How arrests in our community stoke memories of collective trauma

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 53)

On the drive back home the other night I found myself behind the steering wheel looking for a parking spot. It must have been just slightly past 7:30 pm. When I made the turn onto my street-which rarely has an open space but which I gave a shot anyway-I was struck by an unnerving sight: a police car parked in the middle of the street, its doors wide open, situated behind another car a few feet away that sat idly and without any passengers inside. I slowed down to survey what was going on. It was an arrest.

I slowly lifted my foot off the break to ease the car forward, when through the windshield I saw one of two police officers taking to a young man who looked to be somewhere in his early twenties, in a baseball cap and face-mask, and with his arms behind his back, presumably just moments away from being placed into the patrol car.

Less than ten feet away, I saw the second police officer pinning another young man likely in his early twenties in a baseball cap against the wall of the apartment complex a few feet removed from the curb. The police officer was searching him. From my open window on the passenger’s side, I could hear the young man pleading with the officer to ‘take it easy,’ that it was all an overreaction.

Ages ago when I was fifteen years old, a similar experience befell me and a group of other young folks in the neighborhood. But even if our experience at the hands of the Rampart police department was an anomaly, or something extraordinary, today I wouldn’t be able to count how many times over almost thirty years in the community I’ve seen police cars in the neighborhood just like the other night, escorting young people into custody more often than not.

I’m not alone in that sight. After maneuvering my car fully past the scene, I continued toward opposite side of the street from where I entered to try my chances for a curb elsewhere. A couple of minutes later, a few blocks away from home, I found a spot and quickly pulled my car alongside. I thought that would be the end of it, and that the police would just be gone by the time I walked back over. But some ten minutes after I first caught sight of the arrest, on turning the corner onto my street, things had barely moved an inch. The young man against the wall was still there, while the other was no longer in view, presumably inside the police cruiser. There were a few neighbors out, some walking their dogs, but none of us were exactly in the mood then for our usual polite greetings then.

As I paced forward, closing in on the gate outside my building meant literally getting physically closer to the arrest. I sped up my pace then, but found myself wrought by feelings of embarrassment for the young men, and feelings of inadequacy with myself for simply walking away, for not speaking up to ask what was going on and why they had to place these young men into handcuffs like that.

I asked myself if I should photograph the scene, if only to create a citizen’s record of the arrest, but decided against it. I understand it’s already humiliating enough to be subjected to the will of a police officer. A photograph of the event, which can be shared widely and haunt one for years, is all that less necessary.

Making my way past the gate and into the building, as sunset edged along the sky to leave the street with evening, I realized mom would be home soon. I thought of calling her to warn her about the miserable spectacle outside, but decided against that too, figuring the arrest would conclude just before she turned the corner with her cart along the sidewalk.

Turning the knob and stepping into my living room brought little reprieve. I took a set and sought anything to distance myself from wracked feelings, a simple distraction to shake it off my mind. But a few minutes later, I heard the familiar sound of mom’s cart rolling through the hallway. On arriving outside the door, she let the cart go roughly against it, which made a loud thumping sound, and which was unusual for her. On opening the door, I could see that mom was shaken. The arrest had lingered on and she saw everything; it brought back a trove of memories for her too.


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