Asking “How About a Cucumber?” Instead of Dialing 911
By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.
A recent WBUR “On Point” segment (“Racism, Discrimination, And Calling The Police On Black People,” July 19, 2018) and Washington Post essay (“Police calls for #LivingWhileBlack have gotten out of hand. Here’s what we can do about it.” by Megan R. Underhill, July 20, 2018) nailed an issue that we would like to sweep under the rug … but, unfortunately, the instances have become all too commonplace. I found a few of the cited instances especially egregious, such as when a white adult called the police because a black grade school kid was enterprising enough to have a lawn cutting business and was cutting grass in the caller’s neighborhood, and the instance when campus security was notified because an African-American student was napping in a common area in a U.S. university. Really? Is not academia supposed to model inclusivity and open mindedness?
Some argue that such citizen overreaches are not more common, but that we are simply more aware because any encounter can be recorded and uploaded to the web in minutes. The point is not that the instances are more or less commonplace; the point is that one unwarranted call to the police is one call too many.
Bishop Edward Braxton (Belleville, Illinois) is one of the most profound Catholic writers on race and culture. Since 2015 he has written two relevant pastoral letters: “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015” and “The Catholic Church and The Black Lives Matter Movement: The Racial Divide in the United States Revisited.” In one appearance, I heard him describe how he was pulled over by an officer when he was transporting used furniture in his car to a needy parishioner in Louisiana. I take it that he was not wearing his pectoral cross that afternoon?
I have never called the police because there was a black or brown person in my backyard. But I do recall the fear that I felt as a minority white person in a Chicago area gas station asking for directions, especially when the recent immigrant from central Europe behind the counter referred my question on directions to a young adult African-American male behind me in line. Dreadlocks, baseball hat, baggy shorts—oh my! Was I going to be roughed up in an unknown neighborhood en route to a Catholic social action conference at a Catholic university?
The gentleman (I think that he even called me “bro”; how did he know? I was not even wearing my habit!) provided clear and perfect directions, and I got a free Sunday afternoon tour of Chicago’s southwest suburbs and neighborhood.
How can I respond to the “call the police” overreach? My abbey sits in the middle of a 160-acre soybean field and I work in the basement of the Chancery of the Diocese of Green Bay. But I do spend several hours a week in the heart of downtown Green Bay, working in an office within range of multiple agencies serving people of all races and volunteering in the front garden of the Central branch of the Brown County Library (and believe me, our downtown library does not suffer from lack of cultural diversity). I might be “inconvenienced” while weeding, watering, or harvesting by passersby who look, talk, and dress differently than me, but in today’s “I’ll call the police on you” environment, the simple gesture of looking up into the eyes of another and saying, “Hey, how are you?” and perhaps offering a cucumber or tomato can go a long way.