Friday, February 27, 2004

Some of the people in my neighborhood just love to worry about crime. They want to be "block watch captains" and ride along with the "COPS" patrol (it's a program where civilians get to wear uniforms and ride around in a cop car doing whatever people who worry about crime do. I keep imagining Gomer Pile yelling "Citizen's arrest, citizen's arrest!"). They keep track of the statistics about what happens where and issue exhortations via the neighborhood crime e-mail list to report "suspicious" activity.

I subscribe to the crime list because our shed has been burglarized twice, and it's good to know when folks have had car break-ins, etc. But I never participated ... until yesterday. Someone posted something about a "prowler" in her yard, and then another woman responded that when she came home there was a black man with a bike at the end of her driveway in the alley. She said she almost hit him, and then he said something to her and "rushed away." She called the cops and reported him to the e-mail list as "suspicious."

Now this got my goat because from her post, it seemed that the only suspicious thing about the guy was that he's black. Last I knew people were allowed to be in the alleys and have bicycles here. Further, the only description she gave was that he was black, wore a tan hat (around here they call them "toboggans," so I always imagine someone with a sled on his head ...) and he had a bike. No age, height, weight--nothing to distinguish him from the rest of the black men in Durham (roughly one-quarter of our city's population). So her post really sounded sort of like "Oh my god, there's a black man in the alley!" And this is a neighborhood that has a least a few black folks in it--including Mark, aka Mr. Complete Bunch of Pants. (You can call him Mr. Pants if you wish.)

So Mrs. Pants, being a smart-ass, decided she needed to wade in. She, I mean I, sent the following note to the list: "Hmmm ... a black man in our neighborhood ... are you sure it wasn't my husband? He gets mistaken for a 'suspicious' person all the time on account of being black and all ... "

Of course a couple of people responded, and the gist of their posts was mainly that the guy wasn't suspicious because he was black, but because he was, well, suspicious. The original poster said it was because he was in her alley in the dark. I wasn't aware that black folk weren't allowed to be in the alleys after dark. (My neighbor H. also posted that he thinks Mark is suspicious, but he made sure to indicate that he was joking.)

Since I often don't shut up once you get me going, I posted again:

"People are allowed to be in the alleys--I walk my dogs in the alleys all the time, and I often peer into people's yards and such along the way out of sheer nosiness. I've even walked around with my camera and taken photos of some of your back yards. If there's a stack of junk in the alley, I often check it out and see what people are throwing away. But then again, I'm white, so if you saw me you'd probably just think I'm strange, not suspicious.

"People are allowed to have bicycles. People are allowed to have plastic garbage bags. Why my own strange neighbor H_______ has been known to prowl around the neighborhood picking up aluminum cans, and I'm sure he finds a bag comes in handy now and then.

"Maybe what the guy said was "Watch it, lady, you almost hit me." Maybe he said "I was just picking up some aluminum cans." Maybe he rushed away because he figured that since he's black you would naturally consider him suspicious and call the cops, and he just didn't feel like getting hassled tonight over some crummy aluminum cans."

So anyway, a couple of people e-mailed me to thank me, and a couple wrote supportive posts on the list. Mark posted that as a black man with a bike he hoped that people would be a little more descriptive than "black man with a bike" when they posted about suspicious characters.

Then it just got silly. People started a debate about garbage. Somebody said it's illegal to go through garbage, and then someone else posted actual case law citations to the effect that once you put it out, your garbage isn't yours anymore (for example, cops don't need a warrant to seize your garbage). Then people started asking things like: What if the garbage can is on my property? What if it's in my locked garage? What if it's in the middle of my den? Fortunately no one bothered to respond to them.

I had briefly unsubscribed from the list in disgust, but then I realized that making fun of these people is more interesting than most of what's on TV. Besides, in the middle of the whole discussion, someone posted about a car that was stolen on my street last night. That's always good to know.

No comments: