A day in the life

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.


  1. Interesting perspective.

    The man’s statements indicate that the officer knew the man was likely a homeless alcoholic. The officer was looking out for you.

    I say alcoholic because 1) your kids are playing outside and 2) you’re with them – that’s too early to be drinking a noticeable quantity. The man’s initial coherence suggests a tolerance (addiction) to alcohol.

    “Do your children like Black people?”

    This is a manipulative question used to exploit your guilt. If you say YES, it innocently gives him more time near you and your children. If you say NO, he can use it against you. But his problems (homeless alcoholic) is a behavioral dysfunction that has nothing to do with race.

    “I’m not comfortable having my children around homeless men who drink during this part of the day” wouldn’t been a good answer for you to use.

    Homeless people often give intersections or places, not addresses.

    Alcoholics don’t chit-chat for social reasons – they chat in hopes of gaining confidence and maybe some cash. And if you gave it to him, you might as well have bought him a six-pack or liquor. If he doesn’t fix himself, liver disease and other alcohol- and behavior-related illnesses will eventually cause his death.

    The officer was looking out for you and wanted your new friend to know it. Unless carefully explained, the officer’s actions could appear as bigoted profiling.

    You also need to be careful – if this man IS a homeless alcoholic, he might use your friendship as a form of safehaven and, possibly, invite other derilicts who need a safe neighborhood to sleep it off. Alcoholics need cash to support their habits. Most have lengthy records for everything from petty theft to felonies.

    Interesting story…

  2. Thanks for your comment, Clark. I saw from your site that you have significant experience in law enforcement: you have insights and “eyes” so to speak that those of us who have not stood in your shoes likely would not!

    Looking back on the interaction I had with this gentleman, I think there is an excellent chance that you are exactly right about him being homeless and a substance abuser. Our street is a thoroughfare for people seeking/purchasing/doing drugs. We have some crack houses doing some pretty good business nearby. I also think our officer was doing exactly what you suggest.

    We participate in a block club that works with law enforcement to strategically deal with the criminal elements: problem properties, gang violence, etc. That is the context of my relationship with our Senior Lead. And in the midst of that, I do wonder how to be a neighbor here, and how to practice copmpassion and mercy in light of the kinds of addiction-related issues and safety concerns you mention. No easy answers to that one for sure!

    Again, thanks for weighing in.

  3. Wow, LAPD experienced or not, I must say I would fear crossing paths with Clark lest I be judged as quickly and easily and with such certainty as he did Erika’s neighbor…just saying…

    (P.S. I am from LA and a friend came across your Blog somehow and told me about it…hope you don’t mind me commenting)

  4. Xochitl,

    Thanks for stopping by! Your comments are most welcome 🙂

    I was once judged by law enforcement “quickly, easily and with such certainty”, and was put into a squad car for prostitution. I was a senior in college and was a block away from my apartment trying to catch a cab. Needless to say, that (and the many stories told to me by neighbors and friends in Chicago and here in L.A.) helped me better understand what it is like to be found on that side of someone’s assumptions, especially someone who carries a gun and has the ability to detain you.

    That said, I understand Clark’s perspective to some degree. We all have to make snap judgments/decisions about people and situations, and all we can do is do our best and use our God-given judgment. We will not always be right but that can not mean we never make any assessments of anything. Clearly a police officer is in an especially unique position of having to do this.

    Obviously my Senior Lead friend did not pick this man up for no reason, or abuse him in any way. But he may have acted out of information he likely possessed (what he may have seen, etc.).

    Anyway, thanks for adding to the discussion!

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