others in the face of suffering” (155).

    I’m still trying to wrap my mind around these concepts, particularly since when it comes to race, as white women we can’t empathize with black people’s suffering based on race (or that of other people of color). It seems we try to use sympathy to connect compassionately, but since it isn’t an effective connector, what other responses can we voice? Maybe “That sucks” or “That wasn’t right” or “You are a strong motherfucker to put up with that kind of shit” are among those that could show what we mean more effectively. Any others?

      • Thanks for mentioning that! I found it in case others want to read:

        A couple quotations that stood out to me:

        “Empathy is a tool that helps us to become better people, but it is only that. Empathy is not our saving grace.”

        “Instead, we should focus on reinforcing the necessity of feeling one’s own humanity and respecting the humanity of others without the condition of familiarity. Empathy won’t save us. How we show care despite its absence might.”

        I’m still trying to think of more responses that don’t involve sympathy (which is harmful) or empathy (which can’t be had for white people), and what’s coming to me right now that I think is implicit in Katherine’s piece is that we can start asking more questions. What can we do to fight racism? What can we do to support black people in the struggle against racism?

        That white women’s tears article linked to a great one about white fragility:

        I dead-ended, though, when it failed to talk about HOW white people can uncover their own unconscious racism. Does anyone know any good resources for doing that?

        • Havard has an ‘implicit bias test’. I work for a cross-cultural training organisation and we use it to show people that we are ALL cultural beings and often make unconscious assumptions via cultural lens’ that we aren’t even aware of. The hard part can be getting people (especially well-intentioned people) to be open and willing to notice their own biases, and that having these thoughts doesn’t make them a bad person. Some things are learned reactivity and in order to change it we have to see it. I think a a good first step to admitting, even to ourselves, that we have crazy messed up thoughts, is by telling ourselves we do not need to identify with every single thought we have.

  18. Great piece, I feel I better understand many things. I never know what to think about the police, or to decide whether the corruption is individual or institutional.

  19. Fritz, first of all, WONDERFUL piece. Thank you so much for writing it. In answer to your question about what you could or should have said to Tameka. I think showing empathy to her in the way you did was absolutely spot on! Speaking from my own experience of being in Tameka’s shoes more than once or twice in my life (and unfortunately because there are more than a few people like that horrible cop out there, I probably will be again), perhaps going one step further and letting her know that not only was what happened “effed up”, but that she had the RIGHT to be angry in that moment. That although you appreciated her graciousness, it was not her obligation to make you feel better by saying it was “okay”. I think this would have given her “permission” (so to speak) to feel her feelings and not put on the mask of strength and acceptance of the situation.

    This is a hard conversation but we MUST have it if we want to heal these old, festering wounds and move forward into a place of mutual respect, understanding and healing. I hope you continue on this brave journey of self-evaluation on this matter and that you continue to share it with all of us. Hopefully your words will help many more of us to embark upon that same journey leading us all to a more peaceful coexistence.

    P.S. I am very open to having a conversation about the article you mentioned if you so desire once you’ve had a chance to think more about it 🙂

    K. Fannin

  20. Thank you for writing this. Yes, you’re white and I’m white and we don’t live this kind of crazy, but you SAW it. Not everyone sees what’s going on around them, not even when it’s right in front of their face. So you took the time to see the truth, and then you took the time to talk. Not just to talk onto your blog but to talk to actual people in the real world…it’s not the whole answer, but I think talking to each other (and that means ALL of us, not just the people who look like us) is a huge step in the right direction.

    Please keep putting your thoughts out there. I wish you didn’t feel your writing about someone else’s problems was indulgent because you see the wrong here and you felt the pain. No, you’re not living it, but people need to start speaking up. So thank you for that.

  21. Thanks for this piece. I shared on FB and others have re-shared and commented.

    I read this right after attending a Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) reading/discussion group about one of the white fragility articles. After (or while) you focus on the Philly-specific actions that another commenter suggested, I would definitely recommend looking to see if your town has a SURJ chapter. What I appreciate about our group here in Chicago is that there are many different ways to plug in — direct actions like showing up for police board hearings and rallies when BYP 100 lets us know that they need “allies” (I put that in quotes bc I take some issue with the word, but use it as shorthand here), to visibility opportunities like distributing Black Lives Matter yard signs in the mayor’s neighborhood, to the discussion and reading group — and lots of different folks leading the way. It’s helping me get a sense of where I can be useful, what junk I need to work through privately or with close friends, and how to navigate those inevitably delightful holiday dinner conversations that are right around the corner…

  22. Pingback: Wordy Weekend Links (and what I’ve been drawing) |

  23. I’m not even going to try to make this a great comment. This, the fact that it happens all the damn time, makes my heart hurt. It makes my heart hurt that we even recognize people by race or color and mentally separate each other out. We’re people. We’re fundamentally the same. People. Just people. All of us.

  24. Katherine, today I remembered to find your blog and then I fell down a rabbit hole of wonderful writing and also thoughts like, Could I rock a scarf as well as Christine Lagarde, and, I wouldn’t have stopped cross-stitching in college if I’d had that Justice Sotomayor example. But I also re-read that post and remembered why it meant so much to me. A friend in San Diego who is a Philly native shared it as well. You have a beautiful voice and I’m so glad Tabitha introduced us!

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