preconceived notions

While reading an article in Salon about the FBI’s plan to “profile” Muslims, I was intrigued by this paragraph:

The fiasco of the prosecution of the Detroit Four should also have been instructive. These four Arab men apparently had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, having moved into an apartment in southwest Detroit recently vacated by a man suspected of al-Qaida ties. The prosecution alleged that innocent vacation videotapes of places such as Disneyland found in the apartment were part of a terror plot, and that vague doodles in a notebook depicted targets abroad such as a Jordanian hospital and Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey.

It’s interesting how innocent objects, videos, words can become questionable, or take on a sinister meaning depending on who’s inspecting them, and what that person’s looking for. It made me think of a run-in I had with the cops ten years ago, on Thanksgiving Day. It’s not as serious as the experience of the men from the Salon article, but it has its own little lesson on preconceived notions. I was with my then-boyfriend. He was the reason for the run-in, but not because he had done anything wrong. We had been to his parents’ house, my mom’s house, and my dad’s house in celebration of the holiday. We were on our way back to my mom’s house when we decided to stop at United Dairy Farmers (UDF) to get some ice cream. It was around 9:30pm. We walked in, put in our order. I remember laughing at the generous amount of ice cream the clerk gave us. When we left, we noticed a van parked next to my little Toyota. One of the men in the van was staring intently at my boyfriend…so much so that when we were seated in the car, my boyfriend made a comment along the lines of “what is his problem?” We laughed it off, pulled out and drove off in the direction of my mom’s house. Just as we were about to turn onto my mom’s street, a police car pulled up behind us and the red and blue lights started flashing. I pulled over. I didn’t know why he was stopping us. Maybe I was speeding? I didn’t think so, but I hadn’t been paying close attention either. Two officers walked up to the car, one on each side, and asked both of us to step out of the vehicle. This request seemed unusual, but we had nothing to hide, therefore we had nothing to worry about (oh, the naïveté).

A couple of cops took my boyfriend a few yards away to talk to him. I noticed the van that had been parked next to us at the UDF was here with the police; it turned out they were police too. Another officer asked if he could search my vehicle. “Go ahead,” I told him, again, fearing nothing because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I spoke to the cop standing next to me. I can’t remember if I initiated the conversation, or if she asked me whether I knew why we were pulled over. When I said I was clueless as to why we were stopped, she said we had been reported to the police while at the UDF because my boyfriend perfectly fit the description of someone who had robbed a gas station earlier in the day. Workers in the area had been told to be on the lookout for a white male wearing a black, leather jacket with fringe. Yes, you read that right: a black, leather jacket with fringe. My boyfriend wore just such a jacket. I hated that fuckin’ thing. I always thought it was gaudy. I attributed his love for flashy clothes to his being a musician and showman. He could certainly dress to bring attention to himself, and he succeeded in this case—that UDF clerk probably hit the under-the-counter panic button as soon as he saw the black fringe swaying with each step my boyfriend took. I mean, how often is one told to keep an eye out for someone wearing a black, leather jacket with fringe? The whole situation was ridiculous. No wonder the clerk was so generous with his ice cream. He probably thought we were going to rob him, and wanted to keep us preoccupied with the good stuff.

When the officer told me this, it was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. I knew the accusation was absurd, and we had plenty of people to support our alibis, so I relaxed a little. I heard one of the officers brow-beating my boyfriend into having his picture taken with a Polaroid (“Listen, you match the robber’s description from the black leather jacket, to the curly hair, to the baby blue eyes. You can either have your picture taken here and be on your way, or we’ll take you down to the station and do it there”).

After rooting around in my car, one of the officers declared it to be free and clear of any questionable materials. Of course it is, I wanted to say. I was losing my patience. However, while standing next to my car, waiting for my boyfriend to be released, something occurred to me. Only three or four days earlier I had cleaned my car, and thrown out a lot of accumulated trash. Two items I removed during my cleaning frenzy: a black ski mask and a baseball bat. The ski mask was used when we went sled-riding. The baseball bat…well, I’m not sure why I had one in my car. But it wasn’t for robbing banks–that much I know. I can only imagine how complicated the situation would have become had the police searched my car and found those two items in the backseat. Not because there was anything inherently wrong with either of the items, but because the officer was searching the car with the idea that one of us had robbed a gas station earlier.

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One thought on “preconceived notions

  1. Why I can’t totally discount preconceived notions…

    I was once transporting my (at the time) boyfriend’s twin boys and older daughter, my son, and my son’s cousin. All five children were under the age of 8 at the time; the twins were quite young and very small for their age. During the longest stretch between exit ramps on the highway my car broke down. A winter storm was forecast as coming in near dinner time and I was stuck with 5 kids in the chilling winds at just about 4pm, so I bundled them all up and we began to walk single-file and holding hands toward the nearest highway exit. The twins became tired and irritated quickly so I placed a kid on each hip and made the other three walk in front of me. Few cars passed us – mostly tractor trailers – but one man and his wife pulled over to help just as snow began to fall.

    As we piled into the back seat of their car, I must have thanked them twenty times and the old woman turned to me with a sort of you’re-quite-a-breeder look. “We couldn’t just pass by you with all these kids AND in your condition.”

    At the time, I had just started gaining some weight and I wore trapeze tops all the time. She thought I was pregnant and the mother of this brood. I didn’t confirm nor deny. I let her believe what she wanted to believe based upon what she saw in that trapeze top: the silhouette of a pregnant woman.

    Later, when I was telling the story to my boyfriend, my son asked what the old woman meant by “in your condition,” and my boyfriend answered, “lucky.” For some time after, my son would point to large families walking together and ask, “Mom, see those other lucky people?” He thought my boyfriend meant walking with a lot of kids was lucky.

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