NEW YORK--The current national conversation about race and the police reminded me about an incident that occurred when I was in Uzbekistan. As I walked into an apartment complex for an appointment, I noticed the decomposing body of a man lying on the side of the road.
"How long has he been there?" I asked my host.
"Three, maybe four days," he said.
"What happened to him?"
"Shot, maybe," he shrugged. "Or maybe hit by a car. Something."
I didn't bother to ask why no one had called the police. I knew. Calling the Uzbek militsia amounts to a request to be beaten, robbed or worse. So desperate to avoid interaction with the police was another man I met that, when his mother died of old age at their home in Tashkent, he drove her body to the outskirts of town and deposited her in a field.
With the exception of New Orleans after Katrina, it's not that bad here in the United States. Consider Professor Henry Louis Gates: He shouldn't have been arrested by that Cambridge, Mass., police officer, but he came out of the experience physically unscathed.
Nevertheless, the Gates incident has illuminated some basic, strange assumptions about our society. Cops think they have a constitutional right to be treated deferentially. And black people think cops are nice to white people.
Yeah, well, take it from a white guy: We don't like cops either.
Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. references "the African immigrant killed while reaching for his wallet, the Maryland man beaten senseless as he lay in bed, the Miami man beaten to death for speeding, the dozens of men jailed on manufactured evidence in Los Angeles and manufactured police testimony in Tulia, Texas, the man sodomized with a broomstick in New York. Are we supposed to believe it coincidence that the men this happens to always happen to be black?"
Of course not. Blacks are 30 to 50 percent more likely to be arrested than whites for the same crime. Their prison sentences are longer. In the notorious "driving while black" New Jersey trooper case, African-Americans made up 70 percent of those randomly pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike--but fewer than 17 percent of motorists. Blacks are more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, beaten and murdered by the police than members of all other ethnic groups. American racism against blacks remains systematic, pervasive and murderous. When there's a policeman in the picture, it's best to be white.
Still, whites and blacks have more in common than they think when it comes to their feelings about the fuzz. When those flashing lights appear in the rearview mirror, even the biggest right-winger's day is ruined.
No one should be less scared of cops than me. I'm white, clean-cut, middle-aged, invariably polite: "Hello, sir. Is there a problem, officer?" Yet I can't point to a single positive experience I've ever had with a cop. Neutral ones, sure--basic, cold, bureaucratic interactions. But no great ones.
And lots and lots of negative ones.
Where to begin?
I'll never forget the New York traffic cop who stepped off the curb in front of my car on Madison Avenue and ordered me to turn right. He wrote me up for illegal right turn. "But you told me to," I protested. "Wrong place, wrong time," he smirked. $165 plus three points on my license. I appealed. The cop lied under oath. The court believed him.
Or the Nevada highway patrolman who pulled me over. I was doing 80 in a 70. He wrote me up at 100 mph. My brother-in-law, never the suck-up, confirmed I was going 80. I was so furious--the fine would have been $400--that I spent double that to fly back and challenge the ticket in court. I won.
When my 20-year-old self forgot to turn on my headlights as we pulled out of a parking lot while on a road trip with my druggie roommate, a Massachusetts cop pulled us over. I couldn't begrudge him probable cause; pot smoke billowed out the window, Cheech and Chong-style, when I opened it. Still, what came next was unforgivable: He handcuffed my arms so tight that the metal cut to the wrist bone. (The scar lasted 10 years.) When we got out of the town lockup the next morning, $400 was missing from my wallet. (A judge, examining my wrist a few months later, dropped the charges. My $400, of course, was gone forever.)
An LAPD cop--it bears mentioning that he was black--arrested me for jaywalking on Melrose Avenue. I wasn't. I didn't resist, but he roughed me up. Upon releasing me, he chucked my wallet into the sewer, laughed and zoomed off on his motorcycle. I filed a complaint, which the LAPD ignored.
And so on.
I admit it: I don't like cops. I like the idea of cops. The specific people who actually are cops are the problem. My theory is that cops should be drafted, not recruited. After all, the kind of person who would want to become a police officer is precisely the kind of person who should not be allowed to work as one. But I didn't start out harboring this prejudice. It resulted from dozens of unpleasant interactions with law enforcement.
Race has long been a classic predictor of attitudes toward the police. But high-profile cases of police brutality, coupled with over-the-top security measures taken since 9/11 that targeted whites as well as blacks, have helped bring the races together in their contempt for the police. In 1969, the Harris poll found that only 19 percent of whites thought cops discriminated against African-Americans. Now 54 percent of whites think so.
Don't worry, Professor Gates. We don't care what you said about the cop's mama. A lot of white guys see this thing your way.
Ted Rall, president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, is author of the books To Afghanistan and Back and Silk Road to Ruin.