My uncle, my mom’s brother, is a police officer (at least, I think he still is, I haven’t talked to him since my mom’s funeral about 4 years ago). His name is James, which is the name of my mother’s father, but he goes by his middle name, Richard. I called him Uncle Rick. I thought he was so cool because he was a police officer. And growing up both in Chicago and in a suburb immediately outside of Chicago, I knew exactly the type of crime my uncle was supposed to be protecting me from.
Well, at least I thought I knew. Thinking on it now, I think that my mom was an agoraphobe. She never left the house unless we absolutely needed something. And she never let me or my younger sister leave the house either. Church and the local news was on in my house 24/7, so for all of my childhood I was provided messages on how dangerous the world is and how it needs saving. It definitely made me a paranoid child. But I grew up knowing that my uncle would be a part of the fight against the dangerous world I was growing up in. He was on the security team for Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago before Rahm Emanuel. My mother was so proud of that accomplishment, of having a brother who, like her, came from nothing, and is now defending the leader of one of the greatest cities in the country. I guess I thought that I should be proud too, since that’s my uncle.
All of a sudden, I got various messages about the police. In my suburb, you like the police and you like when they show up to your school for career day until around middle school. And then you start to hate them for various reasons, depending on the type of person you were. If you were like the high-achieving, financially stable, rebellious (usually white) kids I was friends with, you hated the police because they drove around and stopped you from getting weed, infringing on your freedom. If you were like the high or low-achieving, not financially stable, rebellious or not rebellious (usually Black, but not always) kids that my mom didn’t want me hanging out with because they were “no good,” you hated the police because they drove around and stopped you from living your life.
Going to college, I’m exposed to a lot of police hate. It makes sense to me, in our politically charged climate and with the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, I figured that at a more liberal or left-leaning school there would be anti-police sentiment. I have liberal friends who have conservative cousins that shunned them because of where they stood on the police issue. But I remember one day in my dance class where my professor took some time to lecture us about what it means to protest against police brutality during these stressful and trying times, and I decided to say something. And I said “I just feel weird because I agree with everyone’s feelings about police brutality here. But my uncle is a cop. And I love him. And I feel like I’m not supposed to love him because he is a cop.” And my professor’s response went along the lines of “You can still love him. Just remember though that things can be different if you’re on the other side of the gun.”
I didn’t know how to feel about that. Would Uncle Rick shoot me if I was walking around late somewhere I shouldn’t be walking? I haven’t talked to my uncle since the funeral; what if he quit because of all that is going on? At the time, I was confused and upset by that answer, it felt to me like I had so many decisions to make about what side I wanted to be on, a very common feeling I would continue to have at Oberlin.
Cut to two years later, I’m finally back home in Chicago for a summer program at the University of Chicago. By the time I was heading back home I was at the point where, maybe due to Pavlovian conditioning, I would flinch or grimace whenever I saw a police officer or safety and security car. But I was going to have to get over that fast, because UChicago has the highest police task force for a university in the country. On just about every corner was a police officer. And what fascinated me the most was that they have all been Black. After so long at Oberlin, I could not really conceptualize a Black police officer that wasn’t my uncle, and here they were, everywhere, in one of “the most violent and segregated cities in the world,” where I’m used to seeing Black people on the news as committing the crimes the police officers try to stop.
Needless to say, my ideas about policing have already been challenged a lot, especially as I spend time in a city where already I have received at least two news alerts in the past week from my new university home about gun violence, two more than I have ever received at Oberlin. I hear that UChicago pretends to only be an isolated ivory tower, but they obviously have so much influence in the city, specifically the South Side of Chicago. As ill advised as it was at the time, I miss being able to ride my bike late at night on the bike trail at Oberlin. I am sometimes told to not even go out late at night here, but if I do, I can call all sorts of police escorts at any time of night who will even follow me at a distance if I want to make sure that no one sees that a police car is following me. Not only would that not happen at Oberlin, but I’m not sure that I know any people who would want that.
Maybe it’s a case of the stakes being different. Violence is violence no matter what form, but if you’re in a city and afraid of being shot going from a club to your dorm, maybe you do want an officer around you at all times. In my opinion, those just aren’t the stakes at Oberlin.
I wonder what that means about policing and who does and does not want to be policed. I wonder if Uncle Rick thinks about that, if he’s still an officer. I wonder what exactly are the circumstances in my life that make me alternate between fearing the police and fearing being without them.