The other day I was playing out front with the kids when an African American man stopped in our driveway to chat with us for a while. As he stopped in front of one of the kids, he looked at me and asked: “Do your kids like Black people?” I assured him that yes, they did, and I took the opportunity to share with him a bit about our church here in the neighborhood.
As I was talking, I spotted an LAPD cruiser coming down our street. As it got closer, I recognized our Senior Lead Officer. We made eye contact and I waved with a smile. We had been gone for two months and so it had been a while since we had talked or seen each other at block club meetings. I continued my conversation with the gentleman in my driveway, and in a matter of seconds, the cruiser was back. His door opened and he stepped out of his car and walked over. I greeted him warmly, assuming that he had stopped to say hello and check in with us on how things were going.
He hurriedly greeted me, then turned to our visitor: “Do you live around here?” he asked in a tone that felt less than friendly. “Yeah, I live around here,” our new friend answered. “Where?” the officer asked sternly. “Down there,” the man answered, waving a bit broadly toward the north. “29th and Kenwood?” the officer asked? “Yeah, around there,” the man replied. I thought it was a bit strange that the man was being so obscure about where he lives, but then again, maybe if you are black in South Central, the last thing you would want is for the police to know where you live.
The officer then turned to me and warned me about a series of break-ins happening just south of us, and told me to be sure to call him if I needed anything or saw anything unusual or concerning. He began moving back toward his car when the gentleman with me called out: “Can I call you too?” The officer returned and handed him one of his cards and said “of course.”
As our Lead Officer drove away, the gentleman immediately commented on how as soon as he saw him he knew he was going to stop. I assumed that he was making the point that he, a black man, would be viewed automatically with suspicion by the police. I told him that I was sorry that that was the way things were for him around here, and that it is wrong. I tried to justify the officer’s stop by telling him that I know him and that he hadn’t seen us for a while. He shook his head at that explanation and said: “He saw me in the alley and I knew he was going to come back. The only reason he didn’t take me in was because I was here with you.”
As he was talking, I began to smell a heavy dose of alcohol on his breath that I had not noticed when he first approached. I also began to feel a little bit of concern. There is an alley running east/west at the end of our street, and I can assure you that it is a place reserved for some very specific activities. No one on my street just “walks down the alley.” His comment about “being taken in” struck me as well. I suppose if you are black here, that kind of thing could likely happen for no reason. But he seemed awfully sure of that outcome in a way that seemed a bit odd.
Life here is so often like this encounter: multiple possibilities and interpretations for what is going on in people’s lives around you. And always, the invitation to assume, to judge and to fear. It is often hard to discern how to be love and light here with wisdom. But I guess, really, whether he was a neighbor who likes to drink a bit or a transient who buys drugs at our local crack house, he is still my neighbor who I am called to love. Tricky. Messy. Hard.