A Day in the Life

"I yelled at them, 'What you're doing is against the law.' I didn't call anybody no names. I knew better than that..."

          DAVID MARTIN WENT calling at his grandfather's house in the Summit-University neighborhood one afternoon last week. It was a day off from his security job, and a chance to take his 4-year-old son to the home where he had played as a child himself. Several family members were gathered, having a beer in the front yard, when one of Martin's cousins rolled up to the curb. He was followed shortly by multiple St. Paul police cars, out of which multiple officers sprang to subdue and cuff the man on the sidewalk out front. The suspect was in custody on drug charges in a matter of seconds. After that, according to Martin--who prefers, for reasons that will become obvious, that his real name be left out--a police dog was briefly loosed on the prone man, and another officer maced him and kicked him.

          At that point Martin spoke up. "I yelled at them, 'What you're doing is against the law.' I didn't call anybody no names. I knew better than that. An officer came and took me out of the yard and put me in the back of a car for 15 minutes. Then another officer came and asked me for my name and ID. And then a female officer cuffed me and said they'd have to take me to the substation. They ended up taking all the men who were there.

          "They didn't read me my rights. They didn't arrest me at all. But once I got down there they took me in a room and made me strip, then they made me shake out my clothes. Then they made me spread my cheeks, lift my penis and testicles up for them to inspect. It was humiliating. And then they just told me to get dressed and go. Didn't even say they were sorry. It's funny, you know. I don't know whether I'd be talking to you, whether I'd be making anything of this, if they had said they were sorry."

          Martin, a 31-year-old who's presently separated from his wife, went out that night and got very drunk. The next day he called a lawyer, who has not yet decided whether he'll take the case. A couple of days after that he called me. I agreed to meet him for coffee. I'm not sure why; to tell the truth, there are days when I don't even return calls like his. There are just too many of them to write columns or news items about each time. As abuse of police power goes, for that matter, his was a pretty pale case.

          You will have realized by now that Martin is black. Hearing him tell his story made me remember the one and only time I was detained by police. I lived in the Belmont then, near Hennepin and Franklin in Minneapolis, and I was walking through Kenwood coming home from a friend's place shortly after dark one spring night. I was wearing a Walkman, so I didn't hear the cop calling to me, if he did; the first thing I knew, someone grabbed me from behind and shined a flashlight in my eyes. The officer asked where I was going. Home, I said. Could he see my license? A squad car pulled up, and he asked me to lean up against it and submit to a frisking.

          Finding a CD in my jacket pocket, he asked me to name a couple of the songs--from Neil Young's Decade, as I recall--which I did. By now the other cop was out of the car, and they explained to me that there had been a burglary in the area, and the suspect fit my general description. They were sorry for the confusion and hoped I would have a good evening. The whole thing took perhaps two minutes.

          Martin listened to the story. We both sat there for a moment, and then I said one of those things that is too painful, and too painfully obvious, to say to a young black man most of the time. I had heard stories like his before, I said, many times; I had never kidded myself about whether these things still happened. But in that moment I could not help feeling dumbstruck by the distance between the world I would go home to and the one where he lived, 10 minutes away. Now I happen to know a fair amount about his world, in a certain limited sense; a lot more than most journalists, for the little that's worth. But I don't think all that much about the fact that he lives in what may as well be a different country, or about what that country requires of him that mine does not require of me, because I don't have to. There are days when he probably thinks about little else.

          "One night back in September, I can remember seeing four cars with young black men in them pulled over in a three-block stretch of University. Another time, at Central and Grotto this past summer, I saw a cop make a kid drop his pants and he used a rubber glove on him, gave him a rectal exam, right there on the street. Now there's drugs around there, but there is no reason for taking someone's dignity away from him right out there in the open like that. You can't drive down the street without getting hassled. You can't stand with a group of other young black men without getting hassled. You can't walk down the street wearing the wrong clothes without getting hassled.

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