I am not an African American or Latino. I am not LGBT. As a straight, old white man I cannot know what the day to day life of an African American or Latino, a Gay or a woman is like. Certainly there are some similarities. We all put our pants on one leg at a time. But there must be subtle differences that I cannot know. I have tried to understand them. I have experienced some small taste of what it means to be singled out, partly by choice, and partly not, which must be closer to the African American, LGBT, or female experience.
When I was a teen and young adult, I was a wannabe hippy. Well, maybe more than a wannabe. I guess I actually was a hippy, letting my freak flag fly long and flowing well below my shoulders. Solely because of that long hair and tight blue-jeans, I was stopped and frisked by the police on four different occasions. In all cases, I had done nothing wrong and I was where the law allowed me to be. In all cases, I was informed by the police that it was a combination of my hair and where I was. That is to say, I could have my hair if I had stayed at home, or if I was going to be where I was, I could not look the way I looked.
In one case, after a pat down, I was allowed to continue to walk home, though I was told that I should never go out walking after dark again. I told the officer, “That would make it kind of hard to get around.” His reply was, “That’s your problem.” In another instance, as I was walking to the local mall, I was picked up by a cop, who informed me that I had been accused of robbing a liquor store at gunpoint. Police cars came from everywhere, with the police chief racing in from downtown in mere minutes. A full frisk followed. The police chief gave me a choice, a ride downtown or go face my accuser. I chose the later. I was instantly exonerated, but much to the disappointment of the five officers involved.
In yet another case, I was hiking down an old country road here in SC, headed toward Saluda, when a good ol’ boy highway patrol officer felt that the long-haired hippy with the backpack needed to be checked out, which included dumping the entire contents of my backpack on the side of the road. In the end, there was little he could do but suggest that if I wanted to go walking around, I should get my hair cut. I half wanted to tell him that I was Sampson, and my hair was the source of my strength.
The strangest case was a long hike I took from Beaufort toward home. When I entered the small town of Walterboro, I realized that I was being dogged by a police officer. Within a short period of time he ordered me into his squad-car and took me to the police station. Having no law to allow him to lock me up, he ordered me to take a hotel room in a really sleazy dive, and appended to his order to not go anywhere in his town during the night and to be out of his burg as early as possible the next morning.
Unlike those instances, I have had one profound glimpse into the feeling of being singled out solely by a condition of birth. In high school, one of my friends was African American, Johnny M.. One Sunday Johnny invited me to go to church with him. What he did not tell me until we were on the way to the church was that it was an AME church, and that the church had not, in its 100-year history, ever had a white person cross its threshold.
It was a pleasant experience, but one could not help but notice how only Johnny, myself, and Johnny’s family sat on the left side of the church, and everyone else sat on the right. One could not help but notice how the preacher stumbled when he said, “I see we have visitors here today. Everyone is welcome in the church of the Lord.” It was a wonderful experience for me, not just for spending time with my friend and learning whom my friends really were, but for getting a tiny glimpse of what everyday life might be like for all people who are singled out simply because they look different.
Stops, frisks, change your plans, don’t give blood, require more ID’s to vote, don’t do this or that, simply because we don’t like the way you look or what you believe or what you feel. I am not an African American or Latino or LGBT or female. But I have glimpsed the evil of being singled out. Haters are going to hate, but the law should never be allowed to.