As I said when I concluded my first column about Fay Wells, the heart of the matter was the police response to the 9-1-1 call. The question is why Wells and the police have such a different views about what happened (recognizing that Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks acknowledged the validity of Wells’ response). Before I approach the question, however, I want to make some disclosures: if I’m going to take this Rorschach test you should know where I’m coming from.
The first disclosure is that when I ran for City Council in 2014 I had the endorsement of the Santa Monica Police Officers Association (SMPOA). I was proud to have that endorsement. You have to be proud to be associated with (and I wrote the first draft of this sentence prior to the attack in San Bernardino) any group of people who will put their lives on the line to protect ours, as SMPD officers did in the attack on Santa Monica College in 2013.
But beyond that primary level of respect, I believe that the Santa Monica police strive to be professional, disciplined and objective. This is not Ferguson and not Chicago. This doesn’t mean that our police never make mistakes, and currently there are several incidents of potentially discriminatory treatment by police that are properly under review. Yet I understand why Darrell Goode, of the local NAACP, told the Lookout that the organization did not “want to throw the Santa Monica Police Department under the bus” in the aftermath of the incident involving Justin Palmer, the African-American man arrested while trying to charge his electric car.
I was also proud to receive the SMPOA endorsement because the union endorsed me despite the fact that I had criticized the police officer who had investigated Oscar de la Torre after de la Torre broke up a fight between two Samohi students. Naturally I believe that I richly deserved every endorsement I received, but it meant something (more about the police than me) that the police were willing to look beyond my criticism.
My second disclosure is that underlying my analysis of what happened to Fay Wells is that I’ve researched some of the racist aspects of Santa Monica’s past. Most of my research focused on how the City of Santa Monica destroyed a black neighborhood to obtain the land for the Civic Auditorium. Through this work I became acquainted with and appreciative of the work of the Quinn Research Center, which focuses on the history of the African-American community in Santa Monica, and the Committee for Racial Justice (CRJ), which was formed in 2011 after a racial incident at Samohi. (The CRJ has monthly meetings to discuss issues related to race in Santa Monica. The next meeting is tomorrow night (Dec. 6) and the subject will be racial profiling in Santa Monica. All are welcome. The meetings take place from 6 pm to 8:30 (first half hour is a potluck supper) in the Thelma Terry Building in Virginia Avenue Park.)
My third disclosure is obvious, but important. I’m white. I’m not bringing that up to join the ongoing national discussion about privilege, but to remind myself as well as readers that when I use the word we, or words like one or you, as in “one must . . . ,” I can’t help but be referring to the majoritarian us. While I shouldn’t presume to speak for the white majority culture either, the only way I can speak about what could be a minority perspective is through a white filter.
Back to Fay Wells. Based on what she’s written and said, what’s outraged Wells most was that the police had their guns drawn when they approached her apartment, and that they continued to treat her as a suspect even after she told them that she lived in the apartment and offered to prove it with ID, the locksmith’s receipt, etc. She attributes her treatment to her race—she doesn’t believe a white person would have been treated the same way.
In my opinion, there is no way one (there goes that majoritarian one) can honestly second guess Wells on this, in particular because of the recent incidents of police killing blacks. Trying to put myself in Wells’ shoes, I suspect that her treatment must have been particularly painful because, as she said, she’d never had so much as a speeding ticket. With her education and budding career, and her calm (and somewhat ironic) demeanor (clear from listening to her on the 47-minute tape), she’d done everything not to be one of those “angry” blacks whom white folks just can’t understand, and she certainly had not been enmeshed in the criminal justice system, and yet there she was, black, with police pointing guns at her.
So I don’t believe that “we” can question Wells’ perspective on what happened. Memo to Ms. Wells: I hope that time will heal these wounds, but in the meantime this member of the majority culture says, go ahead, be angry.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the police officers on the scene did wrong. If the standard protocol when investigating a three-person burglary is to approach the apartment with guns drawn, and that’s how the officers are trained, then I can’t fault them for following their procedures. Similarly, if it’s standard protocol not to believe what anyone who answers the door says until the area has been secured, then again, I can’t fault them for not taking Wells’ word that she lived there. And, although the officers might have known that the 9-1-1 caller had ID’d the “burglars” as Latino, and perhaps, if they weren’t following the proper protocol, the officers had their guns drawn because of that, one thing we do know is that the officers did not expect that an African-American might be involved until Wells opened the door.
But that doesn’t mean that race wasn’t involved.
Let’s assume that it was proper protocol for the officers to have drawn their guns. Why would that be the case? After all, Santa Monica, other than in connection with gang shootings, does not have much violent crime, and the 9-1-1 caller had not said anything about burglars being armed. I can’t recall any burglaries here ending up in shootouts. What would make drawing guns when investigating a possible burglary standard procedure?
The answer is guns. Our country is full of them, and they’re getting more powerful all the time. The only reason I can think of for police being instructed to draw their guns when approaching potential burglars is that they consider it necessary to be prepared to confront someone with a gun. These days that’s hardly irrational. Look—when 35 or so years ago I first sent money to a gun control organization, the issue was handguns. (Remember Handgun Control, Inc.?) In these days of assault weapons, to be worried about handguns seems quaint.
But that only raises another question. Why do Americans—and let’s face it, when we’re talking about who blocks gun control we’re talking about white Americans—love guns so much? Why can’t Congress pass sensible limits on guns designed to kill people? Okay, there are a lot of reasons, it’s probably over-determined, but historically a fundamental factor is race.
America’s gun fetish starts on the frontier, with fear of Indians (and a desire to conquer them), and with slavery, when slave owners and the rest of white society feared slave revolts. After Emancipation, whites in the South used violence and terror to keep freed slaves down. That continued through Jim Crow and the lynching era. When blacks got pushed off their land and moved north, fear and guns became suburbanized. It was all about “my home is my castle” and Willie Horton.
Race is everywhere. We’re not going to solve the gun problem until we solve the race problem.
Next—how historical racism shapes Santa Monica.
Thanks for reading.